Poet Laureate’s News

Iris DunkleCALL FOR ENTRIES: The History of Sonoma County

This month, we are kicking off a writing contest on writing about the history of Sonoma County. See information below. As inspiration, I’ve included a lesson plan on “Writing from Two Sides of History”! Hope you get inspired to write about our incredible county. Or, feel free to share it with others!

A Poetry Contest for Adults and Youth
Deadline for entry May 1, 2017

SCA announces a poetry contest, entitled “The History of Sonoma County” which invites local writers to submit poems about the history of Sonoma County.  Poems selected from this contest will be displayed at Sebastopol Center for the Arts and winners will be invited to attend and read their winning poem at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts on June 10. The contest juror is Sonoma County Poet Laureate, Iris Jamahl Dunkle.  Dunkle is the author of two poetry collections, Gold Passage (2013) and There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air (2015).

The entry deadline is Monday, May 1, 2017. Youth, teens and adults are invited to submit their work and may submit up to three entries per contestant. The fee for adults is $8 for members of the Sebastopol Center for the Arts, $10 for non-members, and $5 for youth entries age 18 and under.  For complete contest guidelines visit History of Sonoma County Poetry Contest or visit the Center’s website at www.sebarts.org or email a request to lindag@sebarts.org

Writing from the Two Sides of History

History can be told from many directions. It can be told from the perspective of the people who arrived in ships to settle a “new” land. And, it can be told from the perspective of the people who lived in that land for centuries before it was invaded by someone else.

The origin story for our county offers a way for us to think about these two sides. For today’s poem, you are going to write a persona poem: a poem written from the perspective of someone or something besides yourself. In the poem, you will chose to either be the Coast Miwok standing up on the cliffs, watching the ships arrive at Bodega Bay. Or, you will be the people in the ships who had been at sea for months, sometimes even years, who had finally arrived at their destination.

Use Sensory Detail:

  • What did it look like inside the ship, or at the Coast Miwok village, or on the shore when the boats arrived?
  • What did it smell like at the village? Could you smell wood smoke, dried fish, dried berries, salt on the air. What did it smell like inside those ships where people had been living in a very small space for so many months? Did it smell like old wood? Mold? Could you smell the ocean?
  • What did it feel like to touch your feet on land after so many months at sea? Or, what did it feel like to run, barefoot, down to the ships from your village? How did the cool fog feel? Or the hot sun?
  • What sounds did you hear? Oars rowing the water? The slap of waves? Or, the voices of other concerned villagers? The chanting of a song?

Use Metaphor or Simile:

  • When the Coast Miwok try and describe the ships, something they had never seen before, how do they find language to describe it?
  • How did the people who got off the boats describe the Coast Miwok, people who looked very different from themselves?
  • What else do you want the reader to feel when they are reading your poem?

Choose your words carefully!

  • Think about the words you choose. Do they alliterate? Do they sound soft or hard edged? Do they create the mood you want to convey in your poem?


A Language is a Map of our Failures
by Iris Jamahl Dunkle

At first, the land was covered in thick redwoods; their dizzying tops spindled the wool of low fog. They lived in open meadows between trees. Close enough to the sea to dream of salt and the muscular bodies of fish. The smoke that rose from the kotchas was thick with oil, but the scents still wove together: fog’s breath, rosemary, the burning of wood.

The oldest ship appeared out of the fog like a hollow, wooden whale on the blue horizon. Then, two smaller wooden boats skated toward shore. No fear drifted on the slack winds, even though this was the day when change would begin to rise, ash-like, into the air, catching and burning in the branches of the tall trees.

The map would show memory’s retreat as it bled further and further inland: rocky sand to cliff to the high meadows where the trees had begun to fall. There would be many more ships. There would be much forgetting, until the towns came: a small dry-goods store, then a livery, and a blacksmith. It was after all this that the history was recorded and it was without what had been lost to air, to the eaves of trees.

Geography as Seen from the Tall Ships
by Iris Jamahl Dunkle

From lull of dank, wet wood and passage, too many bodies
pressed together; our clothes bleached and worn thin
from sun’s glare and winds incessant blowing.
From the sway that had pooled and gathered in us
like a brackish bilge until we were unable
to understand land, that line of shore defining an end,
then from it the green hills pouring back into
what we were meant to discover. From the weak legs
that strode from the small boat into icy
surf came uncertainty and doubt. The weight
of cargo carried across then dragged off
the ship and over the grassy dunes
to the waiting wagons. There were no maps.
There were only ideas and a strange man standing by
the wagons. Still wet, we gathered again
close, but far away from what we knew of
ourselves in the rough wood cabs. Two rutted
tracks leading a dusty path out from months
of salt and sway, over the roll of hills.


Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s new poetry collection, There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air, is now available at: www.irisjamahldunkle.com. Also now available in audio book:


Archives of previous Poet Laureate columns may be found here for 2012,  2013, 2014,  2015 and 2016-2017.

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