San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival Celebrates 30 Soulful Years

Kevin Patrick Sullivan, co-founder and organizer of the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival

Throughout the history of the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival, one fact has become increasingly clear: Central Coast residents are passionate about poetry.

"People love our audiences here because our audiences come to listen. They're not just other poets waiting in line to read," said festival co-founder and organizer Kevin Patrick Sullivan. "It says a lot of good things about the Central Coast (that) we are interested in each other and other voices."

In November, the festival celebrates 30 years of wise words, compelling speakers and loyal listeners. "Thirty years is a definite milestone," said Sullivan, 59, who plans to put out a journal next year celebrating the landmark anniversary.

This year's festival features poetry readings at venues throughout the city spread over three weekends. (A full schedule is available here.) It kicks off Nov. 2 with a screening of the documentary "Kenneth Rexroth: The Signature of All Things" at Cal Poly; Los Angeles poet/playwright Michael C. Ford will introduce the film.

San Luis Obispo poet and publisher Glenna Luschei said the festival's longevity is a testament to local authors and audience members' dedication to preserving and promoting the literary arts. "It helps ... to make our city known as a place where culture and beauty of nature are important in preserving the wellbeing of its citizens," the Solo Press founder said.

Karl Kempton, Glenna Luschei and Kevin Patrick Sullivan were among the readers at the first annual San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival in 1984.

Sullivan, who grew up in Deerborn Heights, Mich., first visited the Central Coast as a 17-year-old hitchhiker fresh out of high school. He returned to California in the spring of 1975, settling on five acres of undeveloped oceanfront property in Shell Beach.

"Moving there in 1975 provided me the opportunity to start an interior dialogue with myself," said Sullivan, as well as launch his literary career. "I had never written anything down before. Living there helped me start a paper trail."

At the time, he had only met one poet: John Oliver Simon of San Francisco. "He looked like he had just come out of the mountains," Sullivan said, describing an unshaven, long-haired man in a poncho. "I told my sister, 'I'm going to be a poet some day.'"

Sullivan self-published his first poetry collection, "Bits of Black and White," in 1982. "I wanted to have a book in my hands when I went out into the world of poets," he explained.

Unfortunately, the book didn't provide him any protection when he attended a cliquish poetry reading at the now-closed Darkroom nightclub in San Luis Obispo. Although he had written his name on the list of scheduled readers, organizers never called him to speak.

"So I stood up and said, 'Wait a minute, I put my name on the list! What's up with that?'" he recalled. Sullivan started organizing poetry events not long after that.

Poster for the eighth annual San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival in 1991.

When Arts Obispo, the San Luis Obispo County Arts Council, put the call out for fringe events for the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival (now Festival Mozaic), Sullivan and fellow author Karl Kempton started the city's first poetry festival in July 1983 - gathering together 18 poets over two days. Musician Terry Sanville and puppeteer Don Wallis also performed.

Luschei, who read at that first festival, said the fledgling event helped shape local writers into a cohesive community. "We had individual poets here who would sometimes get together for readings, but we each had our own enclave or city state," Luschei explained. "Now, with the poetry festival, we have a focus, a celebration we can prepare for all year."

For the first nine years, the event was held in the summer. For the 10th anniversary, the festival switched to November to coincide with the Cal Poly school year and better coordinate efforts with the university's Writers Speak lecture program.

At the same time, the festival teamed up with nonprofit literary organization Poets & Writers, Inc.; it currently receives funding through a grant from The James Irvine Foundation. "All of the sudden, our San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival was very credible in the sense of an art entity and organization," recalled Sullivan, adding that the festival achieved non-profit status in 2001.

"Quite honestly, it's the best thing happening on the West Coast south of the Bay Area," said Paul Lobo Portugués, senior editor and publisher of Word Palace Press. Established in 2011, the San Luis Obispo publishing house puts out 10 to 15 books each year.

Two Word Palace Press authors will read at this year's festival: Jerome Rothenberg, the San Diego-based poet, translator and anthropologist whose work has influenced an entire generation of poets, and Los Osos poet Michael Hannon, who Rexroth hailed as "one of the few Tantric writers in any language who is both profound and witty."

San Luis Obispo poet laureates Ray Clark Dickson and Kevin Patrick Sullivan appear on the poster for the 15th annual San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival in 1998.

Hannon will read from his new book "Imaginary Burden: Selected Poems," which brings together works from a 40-year span. "For me, poetry has always been an investigation about consciousness and how it relates to the self," he said. "The reason I write poetry is to continue that exploration."

"Poetry is many things to many people," added Hannon, who has participated in about 10 poetry festivals in San Luis Obispo. "Kevin has been able to make a good mix of all that - people who are amateurs, people who are more advanced. I think that's his real contribution (to the scene)."

Sullivan said he's tried to strike a balance between nationally renowned poets such as Denis Johnson, Carolyn Kizer, Carol Muske-Dukes and Al Young and local luminaries including Hannon, Luschei, Kevin Clark and Lisa Coffman. "One of the reasons I did that was to show the outside-area poets as well as our own poets just how good our poets are," he explained, adding that "it's not surprising that there's so many talented people that live in this area. Beauty attracts beauty."

The presence of world-class talent inspires both groups to be better, Luschei added. "They make us sparkle and we make them sparkle," she said.

Portugués, a Los Osos-based filmmaker and writer who teaches in the College of Creative Studies in UC Santa Barbara, said the festival has made San Luis Obispo "a literary mecca" unrivaled by its neighbor to the south, Santa Barbara. "When would you really have the opportunity to see this? " he asked. "I think it's just wonderful ..."

Marguerite Costigan designed this poster detail for the 12th annual San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival in 1995.

Indeed, the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival has outlasted many of its peer events, Sullivan said, and influenced others. "It's amazing all the different little ways it's been tied into the community over the years - and people's lives," said Sullivan, who balances his duties as festival organizer with his job as a groundskeeper for the San Luis Coastal Unified School District.

Kempton and Sullivan launched the Corners of the Mouth monthly reading series at Linnea's Cafe in San Luis Obispo in October 1984. Sullivan started another monthly series, Poetry at the Steynberg, at San Luis Obispo's Steynberg Gallery in February 2012.

Sullivan was also responsible for establishing San Luis Obispo's poet laureate program, crowning Ray Clark Dickson as the county's first poet laureate in 1999. Sullivan, who held the title in 2003, said the festival board looks at three factors when choosing a county resident to serve as poet laureate: the writer's work, community involvement and ability to represent the region in a positive light.

Current San Luis Obispo poet laureate Jerry Douglas Smith will read at this year's poetry festival as well as past recipients Luschei and Rosemary Wilvert.

According to Sullivan, the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival is a place where friendships are forged. In fact, he met his wife, Patti, at the festival in 1998.

Noticing that she had attended all the festival events,"I said, 'You deserve some sort of a prize. How would you like a booby prize? Go out to dinner with me,'" he recalled. Fortunately, he added, she accepted.

Poetry, he said, "is really about enriching your life. You don't know where it's going to take you. And it's taken me quite a ways."

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Top Image: Kevin Patrick Sullivan, co-founder and organizer of the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival.

About the Author

Sarah Linn covers film, television and the performing arts as the editor of Ticket, the arts-and-entertainment section of The Tribune newspaper of San Luis Obispo, Calif.
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