"We have a lot of stellar poets," says town poet Sharon Olson, speaking of the "town" poetry scene. "We're not slamming, but we like to think a lot of our poets are wild and out there."
The scene inside the gallery on this particular Friday night felt a little like a flashback to another era. The front room was packed to gills, the audience made up of aging hippies, bohemians and beat-poet types: lots of scarves around necks, flowing, comfortable clothes, long hair, gray beards, Birkenstocks and European walking shoes. And there was something about the decided lack of ventilation and the odd, brightly colored paintings of flowers, dragons and dogs lined up against the bright white walls that gave the whole place a hazy, surrealist vibe.
The crowd had gathered to celebrate the release of two new poetry chapbooks put out this year by Sixteen Rivers Press. On the billing were Olson and Oakland-based poet Murray Silverstein. As they read from their chapbooks, a jazz duo accompanied them in the background, adding a sprightly staccato behind Silverstein's offbeat poem, then settling into gentler rhythms to match the wistful reminiscences in the poems read by Olson.
Olson is known around Palo Alto as one of the lynchpins in the longstanding literary and poetry community. A student at Stanford in the late 1960s, she was active in the peace movement of the time and has continued in that tradition to the present day. The "Poets for Peace" protest sign she often marches with sits out and ready, leaned against a wall just inside the front door of her house.
Olson has been working as a reference librarian and cataloger for the Palo Alto Main Library since the late 1970s, where she admits to using her down time at the reference desk to pen her poems. Over the years, she has been instrumental in keeping the local poetry scene alive and vibrant. In addition to steering young readers toward the great poets and writers that line the shelves of the public library, she is also on the steering committee of the Waverly Writers which has met regularly since 1981. The group publishes anthologies of their work and hosts open poetry readings in Palo Alto every month.
As is the case for most poets, Olson has not expected her vocation as a poet to pay her bills. Olds says it is nearly impossible today for an unknown or emerging poet to find a publisher willing to risk publishing a book of poems. The conventional wisdom in the publishing world is that poetry just does not sell to mass audiences.
Admirers of Olson's poetry might recognize a talent for crafting lyrical prose, a penchant for metaphor and allusion, and an eye for elegant and precise description. But she says the truer test is whether a would-be poet can be thick-skinned enough to weather the constant stream of rejections that are just part of the game when trying to get published. She keeps a chart tracking each of her submissions —contests she has entered and literary journals where she has sent her poems —a chart that now lists over a hundred rejections. But the list also holds a healthy share of success stories: publications in literary journals like the Seattle Review and the American Literary Review. She was also the first recipient of the Abby Niebauer Memorial Chapbook competition —a prize that was all the more meaningful as she had been a personal friend of Neibauer, a well-known Palo Alto poet who was killed by her husband in the mid-1980s.
The publication of Olson's chapbook, "The Long Night of Flying," could also be viewed as a prize of sorts. Sixteen Rivers Press is a nonprofit collaborative publishing group that selects just two poets per year to foster, publish and promote. Poets who are selected make a commitment to volunteer for the press for three years, the first year working with editors and designers to create their own chapbooks, then continuing on to support the press and mentor incoming writers. Olson is also one of the Palo Alto poets whose words have been immortalized on the "Poetry Wall" the city commissioned in Midtown.
But it would be safe to say there isn't so much one poetry scene in Palo Alto as there is a completely varied and diverse set of poets, each doing their own thing. "Town versus gown" is one distinction Olds says often gets made. Stanford has a rich tradition of fostering promising poets, a few of whom have gone on to gain national acclaim. Stanford's Creative Writing Program is one of the most prestigious and sought-after fellowships available to poets. Master short story writer and poet Raymond Carver was a Stegner fellow at Stanford (named for late Wallace Stegner) as was the former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky.
Gunn High School also has its share of budding poets, many of whom are part of the school's slam poetry team. "Slams" are poetry competitions where poets are judged on their live performances. Slamming, for the uninitiated, is a quieter cousin of rap, if rappers were to turn off the music and go a capella. Slam poets tends to be edgier and more raw than the poets one might typically encounter in high school literary anthologies. Sex and radical politics are staples themes, but the poems performed by slammers often have a more personal, confessional, or humorous twist. The idea, ultimately, is to entertain and to earn high marks from the judges. As the first high school in Palo Alto to launch a slam team, Gunn quickly went on to win regional slam poetry competitions and has sent teams to compete in national slam competitions.
Back at Art21, Olson mingled with longtime friends and supporters, as they depleted double-sized bottles of red wine and munched on brie and crackers, winding up the event for the evening. But a look up ahead on the gallery's calendar showed the slammers would be up shortly, making their way to the gallery in early July.
The poetry calendar for Art21 Studio can be found at http://www.art21.us/index.htm
Sharon Olds and Murray Stevenson will be reading from their chapbooks at Kepler's BookstoreÝin Menlo Park on Tuesday, August 29, at 7:30 p.m.
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