Kern County Poet Laureate

The Arts Council of Kern is taking nominations for the first Kern County Poet Laureate, whose post will begin in April 2016.

This occasion warrants a look back at the poets who have called Kern County home.

Robert Duncan (1919-1988) was born in Oakland and graduated Kern High School in Bakersfield; he became an influential figure in the San Francisco Renaissance and Black Mountain Projectivist Poetry, and with his essay “The Homosexual in Society,” helped open the doors for voices that had previously been censored into silence.  His collections of poetry include The Opening of the Field, Roots and Branches, and Bending the Bow.  For more on his life in Bakersfield, read Lisa Jarmot’s “Robert Duncan – The Ambassador from Venus.”  His poem “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” exemplifies his mythopoeic style and illustrates the power of imaginative totems and sacred space.

Frank Bidart, who now lives in Massachusetts, was born May 27, 1939 in Bakersfield.  His collections of poetry include In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965–90, Desire (which received the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize and the 1998 Bobbitt Prize for Poetry and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award), Music Like Dirt (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize), and Metaphysical Dog (nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award).  His poem “Golden State” is a devastating look back at his childhood in Bakersfield, told through the lens of his relationship with his father.

Lee McCarthy (1939-2009) was born in Arkansas but moved to Bakersfield to teach at McFarland and Wasco.  In 1993, she received the Arts Council of Kern, Individual Arts Educator Award. She was a recognized writer and poet receiving a Stegner Fellowship to Stanford University in 1975 and was co-recipient of the Nicholas Roerich prize in poetry in 1991 for her collection Desire’s Door and won the Ion Books National Chapbook Competition in 1992 for Combing Hair with a Seashell. Her poem “Santa Paula” is a precise snapshot of place, time, desire.

Sherley Anne Williams (1944-1999) was born in Bakersfield and later taught at the University of California at San Diego.  Her collection The Peacock Poems explores single motherhood, African American women’s lives, and the blues.  A televised version of her second collection, Some One Sweet Angel Chile, earned an Emmy Award.  Her poem “I Want Aretha to Set this to Music” uses a musical allusion to explore notions of gender, identity, and longing.

Jennifer Knox, who now teaches at Iowa State University, was born in 1968 in Lancaster (which isn’t quite in Kern County but is close enough to count for the purposes of this discussion) and is the author of A Gringo Like Me, Drunk by Noon, The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, and Days of Shame and Failure.  For more on how her childhood in the desert shaped her writing, read her essay “The Poem Is Always in Your Hometown.”  Her poem “Pimp My Ride” exemplifies her technique of using similes and juxtaposing specific details in ways that deepen ambiguity rather than providing a false sense of closure and epiphany.

Rigoberto Gonzalez, who now lives in New York, was born July 18, 1970 in Bakersfield and is the author of several poetry books, including So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks (a National Poetry Series selection), Other Fugitives and Other Strangers,  Black Blossoms, and Unpeopled Eden (winner of a Lambda Literary Award).  His poem “Casa” uses persona to interrogate our nostalgia and defamiliarize the ‘comforts’ of home.

While most poets flee Bakersfield for cleaner air and more cosmopolitan environments, poets like Helen Shanley, Jack Hernandez, Portia Choi, Geoffrey Dyer, Marit MacArthur, and Nancy Edwards have kept the fires of poetry burning by inspiring and providing venues for poetry to be seen and heard.

With that being said, I plan on nominating Don Thompson for Kern County Poet Laureate.  Thompson, who was born in Bakersfield in 1942 and has lived in the southern San Joaquin Valley for most of his life, has published multiple collections of poetry, including Keeping the Secrets (Flutter Press), Nietzsche Wept (Finishing Line Press), Local Color (Kelsay Books), Everything Barren Will Be Blessed (Pinyon Publishing), Back Roads – A Journal (Winner of the Sunken Garden Poetry Prize 2008), Where We Live (Parallel Press), Keeping an Eye on the Stones (Kattywampus Press), Been There, Done That (March St. Press), and Turning Sixty (March St. Press).  As Gerald Haslam, author of Coming of Age in California, writes, “If there was an official poet laureate of the West, Don Thompson would be my choice. For four decades he has reminded us what it means to be alive out here, coping with a world we do not fully understand.”  Thompson’s poem “October” uses landscape to explore issues of alienation and existential doubt in a manner that should be familiar to anyone who pays attention.

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