Monday, July 28, 2008

Poetry in the Mountains

Sorrow seemed to be the theme last week at a benefit for the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Five acclaimed poets read some of their work to a large and appreciative crowd at the ski resort nestled in a valley in the Sierra Nevada. It was the capstone to a week of workshops and lectures that brought together 60 emerging poets with an internationally-known faculty.

It was the first time in 30 years that Oakley Hall, the co-founder of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, was not on hand. Hall died in May. His absence cast a pall over the evening.

Sharon Olds read a poem she had written that week that was an ode to Oakley and all that he had done to create a nurturing environment. She, and others, kept referring to the ‘extended family” that was Squaw. Olds has been teaching at the workshop for much of her professional life; there was a picture of her as a young woman hanging on the wall of the lecture hall.

Robert Haas read two poems that he had written that week. They dealt with the sorrow he felt on the recent death of his brother. In the poems, Haas pictured his brother on a slab in the mortuary and went from there to reflect on their relationship. While Haas has achieved international success – he was the U.S. Poet Laureate -- it seems that his brother was troubled, had difficulty holding down a job, and lived in a small and not altogether attractive apartment. Despite the sadness of his brother’s life and death, Haas managed to include some lighter moments that elicited laughs from the audience.

Lucille Clifton was rolled to the podium on a wheelchair, although she insisted she really could walk. I had never heard Clifton before and I was delighted by her sense of humor and short, yet penetrating poems. (That's her picture above)

Actually, that was my feeling for the entire evening. I only read poetry occasionally, but after hearing these poets (Dean Young and CD Wright also read) I know I have been missing something wonderful. I was fully engaged and delighted. It probably helps to have poets talk about how they came to write a particular poem, which these authors did.

The workshop for fiction, non-fiction and screenwriters begins August 2. There will be another benefit on August 3 where writers read short snippets from the work of Oakley Hall. This should be fun, as Hall has written more than 15 books, and the roster of talent at Squaw is always amazing. The readers could include novelists Amy Tan, Diane Johnson, Mark Childress, and others.

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