Laureate Archive 2016-2017

November 2017

Iris DunkleThe past month, we faced the catastrophe of wild fires.  As Poet Laureate, I feel it’s my job to document what we have experienced.  One of the many areas devastated by the Tubbs fire was a historic site, that housed a utopian community in the late 1800s called Alturia.  Charmian Kittredge London visited it many times and there is still a road named after the community near where the famous round barn used to stand.  After the first night of the fires, I wanted to find a story of how our community has come together before and overcome great loss and this brought me to the 1906 Earthquake.  Santa Rosa was a different town in those days.  There were only around 8,000 people who lived here.  But, the earthquake, whose epicenter was very near to Santa Rosa, devastated the city.  Jack and Charmian rode their horses through the town just hours after the quake struck on their way to San Francisco and Charmian recorded in her diary how she couldn’t believe the devastation.  But, then, as now, our county was resilient and was able to rise from the ashes becoming even stronger than they were before.  This poem is about the resilience of Sonoma County.

Sonoma Strong
By Iris Jamahl Dunkle

Days after the great 1906 Earthquake
Jack and Charmian London rode their horses
from Glen Ellen into Santa Rosa
to visit Burke’s Sanitarium
looking for the salve of utopia:
tent cabins set up on a hillside next to rock bedded
creeks, wind whispering through fragrant bay leaves.


What they found then, was what we see now:
on the surface, blackened hills, a city
that still smolders at its foundations.
Charred houses lean against the smoke-choked sky.  

Flames eat at what is left; fear seethes.


And though the lumber was scarce

and still sticky with sap, and though

there were too few strong arms to wield hammers,

everything that was lost a century ago was rebuilt. 

You see, in this city, again and again, kindness pushes
up from the parched soil like a good crop.  

A Project and a Reading: Documenting the Stories from the Fire
Until my tenure ends, I will be partnering with the Sonoma Historical Society, the Sebastopol Center for the Arts and other partners to collect stories about the fire and write poems based on the stories.  I will also be writing poems to document the historic buildings we lost in the fires.  If you have a story you would like to share, or, if you are interested in participating in this project, please email me:

On November 12, please join us for Rising from the Ashes –the Heart of Poetry Sunday, November 12, 2017, 1:00 to 2:30 p.m. Sebastopol Center for the Arts for a reading where we will honor the pain caused by the fires and celebrate the resilience of those who were affected.

Book Release
My third collection of poetry, Interrupted Geographies, was just released by Trio House Press.  You can pick up a copy at Copperfield’s in Sebastopol, Petaluma, or Santa Rosa, or at Reader’s Books in Sonoma.  I’ll be launching my book at the Copperfield’s in Sebastopol on November 10, at 7:00 pm.  I’d love to see you there.

Iris Jamahl Dunkle
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2016-2017

June 2017

Gaye LeBaron giving her introductory remarks

Gaye LeBaron giving her introductory remarks.

One of the great things about being Poet Laureate are the events you get asked to attend.  Last Sunday, I got to take part in the first Finding History in Sonoma County Day held at the De Turk Round barn in Santa Rosa.  It was a bustling event. Gaye LeBaron kicked off the event with a history lesson about the historic building we were standing in.  The entire balcony was filled with exhibitors from the California Indian Museum & Cultural Center, Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, Sonoma State University, Special Collections, West County Historical Society and so many more! All day, the air was alive with history.

The Ceiling of the De Turk Round Barn

The Ceiling of the De Turk Round Barn

Posing for a photograph with Kris Murphy at the Glen Ellen Historical Society Booth

Posing with Kris Murphy at the Glen Ellen Historical Society Booth








Another historical event is coming up in June, that you won’t want to miss. On Sunday, June 11 at 4:00 pm we will be celebrating the winners of the History of Sonoma County Poetry Contest sponsored by the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.  Below is a list of the winners.  Please join us as we listen to them read their incredible poems about the history of our county in the dining room of the Sebastopol Center for the Arts on June 11.

Adult Category:

1 Suzanne Maxson Not a Place
2 Sandy Eastoak basket
3 Christine Walker For the Orchard
Honorable Mention Nina Tepedino Russian River Voices
Honorable Mention crystal ockenfuss One True Cross
Honorable Mention Terry Ehret Petaluma, Who Calls You Home?
Honorable Mention Steve Trenam Running Fence
Honorable Mention Ernesto Garay The Relentless Farmworker
Honorable Mention Cynthia Poten The Joe Redota Trail
Honorable Mention Cynthia Poten Tso’noma Song
Youth Category:
1 Mira Sugino History
2 Owen Dawson Bloomfield Road
Junior High
1 Carmen Jimenez My Home Only
2 Zoey Sugino Steel Horses
High School
1 Dane Beatie Of Sonoma’s People


Finally, you won’t want to miss it! June 17 is the Sebastopol Lit Crawl! I’ll be reading with the winners of the History of Sonoma County Poetry Contest at Copperfield’s in Sebastopol from 3:00 – 4:00 pm. Hope to see you at one of these upcoming events!

Iris Jamahl Dunkle
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2016-2017

April 2017

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 or email a request to

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.

February 2017

Iris Dunkle“To the Fog” by Terry Lucas

by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
reprinted from Poets Corner #17, Press Democrat

In Sonoma County, the fog is a constant. When we wake up, a grey gauze often blurs our view of the world and on hot summer days we assume the blanket of fog will roll off the coast to naturally cool us off. A world muted by fog, though, is a special place where everything you see seems different than it had been before. The light hangs. Objects stand out somehow becoming more vibrant. Many poets including W.H. Auden and Carl Sandberg have written about the altered universe of a world shrouded in fog; however, more recently, in his poem, “To the Fog,” Terry Lucas records the fog specific to Sonoma and Marin counties. The poem is written in the second person, a trick that sharpens its immediacy and brings the reader into the action of the poem. At its heart, “To the Fog” is a praise poem. A meditation on the “heaven” fog makes when it covers everything that is familiar with its blur and density. Exploring this heaven becomes the action of the poem. A daily walk is altered when the fog has lowered its curtain. The sun looks like the moon and each step reveals a tiny universe of visibility. In Lucas’s poem, each moment appears to the reader suddenly, as if she too is walking in the fog: the “geometry/ of downed limbs scratching at low tide” and “the snowy egret” that suddenly takes to flight. Reality, in the form of commute traffic, warms up like an orchestra that is out of sight. And, for the moment of this poem, the speaker stays present in his natural environment. Lucas ends the poem with a direct plea to the fog, asking it to “hover in the hollows of this day” as a way for us to remember to stay present, to embrace the life that is directly in front of us. In these busy days, let us all wonder at the beauty and strangeness that we have right in front of us.


To the Fog

by Terry Lucas

And then you wake up one morning to the fog
surrounding your house like a heaven,
like the first time you drank a whole bottle
of white wine alone. You get dressed for your walk
down the path that you walk on each day.
You look to the horizon, the shouting
sun now more like moon’s soft song. One muted tone
behind sky’s veil. You notice the lichen-
covered stones greeting each step, the geometry
of downed limbs scratching at low tide,
the snowy egret you surprise, plumed head
turned on its side, sweeping the mudflats, improvising
a way to catch breakfast in this suffused light—
all of this and more, normally hidden in plain sight.
But an orchestra’s warming up behind the curtain:
commuters leaning on shrill horns, distant
sirens rising, the engines of this world
revving up their clear intent to perform
something short of a miracle. O fog
of morning, hover in the hollows of this day,
remain in its low places, to rise up again
when we need not more, but less.

From Dharma Rain, St. Julian Press, 2016

January 2017

Iris Dunkle

“The Future” by Jane Mead

by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
reprinted from Poets Corner #16, Press Democrat

This time of year, the days are shorter and moon burns up bringing night earlier each day. The world feels unpredictable. What future lies ahead in the months to come. Many rest on this eave of change. The apple orchards stand like leafless skeletons in the fog; their future harvest unpredictable. Will it rain too much, not enough to bring in a good harvest come fall? Many high school-aged students are filling out their college applications and dreaming about the next phase of their life: will their future lives be far away on the East Coast, or closer to home? Middle Schoolers are discovering professions they had never heard about like photography or law and they try on that future, over-sized life in their minds to see if someday it might fit. It’s the unpredictability of the future that makes it so tantalizing to dream about, isn’t it? Jane Mead, in her poem, “The Future” takes on the disparity between what we believe the future could be and what it actually turns out to be. She begins with a succinct description of a child’s perspective about the future: “As a child, who you were/ was located in the future—/ right?” But, then questions where that idea of existence we once had now lives when we are adults? Does it live in the events that have happened: the humans and animals we loved and buried, the hard work we harvested, or the conflicts we faced or didn’t face in our lives? Her poem, in the end, asks us to question the space between the dreams we had and the reality of the future was we faced it. Was it “Just as the scene was predicted? / Just as the act was forewritten?” Or, did our actual futures surprise us, like Venus bright in the winter sky. Did the future fill our orchards with a fruit so different that we could have never imagined its bittersweet taste, its sustenance?


Jane MeadThe Future

by Jane Mead

As a child, who you were
was located in the future—
right? Now where is
your existence. In
there were dogs—
then we buried them?
Berries, so we put them
in jars? There were
Guns, so we fired them
at one another, or didn’t—.
Just as the scene was predicted?
Just as the act was forewritten?

From Poured-Out Water, 2001

Writing Poetry with Sonoma County Poet Laureate, Iris Jamahl Dunkle

an ONLINE and in-person class
February 15 – May 24

at Napa Valley College
(ENGL-203-70411 Poetry Workshop 1)

Are you looking for a class that will push you to write more? Are you looking for a supportive community of writers to help push you to the next level as a poet? Then, join us for the Poetry Workshop: a weekly gathering of poets where we will read and write about poetry. Each class you’ll receive detailed prompts that will inspire you to write. You will receive feedback on your work from an accomplished poet. Students will also learn how to critique each other’s work in a workshop setting. Other workshop topics include: publishing, readings and how to build a writing community. This is an online poetry workshop; however, each week there will be an optional in-person class at Napa Valley College on Tuesdays (Time TBD) and at The Sitting Room in Cotati on Wednesdays from 10-12, where we will write together and build workshop community.

To sign up for the online portion visit
or email to sign up for the Sitting Room portion of the class, or for more information. Also see Workshops page on this site for additional details.

There is a pre-requisite for this class: ENGL 200, Introduction to Creative Writing. But, students who haven’t taken ENGL 200 already are welcome to send in a five-poem portfolio in order to enroll.

December 2016

Iris Dunkle“1943: The Vision” by Jean Valentine

by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
reprinted from Poets Corner #15, Press Democrat

These days, as election day draws near, the air feels electric with news headlines. Words from all sides spark and sputter around us.  It’s times like these when we need a centering, a place to go where we can come together and what better place to go, then to poetry? “1943: The Vision” by Jean Valentine is an allegorical poem that resonates and makes us think about our current political situation even though it is set in 1943, another divisive time. In it we follow a child of nine who discovers a human head, severed into two parts in a jar in a shed. Valentine is a poet of quiet power. Her lyric poems are small on the page, but large in their meaning. Her images, like this shocking image of a severed head, rise and resonate out of a dark like a struck bell, their meaning resounding over time. After the shock of discovering the head, the premise of the poem turns toward purpose. As the speaker says, “I knew what it meant: / You must put the head back together again.” In the end, the poem becomes about reconciliation when the speaker asks, “How could I put the head back together again?”  The allegory, or the other story the poem is telling us, is this lesson of reconciliation.  How can we, in times of great divide such as these, find a way to come together?


“1943: The Vision”
Jean Valentineby Jean Valentine

I saw it when I was nine
alone    looking into a shed

A human head             cut in two        lengthwise
in profile, lifelike, in a museum-size
glass jar, on a shelf.

I knew what it meant:
You must put the head back together again.

How could I put the head back together again?
But I promised. Everyone promised: dark eyes
to dark eyes.

From Shirt in Heaven, 2015

November 2016

“The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road” by Ada Limón

by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
reprinted from Poets Corner #13, Press Democrat

Who among us hasn’t seen a bird flying across the cloud streaked sky, or lifting suddenly off of a fence post as an omen, whether good or bad?  Famously, Samuel Taylor Coleridge warned in his poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” about the terrible omen an albatross offers a sailor, especially if he kills it.  Here in Sonoma County, thankfully, there are no albatross; however, the great, lumbering bodies of Great Blue Herons often appear majestically on the roadside as we drive by.  The heron has long been considered a good omen representing wisdom, going all the way back to Ancient Greece.

ada-b-w-high-rez-1In Ada Limon’s poem, “The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road” she invokes this ancient meaning and builds upon it with her own personal experience.   The poem begins in the present.  The speaker is trying to make sense of the meaning of life when terrible things happen seemingly without cause. How some days “you wake up…full of crow and shine, and then someone/ has put engine coolant in the medicine.”  To find this wisdom the speaker weaves her way back to a time when she was just a child who lived in the Valley of the Moon.  When her step father had given up drinking, silently, by sitting alone in a lawn chair outside.  The heron, which they would sometimes sight as he drove her to school became for the two of them a symbol – it represented the wisdom and love that held together no matter what the circumstances were and they lied to each other that they saw it even when they didn’t. It’s this wisdom, this sighting of love, that she carries with her into her future.  That helps her understand who she is.  May we all look for a Great Blue Heron this week, to give us wisdom as we travel through our lives.

“The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road”
by Ada Limón

That we might walk out into the woods together,
and afterwards make toast
in our sock feet, still damp from the fern’s
wet grasp, the spiky needles stuck to our
legs, that’s all I wanted, the dog in the mix,
jam sometimes, but not always. But somehow,
I’ve stopped praising you. How the valley
when you first see it—the small roads back
to your youth—is so painfully pretty at first,
then, after a month of black coffee, it’s just
another place your bullish brain exists, bothered
by itself and how hurtful human life can be.
Isn’t that how it is? You wake up some days
full of crow and shine, and then someone
has put engine coolant in the medicine
on another continent and not even crying
helps cure the idea of purposeful poison.
What kind of woman am I? What kind of man?
I’m thinking of the way my stepdad got sober,
how he never told us, just stopped drinking
and sat for a long time in the low folding chair
on the Bermuda grass reading and sometimes
soaking up the sun like he was the story’s only
subject. When he drove me to school, we decided
it would be a good day, if we saw the blue heron
in the algae-covered pond next to the road,
so that if we didn’t see it, I’d be upset. Then,
he began to lie. To tell me he’d seen it when
he hadn’t, or to suppose that it had just
taken off when we rounded the corner in
the gray car that somehow still ran, and I
would lie, too, for him. I’d say I saw it.
Heard the whoosh of wings over us.
That’s the real truth. What we told each other
to help us through the day: the great blue heron
was there, even when the pond dried up,
or froze over; it was there because it had to be.
Just now, I felt like I wanted to be alone
for a long time, in a folding chair on the lawn
with all my private agonies, but then I saw you
and the way you’re hunching over your work
like a puzzle, and I think even if I fail at everything,
I still want to point out the heron like I was taught,
still want to slow the car down to see the thing
that makes it all better, the invisible gift,
what we see when we stare long enough into nothing.


“Winter” by Carol Wade Lundberg

by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
reprinted from Poets Corner #14, Press Democrat

carol-lundbergIt’s the time of year when things start to shift.  Skies open and seem larger; stars sharpen and a cool, chill seeps into our mornings. “Winter,” a poem by Carol Wade Lundberg captures the magic of the changing seasons.  Lundberg was a beloved poet in Sonoma County who died suddenly this fall.  Her poem is small and narrow poem but, like an ancient redwood, it castes a long shadow.   For example, the poem begins by setting the mood of winter: the changes of light and the fact that because the leaves fall from the trees, in winter we can see things more clearly.  She means this in two ways though.  It’s not just our outer view: the neighbors field, the ash of road.  It’s also our inner thoughts that winter can open to us and help us see more clearly.  The poem moves swiftly, with short lines and little punctuation to slow it down. Embedded in the poem are many familiar idioms that have been changed: “don’t cry over spilt milk” and “let sleeping dogs lie”.  By changing what is familiar to us, Lundberg disrupts what we expect to read in the poem.  Thereby, opening up a new, fresh meaning for us to find in these tired words.  As the poem closes, it speeds up and shedding all punctuation and becoming as bare as a winter tree.  Winter can be a time of contemplation and memory, a time to find, as Lundberg writes, “what you have/ buried under/ the house”. It can be a time to face what is in you and carry on. A time to “face the terror/ of a clean slate”.  May we all walk into this new season with the bravery this poem suggests.

by Carol Wade Lundberg, 1935 – 2016

Light Parallel
to the ground. Sky
empty of leaves.
Time to bed
down with whoever
you can reach
to mend fences
close barn
doors  stop
crying over spilt
milk. Time

to remember
what you have
buried under
the house where
you think you
live  read between
the lines  wake
sleeping dogs
face the terror
of a clean slate

October 2016
by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
reprinted from Poets Corner #12, Press Democrat

“Let Me Be Beautiful Like Sea Glass” by Gwynn O’Gara

Most of us in Sonoma County live close enough to the coast to make beach-going a regular activity. What the sea offers us is a break from our everyday lives. The vivid blue ocean, the sharp cry of seagulls, and the feel of wet sand on bare feet. Who hasn’t walked a stretch of beach, eyes down, in search of treasure like the bright blue, or green glint of sea glass? And then, upon finding it, slipped it into your pocket as a smooth, cool reminded of the sea itself? Hard to imagine how something this softened could have been sharp as glass.

Gwynn O'GaraGwynn O’Gara, former Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, uses the beauty of sea glass in her powerful poem, “Let Me Be Beautiful Like Sea Glass.” Each line begins with the repetition of the word, “let.” This practice is called anaphora where the repeated word acts almost like a chant, or a prayer that carries us back to a thought or idea. In O’Gara’s poem, the speaker is asking to become more like sea glass; not just the finished smooth glass, but also the rough and tumble of transformation. She wants her “slick surface” to “coarsen till it’s crushed to bits” and for “the waves to love [her] in their rough way.” Because isn’t that how we find a way to understand what is beautiful in ourselves? By loving even, the rough parts as they’ve been smoothed by time. By hoping we become “smooth enough to be rubbed by small fingers and slipped inside a pocket or a bowl?”

“Let Me Be Beautiful Like Sea Glass”
by Gwynn O’Gara

Let my edges that cut be stroked by sand and salt
let my slick surface coarsen till it’s crushed to bits
let my colors soften as they scrape the bottom
let the waves love me in their rough way
let me be changed by that love
let me not forget I held another
yet fully inhabit my particularity
let me be smooth enough to be rubbed by small
fingers and slipped inside a pocket or a bowl
let me prove that beauty is born
when something breaks

September 2016
by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
reprinted from Poets Corner #10, Press Democrat

“Rivers” by Bill Vartnow

The Petaluma River holds a great deal of Sonoma County’s history in its sooty depths, especially for those who grew up in Petaluma. It is a 13-mile river that flows down to the marshy, brackish mouth of San Pablo Bay that has often been in flux, or in a state of change. Once, it was the hub between San Francisco and everything north. Ferry’s filled with passengers would steam up its banks and barges packed with the butter, eggs and local produce like Sebastopol’s bittersweet Gravenstein apples would steam back. These days, the river’s surface is only written on by the soft caress of sea winds and a few small craft.

Bill VartnowBill Vartnow, who is a Sonoma County Poet Laureate Emeritus and a resident of Petaluma, uses the Petaluma river as the central metaphor in his striking and unusual poem, “Rivers”. Because Vartnow forgoes a few grammatical rules (such a capital letters) and because he uses space instead of end stop punctuation the words of the poem flow down the page as fast as the river itself. “Rivers” tells us the story of Vartnow’s heritage as it is sewn into the river: where he was born, where he and his cousin played and found a homeless encampment, and into this he weaves the natural history of the river: the frogs croaking, the crickets chirping and the tide rising and falling beyond time’s banks. In the end, when he is faced with the unthinkable change of the loss of his mother, it’s the Greeks Vartnow turns to: the philosopher Heraclitus’ Flux Principle: “you could not step twice into the same river”. Reading Vartnow’s poem helps us see how life, like the river, is a place of great beauty, but also a place of constant flux where we must love what we can’t hold on to.

by Bill Vartnow

both my mother & I
were born at 6th & I Sts.

this river ebbs
& flows
ebbs & flows
gets dredged for silt
so boats can come up from the bay
I remember
being young, under 10
crossing the highway
(now boulevard)
with my cousin (now dead)
walking down to the bend
where the freeway overpass
now crosses the river
we were sneaking away
in search of hoboes
—an exotic breed of adult
we found an old campfire
with cans opened, charred
by the river
this abandoned campsite
I sat on a log there
my blood flowing faster
it was the first time
I saw the river
(it was called “the river” then)

this river runs salty
reflects this town
it can’t help it
something about the sun’s magic
as salt crystals pick up mooncasts
we hear croaking frogs
chirping crickets
birds, boats, barges
trucks with their hay bales piled high
honk as they turn onto the boulevard
at the top of the bay

the tide rises
the tide falls
& though this river has no inland source
old Heraclitus’ principle
still applies here
—the constant motion
equally at home in the town at its margins

I remember
the whale who visited Petaluma
in my mother’s last week
people were trying to turn it back to sea
no, the whale wanted to see
to make this connection
before it died
& it did
& it disappeared the day she died
I always suspected my mother’s complicity
having been her Jonah


“Touch it” by Robert Mezey

by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
reprinted from Poets Corner #11, Press Democrat

Robert MezeyThese days the summer has begun to ease up, like a tide pulling back. Soon, harvest will sweep in and the vineyards will be buzzing with hands picking, and the bins filling up with fruit. The leaves will redden or golden and then fall off. The branches trimmed and thrown into burn piles. Until all we are left with only the bare-knuckled vines threading the hills; until the rains come and spring throbs again. It’s a cycle of life we hardly see in front of us each day, but when we do notice the scenes from it, when we stop our busy lives for a second and look at them, sometimes they can help us better understand when tragedy strikes in our own lives.

In Robert Mezey’s poem, “Touch it” he uses this drastic landscape – the near dying vineyards, with their “leaves rippling in the early darkness” to tell the story of when he found out “what we love most is dying.” It’s a sonnet – a fourteen-line poem that progresses to a turn, or a sudden shift of perspective, in the last two lines. Mezey’s turn is different, though. Instead of just shifting our perspective, he pulls us directly into the poem to experience viscerally what he is talking about. When he introduces the “coldness” of the tragedy that has affected him it is so deep that it is even on the page that the reader is reading. In the last line, this pull becomes so powerful that he urges us, as the readers of the poem, to reach out and “touch it”. This direct address makes his terrible tragedy become ours, too and its effect is haunting. Perhaps, the next time you drive out through the vineyard covered hills; this transformation will rise off, cool as an evening fog. Because even as the world is burning, as tragedies cold fingers dance upon your spine: you are not alone.

Touch it
by Robert Mezey

Out on the bare grey roads, I pass
by vineyards withering toward winter,
cold magenta shapes and green fingers,
the leaves rippling in the early darkness.
Past the thinning orchard the fields
are on fire. A mountain of smoke
climbs the desolate wind, and at its roots
fire is eating dead grass with many small teeth.
When I get home, the evening sun
has narrowed to a filament. When it goes
and the dark falls like a hand on a tabletop,
I am told what we love most is dying.
The coldness of it is even on this page
at the edge of your fingernail. Touch it.

August 2016
reprinted from Poets Corner #9, Press Democrat

Two Poems by Edna Poppe Cooper

by Iris Jamahl Dunkle

As the days lengthen to their longest, the summer heat draws us outside into the green-eyed rivers, and golden hills that scallop cloud illumed sunsets. When we look closely at the land that surrounds us in Sonoma County, we can see history humming just under the surface like good soil, waiting to be turned over and remembered. Edna Poppe Cooper, who grew up in the shadow of Sonoma Mountain in Glen Ellen in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was a poet whose work was published in California’s famous literary magazine, The Overland Monthly and praised by Ina Coolbrith and Jack London. However, over EdnaPoppeCooperthe last half century, her work has slipped below the surface of what we can see and remember. Cooper had to give up writing in order to support her family when her husband went off to fight in World War I, and therefore only published one collection in her lifetime, but after her death, her family collected her poems in Songs from the Valley of the Moon. In her introduction to the collection, Charmian Kittredge London wrote, “my neighbor, Edna Poppe—as flower-like as her name that is so suggestive of California’s golden emblem; and in the aureole of hair that crowned her small, dreaming face, was a red burnish that shone in the California sunlight.” Indeed, Cooper was inspired by the Valley she lived in and the areas that surrounded it. Cooper’s Valley of the Moon is a place where “meadows slumber ‘neath star-studded skies” and where time drifts lazily from “morning hours” to “golden noon.” It’s a place we know now, too, when we slow down enough to enjoy it. Reading her short tribute, one senses how Cooper has walked the valley and discovered every nook and cranny, and felt each “vagrant wind” on her own face.

In “The Old Bale Mill” Cooper visits a landmark that still stands today near St. Helena, the Old Bale Mill (now called Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park). The mill, which was built in 1846 and operated until the early 1900s, helps us remember how the Napa Valley was once filled with wheat instead of vineyards. Cooper’s sonnet addresses the old mill directly, asking it if it remembers the pioneers, and the “leaf-flecked, old mill-pond” that has succumbed to weeds and grasses. Can’t you see her standing there at that abandoned mill surrounded by fragrant pine? Digging up the past and trying to remind us to look back?


The Valley of the Moon
by Edna Poppe Cooper

In sunset’s glimmering, the daylight dies;
Through pathless forests, night is on it’s way;
Dream meadows slumber ‘neath star-studded skies
And shadows stir before the dawn of day.

Now, vagrant winds sigh through the fields of corn,
While morning hours drift to golden noon;
I find the woodlands where my dreams were born—
In fair Sonoma’s Valley of the Moon.


The Old Bale Mill at St. Helena
by Edna Poppe Cooper

Historic, old mill! How you seem to dream,
As your gray walls repose by the mountain stream,
where the maple and alder and oak trees grow—
A mute, old reminder of long ago.
Do you dream of the pioneer days, old mill,
As you stand at the base of the fir-crowned hill;
The daily and hourly tasks assigned
By the men who brought you the grist to grind—
Those who have passed to the Great Beyond?
Do you dream of the leaf-flecked, old mill-pond
Where the weeds and the grasses have grown so high
In the many years that have drifted by?
Now the ivy has twined ‘round your wheel, old mill,
In the third of a century you’ve been still;
And your walls, though faithful for many a day,
Have crumbled and fallen at last to decay.

From Songs from the Valley of the Moon, 1926

July 2016
reprinted from Poets Corner #8, Press Democrat
First Light
Iris Dunkleby Iris Jamahl Dunkle

These days in Sonoma County at first light, the air is rich with the scent of the earth and the sound of bird song.  Dawn is a transitional time, like dusk, when the animals around us are more active.  The aubade, or the dawn song, is an ancient form of poetry that originated with the Greeks.  A traditional aubade is a song from a door or window to a sleeping woman.  In his poem, “First Light” Poet Laureate Emeritus, Mike Tuggle plays with this ancient form making the poem about his own awakening to his mortality.  Tuggle, who has lived in Cazadero in western Sonoma County since 1981, always seems to capture what it’s like to live under the sway and power of a redwood forest. When the poem begins, the speaker awakens to the sound of a dog howling for his lost love at first light. The sound startles the speaker in Tuggle’s poem so much so that he doesn’t know who the voice comes from – himself, or the dog.  How many of us have experienced a moment like this when we, in the sticky grenadine dawn between sleep and wakefulness, find ourselves not knowing where we are or who we are?  In this human moment, the speaker turns to the natural world for example.  He lies down “like the sky and listens” for whatever change is coming his way, whether it is from inside himself or from the natural world that surrounds him, the “bottomless woods”.

mike-tuggle (1)“First Light”
by Mike Tuggle

From way down deep some dog is howling,
to the moon, to his mate, to his misery

From way down deep in my dream I hear him
and when I open my eyes I hear him

Neither awake nor asleep, I lie here
like the sky and listen,

Unsure if it’s coming from me
or from the bottomless woods.

From The Motioning In: New & Selected Poems, Petaluma River Press, 2016.

June 2016
Iris Dunkle
reprinted from Poets Corner #7, Press Democrat
by Iris Jamahl Dunkle

There is a lot that goes unsaid in the fields thriving around us. When one lives in a booming agricultural area like Sonoma County, one sees the terraced hillsides, the orchards, the new houses being built.  One can fill one’s glass to the brim with all that is beautiful and plentiful around us, but one often forgets who wakes at dawn in the cool, morning fog, to prune the vines, or pick the grapes.  Who is carefully guiding the cement into the wooden forms in order to build a foundation we can build upon. “Epilogue” by Tess Taylor, is the last in a series of poems found in her book, Work and Days, that records her time working on a farm.  In this poem, she pays tribute to the people whose hands get dirty in the soil, whose muscles ache from raising roof beams and driving in nail after nail.  It celebrates how “the world” that we live in “is a made thing.”  How only together we can remove the stones that keep us from being able to plant the fields of our lives.  How only together we can thrive.

by Tess Taylor

Hands, everywhere, now tending
farms large or small, plots well or poorer.

Tracts I’ll never see, hands pulling
onions to market, washing greens in clean water.

Loading avocados.
Squatting, unpacking.

Breaking to eat some lunch from home.
Dozing under a tree in the calm hour.

May your bodies stay fed and your birds sing.
May our bodies stay fed and out birds sing.

I once met a man from Jalisco home again
after ten years working the garlic in Gilroy.

I once watched men hammer a stage set for a play;
actor-lovers spoke from plywood perches.

There world is a made thing.  The world is a made thing.

May those who are hungry be fed.
May those who have food also hunger for justice.

We bow to the work:
same & not same—our scattered arts—

removing, removing the stones from our soil.

From Work & Days, Red Hen Press, 2016

May 2016
Iris Dunkle
reprinted from Poets Corner #6, Press Democrat
Peaceful Destruction
by Iris Jamahl Dunkle

These days the hills of Sonoma County have become lushly green, the apple orchards confetti the air with fresh, pink blossoms and the stone-throated creeks at our feet sing with deep water and frog song. Terry Ehret, Poet Laureate Emeritus of Sonoma County, addresses such a vivid spring landscape in her poem, “Peaceful Destruction” where she uses it as a way to uncover the violence that can exist under the surface of even the most peaceful beauty. The poem is set at the foot of Mount Burdell, a 1500 foot peak found between Sonoma and Marin counties that offers paths where insects buzz and the air is crowded with birdsong; a place that continues to turn over in beauty whether or not destruction plagues the world. Ehret’s poem asks us to remember what has happened: drone strikes, the news of the dead and dying that’s delivered in the daily paper, but also to believe in the power of spring’s renewal; it’s power to transform in a season “new graves/ into blue fields of flowers.”

Peaceful Destruction
by Terry Ehret

The creek behind my house is noisy
with frog choruses. The grass is so long it leans
over. Bugs open their wings on the blades’ edges and wait
for a breeze to lift them into the air. The path winds
south toward Mt. Burdell under the white blossoms of plums.
And the air is crowded with birdsong. This is the peaceful world
that turns the spring earth over whether or not drone planes
drop bombs in Pakistan, or the Israelis reject yet another
negation, or voices of dissent are drowned in gunfire. The paper
arrives each morning with the dead and dying. We’ve run amok,
burned all of our bridges, melted the arctic ice masses, abandoned
the underwater cathedrals, forgotten our mating calls.
It’s been the eve of destruction since 1964, but this morning when the mist
lifted off the river, spring deepened into green,
green hills, dotted with lupine and blue-eyed grass. Spring
wants to be spring, turning bone
back into wood and new graves
into blue fields of flowers.

From Night Sky Journey, Kelly’s Grove Press, 2011

April 2016
Iris Dunkle
reprinted from two columns of “Poets Corner” by Iris Jamahl Dunkle, Press Democrat

Jane Hirshfield’s “Sonoma Fire”

One never knows when disaster will strike, but when it does, it is often difficult for us to understand the impact unless we are the ones who are directly affected, unless it is our house that floods or is swept by a fire.

This week’s short poem is from one of this country’s most beloved poets, Jane Hirshfield, who lives in Marin County. In it, Hirshfield writes about watching Sonoma County from afar during the summer of 2008 when 1,781 fires (mostly caused by lightning strikes) burned uncontrollably up and down California. At the time, Marin remained safe and free of fire, and the poem observes what it is like to see and smell the beauty of the fire from a distance without the consequence of the fire’s destruction.

The poem explores how our experience of a thing is influenced by where we stand looking at it. From afar, whether from distance or from the passage of time, a tragic event can look absolutely beautiful. How fire from above looks like a necklace of red rubies sewn into the dark, or how the moon, ambered in smoke, simmers on the horizon.

What this poem admits is that when we see beauty in tragedies observed from a distance, when we are drawn to help strangers recover from a terrible loss, it is because at some level we are relived that we are not the ones suffering in the heart of the fire.


Sonoma Fire
By Jane Hirshfield

Large moon the deep orange of embers.
Also the scent.
The griefs of others — beautiful at a distance.

Originally published in Poetry (December 2010).

“Traveling through the Dark” by William Stafford

This week’s poem isn’t set in Sonoma County, but given its situation, given its speaker’s relationship to the wild land that surrounds him, it might as well be set on the steep curves of Coleman Valley Road.

In “Traveling through the Dark,” a man finds a dead deer blocking a narrow road. At first, it seems he is faced with a simple decision. He must move the deer out of the way so another driver won’t crash trying to avoid the carcass. It’s simple. But then he sees the doe is pregnant and the fawn is still alive inside its dead mother.

William Stafford was born in Kansas but for most of his adult life lived in Oregon, where the poem is set.

It’s an environment like much of Sonoma County where rural roads stitch dumbly through the delicate cursive of deer paths and where cars veer often to avoid a springing deer that is following such a path.

This poem speaks to more than that literal moment, however.

In the end, the speaker makes a decision, as the wilderness listens around him, as his engine purrs, about how to make his way through the darkness toward what is right.
Traveling through the Dark
By William Stafford

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.
By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.
My fingers touching her side brought me the reason —
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.
The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.
I thought hard for us all — my only swerving —
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

March 2016
Iris Dunkle
reprinted from “Poets Corner” 2 and 3, by Iris Jamahl Dunkle, Press Democrat

These days most of us lead very busy lives. We drive on the highway from place to place. We text. We go, go, go! How to breathe life back into our overstimulated minds? Taking a walk in a park is one way to take a break and breathe life back into ourselves. Here, in Sonoma County we are graced with many lush regional and state parks where one can walk beneath a canopy of redwoods, or where one can be overwhelmed by a chorus of bird song under golden light. In her poem, “Breathing,” former Sonoma County Poet Laureate, Katherine Hastings, takes us on one of these life giving hikes where just being in natural surroundings, helps us learn how to breath better.

Jack London State Park

This is where it is done. Beneath the canopy
of trees above and the many songbirds
we’ve not had time to learn the names of
by their chips and trills, here where bees effervesce
in gold light, water still spilling on the rocks,
and inside the softly carpeted fairy ring

where braided shadows of redwoods drape
nests of mice, voles. Breath comes softly
standing at the picket fence of the graves—
London under the red rock, fresh ashes
poured in a mound nearby. (We wondered if
that’s desecration or a human right.) It comes

deeper in the garden of rosemary, lavender,
and quicker at the cottage when we realize
the woodpeckers win in the end with
no one to mend the walls. Dear Jack: I like
peeking in the windows to see your desk,
your books, your sleeping porch and Charmian’s

where you were brought to die, but mostly
I like to walk the land left to us. Is there
anything you can do from where you are? Be
a hero. Send a ship or a good dog. Think
Wolf House. Happy House. This restful,
delicious house of air. We breathe here
better than almost anywhere, distressed.

Reprinted from Cloud Fire (Spuyten Duyvil NYC, 2012)

Katherine Hastings runs the WordTemple poetry series and radio show. For more information visit:

Thanks to weeks of good rain, and the sun’s welcome reappearance, the willows that abound around Sonoma County are beginning to bud and leaf out. Soon, their long, slender branches will begin to offer their dappled shade. The willow has long been a symbol of peaceful ease or quiet knowledge in literature. In her poem, “Weeping Willows,” Nell Griffith Wilson, one of Sonoma County’s most beloved poets of the early twentieth century, brings the trees to life as peaceful old men who, in their retirement are content to happily shade the sheep and host the choirs of passing song birds. What’s most striking about this poem, though, is not only the celebration of this extraordinary tree, but how, in the end, Wilson uses the poem to eulogize her famous father, Nathanial Griffith, whom she had just lost and who was considered the Grandfather of the Gravenstein Apple.

Weeping Willows

Weeping willow trees
are peaceful trees,
Like old men with long beards
Dreaming in the sun,
Old men at rest
With all their labor done;
Men who held life close
And found it good,
who have not only dreamed
But practiced brotherhood;
Men who have met sorrow
And accepted loss,
Yet garnered from the years
More of its laughter
Than its tears;
Whose hearts have held no room
For bitterness;
Weavers who have never let
The thread of gold
Slip from the loom.

They sway,
These weeping willow trees,
In graceful acquiescence
To the breeze,
And through their curtained coolness
Birds come and go
upon their singing way;
And sheep have made
a rendezvous with drowsiness
Within their mottled shade;
There is no sadness
In weeping willow trees
Only a quiet gladness.
They stand so tranquil
In the sun
Like kindly old men
With all their labor done.
My father—he was one of these.
Weeping willow trees
Are peaceful trees.

Deeper Harvest: Gleanings from the Valley of the Moon, Banner Press, 1936.

My new poetry collection, There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air, is now available at:

February 2016
Iris Dunkle
reprinted from “Poets Corner” by Iris Jamahl Dunkle, Press Democrat

In his poem, “California Hills in August,” our new California State Poet Laureate and longtime resident of Santa Rosa, Dana Gioia, captures what it means to love the land that surrounds us even when it appears lifeless, burnt and dry. These days with rainfall steady and reservoirs rising, the rolling hills of Sonoma County have become vibrant and green again, but no matter how much rain we receive this winter, in August the hills will again turn golden. To an outsider, the summer landscape of Sonoma County in summer can seem almost unbearable. But to a Californian, who has experienced a drought such as the one we’ve been experiencing for the last four years, such a landscape is very much alive.

California Hills in August

I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.
An Easterner, especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.
One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.
And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion,
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.
And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain –
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.

Gioia, whose newest collection, 99 Poems: New & Selected, is soon to be released by Graywolf Press, will be reading at WordTemple reading series at Sebastopol Center for the Arts on March 26, 7:00 p.m.

My new poetry collection, There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air, is now available at:

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

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