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Sometimes in SLO

November ushers in the annual poetry festival

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- PRETTY TALK :  Language of the Soul, the 26th Annual San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival takes place Nov. 6 to 15. All events start at 7 p.m. and tickets cost $5 for the general public and $3 for students and seniors. For more information, including a complete schedule, visit languageofthesoul.org. -
  • PRETTY TALK : Language of the Soul, the 26th Annual San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival takes place Nov. 6 to 15. All events start at 7 p.m. and tickets cost $5 for the general public and $3 for students and seniors. For more information, including a complete schedule, visit languageofthesoul.org.
San Luis Obispo’s Language of the Soul poetry festival is getting a running start into its second quarter century of life with a change of operation that brings the festival more in line with others that take place around the state. For the first time, the city’s poet laureate will serve a two-year rather than one-year term. Last year’s honoree, James Cushing, retains the post for one more year. The change became a necessary one after an anthology of poems by California poet laureates—called Sometimes in the Open—featured a disproportionate number of writers from San Luis Obispo. The other regions were perturbed, and Kevin Patrick Sullivan decided it was time for a change.

 

Also being honored this year—in addition to the nearly 20 featured and selected readers—is Sharon Doubiago, recipient of the second annual Glenna Luschei Distinguished Poet Award. Her life as a poet began in 1974, the year Anne Sexton killed herself and five years after Doubiago had taken a vow never to be a poet. A week after Sexton’s death, Doubiago and a group of friends attended an open mic night and read their work, a response to the death of a woman they had admired and respected.

 

Doubiago’s vow might sound strange, but coming off of obtaining her master’s degree in English from Cal State LA, it made sense for the artist to reject the institution’s idea of poetry. Her teachers then were all men, and she had an uncomfortable premonition that as a poet she would embarrass herself. The United States was elbow-deep in the Vietnam War, inextricably linking language and propaganda. Plus, the 20th century had permanently altered poetry. Love poems were out, banned as it were, which to Doubiago meant a ban on love. Also, the word soul was embargoed; poetry, like the personal, had become political.

 

“I know and I know and I know that I reaped the benefits from that education,” admitted Doubiago. “It continues to empower me because it informs me.” But it marred her ability to understand and cultivate her own voice.

 

Today there is no question of Doubiago’s status as a poet, or the clarity of her voice. With multiple books under her belt—a memoir, an epic poem, and a more traditional book of poems—Doubiago has established her place as a poet of grand ideas and personal confessions. Originally, she didn’t want to write because she was afraid that the indelible criticism would damage or shrivel her artistic self. Instead, she has flourished.

 

The poet perpetually jots ideas into journals; her works spring not from language, where many poets tend to begin, but from the big ideas—politics, America, life, death, God, religion. And she works at it.

 

SHARON DOUBIAGO :  This year’s Glenna Luschei Distinguished Poet Award recipient. - PHOTO BY ANDRENA ZAWINSKI
  • PHOTO BY ANDRENA ZAWINSKI
  • SHARON DOUBIAGO : This year’s Glenna Luschei Distinguished Poet Award recipient.
“Back in college I had the notion that it struck you like lightning,” she admitted. “I also had the bizarre notion that reinventing or redrafting was dishonest. The only way I write is many, many re-writes.”

 

Just as her own emotional security is always a concern, Doubiago has a set of  guidelines when it comes to writing about her loved ones. First and foremost, while in a relationship, she doesn’t write about it. If, at any point, she suffers a betrayal from her partner she is released from this vow of silence. If a relative requests that she not write about them, she respects that request. Her most recent book, My Father’s Love, ventures through topics and memories most people would likely repress. In it, she wrote about her father’s incestuous relationship with her, which began when she was born and ended when she was 12, and included an outright rape when she was 7 years old. She couldn’t write her story while her parents were alive, facing the very real threat of being disowned. But not exploring this childhood abuse was not really an option either.

 

Writer’s block, Doubiago believes, is simply a case of a writer refusing to say, and sometimes acknowledge, what really needs to be said. When she gets stuck in a particular piece, Doubiago writes letters, hoping to shake loose her inspiration.

 

“I just believe that this is the great untapped place—our personal lives. If we can approach it in a correct or sacred way, it’s the way we’re going to save ourselves,” she explained. By endeavoring to challenge and ask tough questions about her personal life, Doubiago stands a greater chance of striking upon answers to questions faced more broadly by the entire world.

 

The act of sharing her ponderings, remembrances, and exultations is a gift. Doubiago compares the bestowal to a tale Pablo Neruda told about a childhood incident in his backyard in Chile. There was a hole in the fence, and a small hand stuck a toy rabbit through the gap. Neruda took the rabbit, silently, and returned the following day with an offering of his own, which he placed through the fence. He never saw the person on the other side but both Neruda and Doubiago believe that this is the perfect metaphor for poetry.

 

Of course, being a poet, which Doubiago has been full time since 1974, isn’t always as romantic as it may sound. Sometimes, it’s downright lonely. A lot of people don’t know how to respond when Doubiago tells them her profession. A select few quote Hallmark at her.

 

“Contrary to Americans and their vocation, you don’t have a product,” she said. “When you’re writing a poem you know you’re a poet but when you walk away you lose that confidence. It’s so nebulous.”

 

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach is nebulous and squeamish. Send filters to aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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