Posted by: wordrunner | May 1, 2021

May 2021

Dear Literary Folk,­

We’ve lost two dear writers and friends recently, Jerry Haslam and Al Young.

Gerald HaslamTwo of the most talented, brilliant, generous, and gracious writers I’ve ever known have passed away this past month. Gerald Haslam, Sonoma State University professor emeritus and Penngrove resident, passed away at 84 on April 13. And Mississippi poet, jazz musician, music historian, novelist, screenwriter, and professor Al Young died on April 17, after suffering a devastating stroke over a year ago. So many of us were touched in personal ways by the generosity and inspiration of Jerry and Al. I will try to capture a little of this in today’s post.

Gerald Haslam grew up in Bakersfield, CA, a Catholic boy from a blue-collar, working class family, and later a classmate of the singer Merle Haggard. He authored 21 books and edited eight others, all set in California or the larger West, but most in the San Joaquin Valley.

When I met Jerry, I had just published my first collection of poems, and had added teaching poetry at Sonoma State to my freeway-flyer teaching life. In all my classes, wherever I taught, I used Jerry’s wonderful article in Poets & Writers, called “Give That Unsolicited Manuscript a Chance.” This was the early 1990’s, and it was still rare for writers to share with their students the nuts and bolts of how to get published. The article changed my life, and I never passed up an opportunity to pass it along to others. One afternoon, I was standing in the faculty mailroom as SSU, and as I reached for the stack of photocopies of the Poets & Writers article in my box, I heard a voice beside me say, “Oh, so you’re Terry Ehret! Happy to meet you!” As he reached for his own mail, in the box right below mine, I realized this was the very Gerald Haslam who’d written the article. “And you’re Gerald Haslam!” I said. “Jerry, please,” he quickly interjected, and that began a delightful friendship. Later that year, we both received California Book Awards from the Commonwealth Club, and were invited to a very elegant awards ceremony in San Francisco. Among the qualities I liked most about Jerry was his down-to-earth wonder and humility, and the pleasure he seemed to get from life itself. His writing has much in common with the stories of William Saroyan, another Central Valley writer, and the poetry of Philip Levine, a Detroit transplant to Fresno.

Check out this article of Haslam’s life and work, which includes a list of his publications, awards, and accomplishments. If you’re new to his work, you might start with Coming of Age in California and the big, beautiful Great Central Valley: California’s Heartland.

Haslam’s life will be celebrated by a Mass of Christian Burial at St. James Church in Petaluma this summer.


Al YoungAnd even before I moved to Sonoma County and met Haslam, I had the great good fortune to meet Al Young (along with Tobias Wolf, Carolyn Kizer, and Ursula LeGuin) at a writing workshop in San Jose for writers interested in crossing genres. He had the unique ability to make you laugh, which was just what a scared young writer like me needed. And from then on, whenever our paths crossed, he welcomed me like a long-lost friend—an intimacy he fostered with hundreds of writers. I have so many Al Young stories, but the one I’ll share is when Al was selected as California’s Poet Laureate in 2005. I waited every morning for a month to see an article about his appointment in the San Francisco Chronicle. Finally, I wrote a letter to the editor about this oversight, and when my letter was published, I received a very sweet note of thanks from Al. Apparently Al and the editorial staff at the Chronicle had some kind of falling out—a petty reason to overlook his being awarded the state’s highest literary honor.

Geri DiGiorno and Al YoungOther local poets Al befriended and championed include our dear Geri Digiorno, pictured here, and CalPoet teacher Jackie Huss Hallerberg. Her story of first meeting Al at Squaw Valley and of writing the poem “the moon” appears below.

One of Al’s poems, “Who I Am in Twilight,” is included in the Addison Street Poetry Walk in Berkeley, a sidewalk with 128 poems embedded in it. It ends: “like Yosemite National Park, like beans &/cornbread, like rest & recreation, like love/& like, I know we last. I know our bleeding stops.” You can read the complete poem at the end of the post.

Discover more about Al’s life and work at this link:

Al Young died at 81 on April 17. Friends of Young’s launched a GoFundMe campaign to help with his medical expenses. The family still needs help with funeral expenses


the moon
for Al Young

god put his money
on the sun

figured the moon
was a stepdaughter

the moon rose up
tossed her loose coins
to the universe

a silver dollar, a quarter,
a thin sliver – then nothing

who is this god


Brief story of this poem’s beginnings:

In the late 1990s, I had the great fortune to be accepted into the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and signed up for a fifteen-minute critique session with Al Young, one of the staff poets that year. I didn’t really know Al’s work but liked his presence and what I’d heard of his poetry during the weeklong workshop. As I sat before him, intimidated being in the presence of such a famous poet, I slid my poem “the moon”across the table to him. He smiled a most generous smile and in his deeply sonorous and musical voice said, “You must have read my moon poems.” I was taken aback and admitted shyly that I didn’t know that was one of his favorite subject matters. He looked down at my paper and picked up his pen and wrote, “This poem works lovingly, beautifully, almost as is.” I was so grateful to have picked him to read my poem. He remained a good friend to me for several decades.

Poem “the moon” and short feature above are by Jackie Huss Hallerberg.


Applications Now Open for Napa Valley Writers Conference

Poetry, Fiction, & Translation Workshops
Aug 1-6, 2021
Admissions Deadline: Monday, May 3, 2021

It’s our 40th Anniversary! For four decades, we’ve hosted intensive, intimate workshops, in-depth lectures on craft, and evening readings by some of the finest teachers of poetry and fiction writing working today. Join us in 2021 as we celebrate this milestone with another great week of writing and literary fellowship.

2021 Faculty
Victoria Chang – Brenda Hillman – Brian Teare Matthew Zapruder – Charles Baxter – Lan Samantha Chang ZZ Packer – Joan Silber – Robert Hass

Napa Conference Faculty

At present, we’re moving forward with preparing for an in-person event, but several things have shifted, including the date and the location. The 2021 conference will take place on the Napa Campus of Napa Valley College, a move from our long-time home on the Saint Helena Campus. Due to Covid-19, we are also suspending our Community Housing program for 2021. See website information for details on the move. Click to apply.

Bay Area Book Festival

There are oodles of terrific online literary events, workshops, readings listed in the May Calendar. But before it slips right past you, I want to give a shout out to the Bay Area Book Festival (Virtual). It starts today, May 1, and runs through Mother’s Day, May 9. Dozens of renowned speakers, including Orville Schell, Joyce Carol Oates, Kazuo Ishiguro, Vendala Vida, many more. The Book Fair is one of my favorite literary festivals, with both ticketed and free events, youth programs and “after parties.” Details and registration:

Poetry Power

On Friday, May 7, 11 am-12:30 pm., Fran Claggett-Holland and Linda Loveland Reid (via Zoom) will present at Poetry Power in May at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Details and registration:

Phyllis Meshulam’s Community Poetry Project

You can always check in with our Sonoma County Poet Laureate and her online poetry prompts here on the Poet Laureate’s News page. But you are invited to attend on Thursday, May 13, 7:00-9:00 p.m. Sebastopol Center for the Arts presents a virtual Workshop with Phyllis Meshulam. Phyllis will clarify themes for the county-wide poetry anthology. Free or by donation. Details and registration:

Shakespeare Everywhere!

Don’t miss Shakespeare Everywhere! Sunday, May 16, 4:00 p.m. Occidental Center for the Arts presents Sonoma County author Jean Hegland (whose most recent book, Still Time, has been called “a novel Shakespeare would be proud of”) in conversation with a panel of four fabulous artists (a rapper, a cartoonist, a zine editor, and a Young Adult novelist ) who are incorporating Shakespeare into their own work in fresh, exciting, and powerful ways. This virtual event is free. OCA members can register for the Zoom option; non-members can enjoy via YouTube. For more info, go to and click on upcoming events.


Poem for May

Who I Am In Twilight
by Al Young

Like John Lee Hooker, like Lightnin Hopkins,
like the blues himself, the trickster sonnet,
hoedown, the tango, the cante jondo,
like blessed spirituals and ragas custom-made,
like sagas, like stories, like slick, slow, sly soliloquies sliding into dramas,
like Crime & Punishment, like death & birth,
Canal Street, New Orleans, like the easy,
erasable, troubled voices a whirling
ceiling fan makes in deep summer nights in
hot, unheavenly hotels — Oklahoma, Arkansas,
Tennessee — like the Mississippi River
so deep and wide you couldn’t get a letter
to the other side, like Grand Canyon,
like Yosemite National Park, like beans &
cornbread, like rest & recreation, like love
& like, I know we last. I know our bleeding stops.


Terry Ehret,
Sonoma County Literary Update co-editor


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