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From Venice to Santa Cruz: A Poetry Festival Returns

On February 12, 2012 Poetry Festival Santa Cruz featured poets from L.A. and San Francisco. This epic event proved yet again that in spite of whatever sports rivalries may exist, Californians in the North and South share far more with each other than they do differences. Most residents have friends and family in both locations anyhow. Here's to the Coast with the most, L.A. to the Bay! San Diego to Seattle for that matter but we'll talk about that later. The collection of powerful voices assembled on that Sunday afternoon in Santa Cruz brought together many of California's heaviest poetic hitters. Over 40 poets and musicians performed, including Wanda Coleman, Michael C. Ford, Ellyn Maybe, S.A. Griffin, Jack Hirschman, Avotcja and Lorna Dee Cervantes. I did a short set and was honored to share the stage with the legends.

Beginning in 1972, Santa Cruz hosted five Poetry Festivals over the next decade featuring the likes of Charles Bukowski, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, F.A. Nettelbeck and Jerome Rothenberg. The last festival was held in 1981. The man responsible for the 2012 renaissance is the Santa Cruz born poet, Daniel Yaryan.

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Mentored in high school and early college years by longtime UC Santa Cruz Poetry Professor William Everson, Yaryan is one of the West Coast's most active promoters of poetry. His travelling poetry event "Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts" alternates between L.A. and San Francisco. Yaryan's "Sparring" concept was formed as a reaction to contemporary poets' struggle to create a distinctive voice apart from the giants before. "It's sparring metaphorically to awaken the strong powerful voices of now," he says. Each reading is held at a historic venue like Beyond Baroque, the Beat Museum or Six Gallery. Yaryan's vision is a multi-generational poetry experience celebrating the Beat legacy, while pushing the word forward in the 21st Century.

From years of researching California poetry Yaryan had gathered stories about the Santa Cruz Poetry Festival. Elder local poets remember how in the '70s it was the biggest poetry festival in the country. Yaryan thought of his mentor Everson, who besides being a UC Santa Cruz Poetry Professor was an organizer and influential leader of West Coast Poetics. One of his most famous books, "Archetype West," not only united Northern and Southern California writers, it also went a long way to describe the spirit of writing on the West Coast. Everson died in 1994. His spirit guides Yaryan.

The collection of poets assembled for the festival led a 7-hour parade of word sound power. Everyone brought their A-game. Wanda Coleman commanded the stage with authority. S.A. Griffin and I watched in amazement as she read through her set of poems. Her new book "The World Falls Away," published by University of Pittsburgh Press, is one of her best yet.

Former San Francisco Poet Laureate and one of America's foremost activist poets, Jack Hirschman performed as well. Living in Venice during the 60s while he was a professor at UCLA, he was fired for political reasons and soon left for San Francisco, where he found a home and became one of the city's most important poets. Interestingly, one of his most famous poems is "The Burning of Los Angeles." Hirschman has mentored many poets over the years, including Luis Rodriguez and Michael C. Ford, who also performed at the festival.

Wanda Coleman's performance:

Michael C. Ford was in Jack Hirschman's Poetry Class at UCLA in 1965 with Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek before they formed the Doors. Hirschman's extensive knowledge on Artaud and Surrealism was very influential on the young writers, especially Morrison. Ford is a poet, recording artist, playwright and teacher. Author of 22 books, his best known work "Emergency Exits" was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. He's recorded a dozen spoken word LPs, of which Language Commando received a Grammy nomination. Ford and Manzarek have worked together on and off for almost 50 years, and were to share the stage again in Santa Cruz, but Manzarek's appearance was canceled due to illness.

  • Watch Michael C. Ford's performace HERE

Shortly after Ford came the Oakland poet, musician, activist and radio host Avotcja. Accompanied by a stand-up bass, she read a poem on the history of blues in the Bay Area - one of the most powerful performances of the night. The meaning rang clear and her words blended with the bass beautifully. I was sitting next to Wanda Coleman and we were all listening close.

  • Watch Avotcja's performance HERE

Lorna Dee Cervantes was another legend whom I was excited to hear and meet. Born in San Francisco, Cervantes is a critical figure in the Chicano literary movement. She began publishing the literary journal MANGO in 1976, providing a platform to launch writers like Sandra Cisneros and Gary Soto. Her first book "Emplumada" in 1981 won the American Book Award. Cervantes, like Wanda Coleman, was also a performer in the 1981 Santa Cruz Poetry Festival. Her new book "Ciento" contains one-hundred 100-word love poems.

Aside from the nonstop onslaught of poets, there was an adjacent room with over 50 tables of authors, publishers and artists selling poetry books, posters and collectibles. One of the tables featured Blue Press Books, the Santa Cruz-based small press responsible for over 65 poetry titles over the last 15 years. Started by Venice-born poet Kevin Opstedal, they've published five books by Lewis MacAdams, the founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River, including his best known work, "The River." Opstedal also published three books by F.A. Nettelbeck.

"F. A. Nettelbeck, is probably the most important avant-garde poet you've never heard of," writes Stephen Kessler. "Through his 23 books, countless magazine publications and quite a few infamous readings, Nettelbeck since 1970 established himself as a truly outside-the-law literatus, a man who, if not for poetry very likely would have ended up in prison." Nettelbeck performed in the 1981 Santa Cruz Poetry Festival and gave a reading of his book "Bug Death." He died in January 2011; otherwise he would have been there with the poets this year.

Opstedal's own book of poems "California Redemption Value" was just published in 2011 by the University of New Orleans Press. Lewis MacAdams says, "The lyric missives that make up this collection are poems of place as substantive as beach sand or the crackle of gun fire. I see Opstedal in an old car in a palm-lined beach parking lot in a gray mist south of Point Dume listening to an eight-track of rare surf music and writing it all down; "The Poems" tattooed on one bicep."

Opstedal's youth in Venice made him the man he is: "When I was growing up Venice was a tough town, a scruffy beach ghetto, sleazy but essential. I carried a switchblade & a skateboard, rode my rattly sting-ray to Ocean Park. Later it was a beat-up surfboard & a junker Pontiac, well-thumbed copies of Blake & Rimbaud on the dashboard." He also told me, "Santa Cruz is similar to what Venice used to be, but also very different. Colder water, redwood trees mixed in among the palm trees. But it's got that ocean haze and enough sleaze to make me feel at home."

In the prose poem he wrote about his Venice childhood home, he says, "We never owned any of it. The tide shifted. It was too subtle for anyone to notice. No apologies, I remember now, everything has been forgotten. We never asked forgiveness. Slight bend in the streetlights. Sand in your clothes. Drive by in an old beat-up Pontiac looking over yr shoulder. I still consider this place to be home, although it no longer exists. The sound of waves reclaim the distance I have traveled since."

The sound of waves crashed below Santa Cruz's Cocoanut Grove on February 12th. California literature is alive and well. The Santa Cruz Poetry Festival presented a cross-section of many of the brightest stars residing in the spheres of Bay Area and L.A. Letters.

Top: Photo by Flicker user Rachel Ford James used under a Creative Commons license

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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