Laureate Archive 2020-2022

September 2020

Dear Sonomans and other poets,

Phyllis MeshulamIt wasn’t supposed to be fire season yet. Oh, well. Until we get leadership that acknowledges climate change, and till some of the damage is undone, we’ll have to cope.
It’s definitely school season, in what was already a turbulent year.
One of my Poet Laureate projects was supposed to be to offer a few in-services to elementary and secondary teachers to acquaint them with a couple of reliable lessons that would allow them to include some poetry-writing into their curricula. This seems impractical in a year when teachers are already juggling so much. So I have undertaken to record some of these lessons with the help of my dear photographer-turned-videographer husband, Jerry Meshulam. Then I will make them available to the districts in the county. One of them is almost done.
It’s a lesson that I particularly love because it’s so accessible, and because it’s a good way to get to know a new group of students. And here it is, as embodied in our wonderful California Poets in the Schools’ lesson plan book, Poetry Crossing. This version was shared by veteran poet-teachers, Grace Grafton and Susan Kennedy. Grafton took an approach more suited to younger kids; Kennedy’s is more suited to secondary level. I have literally taught this lesson with students from 2nd grade to high school with great success. Do share it with teachers and young people in your lives, or even use it as a prompt for yourselves.

I Am Metaphor ChantHere is page one (right) of two, more of an outline for teachers to follow.

I Am worksheetThe next page (left)  is more like a worksheet to put into the hands of the students.

You can click here to see a pdf version that is actually legible! Or on either thumbnail image for individual pages..
Here’s a link to the N. Scott Momaday poem mentioned in the lesson:

Another good resource for these times is an article that I wrote, “Writing with Children after the Fires,” that was published in Teachers & Writers in February of 2018 after the devastating fires of the previous fall. Here’s a link:

There are several lessons included in it and they can be useful for working with kids (and adults, too) after many different kinds of trauma.

Phyllis Meshulam
Sonoma County Poet Laureate (2020-2022)


August 2020

Dear Sonomans and other poets,

Phyllis MeshulamThis will be a short but sweet entry.

First, I want to thank all involved – as organizers, as live audience, or audience via recording – for the lovely launch to my laureateship on July 12 and all your support and good wishes.

Second, I want to remind you that I am in the early phases of collecting poems for a county-wide anthology. There will be some well-established themes, and some have already been addressed in prompts in previous postings. Follow this link and look at the postings for May and July:

And if you have some poems you would like to share with me on these themes, please send to me as attached files, using this email:

Phyllis Meshulam
Sonoma County Poet Laureate (2020-2022)


July 2020

Dear Sonomans,
Phyllis MeshulamSo, July. July 4 coming up. Independence Day, they say. Time for those of us with white privilege to think about this a little differently. Read about it from the point of view of those whose right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is challenged daily. Listen. And write about it if we can.
For our county anthology I had conceived of a section on “Honoring Our Pain for the World.” I think writing on race can be included in this section. But if we are to write about the Black or Brown experience in this country, we’d better either be Black or Brown or be extremely respectful in addressing this. Prompts for this topic are offered with great humility….  
Incendiary ActOne of the best books I have ever read is Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art (Tri-Quarterly Books, Northwestern University Press 2017). Here’s what she told an interviewer from The Millions in August of 2017 about the genesis of this book:
“I was teaching a class, telling my students that they should always listen for the voices they weren’t hearing. I talk about taking the time to look for an unexpected entry point into a poem. At the time, every two weeks or so there was another shooting of an unarmed man–usually by the police. I had my students look at news stories and I said, what is the voice we’re not hearing? I realized that there was always a very frantic shot of a mother in the beginning of the story and another frantic shot of a mother at the end when the person responsible for the death of her son or daughter was deemed not responsible for the death of her son or daughter. And then after that last frantic shot, the mothers disappeared. I thought about these mothers trying to re-enter their lives and what that might be like.”

And if you want to hear her read an excerpt from “The Sagas of the Accidental Saints,”
here’s a link:

That long poem, in the section “Accidental” is followed by 12 poems that are introduced with a paragraph describing the death of unarmed Black person – most of these will be people you’ve never heard of. And this was intentional on Smith’s part. Here’s what she says in the interview:

“I want people to know that while they see these things in the news every once in a while, the tragedy is a more constant and consistent drumbeat. There’s a case in the news and then maybe a case a month later, but no, it’s more often than that. It’s something unfortunately that’s numbing and a certain portion of the population gets used to it. If there’s something very public or brazen about it then maybe it makes the news. Nowadays it makes the news usually because there’s film. I wanted people to say, I don’t know that name, I didn’t know that name, I didn’t know how many times people committed suicide with their hands tied behind them. I wanted it to be relentless, but I didn’t want it to be too much.”
March 12, 2012, Pasadena, CA – Kendrec McDade, 19, was chased and shot seven times by two police officers after a 911 caller falsely reported being robbed at gunpoint by two black men. McDade’s final words were “Why did they shoot me?”

As the moon tangled its beams and grew
monstrous huge over his body, he wanted 
that answer. As usual, I arrived too late —
he had already dispersed, and become an
awkward hour. Son of the mother of mistake,
his timing and root were askew. But
because walk because upright because Africa because decision because Tuesday
because loaded gun because running because two black because identified because
uniform because breathless because unable because America because yo mama
because Mississippi because uniform because Obama because the chase because
unarmed because convenient because mistaken because threatened because ritual
because no one will miss you because beast because innocent because they could
because they could because they could because they could because they –
I usually give my boys names anybody can remember.
Scapegoat. Target. Perp Walk. HeDidIt. Oversight.
The name Kendrec so quashed his potential. He should
have been Victim. Identify. Bullseye. NotAgain.
Miracle. 2BlackMenWithAGun. How about –
I never had children.
I just had accidents.
(Used with poet’s permission)
So, it could be a rich source of material to look up the names of other unarmed Black people who have been killed by police or vigilantes – but pick someone whose name has not become famous. Just one of the many hundreds of ones who haven’t been memorialized and see if you can find a way in. “What is the voice we’re not hearing?” For Patricia Smith, it was the voice of the mother. But there could be many angles.
Trophic CascadeAnother poet I’d love to call your attention to is Camille Dungy. The work of hers I’m most familiar with is Trophic Cascade, Wesleyan University Press 2017. This book is loaded with motherhood, race, history, heart, as well as environmental concern. The poet was a new mother when she wrote it and addresses various topics on motherhood in a series of “Frequently Asked Question” poems. One of my favorites is # 7, which you can read here:

I’m actually not sure what to recommend as a prompt from this poem of Dungy’s – it’s so straightforward – as she says “nothing figurative” about it. But it really does pack a whallop Please read it.
The following poem is from The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, but part of it appeared earlier in Trophic Cascade, as “Brevity” and consisted solely of first line of the second couplet, with one more repetition of “ash, bone.” This poem is a meditation on how the shorter poem came to her.
On Brevity

My daughter’s three months old. A nightmare
rocks me awake, and then fourteen words: Brevity.
As in four girls; Sunday dresses: bone, ash, bone, ash, bone.
The end. 1963, but still burning. My darkening girl
lies beside me, her tiny chest barely registering breath.
Had they lived beyond that morning, all the other explosions
shattering Birmingham — even some who called it home
called it Bombingham — three of the girls would be 70,
the other 67. Somebody’s babies. The sentences I rescue
from that nightmare, I make a poem. Four names, 
grayscaled at the bottom of the page:
Addie Mae Collins. Cynthia Wesley. Carole Robertson. Denise McNair.
Revision is a struggle toward truth. In my book I won’t keep, The end.
For such terrible brevity — dear black girls! sweet babies — there’s been no end.

(Used with poet’s permission.)
So that might be a way into this story – the fear we all feel for our own children magnified by the knowledge that, as a different race, they would be so much more likely to face what those four little girls in Birmingham met up with.

Wolf Stands Alone in Water.Another poet I admire who does a fantastic job of writing about race, though he himself is White, is from our neighboring county, Marin, Joseph Zaccardi. The poem I’m about to include is from his book, A Wolf Stands Alone in Water. (CW Books, 2015) One section of this book addresses various ways in which humans deny each other humanity, whether because of race, homelessness, sexual orientation.

If he had the sense he was born with but he did if he’d taken off
his doughboy uniform that a hostile band of whites demanded
but he didn’t there in Blakely Georgia in that spring of 1919
when he arrived at the railroad station after the war and he said
these were the only clothes he had but they said well walk home
in your underwear but he didn’t he wore that uniform for two weeks
he did and some folks said they didn’t think it was right that a black
no less should parade around dressed up like a white hero no less
but he did the nerve they said when Private William Little was found
on the outskirts of town badly beaten when this doughboy veteran
was killed because he wouldn’t and didn’t doff the only clothes
he had and walk home in his underwear he wouldn’t
he was wearing his uniform when found
(Used with poet’s permission)
I am impressed with the way Zaccardi captures the disorientation of the situation in his run-on description. And I admire the research he has done to find these stories to tell. You could try telling a story of some injustice in this breathless, disoriented way.
CitizenFinally, if you’re not familiar with Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen, please check it out! (Graywolf Press, 2014) Rankine’s writings were in part prompted by the murder of Trayvon Martin, but she has chosen to write prose poems addressing what she calls micro-aggressions, in which the violence does not escalate to beatings, tasings, etc. and loss of life, but creates in the victims outrage, misery, a steady erosion of confidence. I have even had good success in getting my 6th grade students to write prose poems using her model. You can read some of her poems and some student work in this lesson plan of mine published in Teachers & Writers:

But here’s a favorite one not included in the lesson:

The new counselor specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Oh, she says, followed by oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so sorry.

If you read the lesson plan, you’ll get some ideas of how to approach writing a poem like this.

I look forward to receiving poems you write to any of these prompts! Please send to:

Phyllis Meshulam
Sonoma County Poet Laureate (2020-2022)


June 2020

Hello, Sonoma County!

Phyllis MeshulamI am so delighted to let you know that, for the first time ever, we are joining the nation, the state and sister counties, Alameda, Los Angeles and Ventura, in acknowledging a young person as youth poet laureate. Our new YPL is Zoya Ahmed an incoming senior at Maria Carrillo High School. Here is her bio:

Zoya Ahmed embraces her diverse background as a first generation South Asian American, with roots in both Pakistan and India. This colorful heritage is her drive. Every day she is motivated to work hard towards achieving her goals, humbled by the opportunities she is given and inspired to give back to the community. Her parents and family encourage her all the time and are her muse, symbolizing sacrifice; the women’s stories especially give her writing a spark of creativity and perspective. Her dad has been one of her biggest supporters, fueling her passion for poetry. A poet himself, he taught her Urdu, a vibrant and poetic language, as her first language, as well as Hindi, and that became the foundation of who she is as a South Asian American teen.

Zoya Ahmed was the 2019 winner of Sonoma County’s Poetry Out Loud recitation contest and went on to become a finalist in the California State Poetry Out Loud contest. She was also the first winner of the state-wide Poetry Ourselves contest, competing against other POL county-wide champions from around the state, each with an original poem. You can read Ms. Ahmed’s winning poem here:

Zoya in SacramentoMs. Ahmed was chosen as our Youth Poet Laureate by a panel of judges: outstanding local poets and teachers from around the county, including Maya Khosla, our just previous County Poet Laureate. The Sonoma County program is organized by California Poets in the Schools as a regional partner of Urban Word. It is supported by the Bill Graham Supporting Foundation, Sonoma County Vintners’ Foundation and County of Sonoma Supervisors – including Lynda Hopkins and David Rabbit.

Giving a talented and articulate young person a microphone is a very significant gift to the community. With this, she can reach out and address the many special concerns and curiosities that others of her age may experience I personally can attest that Zoya Ahmed is a strong poet and brilliant performer.

Zoya’s one-year term as Sonoma County’s Youth Poet Laureate will begin June 1, 2020. Within that time, Zoya is committed to conduct at least five public appearances/readings/workshops – ideally one within each supervisorial district, however virtual events are now highly likely and encouraged. Zoya will receive a $500 prize and an opportunity to publish a collection of her own poems or spearhead a broader, youth publication opportunity. Schools and community organizations are encouraged to contact Zoya (through California Poets in the Schools) if you are interested in hosting her at a public event.

“When and where can I hear and see our new honored poet?” I’m glad you asked, because that’s something else that I want to share with you. California Poets in the Schools has decided to make its annual symposium free, virtual, and open to anyone! It will be June 26–28. You can register here:

Not only can you hear Zoya read and the other two talented finalists, Phoebe Price (Sonoma Academy) and Julia Green (Santa Rosa High School), at Saturday night’s 7 pm open mic (and maybe share something yourself), but you can take writing workshops with Jane Hirshfield and Jason Bayani and teaching workshops with Cal Poets teachers. You can also hear Zoya at 12 noon on Sunday in conversation with present and past poets laureate of Ventura County. This is an amazing opportunity to sample the riches of Cal Poets’ offerings without having to leave your home. It’s free, but with no transportation or housing costs, you could consider making a donation to this very worthy organization that gets kids all around the state writing poetry. The organization has done so for 56 years, generating about six million poems from over one million students.  

Finally, I want you to be aware that I will still welcome poems written to the prompts from my last month’s posting archived here in the Update.

Phyllis Meshulam
Sonoma County Poet Laureate (2020-2022)


May 2020

Dear fellow Sonoma writers,

Phyllis MeshulamI am so honored to have been chosen as your Poet Laureate for these two upcoming years. Let me tell you a little bit about one of the projects I had proposed for my tenure. Despite the complete upending of our world in the meanwhile, I think it’s still relevant. I want to create an anthology from members of our community, poems probing obstacles we face in aligning our society with the needs of the planet as a whole and all its inhabitants. The concept of this book takes some of its inspiration from Joanna Macy’s “the work that reconnects.” Macy, an environmental activist and translator of Rilke, starts with the concept of “gratitude,” then moves to “honoring our pain for the world,” then “seeing with new eyes.”

So, why don’t we get started on the “gratitude” part? There is research that demonstrates better health outcomes for people who take time for gratitude. I don’t just mean to be grateful for having enough to eat and a roof over our heads, though certainly it’s important to acknowledge that if we are so lucky. But it’s spring, after all, and we could tune into the way Mother Earth has given us so much. I will start collecting poems you wish to send me. Please send poems as attachments in a word document Times New Roman or comparable font at 12 points, and use this email address to send me what you write on this topic:

Here, is a fragment of a poem by Rumi, the first of four poems I am including as inspiration. (And links to two more.)

Spring Giddiness

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep….

How do you wish to “kneel and kiss the ground?” (Gardening? Getting down on the floor with kids? Doing yoga?) How do you stay awake to that which is important around you, those clues to what you’re really meant to do?

Mount Tam
Photo by Jerry Meshulam

For a Wedding on Mount Tamalpais
– Jane Hirshfield

and the rich apples
once again falling.

You put them to your lips,
as you were meant to,
enter a sweetness
the earth wants to give.

Everything loves this way,
in gold honey,
in gold mountain grass
that carries lightly the shadow of hawks,
the shadow of clouds passing by.

And the dry grasses,
the live oaks and bays,
taste the apples’ deep sweetness
because you taste it, as you were meant to,
tasting the life that is yours,

while below, the foghorns bend to their work,
bringing home what is coming home,
blessing what goes.

From The October Palace, Harper Perennial, 1994, used with poet’s permission

A little early for apples, but what about strawberries and cherries, or whatever else is coming to fruition for you? At this time, especially as it pertains to time outdoors, how are you tasting (hearing, touching) “the life that is yours”?

maple tree, early April   maple tree, late April
Photos by Phyllis Meshulam

Phyllis Meshulam

This granite tree we saw all winter
– we had forgotten
she holds the code
for a Brazil of green

Understated bird song
– blown notes, descending –
the ripeness of my ears

sullen face sinking into arms
Then, when told
why not write a poem
about not wanting to write a poem
his eyes a frolicking tide

Eucalyptus grove trapping the wind
You are dancers, leaves,
in your green tights
I cannot count you
or recount you

This poem of mine was inspired by one of Mary Oliver’s which you can find here:

I liked the way you could just pick one thing and try in a handful of words, an occasional  metaphor, to capture it. Then on to the next thing.

Photo by Jerry Meshulam

First Life
Eliot Schain

gratitude can be bird
or fish in that beautiful lake

for it lives in the heart
the way the animal remains

jazzed by its making
and the return to it

is a return to the ink
of the divine

to the first breath
which swelled into gasp

when the world
came into view…

such gratitude
I feel now

having crossed the rocks
and forded streams

my blue is always sweet blue
my red the flag of strong blood

the green nurtures
while the wind speaks

it says touch one another
be grateful we are here.

Eliot Schain is the author of the newly published book of poems, The Distant Sound. from Sixteen Rivers Press.

What makes you gasp with its beauty? What does the wind say to you?

Finally, here’s a link to the inimitable (but try!): ee. cummings’ effort to thank the illimitable, unimaginable. Syntax play with as he does – freeing so.

Phyllis Meshulam
Sonoma County Poet Laureate (2020-2022)

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