Posted by: wordrunner | February 1, 2018

February 2018

Dear literary folk,

Poetry Out Loud Returns
Poetry Out LoudThe annual Poetry Out Loud County-wide competition returns this month on Monday, February 12 from 6-9 PM. The event this year will be in a new location: Forum Room, Central Library, 211 E. St., Santa Rosa. As in years past, the evening will feature high school students from across the county, and promises an engaging evening of timeless poetry and inspiring recitations. Check the County News page for details.

Fire-Relief Fundraiser at Bird and Beckett
Poet laureates at Bird and BeckettOn January 14, California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia joined four Sonoma County Poets Laureate—Gwynn O’Gara, Iris Dunkle, Bill Vartnaw, and myself—for a reading at Bird and Beckett Bookstore in San Francisco to raise funds for writers in our county who lost their homes in the October fires. The first money raised at last month’s event will go to Ed Colletti, Sally and Shane Weare, Lynne Trombetta, Karl Frederick, and Arthur Dawson. The laureate team is planning future readings, and we’d like to know of any writers we can add to our list. Please send their names and contact information to

The Super-Blood-Blue-Moon
blood moonI hope you all were able to catch the “Lunar Trifecta” yesterday morning. If January’s moon inspired you to write, please send us your poems, stories, or essays to include in next month’s update.

Remembering Three Great Writers
This past month we have lost three writers whose work has had a profound influence on the literary world, albeit in different ways: John Oliver Simon, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Nicanor Parra. It’s likely you’ve heard of LeGuin and may be familiar with her work. On the days following her death, there were many tributes to her life on air and in print, but quite possibly you aren’t as familiar with Simon and Parra. I’ll provide a brief (and somewhat personal) introduction to each, with links to discover more.

John Oliver SimonJohn Oliver Simon was one of the legendary poets of the Berkeley Sixties. A fifth-generation Californian born in New York City in 1942, he wrote his first poem under a full moon in 1956. While at Cal and after, he was active in the Free Speech Movement and in the famous struggle to liberate Berkeley’s People’s Park. As an educator, Simon has devoted himself to teaching children to write poetry. He was a teacher and board member with California Poets in the Schools, and in 2013, he was named the River of Words Teacher of the Year by former US Poet Laureate Robert Hass. Simon was also a noted translator specializing in contemporary Latin American poetry.

I knew John as a colleague in the California Poets in the Schools Program, and found his passion for translation a source of admiration and inspiration, especially since he came to this aspect of his poetic work at age 40. It reminds us all not to set aside what we love. Nurture it, and it will find a way into our lives at the right time.

John passed away on January 16 at the age of 75. His life and work will be celebrated in a memorial this Saturday, February 3, at 2 p.m. Location: Chapel of the Chimes, 4499 Piedmont Ave., Oarkland. To learn more about John Oliver Simon, check this link:

Ursula LaGuinAt the moment I learned about Ursula K. LeGuin’s death, I had just left my classroom where I’d been telling my students about her visionary writing and my great pleasure in having the chance to study with her. Like many of LeGuin’s readers and students, I felt the loss personally and deeply. Some of us who met her at Flight of the Mind on the banks of the wild MacKenzie in the Oregon Cascades remembered her whimsical humor, her measured wisdom, and her inspiration. But most of all, we felt a shared gratitude for the way she made us feel the work we were doing was important. LeGuin passed away on January 22. She was 88.

When JJ Wilson and Karen Petersen offered me the chance to present a one-day workshop on LeGuin last year, I couldn’t have been more delighted. Among the examples of her work I shared last March were her 2014 speech for the National Book Awards and her haunting short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” You can hear these in audio/videofiles at these links:

You can browse LeGuin’s website for samples of her novels, stories, essays, and poems, as well as links a host of other resources:

Nicanor Segundo Parra SandovalThough perhaps lesser known in the U.S., the third writer we have lost is the Chilean poet, mathematician, and physicist Nicanor Segundo Parra Sandoval. Parra, a contemporary of Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, and Gabriella Mistral, was the son of a schoolteacher and came from a family of performers, musicians, artists and writers. He taught theoretical physics and published dozens of books.  He described himself as an “anti-poet,” due to his distaste for standard poetic pomp, his colloquial style and tone, and his controversial political stance: he was disillusioned with Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende, but also took aim at the human rights abuses carried out by the rightist regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. His first collection, Poemas y Antipoemas (1954), written while he was studying cosmology at Oxford University, is now a classic of Latin American literature, one of the most influential Spanish poetry collections of the twentieth century. Last week, the New York Times posted an excellent article on Parra, which you can find at this link:

My own acquaintance with Parra’s work came indirectly from a poem by Carolyn Kizer, “October 1973,” which begins, “Last night I dreamed I ran through the streets of New York/Looking for you, Nicanor,” and concludes with these lines:

And the connection is broken, because I wake up,
in this white room, in this white silence,
in this backwater of silence
on this Isla Blanca:
Nicanor, Nicanor,
are you, too, silent under the earth,
Bother? Brother?

When I read this at the annual Poetry of Remembrance Community Reading a few years ago, confessing I couldn’t identify the person invoked by name, “Nicanor,” local poet Beatrice Lagos told me about this great writer whom she had known. Parra died on January 23 in Santiago de Chile, at the age of 103.

On that day, friend and poet Peggy Shumaker responded on her Facebook page with these simple words: “We lived in the time of Ursula LeGuin and Nicanor Parra.” I would add John Oliver Simon’s name to that list of great writers we were privileged to know in our time.

Poem for February
In memory of Ursula K. LeGuin, I’ve chosen this poem from her collection Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems 1960-2010 (Houghlin Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), and her essay “The Election, Lao Tsu, a Cup of Water,” posted on her website in the days after the 2016 election.

American Wars
By Ursula K. LeGuin

Like the topaz in the toad’s head
the comfort in the terrible histories
was up front, easy to find:
Once upon a time in a kingdom far away.

Even to the dreadful now of news
we listened comforted
by far time-zones, languages we didn’t speak,
the wide, forgetful oceans.

Today, no comfort but the jewel courage.
The war is ours, now, here, it is our republic
facing its own betraying terror.
And how we tell the story is forever after.

The Election, Lao Tzu, a Cup of Water

Americans have voted for a politics of fear, anger, and hatred, and those of us who oppose this politics are now trying to figure out how we can oppose it usefully. I want to defend my country, my republic. In the atmosphere of fear, anger, and hatred, opposition too easily becomes division, fixed enmity. I’m looking for a place to stand, or a way to go, where the behavior of those I oppose will not control my behavior.

Americans are given to naming enemies and declaring righteous war against them. Indians are the enemy, socialism is the enemy, cancer is the enemy, Jews are the enemy, Muslims are the enemy, sugar is the enemy. We don’t support education, we declare a war on illiteracy. We make war on drugs, war on Viet Nam, war on Iraq, war on obesity, war on terror, war on poverty. We see death, the terms on which we have life, as an enemy that must be defeated at all costs.

Defeat for the enemy, victory for us, aggression as the means to that end: this obsessive metaphor is used even by those who know that aggressive war offers no solution, and has no end but desolation.

The election of 2016 was one of the battles of the American Civil War. The Trump voters knew it, if we didn’t, and they won it. Their victory helps me see where my own thinking has been at fault.

I will try never to use the metaphor of war where it doesn’t belong, because I think it has come to shape our thinking and dominate our minds so that we tend to see the destructive force of aggression as the only way to meet any challenge. I want to find a better way.


My song for many years was We Shall Overcome. I will always love that song, what it says and the people who have sung it, with whom I marched singing. But I can’t march now, and I can’t sing it any longer.

My song is Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.

Though we’ve had some great scholars of peace, such as Martin Luther King, studying it is something Americans have done very little of.

The way of the warrior admits no positive alternatives to fighting, only negatives — inertia, passivity, surrender. Talk of “waging peace” is mere glibness, you can’t be aggressively peaceful. Reducing positive action to fighting against or fighting for, we have not looked at the possibility of other forms of action.

Like the people who marched to Selma, the people who are standing their ground at Standing Rock study, learn, and teach us the hard lessons of peace. They are not making war. They are resolutely non-violent. They are seeking a way out of the traps of anger, hatred, enmity. They are actively trying to get free, to be free, and by their freedom, free others as well.

Studying peace means in the first place unlearning the vocabulary of war, and that’s very difficult indeed. Isn’t it right to fight against injustice? Isn’t that what Selma and Standing Rock are — brave battles for justice?

I think not. Brave yes; battles no. Refusing to engage an aggressor on his terms, standing ground, holding firm, is not aggression — though the aggressive opponent will always declare that it is. Refusing to meet violence with violence is a powerful, positive act.

But that is paradoxical. It’s hard to see how not doing something can be more positive than doing something. When all the words we have to use are negative — inaction, nonviolence, refusal, resistance, evasion — it’s hard to see and keep in mind that the outcome of these so-called negatives is positive, while the outcome of the apparently positive act of making war is negative.

We confuse self-defense, the reaction to aggression, with aggression itself. Self-defense is a necessary and morally defensible reaction.

But defending a cause without fighting, without attacking, without aggression, is not a reaction. It is an action. It is an expression of power. It takes control.

Reaction is controlled by the power it reacts against. The people who at present claim to be conservatives aren’t conservatives at all, they are radical reactionaries. The position of the reactionary is not that of the agent, but that of the victim. The reactionary tends always toward paranoia, seeing himself as the obsessive object of vast malevolent forces and entities, fearing enemies everywhere, in anyone he doesn’t understand and can’t control, in every foreigner, in his own government.

Many contemporary Republicans have permanently assumed the position of victim, which is why their party has no positive agenda, and why they whine so much.

The choice to act, rather than react, breaks the paralysis of fear and the vicious circle of aggression, frees us go forward, onward.


We have glamorized the way of the warrior for millennia. We have identified it as the supreme test and example of courage, strength, duty, generosity, and manhood. If I turn from the way of the warrior, where am I to seek those qualities? What way have I to go?

Lao Tzu says: the way of water.

The weakest, most yielding thing in the world, as he calls it, water chooses the lowest path, not the high road. It gives way to anything harder than itself, offers no resistance, flows around obstacles, accepts whatever comes to it, lets itself be used and divided and defiled, yet continues to be itself and to go always in the direction it must go. The tides of the oceans obey the moon while the great currents of the open sea keep on their ways beneath. Water deeply at rest is yet always in motion; the stillest lake is constantly, invisibly transformed into vapor, rising in the air. A river can be dammed and diverted, yet its water is incompressible: it will not go where there is not room for it. A river can be so drained for human uses that it never reaches the sea, yet in all those bypaths and usages its water remains itself and pursues its course, flowing down and on, above ground or underground, breathing itself out into the air in evaporation, rising in mist, fog, cloud, returning to earth as rain, refilling the sea. Water doesn’t have only one way. It has infinite ways, it takes whatever way it can, it is utterly opportunistic, and all life on earth depends on this passive, yielding, uncertain, adaptable, changeable element.

The death way or the life way? The high road of the warrior, or the river road?


I know what I want. I want to live with courage, with compassion, in patience, in peace.

The way of the warrior fully admits only the first of these, and wholly denies the last.

The way of the water admits them all.

The flow of a river is a model for me of courage that can keep me going — carry me through the bad places, the bad times. A courage that is compliant by choice and uses force only when compelled, always seeking the best way, the easiest way, but if not finding any easy way still, always, going on.

The cup of water that gives itself to thirst is a model for me of the compassion that gives itself freely. Water is generous, tolerant, does not hold itself apart, lets itself be used by any need. Water goes, as Lao Tzu says, to the lowest places, vile places, accepts contamination, accepts foulness, and yet comes through again always as itself, pure, cleansed, and cleansing.

Running water and the sea are models for me of patience: their easy, steady obedience to necessity, to the pull of the moon in the sea-tides and the pull of the earth always downward; the immense power of that obedience.

I have no model for peace, only glimpses of it, metaphors for it, similes to what I cannot fully grasp and hold. Among them: a bowl of clear water. A boat drifting on a slow river. A lake among hills. The vast depths of the sea. A drop of water at the tip of a leaf. The sound of rain. The sound of a fountain. The bright dance of the water-spray from a garden hose, the scent of wet earth.

Terry Ehret
Co-editor, Sonoma County Literary Update


P.S. A special request from Jo-Anne Rosen:
I plan to be away twice this year on month-long travels and am hoping someone in the literary community might volunteer to update the WordPress blog site and monthly MailChimp newsletter in my absence. This would include monitoring our email account (it’s on gmail) and posting announcements on the blog site. I’ll be glad to train some computer-savvy writer in your home or at an Internet cafe. I’ll likely be gone from last week in April to last week in May, and again in September/October. So there’s time to learn the process. And possibly share tasks in the future. Write to me at, if interested.


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