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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on December 12th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 41 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 19, Issue 41

Local poets find their voice in North Santa Barbara County

By Rebecca Rose

It's a dark space that's standing-room only. The only sounds come from behind the podium, a quiet stirring from a winery tasting room worker as she slowly pours another glass for a patron at the bar. The audience is hushed, eager for the moment when it starts.

Steve Braff’s journey toward poetry took him all the way from the high-paced world of finance in New York to the Central Coast, where he organizes numerous poetry events. Braff is currently working on a collection of poems about his relationship with his late father.

"I worshiped dad's tale–

the middle son seeking

light with the years

gone dark or just faded

gray knowing that god

long lost his way."

It's the second Saturday of the month, which means it's time for poetry night at CORE Winery in Orcutt. The poem is "Spotted," the reader is Steve Braff. On this August night he is part of a growing group of poets, scattered throughout the audience, all awaiting their turn at the podium. 

Poetry is experiencing a rebirth of sorts. In 2016, Beyonce prominently featured the work of acclaimed poet Warsan Shire in her album video Lemonade. Thanks to poets such as Rupi Kaur and Marisa Crane, who use platforms like Instagram to reach legions of fans, the publishing industry has seen a spike in sales of poetry. Kaur's collection Milk and Honey sold more than 2.5 million copies since its 2014 release.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts' 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), 12 percent of adults reported reading poetry in 2017, up 5 percent from 2011. The biggest jump was in the 18 to 24 age group, which increased from 8 percent in 2011 to 18 percent last year.

Braff is one of a budding local community looking to capture a sliver of the renewed limelight. They share their work in public spaces such as CORE throughout Santa Barbara and SLO counties, showcasing their work and sharing notes with fellow poets. The community is growing, thanks to some popular local events and the work of several key organizers and writers.

The man with the plan

From Santa Barbara to Paso Robles, poetry has quietly found a niche in coffee shops, bookstores, wineries, and other local gathering spots. Linnea's Cafe in SLO features the Corners of the Mouth poetry series monthly. The Los Osos Public Library and Morro Bay's Coalesce Bookstore both feature a monthly poetry reading, and poet David Ochs runs a monthly open mic poetry night with a featured poet in Arroyo Grande.

The organizer behind CORE's poetry night is Michael McLaughlin. McLaughlin is the Artist in Residence at Atascadero State Hospital and an area coordinator for California Poets in the Schools (CPITS), an organization that trains and coordinates a network of published poets through local schools, juvenile halls, and other institutions. He has authored three poetry books: Ped Xing, The Upholstery of Heaven, and Countless Cinemas.

McLaughlin hails from San Francisco and later moved to San Luis Obispo, where he served as poet laureate for the city. He credits much of the success and growth of SLO's poetic community to Kevin Patrick Sullivan and Karl Kempton, who launched the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival in 1983.

"They were tireless about it," McLaughlin said. "It was a matter of personalities and poets coalescing. There were poets passing through Cal Poly, poets coming through from California Poets in the Schools such as Jane Elsdon in Atascadero ... the poets were there, and the motivation to start readings and have these kinds of festivals was there."

When he first moved to SLO, McLaughlin became friends with Sullivan and eventually worked his way through the poetry scene, learning from each event and reading. He said the community was supportive and filled with remarkable talent. 

"I plunged into the community and squeezed as much poetry out of the experience as I could," he said. "But then we had to move."

When he and his wife, Dona, decided to plant roots in Orcutt, McLaughlin began to imagine ways he could bring part of the SLO community to his new region. In 2012, he launched a poetry series at The Bookworm, a used bookstore on Betteravia. Interest from local poets was immediate.

It didn't take long for the reading to grow out of the small retail space. Becky and Dave Corey, owners of CORE Winery, met with McLaughlin and decided to move the series to their new tasting room in Old Town Orcutt. 

CORE Winery in Orcutt hosts a poetry night on the second Saturday of every month. Poets, including local poet Larry Greco Harris (pictured), share poems at the event organized by Michael McLaughlin.

With more than 30 years of involvement in organizations such as California Poetry in the Schools and other writers' groups, McLaughlin had a wealth of contacts and poetry connections. He bankrolled the project himself, insisting on keeping the readings free and open to the public. Along with two featured poets, the reading at CORE also includes an open mic portion, allotting five minutes to anyone who wants to share their worked.

"I wanted to bring in really stellar poets, local and from other areas," McLaughlin said. "I wanted there to be an open reading so that local poets would have their own forum. And then my hope was that those who read in the open reading would read frequently enough so that they could become co-features." 

Readers at CORE have come from around the country, but mostly from Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Fresno. Featured poets in recent years include Suzanne Lummis, co-founder of The Los Angeles Poetry Festival; New Orleans poet Gina Ferrara; Raina J. León; and Sue Terence. 

McLaughlin said some of the unpublished poets who started at CORE's open mic have gone on to read throughout the tri-county area, and some have even published chapbooks (a small collection of poetry, usually no more that 40 to 60 pages).

"They're establishing themselves," McLaughlin said. "That's a really good thing."

Common spaces, friendly faces

One of the poets who has found her footing through local events is Dorothy Winslow. Winslow, who recently completed her MFA in Creative Writing for poetry, lives in Santa Maria with her husband and stepdaughter. Poetry has been a significant part of her life from a young age.

Winslow has a learning disability that prohibited her from being able to conventionally express herself as a child, she explained. 

Speak your piece
SLO and Santa Barbara County have several ongoing poetry series. In San Luis Obispo: The Corners of the Mouth series at Linnea’s on the third Sunday of every month; contact Kevin Patrick Sullivan at In Los Osos: Los Osos Public Library Poetry Night on the fourth Thursday once every three months. Contact Beverly Boyd at In Morro Bay:Coalesce Bookstore’s Second Sunday at Seven Poets in the chapel on the second Sunday of every month. Contact Jerry Smith at In Arroyo Grande: St. Barnabus Church’s poetry series on the fourth Sunday of every month. Contact David Ochs at In Orcutt: CORE Winery’s regular reading happens on the second Saturday of every month.

"There was no way I could put into words the feelings I had," she said. "Poetry enabled me to do that."

Growing up in the Bay Area, she encountered poetry through poets who would visit as part of CPITS. Something about the workshops and lessons stuck.

On a stormy night, lying in bed as a child, Winslow began writing out the words to how the weather outside was making her feel. She ran downstairs, shrieking with the poem in her hand, to her mother. 

"I don't know what compelled me to do it," Winslow said. "But I did, and it was the first time I was ever able to express myself. It was an absolute revelation. ... I've written poetry ever since then."

It wasn't until she moved to the Central Coast, motivated by her father, that Winslow finally decided to pursue the craft. While obtaining her master's, she discovered McLaughlin's group, an opportunity that opened more doors for community support of poetry locally.

"It was a revelation," Winslow said."[McLaughlin] gets poets from all over to come. He gets these incredible, kind, true poets to come to read."

Once she started participating in the Orcutt readings, Winslow said she was exposed to more local poets and more workshop and reading opportunities. Discovering a community of people in her same creative shoes was eye-opening for her.

"I started meeting poets," Winslow said. "I had no idea there were so many poets here. There's actually a lot of people in our community who write poetry."

Braff found his way to the Central Coast's local poetry community via New York City, where he worked in finance. Braff gave up the fast-paced world of business for the serenity of the Santa Ynez Valley, trading deals and dollar signs for stanzas and quatrains. 

In the few short years since he uprooted his life, Braff has participated in dozens of readings, and his poems have appeared in Tea House, Muscogee Nation News, Muryoko Journal of Shin Buddhism, and more. He hosts poetry discussions with the Jewish Federation of Santa Barbara and works for CPITS as an outreach coordinator. He has also been a judge for the Santa Barbara County Regional Poetry Out Loud Competition for the past two years.

Forty Days, his first collection of poetry, was published by Cholla Needles Press in 2017. 

"Once I decided I'd left the world of mergers and acquisitions, I knew this was where I belonged," Braff said. "I started Googling to find readings ... and just started attending as many as I could." 

Another thing Braff did aside from writing was pound the pavement. He approached numerous local organizations, galleries, and museums–really anywhere he thought could benefit from hosting a poetry event.

"I made proposals to the Solvang Public Library, the Wildling Museum of Art and Nature, Lompoc Public Library, Santa Ynez Historical Society, the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art," he said. "Every door I knocked on, all these institutions are saying yes to poetry."

Events in the past year include poetry presentations at the Wildling Museum and The Poetry of Transition, a reading of poems inspired by the Elverhoj's 30 year retrospective.

Braff also launched a biweekly workshop for poets working on material and looking for constructive criticism, which includes poets he's met through readings and other events–such as Winslow.

"It's made a big difference," she said. "That's what these groups do. It's not about tearing each other down, it's not about judging. It's not about a competition; it's about coming together and supporting each other. It's about how to get you to reach your best potential."

 Hungry for more

It was an unplanned reading at a poetry event that proved to be a breakthrough for Santa Maria poet Samuel Duarte. Duarte and a friend managed to get their names on a list of scheduled readers, unbeknownst to Sullivan, the organizer of the event. 

"We joke about it now, [Sullivan] and I," Duarte said of his sneaky venture. "That one opportunity ... opened a lot of doors to reading in a lot of venues. Just his dedication, connecting us to people. Networking is very important."

Duarte was born in Nogales, Mexico, and migrated to the San Joaquin Valley with his family in 1980 when he was just 6 years old. As a young immigrant growing up in Fresno, Duarte said he often felt disconnected, invisible in the education system.

"When I was coming up through high school, there wasn't a lot of literature for me to identify with as an immigrant," Duarte said. "We were introduced to a lot of things which I couldn't really identify with. There wasn't that doorway for me. ... It wasn't until I was introduced to these local [writers] that I felt this connection."

Fresno has long been a breeding ground for up-and-coming poets, including Gary Sotu, Tim Hernandez, and Lee Herrick. Hernandez, a third-generation Mexican American from a family of migrant farmworkers, is the author of Skin Tax, a 2006 poetry collection that received the American Book Award.

Santa Maria poet Dorothy Winslow hopes to someday publish a collection of work. She recently received her MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry and frequents local poetry readings.

For Duarte, the connection with an artist from a similar background who wrote about the issues he saw in his own life was immediate. He saw his own possibilities as a writer and poet, something he had never considered.

"There was never that sort of view given to me by any classes, teachers, counselors," Duarte said. "In high school, it was, 'Are you interested in joining the military?'"

Today, his poetry can be found in arts journals such as Flies, Cockroaches, and Poets. He has published a collection titled Seven Standard Roads, as well as The Spirit of El Chorumo, a volume of short stories. Duarte was also an organizer of 100,000 Poets For Change in Santa Maria, a 2016 event that included poets, musicians, and artists joining together from 500 cities in 100 countries. 

The event, which promoted social, environmental, and political change, had a strong turnout, especially from local poets.

"It was amazing," Duarte said. "A lot of folks showed up. So the hunger is there."

While many are content with what's available to emerging poets in the region, a growing number are hoping to see the community expand to a broader audience and include more diversity, Duarte said. 

Featured readings often focus on established poets as opposed to unpublished or emerging writers, he added.

"I want to see these organizers invite more diverse readers," Duarte said. "There's a lot of kids–young people and older people–they're working on their poetry here. But they're not being given those opportunities or there's not that sort of hub where poets can feature."

The lack of an appropriate venue in Santa Maria that could draw in more poets is an issue near and dear to Duarte. He is currently helping on a project that would bring a cultural center to downtown Santa Maria.

"Each venue has a little different culture," he said. "I think we need some more of a connection to bring all of them together. I think people are very open."     

Winslow, who is now training to become a poetry therapist in Santa Maria, said she hopes to see more outreach to schools and underserved communities. She said she believes the key is bringing poetry to more youth, through programs in elementary up to high schools. Looking at events such as poetry slams that might have an appeal to younger audiences could also help, she explained.

"The only disadvantage to being here is not having that huge broadcasting," she said. "It's a very quiet community. Not everybody knows about us. It took me a couple of years to find it, but it really is supportive, more so than some more metropolitan areas."

And while the popularity of poetry may be alluring to some, especially as larger cities become the focal point for finding the next Kaur or Shire, local poets such Braff aren't going anywhere soon. 

"Am I looking to move? No," Braff said. "I'm looking for an ever-broader platform. ... My mission is to continuously develop my craft and to continuously seek a broader platform, with more diversity, to share the work. And to create platforms to share their work." 

Contact Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose Arts and Lifestyle

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