The way we were
Waverley Writers look back at a rich 25-year history with new book
The year was 2000, and you could find everything on the Internet. Except, apparently, the Waverley Writers.
Poet Robert Perry was looking for a venue to read his work in public for the first time. But he couldn't find what he wanted online, so he sought help at the Palo Alto library.
The librarian who happened to be at the reference desk was Sharon Olson, a longtime poet with Palo Alto's venerable Waverley Writers, who held monthly readings -- but didn't have a Web site. So before he knew it, Perry found himself standing at the Waverley podium some days later, nervously preparing to read.
"They asked, 'Is this your first time?' I said yes," Perry recalls during an interview. "There was thunderous applause. That made it easy."
Chatting with a Weekly reporter, Perry is sitting with Olson and fellow Waverley stalwart Palmer Pinney in that very building where he gave his first reading. This is the Palo Alto Friends Meeting House, where the poetry readings have taken place every first Friday of the month since 1984 (except in July and August). It's a peaceful spot, set far back from Colorado Avenue and cushioned from the busy world by trees.
The house is also the perfect place to talk about the new book "Waverley Writers: Celebrating 25 Years 1981-2005." Perry's remembrance is one of many tales included in this book of fortuitous meetings, burgeoning creativity, warm welcomes, and spirited parties.
More than 60 people contributed poems, anecdotes, photos and drawings. Working with newer Waverley member Karen L. Grossman, Olson and Pinney were among those most involved with the project. They served as researchers, editors, "compilers" and writers, while Perry was the book's designer.
One particular poem by Perry is a grateful memory of his first meeting with Olson. It reads, in part:
"She will answer (and ask) any question
guide you to the world's knowledge
take you to the river
of conscious thought
and forgotten dreams
the encyclopedia of mirrors
the catalog of everything possible..."
The group started working on the book after realizing that many important Waverley writers had died or moved away, Pinney said. Originally, the book was to be more about the craft of writing poetry, but it evolved into a tribute to the Waverley community.
The tome officially debuts tonight at a book party at the Meeting House. A 7:30 p.m. reading will feature poems by many longtime and former Waverley poets, including Bob Evans, Dave Berry and the late Katie Reeder and Margaret Mullen, who founded the group in 1981 with others.
It's clear, too, that the evening wouldn't be complete without hearing work by the late Dick Maxwell. Maxwell founded the Foothill Writers Conference and led poetry workshops at Foothill College that "were the heart and soul of the Palo Alto-area poetry scene, from the 1970s through the 1990s," Olson wrote in the book.
"Most of the early Waverleys studied with him at Foothill's downtown Palo Alto campus on Waverley," Olson wrote. (That building no longer exists.) "He sent legions of writers to Waverley Writers."
Maxwell and his wife, Sarah, also hosted many legendary parties at their Bryant Street home after Foothill Writers Conference readings.
"You would partake of some hors d'oeuvres and something more potent, and then when you were ready you would bound down the basement stairs. Suddenly you would be in a maelstrom of nonstop poetic banter, excited gestures, driving music..." Olson wrote.
She also recalled a time when "everyone would be singing Robert Frost's 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' to the tune of 'Hernando's Hideaway.'"
Indeed, one of the main themes that flows throughout the book is the warmth of this community of poets, and Waverley Writers in particular.
"Over years, the mysterious sense of joyous connection remains," Frances Mayes of "Under the Tuscan Sun" fame wrote in the book. A former Foothill College teacher and Weekly book editor, Mayes is pictured reading at the former Printer's Inc. bookstore in 1979.
While many of the poets are active in several groups, they praise Waverley's notably welcoming approach. At the monthly readings, no criticism is allowed: People simply read and listen. And no one gets to give a disclaimer before reading, such as "This poem isn't quite finished." A poet is encouraged to simply share his or her work and be proud of it.
"I think that active listening is the clue to Waverley Writers' success," Margaret Mullen wrote in her 1997 book "One Woman's Journey: From 8 to 88," an excerpt of which is reprinted in the new book. "People don't just go to read and turn off. ... It has lived up to its original intent of making the oral delivery of poetry what it once was, an important part of the composition."
The Waverley Writers also have prominent poets come to read and give workshops. In addition, some Waverley poets meet in smaller groups to provide feedback to each other, and here the tone remains constructive, Pinney said.
"The object is to suggest to these poets what direction they might go, rather than destroying their sense of self," he said wryly.
Besides honoring the Waverley community, the new book also features photos and maps of important spots in the local poetry scene. Its map section includes bygone Palo Alto hangouts, such as the Varsity Theater (now a Borders bookstore), the ART21 Gallery (recently closed), and Ramona's Pizza (now the Old Pro).
As a librarian, Olson tends to save things, and she enhanced the book with clippings, notes and a memory for details. She hopes it will serve as a historical document, part of the chronicles of Peninsula literary life.
"We had many books of poetry, but not a context," she said. "Now if a book surfaces in someone's garage, we can put it in context."
What: A party for the release of the Waverley Writers' 25th-anniversary book
Where: Palo Alto Friends Meeting House, 957 Colorado Ave.
When: The party starts at 6 p.m., with poetry readings at 7:30.
Cost: The party is free; books will be sold there for $15.
Info: For more about the Waverley Writers and the book, contact Palmer Pinney at 650-853-0658 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Sharon Olson at 650-323-7897 or email@example.com.