Don Rogers: An Olympus for the poets
How do you celebrate a half-century of poetry workshops? If the Community of Writers, well, you publish an anthology.
“Why to These Rocks” came out mid-month, like everything with the granddaddy of writing conferences on the West Coast a labor of love working with terrific talent.
I bought one, and they sent me one after I let slip I might take it up in a column even though poetry intimidates me.
Inklings of understanding light up with a phrase here, a line there. Mostly, though, I find awesome spatters of words, all the colors and all the senses, folded and tucked just so, an origami made of air, invisible. OK, I think — thinking invariably is my Achilles — why does this feel like a Rorschach?
My first writing group after moving here was mostly poets, led by a poet, who indulged the stray prose people, we Sunday schoolers invited to join the grownups’ service, innocent of deeper meaning.
When a poet finished a reading, I ducked my head, amazed and baffled, waiting on the other poets to weigh in first. Only then would I find a finger hold toward understanding. Almost always I needed the poet to talk about how their work came to be. And then, such relief, a window thrown open, fresh air, at last I got it. Whew.
This is one way to savor poems, learning firsthand the body, the notes, the layers suddenly revealed, my hand held, the author as mentor and fellow seeker all at once.
There’s another. And that is how I am approaching this collection: Like a hotel room Bible you open at random, trusting that the passage will resonate. In faith I flip, placing my finger … here.
I landed on “ala moana beach park, 1944” my second or third stab. Whoa. I know this park well, or did.
My bratty little blonde sister, hot asphalt, cranky parents in the great unloading of the car, Mom dabbing my nose white.
Rattan mats, smell the sea, huge towels, squealing into the water, squealing out of the water, attentive sand castling later, parents speaking in undertones, a little sleepy. How could they be bored with this, all this? Then cranky again, sand always in the car even as they tried to get us to wipe our crusty legs smooth. Driving home, don’t even look out my side, such a brat.
Elementary school field trips, boys banded up as brothers through the trees, flitting everywhere, toe-sized burrs on bare feet requiring slippahs on the grass, before the beach.
Later, kissing an older woman, she must have been 20 or maybe even 21, in a tiny slip of a crevice or cove among the rocks in the dark. The third generation of Don Rogerses to sail out of this harbor at the far edge of the park.
The all-too-literal journalist in me frowned at some lines. There was no beach there in 1944. Sand wouldn’t come for another decade. Waikiki is maybe another mile toward Diamond Head. The Ala Moana Shopping Center, in its time the nation’s largest, hadn’t risen yet out of the marsh behind the park; where would there have been a school? The surf here is junk. We rode on the other side of the harbor’s mouth, where the waves peeled.
The poem’s vibe is just right, though. Sticky fingers and mango threads between teeth scraping the seed. Ever-present smell of rain from deep in the valleys where it was always raining. Punchbowl and that somber cemetery. Prospects for parental displeasure later but for now knee deep in warm, clear water, imagining flying, someday surfing, eating that sweet mango, letting the peelings float. Perfect. So perfect.
Any fault really is mine, too focused on facts and stuck on the title as umbrella rather than starting point. The poem only lifts from there, tied lightly to a kite flying higher, freer than my leaden prose so weighted with nonfictional sensibility.
Look what just a few lines did to me! Brought my dad back to life, too, a young man yet, grappling with what my son in his turn would grow up to grapple with. This fission chain running clean off the page. Wow. I leave this piece grateful.
Even this poem links directly to what soon will be the former Squaw Valley. All of them originated here. Probably most were written during one of those 50 annual conferences.
I riffled again through the pages and landed on another, “Coming Down the Mountain,” very much like a trail run I did, only I kept my footing where the poet tripped and was rewarded with much better material than my prosaic exercise between morning workshop and readings and panels later.
Here’s proof that skiing and mountain biking are not the only world-class pursuits in these climes. The West Coast granddaddy of writing and poetry conferences, its history studded with Pulitzer winners, let’s call this a fireside version. Let’s raise a glass to the Community of Writers. Maybe crack this cover and puzzle over the title, “Why to These Rocks.”
You just know a poet came up with it.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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