Laureate Archive 2020-2022

June 2022

Dear Sonomans,

Phyllis MeshulamIt has been such an honor to serve as your poet laureate over the last two years! With this column, I’m saying good-bye as my successor will be sworn in sometime in July. I thought this poem would be an appropriate farewell in that it’s an Ars Poetica. That term takes its name from a poem by Horace written in Rome in about 15 BCE. But it has come to mean a poem in which a poet meditates on the art of poetry. I encourage you to write your own.

This poem is from my book, Land of My Father’s War. With Father’s Day this month, it feels appropriate in that way, too. It will give you an idea of Dad’s role in my early exposure to literature, which surely influenced my becoming a poet. Land of My Father’s War is available at Copperfield’s in Sebastopol, and Many Rivers, Books and Tea also in Sebastopol.

Thank you, friends, and I hope to see you at a reading for our beautiful new anthology, The Freedom of New Beginnings, Poems of Witness and Vision from Sonoma County, California. It will be out soon.

Word Torches
— Phyllis Meshulam

A year in the land of my father’s war.
I was five and peace was nine.
A stranger to his own once fears,
Dad became my armchair, my Babo.
Told Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare
of Romeo and Giulietta,
who also lived in Italy.
From the book, a fairy coach flew out.
Dad’s Romeo exclaimed for Juliet,
“Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright.”
She, in true falsetto, cried, “a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.”
A puppet show of swordplay. Slain lovers
turned to marble statues like the crypt’s.
Babo read Pinocchio. Pronounced
Italian names with gusto. Hammered
at Geppetto’s bench. Vanished
behind walls and wrote his book.

In a playground of antiquities,
I balanced trippingly on stone walls.
Through close streets, new language
bubbled with laughter and starchy vapors.
I knelt in cathedrals and at Roman shrines, enthralled.
What could flash Saxon, then Latin, could turn
the gleam of marble into flesh? Spur fairy coaches,
teach torches, speak reach, speak ache.


Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


May 2022

Greetings, Sonomans! Happy May Day and Mother’s Day!

Phyllis MeshulamIn this month’s column, I’m going to share a poem I wrote a few years ago when my mother would have turned 100, if she had lived that long. I was studying Dylan Thomas with the wonderful Terry Ehret (at the wonderful Sitting Room) at the time and was influenced by his poem “When All My Five and Country Senses See.” As I tell my students, the best way to write a good poem is to read a good poem – so much inspiration and the influence of all the good things poems can provide. Like music, imagery, heart, clarity, the magic nation of imagination, storytelling.

And this poem, in its slant way, does kind of tell the story of my mom.

She Who Would Have Been One Hundred, Was My Mother
Phyllis Meshulam

Come, let me remake you,
beauty heralded again by
holly berry lips; wild maple heart
not yet pressed into waxed paper.
Grown in oceans of corn,
fields blood-red and legume-green,
that stretched your vegetable bones.
In the center of the country, branded by train tracks.
Travel became one theme.
To the country’s capital, then back to
the once-and-never capital of Illinois, where
you plucked chickens and wrote to your soldier.
From flower girl at the funeral home,
and lily of the Rockford Hiking Club,
to Cuba tourist, to a Woman’s Day
in an ivory tower making Brazil nut stuffing.

From farm to Paree to puppets and dolls and
Pepperidge Farm. To Women’s Auxiliary.
Wishbone wished on. But clavicle was still
scooped. Breast cancer would take its trophy.
Come, let me rewake you with Kiddleydivy songs.
Sprout your vestigial apron wings
into working ones of gingham, ikat,
terry cloth, brocade. Out of your tower then fly
over the pie dough continent – rolled, pressed,
crimped, buckled – beyond the inland sea,
to where all country senses cease but you
still see and see how the seaways widen.

This poem appears in my book, Land of My Father’s War, available at Copperfield’s Sebastopol and at Many Rivers, Books and Tea and elsewhere.


Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


April 2022

Dear Sonomans,

Phyllis MeshulamHappy Poetry month! This poem of mine was originally written in 2014. But I’m reminded of it now because of the current war of aggression by Russia on Ukraine. The inspiration for the poem was the music teacher’s (at Oak Grove Elementary School) choice of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” as a theme for her assembly. And the Fukushima nuclear disaster was weighing on my mind. Hope we don’t end up with any nuclear disasters in this war.


Firebird Suite

1. Arts Program, 2003

We are here to show what people, even little children, can create.
It’s a shame our government is poised to destroy.

—Music Teacher, Oak Grove School

School arts assembly
meets the eve of the Iraq war.
Music teacher speaks
to an audience of parents.
Children create rivers
with scarves and rhythms,
villages with song.

Later I scan
black and white broadcast,
x-ray of an invasion,
seeking tell-tale
silver streamers of
depleted uranium,
spilling from blasts.

Nab the banned: sub: stance: deflect: defect: of birth: of birds

2. Arts Program, 2011

School chooses Firebird
arts theme. Children
portray forests with
xylophones, horses
and birds with their bodies.
Then Fukushima,
then memories of
Chernobyl. Quinn wrote,

A bird, all life on the tips of its wings.
If it flaps them, a giant earthquake
cracks the earth in two.

Who can: forget: the hearth heap: or: remember: the kin: ship of skin: and fin.

Ukrainian Red Forest
begins to sing again,
sometimes through double
or crookéd beaks.

Firebird, flitting,
racing, tracing
a way out, forward?

How to: reap reply.

3. In Search of Story Serum

The future can exist only when we understand the universe as composed of subjects to be communed with, not as objects to be exploited.
Thomas Berry, The Great Work

Stories haven’t saved us yet (except
Scheherezade, saving herself).
Still slip me a potion, sail me away
on a Kafka-craft, in search, in search.

It seems there is a tsar who can’t abide
the nightly loss of just one golden fruit
from his royal grove. He sends his sons, one
by one, at dusk to find the orchard thief.

A library table as my craft,
at least save me from the high seas
of my emotions. At least save me from
a melt-down thanks to the interruptions
of the couple at the desk nearby, loudly
and naively teaching and learning geometry.
Don’t they know what’s at stake?

Each son will say he kept his watch but sleeps
then lies about it. Until Ivan, the youngest,
anoints his eyes with dew, keeps vigil, observes
a midnight sun appear, a flaming peacock
which eats the radium fruit.

Ivan can only capture one tail-feather torch.
And then the orchard thieving stops.
But the tsar burns for the rest of the bird.
He commands his sons, “Now, go bring me that feathered fire.”

And I keep asking myself, “where is the map,
the blueprint, the key to the code of peace?” It must be
around here somewhere. Over that horizon. On that shelf.


Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


March 2022

Phyllis MeshulamDear Sonomans,

Happy Women’s History month!

This will be brief, as my co-editors and I are hard at work getting our county poetry anthology ready. But I can’t resist sharing a couple of things with you to celebrate the month!

  1. I’ve taken to listening to audiobooks – available through the library’s apps: Libby and Hoopla. Among the titles I’ve heard are An American Sunrise and Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, both by Joy Harjo, our US Poet Laureate. Wow! It’s like you’re getting a private reading by the USPL. What’s more, Harjo sings many of the poems and she has a lovely voice.
  2. Harjo dedicates the poem, “A Refuge in the Smallest of Places” to Emily Dickinson. Harjo identifies her as one of the singers in the line, “Someone sang for me and no one else could hear it.”
  3. Dear Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets. How to choose one of her nearly 1800 wonderful poems to link to? I think I’ll just let Harjo do the choosing. I do love this poem and it appears right after “A Refuge” in An American Sunrise. Here is “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”

Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


February 2022

Phyllis MeshulamDear Sonomans,

Happy Black history month! I want to remind you of some videos I made that are meant to share poetry lessons on this subject. This first one is intended for kids about 3rd – 6th grades: Brown vs Board of Ed V2 on Vimeo   The second one is most appropriate for kids 6th – 12th grades: Citizen V3 on Vimeo. You can read much more about both lessons by going to the archives at the bottom of this page and looking up February of 2021.

You may be wondering about our county anthology, especially if you are one of the many who submitted. Sorry it’s taken so long to respond. My health has not been good. Finally, I have received a partial diagnosis. I seem to have one of two brands of atypical Parkinsonisms. But back to the anthology, I have a very skillful and supportive editorial team: Terry Ehret, Gwynn O’Gara, Gail King. And we are making progress on the book. You should be hearing from one of us by mid-February, at the latest. If, by some chance, you don’t, feel free to contact me at

Till next month!

Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


January 2022

Phyllis MeshulamDear Sonomans,

Happy new year! And happy Martin Luther King Day, this year on the 17th! I wrote the first draft of this poem in 2018 at the time of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. I’ve been through many drafts since then, but the form of this poem has always been a sestina: one that emphasizes the number six. Of course, you can’t mention the sestina without mentioning Elizabeth Bishop and her poem of that name. You can find it here:

There are six six-line stanzas, and the six end words repeat in a pattern throughout the poem. Like this: 1. ABCDEF 2. FAEBDC 3. CFDABE 4. ECBFAD 5. DEACFB 6. BDFECA. There is often a 7th stanza of only 3 lines, but I have chosen not to include that in this poem. (Poetry rules are meant to be broken, as I have done in more than one place in this poem.)


A New Quilt for Martin Luther King Jr.

James Earl Ray boasted, “I slew the dreamer.”
Who was this man who killed my hero, MLK?
Ray stood in a tub in a flophouse and shot at the mountaintop,
that is, at the Lorraine Motel across the way.
All this happened in Tennessee, in Memphis town.
But Ray was Midwest Scotch/Irish/Welsh, a kind of quilt.

Makes me think of my grandma’s background and her quilt
that still covers me when at night I turn into a dreamer.
It was pieced intricately in a small Illinois town
where my mother grew up. Things were not really ok,
and she told me, she couldn’t wait to get away.
Of course, in Illinois there is nary a mountaintop.

King didn’t mean that kind of mountaintop.
Nor did I mean a blanket when I first said quilt.
But it turns out that Ray was also from Illinois, by the way.
His many prison escapes and passports show he was a schemer.
My sister thinks our grandpa was a leader in the KKK,
and she’s learned that Illiopolis was a “sundown town,”

meaning, “If you’re black, by sundown you’d best be out of town.”
See the kind of climbing some must do to get to their mountaintop?
You might have to prevail over depression as well as racism like MLK,
piece together income, self-respect, education like a quilt.
Or overcome nightmares, insomnia to become dreamers.
More and more our country seems to have lost its way.

If we let him, Martin will show us the loving, non-violent way.
Throughout this country, in every city, state, county and town
we have so many families and Dreamers
who crossed deserts, oceans, mountaintops,
to try to stitch together the pieces of a better quilt,
a safer life, while inheriting the potent legacy of MLK.

I once had a student who said, “He’s my main squeeze, that MLK.”
I struggle with my own history and weaknesses to find my way.
Can I love the pastel kaleidoscope and thrift of the quilt,
still absolve the guilt, make a difference in classroom and in town?
Maybe from there I’ll find the path to my own mountaintop,
looking for the fresh, clean water that will help me grow dreamers.


Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


December 2021

Phyllis MeshulamDear Sonomans,

Happy holidays!

If you don’t know it already, I’d like to introduce you to Juan Felipe Herrera’s “Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way.” Last year, it seemed cruelly inappropriate as we prepared to meet with family just on Zoom, and I wrote my own poem called, “We Can’t Gather, Let Us Dream.” When I taught the lesson you’ll find here, as I usually have around the holidays, I included both poems.

Herrera was born the son of migrant farmworkers, traveling a lot as a child. I love the fact that he worked for a while with California Poets in the Schools, then went on to become a professor at Cal State Fullerton and at UC Riverside. He was named California Poet Laureate in 2012 and US Poet Laureate in 2015. He has written many books, quite a few for children. This particular poem switches back and forth between English and Spanish. And if you look up the PBS Newshour’s June 10, 2015 interview with Herrera, you’ll hear him read excerpts of the poem, sometimes out in the fields where he and his family labored.

Let-Us-GatherAgain, this lesson is from the wonderful book of lesson plans from California Poets in the Schools: Poetry Crossing. Get your copy here:

Good for adults and certainly for the children in your life.

Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


November 2021

Dear Sonomans,

Ella-Wen-250pxI’m excited to introduce you to our second Youth Poet Laureate for Sonoma County: Ella Wen. She is in her sophomore year at Maria Carrillo High School. She was the Poetry Out Loud champion for the county this year, and received honorable mention at the state contest. She also won six honorable mentions in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards competition in the West region. She had two poems published on the Whoa Nelly Press website.

Also, she plans on connecting with schools, libraries, and classrooms to get other youth involved in the writing and presentation of poetry, as a way for them to get their voices heard. And she sees poetry as a way to confront racism, sexism, ageism, and misunderstandings between generations. But perhaps most impressive is this statement of hers: poetry “is a composition of written melodies that only radiates music when the one who wields it orchestrates it with their heart.”

I am honored to have been part of the committee that interviewed Ella and chose her for this role. And I look forward to working with her during the next months that our terms overlap!

Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


October 2021

Dear Sonoma Poets,
Phyllis Meshulam

Thanks so much to the many of you who submitted poems for the county anthology. You are in good company! I have secured permission from current US Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo’s publisher and from former US Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, to include examples of their work.

It’s almost time for Día de los Muertos. On that excuse, I’m going to include a poem of mine that happens to be on that subject and in the pantoum form. Then I’ll include instructions from Poetry Crossing on how to write in this interesting form.

The pantoum, coming to us from Malaysia, thanks to a version published in 1829 by French poet and playwright and novelist, Victor Hugo, consists of an unspecified number of four-line stanzas in which lines repeat from one stanza to the next. Like this: the second line of the first stanza becomes the first line of the second stanza, often with a slight variation. I have exploited this form to help me present a bilingual poem – since the lines repeat, it makes it easier for someone who doesn’t know both languages to get the gist. As usual with poetry, you don’t have to stick rigidly to anything.

One Boy Who Cried, Un Niño Que Ha Llorado

Día de los Muertos, 2018, the year when thousands of immigrant children were separated from their families at the border. 2018, año en que a miles de niños inmigrantes los separaron de sus familias en la frontera

At the time of year of the dying sun,
when the time of day was night,
in a year when many families were un-membered,
we met for a Day of the Dead commemoration.

Día era noche and
I stood with my student before the crowd
en la fiesta del Día de los Muertos, rodeados
por papel picado azul y rosado, beloved faces in frames, sugar skulls.

Con mi alumno, ante la multitud,
I read of my own mentor who gave up her ghost in May.
Surrounded by paper lace, framed faces, calaveras de azúcar,
my boy, reading homage to his grandma, cried, could not go on.

Hablé de mi mentora, que todavía me persigue.
Reading of his abuela’s empty bed,

el niño se atragantó, no pudo continuar.
I read the end – about the fire of his grief.

La cama de su abuela ahora vacía,
his aunt materialized beside him, held him.

El fuego de su dolor aún lo consumía.
but we all began to dance, to conjure:

nuestros seres queridos se materializaron a nuestros lados
as we ate bread of the dead, drank horchata like mother’s milk.

Conjuramos amigos, padres, mentores para que bailaran con nosotros otra vez
Later, many told me the boy’s tears had crystalized their loss.

Comimos pan de muertos, bebimos horchata como leche materna,
en la estación del año del sol moribundo.
Para muchos, las lágrimas del niño cristalizaron su pérdida
in a year when families more than ever needed re-membering.

Now to the lesson plan. This one was written by the late, great John Oliver Simon, a stalwart of California Poets in the Schools and former executive director of it. He also founded Poetry Inside Out which got kids to translate poems into other languages. You can find the lesson procedures and examples by clicking on these thumbnails. They’re from Poetry Crossing, the lesson plan book of our wonderful California Poets in the Schools. You can buy the book by going to

Pantoum-Worksheet-thumb Pantoum-Lesson-Procedures-thumb

“One Boy Who Cried,” an earlier version which was not as bilingual, was chosen as a third-place winner in the 2019 Dancing Poetry Festival. So, I got to read it at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. That same year, it had the additional honor of being included in Off the Page, Sonoma County’s readers’ theater, performances.

And if you have written something to memorialize someone for Day of the Dead, you should send it to: for potential inclusion on the website, Poetry of Remembrance/Poesía del Recuerdo – Remembrances of loved ones during Día de los Muertos

Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


September 2021

Dear Sonomans,
Phyllis Meshulam

Thanks to those of you who have already submitted poems for the anthology. I have been blessed to be joined by three other talented people on my editorial team: Terry Ehret, Gwynn O’Gara and Gail King. I think we have a good selection of poems. But I will extend the deadline to September 15 for teens and contributors with poems in Spanish.

If you are reading this on September 1, you have until the end of the day to send your poem (up to 3) to The three sections I envision for this book are based on Joanna Macy’s “the work that reconnects.” She starts with the concept of “gratitude,” then moves to “honoring our pain for the world,” then “seeing with new eyes,” a part of which, in my thinking, will be “talking back to foundational texts.” No more than 65 lines per poem, including title, epigraphs, footnotes.

Sappho-worksheetSappho-lesson But, in any case, let’s keep writing! I’m going to share a lesson from Poetry Crossing, written by my predecessor Iris Jamahl Dunkle. The book was published in 2014, long before Iris’s latest collection of poems: West : Fire : Archive, and her book of biographical studies: Charmian Kittredge London, Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer. But it will give you an idea of why it’s important to read Dunkle. Not to mention Sappho! This lesson will give you a smattering of fragments from this great ancient Greek poet to use to start your own poem. In so doing, you will be joining the likes of Amy Lowell and H.D. If you want more fragments, check out If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho in Anne Carson’s elegant translation.

Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


August 2021

Dear Sonomans,
Phyllis Meshulam

Thanks so much to those of you who have already submitted poems to our county-wide anthology! For those who haven’t yet – you have until September 1 to do so.

Based on a less than exhaustive look at the submissions for each theme, I think the section that may be lagging a bit is “gratitude.”

However, please feel free to send whatever themes you want. But I will emphasize gratitude prompts in my column this month.

earthriseHere’s a lovely example of a poem that would fit this theme:

Love This Miraculous World
Wendell Berry

Our understandable wish
to preserve the planet
must somehow be
to the scale of our
Love is never abstract.
It does not adhere
to the universe
or the planet
or the nation
or the institution
or the profession,
but to the singular
sparrows of the street,
the lilies of the field,
“the least of these
my brethren.”
Love this
miraculous world
that we did not make,
that is a gift to us.

Here, now, is a link to a marvelous, bilingual poem by Juan Felipe Herrera.

Herrera grew up in a farm-worker family, became a poet-teacher in California Poets in the Schools, went on to teach at UC Riverside, then became the California Poet Laureate, then the US Poet Laureate. I’ve met him several times – when he was a judge for Poetry Out Loud in Sacramento, when he gave lectures and workshops at CalPoets symposia. He was very generous and accommodating in allowing me to use his poem in the lesson plan book.

Let-Us-Gather-thumbnailSpeaking of which, here are two pages from Poetry Crossing. It’s only a fragment of the poem in this lesson by Luis Kong. I’ve used it a lot around Thanksgiving because it has such a sense of gathering and celebrating.

This past year, I wrote my own poem: “We Can’t Gather, Let Us Dream,” then shared it at our Zoom celebrations. And with my students in the Zoom classroom. Hopefully, we’ll be able to gather more and more now.

I’d love to include some poetry in Spanish, preferably with an English translation or co-creation. I know people who could do this into English, so if you know of a Spanish-speaking poet or of a poem in Spanish that you think should be included, please let me know:

Which is also the address to send your submissions to. I look forward to hearing from you!


Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


July 2021

Dear Sonomans,
Phyllis Meshulam

One thing I didn’t think to tell you about submissions is that I need to ask that any one poem be no longer than 65 lines, including title, epigram (if any), and any acknowledgement of prior publication.

And I’m very interested in including some poems in Spanish, hopefully with an English version, too.

Let me reiterate what I said in my June posting: If you are a Sonoma County poet, past, present or future, you are welcome to submit to the county-wide anthology. But I am hereby changing the deadline to September 1. Email no more than 3 poems to

Again, the three sections I envision for this book are based on Joanna Macy’s “the work that reconnects.” She starts with the concept of “gratitude,” then moves to “honoring our pain for the world,” then “seeing with new eyes,” a part of which, in my thinking, will be “talking back to foundational texts.”

I definitely don’t expect any one poem to fit all of these. In fact, if you want to give a clue as to what section you think a given poem belongs in, that would simplify the process of review. Previously published work is welcome.

Over the last year I’ve frequently given prompts in this column. All of these would be appropriate for the sections I envision for this book. Look at the archives for 2020-2022 at the bottom of this column. Prompts are found in the 2021 months of May, March, February (though for Feb. you’ll have to watch my videos to find them), January (these are aimed more at school-age students, but could spark you, too), and also December, July and May of 2020.

Here’s some inspiration, if you need it, from the amazing Lucille Clifton. Notice the way she paints the picture of Eden in such homey terms, starting with the grass.


by Lucille Clifton

begin with the pain
of the grass
that bore the weight
of adam,
his broken rib mending into eve,
the original bleeding,
adam moaning
and the lamentation of grass.
from that garden,
through fields of lost
and found, to now, to here,
to grief for the upright
animal, to grief for the
horizontal world.
pause for the human
animal in its coat
of many colors. pause
for the myth of america.
pause for the myth
of america.
and pause for the girl
with twelve fingers
who never learned to cry enough
for anything that mattered,
not enough for the fear,
not enough for the loss,
not enough for the history,
not enough
for the disregarded planet
not enough for the grass
then end in the garden of regret
with time’s bell tolling grief
and pain,
grief for the grass
that is older than adam,
grief for what is born human,
grief for what is not.

And lastly, another take on the Eden story. I like the way Gonzáles imagines farmworkers as the original humans, evicted from their earthly paradise.
From “Unpeopled Eden”
by Rigoberto Gonzáles

1          after the immigration raid
Beneath one apple tree the fruit
lies flung like the beads from
a rosary with a broken string.
Another tree stands amused
over the strangeness of a shoe
that pretends to be an apple
in its redness, though it’ll never be
an apple with that lace stem
and a pit where a core should be.
The tree at the end of the row
will weep over the pillage
all week. Around its trunk, debris:
straw hats, handkerchief, a basket
going hungry for what’s out
of reach. Somewhere in the orchard
a screech goes weaker by the hour.
A radio without paws, it cannot claw
its chords to end its suffering….


Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


June 2021

Dear Sonomans,
Phyllis MeshulamMass shootings continue unabated in this country and I’m reminded that one of the texts I’d like us to talk back to in our county anthology is the 2nd Amendment. One good source of poems on the subject is the website for Bullets into Bells, or the book of the same name. Here’s a link to the poetry section of the website:

They published a poem of mine a few years ago and I’ll share it here, along with the text of the amendment.

Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

by Phyllis Meshulam

A morning dawns, barely, with fringes of rain along
the well-worn path to the daily paper.
She is regulated by her body’s clock, still on Eastern time.
Melissa listens to the drops dribble and splat.
Being home from her trip,
it’s necessary for her to re-enter the daily routine,
to plan her lessons,
take out the trash. She finds
security in these habits. But the news announces another
shooting of innocents by a madman with
an assault rifle. “How does this make us
free?” she wonders. It leaves her
in a state of bewilderment.
The paper also mentions
a gun-rights-advocating family in Nevada, still grieving at the bedside
of their wife/mother/sister,
victim of the Vegas concert shooting where
58 people were killed, 489 wounded. Like Rosemarie who struggles
to keep food down,
keep family morale up,
and for whom anti-anxiety drugs are now an essential nutrient.
They bear it by crying in each other’s
arms, remembering the fun-lover their matriarch was,
so that person shall
not perish from this earth. They come to realize that her right
to be intact has been
infringed by the blast effect of high-speed bullets and that this kind of trespass
       must somehow be curtailed. Melissa nods and sobs.

If you are a Sonoma County poet, past, present or future, you are welcome to submit to the county-wide anthology.

Again, the three sections I envision for this book are based on Joanna Macy’s “the work that reconnects.” She starts with the concept of “gratitude,” then moves to “honoring our pain for the world,” then “seeing with new eyes,” a part of which, in my thinking, will be “talking back to foundational texts.”  

I definitely don’t expect any one poem to fit all of these. In fact, if you want to give a clue as to what section you think a given poem belongs in, that would simplify the process of review. Previously published work is welcome.

Over the last year I’ve frequently given prompts in this column. All of these would be appropriate for the sections I envision for this book. Look at the archives for 2020-2022 at the bottom of this column. Prompts are found in the 2021 months of May, March, February (though for Feb. you’ll have to watch my videos to find them), January (these are aimed more at school-age students, but could spark you, too), and also December, July and May of 2020.

Remember: the deadline is August 1. Email no more than 3 poems to


May 2021

Dear Sonoma Poets, past, present and future,
Phyllis MeshulamIf you fit that description, you are welcome to submit to the county-wide anthology.
Again, the three sections I envision for this book are based on Joanna Macy’s “the work that reconnects.” She starts with the concept of “gratitude,” then moves to “honoring our pain for the world,” then “seeing with new eyes.” I definitely don’t expect any one poem to fit all of these. Previously published work is welcome.
On May 13, at 7 pm, I will be giving a virtual workshop to help clarify my vision for one section. You can sign up at this link. The cost is by donation to the Sebastopol Center for the Arts — $0 and up:

We’ll concentrate on “seeing with new eyes,” with regard to some foundational texts that may have led our civilization astray. Here’s an example of a prompt I’ll likely give that day:
Thomas Jefferson on the African-American poet Phillis Wheatley:
“Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry.—Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry…Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination…. The compositions published under her name (Wheatley’s) are below the dignity of criticism.”

from On Imagination

by Phillis Wheatley

….We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul….


  • If you could sing to Thomas Jefferson in poetry, how could you share with him the error of his words? I don’t know if Phillis Wheatley wrote in response to his comments, or not. It will be hard to measure up to her words, but give it a whirl.
  • If any text makes you really angry, overwhelmed, consider taking some of the words and making anagrams for them, seeing them in a new way. Construct a response from these.
  • Consider using iambic pentameter, the rhythm of the heartbeat, in sets of five, to narrate what you need to say — a classic strategy. Wheatley mostly uses it here.

Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


April 2021

Happy Poetry Month!

Phyllis MeshulamMany of us have the practice of writing a poem each day during April. If this sounds intimidating, consider the advice of William Stafford who wrote a poem a day for much of his life. “…if you get stuck, lower your standards and keep going.”

Significant revisions count. Haiku count. But I especially like another Japanese form – Tanka. Just two lines longer than the haiku, the tanka has the interesting property of starting with the concrete and finishing with the emotional. I’ll include the tanka lesson from Poetry Crossing below. But first, a couple of pressing items.

Looking over my postings, I realize I never shared in this column my video about the “I Am” lesson, a great way to introduce poetry and metaphor to students. And it would be a sure-fire way to get one more poem from yourself during April. Here are the links: English: Spanish:

I’m issuing a call for submissions for our county anthology. (Please see the Call for Submissions section of this newsletter, as well as the County News.) The deadline will be 8/1, but please don’t wait to write and submit! (You could have 30 poems by the end of April, right?!) Over the last year I’ve frequently given prompts in this column. All of these would be appropriate for the sections I envision for this book. Look at the archives for 2020-2022 at the bottom of this column. Prompts are found in the months of March, February (though for Feb. you’ll have to watch my videos to find them), January (these are aimed more at school-age students, but could spark you, too), December, July, May. As in my list just now, the months appear in descending order. December – May are from 2020.

Also, I will be offering a virtual workshop on one of the themes for the anthology through Sebastopol Center for the Arts on Thursday, May 13 from 7 – 9. You will soon be able to register at their website: The topic of this workshop will be the idea of seeing some of our foundational texts with new eyes and talking back to them in our poetry. (As in my March posting.) Past, current and future Sonoma poets are eligible. Cost is by donation $0 and up.

Here you may click on thumbnails of the pages about tanka from Poetry Crossing. And, yes, the lesson was written for elementary school students (do share!), but you’ll get the basic principle and a lovely example from classical Japan.

    tanka-1    tanka-2

Happy writing!

Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


March 2021

Dear Sonomans,
Happy Women’s History month!
I think it’s about time in my tenure (and women’s history month is a good time, anyway) that I get serious about our county-wide anthology. An idea for one section of it is that we look at some of our foundational texts and the places we’ve perhaps been led astray by them, in terms of equal rights and sustainability. An example is the Greek playwright Aeschylus’s Apollo denying a woman’s role in creating a child. Or conversely, some texts may have provided good warnings but we may have forgotten their message. We can talk back to some texts, while re-broadcasting others. I know we need to approach such a project with great humility, but with all the crises we as a planet and its peoples are facing, I feel it’s important to try.
I have been very influenced by a book that was published in 1987 though I read it much later. The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler explores the origins of the dominator culture that most of us take for granted as human destiny. But some interpretations of archaeological evidence suggest that there may have been another way for thousands of years prior to the Bronze age when weapons became more advanced. There may have been more of a partnership between the sexes. How this changed and a new order came to be accepted is a fascinating study. Through that lens many of our foundational texts of myth and religion seem like “propaganda” rationalizing the demotion of women. Consider the Biblical story of the first man who is all alone with the rest of creation (from the New Living Translation of Genesis 2):

Adam and EveBut still there was no helper just right for him.

21So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep. While the man slept, the LORD God took out one of the man’s ribs and closed up the opening. 22Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib, and he brought her to the man.

23“At last!” the man exclaimed.

     “This one is bone from my bone,
          and flesh from my flesh!
     She will be called ‘woman,’
          because she was taken from ‘man.’”
I wrote a “talk back” to this text, which was published in Artemis Journal XXVII, winter 2020.
Which Came First?  
Phyllis Meshulam

Against all evidence, the Bible says
“man did not come from woman but woman
came from man.” Excuse me, what did you say?
Oh, wait a sec. I think I understand. 
It’s pregnancy envy. The authors fibbed:
God gave Adam a spinal block, performed
Cesarean section, removed a rib
and from it, another human was formed.
But lesser, fe-male, wo-man, infantile,
of course. To be seen, not heard, and servile,
obedient, useful. Eve had different
ideas, for sure. So she took forbidden
fruit and ate. She listened to the earthiest
of creatures. Turned subservient to subversive.
Riane Eisler’s point is that after thousands of years of Goddess worship, people needed to be convinced of the superiority of man and the patriarchal God. And some of Goddess’s frequent companions, like the serpent and the horned bull, became Satanic in the new order.
As I mentioned before, another example comes from the final play in Aeshylus’s Oresteia trilogy in which Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter to get the gods to bring him the winds to sail to Troy, then is killed by his resentful wife, who is then killed by their son. In what was courtroom theater but also a ritual and religious drama, Apollo argues that Orestes should face no penalty for having killed his mother:
Orestes, Apollo, AthenaThe mother is no parent of that which is called
her child, but only nurse of the new-planted seed
that grows. The parent is he who mounts. A stranger, she
preserves a stranger’s seed… There can
be a father without any mother. There she stands,
the living witness, daughter of Olympian Zeus,
she who was never fostered in the dark of the womb.

translation by Richmond Lattimore
I’ll provide you here with a few more texts to respond to. And a few techniques you could use to do so. And I plan to offer a virtual workshop or two for those who would like more in-depth suggestions. Watch this space. They will be announced in the Literary Update.
Here’s an example of both a text and a response. My daughter Audrey’s erasure poem comes from a text in the book of Timothy in the New Testament:
Erasure Poem from 1 Timothy 2:11-15 KJV
11 Let the Woman, learn in silence with all subjection.
12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
13 For Adam was first formed, then Eve.
14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was In the transgression.
15 Notwithstanding she shall be saved. in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.
by Audrey Meshulam

In an example that is unfair to both Blacks and women, Thomas Jefferson discusses the African-American poet Phillis Wheatley:

“Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry.—Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry…Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination…. The compositions published under her name (Wheatley’s) are below the dignity of criticism.”

from On Imagination
by Phillis Wheatley

….We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul….

Eduardo Galeano’s book, Mirrors, Stories of Almost Everyone, is a great source of information about mythologies and religious texts worldwide and where they may have brought us. I’ll include one here that tells the story of Pandora.
PandoraOrigin of Misogyny
– Eduardo Galeano

   … Zeus also punished Prometheus’s betrayal by creating the first woman. And he sent us the present.
   According to the poets of Olympus, her name was Pandora. She was lovely and curious and rather harebrained.
   Pandora arrived on earth holding in her arms a large box. Inside the box, captive, were the sorrows. Zeus forbade her to open it, but barely had she arrived among us than she succumbed to temptation and took off the lid.
   Out flew the woes and stung us. Thus came death to the world, as did old age, illness, war, work…
   According to the priests of the Bible, a woman named Eve, created by another god on another cloud, also brought us nothing but calamities.
*Ask yourself: “What would Goddess (Mother, Gaia) have done, have said…?”

*If the text makes you really angry, overwhelmed, consider taking some of the words and making anagrams for them, seeing them in a new way. Construct a response from these.

*Take some of the original language texts available and do a homophonic (what does it sound like it’s saying?) translation – if you can’t read the language, all the better. Play around with it, make it up – say what YOU think needs to be said.

*Use some of the five senses in your writing to make it more vivid.
When you have something you’d like to share with me, send it to

Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


February 2021

Dear Sonomans,

Happy Black history month! My husband and I have been working very hard to have two special lessons prepared. (And thank you, Jerry Meshulam, for not only turning yourself from an excellent photographer into a videographer, but also a film editor and director.) So we’re ready now to share with you two video lessons in honor of our Black compatriots who have given us so much (like, for example, the moving inaugural poet Amanda Gorman) and who are still so often unfairly treated. It feels especially important this year when a violent insurrection brought a confederate flag into the halls of our Capitol.

In fact, some of the pictures of that mob from January 6th, 2021 reminded me of ones of the protesters who tried to intimidate Black children integrating our schools after the Supreme Court decided in favor of Oliver Brown in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1953. That is the subject of one of these lessons. This first one is aimed mostly at students from 3rd-6th grades. It’s about 17 minutes long. Here’s the link to the video:

Cyrus CassellsI told you about it before back in October when Prof. Kim Hester-Williams helped me out by recording a poem by Cyrus Cassells, “Soul, Make a Path Through Shouting,” addressed to Elizabeth Eckford as she made her way through an angry white mob, while trying to integrate Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas.

Cassells uses many metaphors alluding to monsters from Greek mythology.

Like minotaurs:

And Harpies:

And hydra-headed dragons:
hydra-headed dragons

Claudia RankineThe second video is intended for teaching about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Because of the subject matter, I think it’s better for grades 6 – 12. The book delves into the micro-aggressions that our compatriots of color are subjected to on a near daily basis. It’s better than the outright violence but still very disheartening.

Again, Kim Hester-Williams helped out by reading a couple of the prose poems in Citizen.

Racial EcologiesA book which Professor Hester-Williams edited and contributed to is Racial Ecologies.

Here’s the link to the Citizen video (about 14 minutes long)

Both of these videos could be used as a source for your own prompts or shared with teachers or young people in your lives. Teachers could use either of them as a blueprint for teaching the lesson themselves. If anyone wants a copy of any of the support materials embedded in the lessons, they could contact me at

Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


January 2021

Dear Sonomans,
rainy windowMay it be a very healthy and happy New Year to us all! We had a delicious Christmas present of some rain but we need more.

So I’m thinking of rain chants to encourage more precipitation. This may sound a bit fanciful but, as I tell my students, people have believed in the magic of words from the beginnings of language. So I’d like to share a couple of lessons that might get you and/or young people in your life writing rain poems. I could see a place for some of these in the “Seeing With New Eyes” (“Hearing With New Ears?”) section of our anthology.
First, one from our Cal Poets lesson plan book, Poetry Crossing, 2014. It features a poem from the wonderful Susan Herron Sibbet, 1942 – 2014. One of the seven founders of Sixteen Rivers Press, Sibbet published her first full-length poetry collection, No Easy Light, with the press in 2004. She was also the author of two poetry chapbooks, the coauthor of a third, and the author of a combined cookbook and book of poems, Burnt Toast and Other Recipes. A long-time San Francisco resident, Susan was devoted to California Poets in the Schools, where she served both as acting director and president of the board and taught for many years in the CalPoets program for younger children. Her novel, The Constant Listener, a fictional memoir by Theodora Bosanquet, the amanuensis to Henry James, was published in 2017 by Ohio University Press. 

Rain Poems worksheetRain Poems lessonIf you click on the following thumbnails you’ll be able to see full-sized pages of the lesson, by Alice Pero, from the book, one page with instructions to the teacher, plus Susan’s poem, and one with sample student poems. I hope some of these inspire you and/or young people in your life.

rainy streetSecond, here’s a lesson plan that another dear CalPoets colleague and I collaborated on. Claudia Poquoc, although born in Indian Trails, Michigan (Ojibwa for Great Waters), says that she was reborn like the phoenix 40 years ago in the Southwestern deserts in places like Pyramid Lake, Nevada; Monument Valley and Guadalupe, Arizona. As a poet-teacher, she is known among classroom children as Grandmother Spider of the Word Wise Web. She has produced several poetry chapbooks and, as a singer/songwriter, published one song/poetry book titled Becomes Her Vision, which includes a music album. She currently lives in San Diego with two-footed and four-footed companions. She’s also working on another poetry book due out in the spring of 2021 titled Intersections.
Say It This Way, Rain Chants: recommended for 2nd–4th grades by Claudia Poquoc and Phyllis Meshulam

“We are little spiders, weaving silver thread,
tying words together, on our magic web.” – Claudia Poquoc

Introduction: Writing chants meets curriculum needs, lets students experiment with language patterns and respond creatively to stimuli. Words are selected from any formal poem or topic, while at the same time you are looking for opportunities to involve students such as English as second language speakers who are learning to read and work with words. A chant can be recited individually or as a rhythmic group recitation. The pattern of the piece will lend itself to students discovering sounds, rhythm and meaning. Unlike a carefully crafted, crystallized poem, a chant is a dynamic thing that can be shaped to suit almost any purpose – a springboard into language and other learning.

  1. We’re going to do chants today. Say the “Group Chant” together.
  2. Discuss the importance of rain for life on Earth. Discuss rain’s musical properties. And how people have always believed the words have some magical properties.
  3. Do variations of the nursery rhyme: “Rain, rain, go away…” Instead of telling rain to go away, chant something like “Rain, rain, come and play/ Tap your drumsticks all this day.” Can we think of other ways to invite the rain to come? Invite a few volunteers to share their ideas.
  4. What are some letters of the alphabet or combinations of letters that make rain sounds? List a few of these on the board. Shshshsh; ssssss; plop; blip. You can play the rain stick or maracas to evoke these words. 
  5. Read “Rain Chant” together. (In “Rain Chant,” with its heavy use of the word “listen,” participants can play with volume, as the rain gets softer or louder, and tempo faster, as they interpret where the rain falls. Here, words are treated chiefly like sounds. Repetition lets children get into the flow faster than they otherwise would. It also enables them to take ownership of the chant and any extensions from it.)
  6. Get volunteers to read student poems on the worksheet.
  7. Now let’s invite kids to share some phrases that make use of a few of these rain-sounding words. They can take words right out of the poems on the worksheet and recombine them into other phrases.
  8. Let them intersperse these phrases about the rain with nonsense sounds or with more rain-soaked words! Repeat these as you would musical notes.
  9. Finally, when they have a finished chant, they are given a chance to recite it. Some students’ poems might even lend themselves to an entire class participating in the sounds as it is read. Or maybe you can then have them make up a group chant poem such as the one on the worksheet. 

Helpful Materials: Rhythm instruments. (Rain stick, maracas, thumb piano?)
A protected place you create for them to recite if they wish. As Grandmother Spider, I protect them with a web circle on the floor for them to stand in. I tell them that in this circle they are safe to recite – no one or no thing can harm them.
HELPFUL VOCABULARY LISTS: kinesthetic, noise words, ocean words, plants, weather

Group Chant – Claudia Poquoc
When we start we can’t stop
while we’re
We find words
that play and dance,                            
‘cuz that’s the way                       
we make our chants.
Rain, Rain, Rain – A. H.

Tap Tap goes the rain shh, shh, shh
Boom boom goes the rain
shh, shh, shh    pitter patter pitter patter
Tap, Tap, Tap
boom, boom, boom the rain falls hard
I stay inside and snuggle with my dog
Rain, rain, stay right there.
In a flash you’re gone.            Wosh, wosh, wosh.
The rain is gone. It’s time to go outside.
Now I can wish, wish, wish it will come again.
Untitled – T. R.

sh sh sh goes the wind
sh sh sh against my window
sh sh sh rain goes in the leaky gutters
sh sh sh looking out  at the rain
sh sh sh goes the rain against the street lamp
sh sh sh don’t you just love the rain
sh sh sh sh sh
Rain Chant – Phyllis Meshulam
           Listen, listen
           listen for the rain
           Listen, listen
           listen for the rain
In shabby slippers,
listen for the rain.
In stockinged sleepers,
listen for the rain.
           Bathing brothers
           rumbling for the rain.
           Sleeping sisters
           dreaming of the rain.
           Splish, shhh, splish.
Clouds, clouds, wrap me tight,
come again this very night.
Rain, rain, come and play
Tap your drumsticks all this day.
           Unneeded slickers
           rustle for the rain.
           Boots are squeaking
           stomping for the rain.
           Squeak, stomp, squeak.
Sun, sun, hide your face,
shine upon some soggy place.
           Sipping sparrows,
           whisper for the rain.
           Wet your whistles;
           whistle for the rain.
           Whoo whee whooooo
Untitled – D. M.
Tree in school yard
Drip Drop Drip Drop
filled with rain
Drops drip. Drop drop drop.
Acting like diamonds.
Drip Drop Drip Drop.
Now listen to the rain.
Drip Drip Drip.
feel the rain.
Glip glip glip…..
daisy in the rainIf you write a rain poem, I hope you’ll read it outside to the universe, or at least out your window! And if you’d like to share it with me for possible inclusion in the anthology, please send it to me at

Daisy photo by Lucas Bonnema
(All photos courtesy of my daughter and son-in-law from Seattle.)

Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 2020-2022


December 2020

Dear Sonomans,

Phyllis MeshalumAs we approach the end of this year, the start of the next, I’m thinking of new beginnings and that this might be a good time to initiate prompts about “seeing with new eyes,” yet another section in Joanna Macy’s spiral in “The Work that Reconnects.”

A poem makes us seeLet’s start with the late, amazing Francisco X. Alarcón, from his children’s book Laughing Tomatoes (illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez):

This is a sentiment I love telling students as I try to explain what poetry can do. It’s simple, huh? But such a worthy thing for us as poets to emulate as we write.


And now, a profound poem by Joy Harjo, the current poet laureate of the US, “Bless This Land.” It’s long and intricate but to give you just a flavor, here are two lines:

“Bless the destruction of this land, for new shoots will rise up from
fire, floods, earthquakes and fierce winds to make new this land”

As you read the poem, think about what our land has been going through and how this could lead to something new.

Bless This Land

by Joy Harjo

Bless this land from the top of its head to the bottom of its feet

       From the arctic old white head to the brown feet of tropical rain

Bless the eyes of this land, for they witness cruelty and kindness in
this land

       From sunrise light upright to falling down on your knees night

Bless the ears of this land, for they hear cries of heartbreak
and shouts of celebration in this land

       Once we heard no gunshot on these lands; the trees and stones can be heard singing

Bless the mouth, lips and speech of this land, for the land is a
speaker, a singer, a keeper of all that happens here, on this land

       Luminous forests, oceans, and rock cliff sold for the trash glut
of gold, uranium, or oil bust rush yet there are new stories to be
made, little ones coming up over the horizon

Bless the arms and hands of this land, for they remake and restore
beauty in this land

       We were held in the circle around these lands by song, and
reminded by the knowers that not one is over the other, no
human above the bird, no bird above the insect, no wind above the grass

Bless the heart of this land on its knees planting food beneath the

eternal circle of breathing, swimming and walking this land

       The heart is a poetry maker. There is one heart, said the poetry
maker, one body and all poems make one poem and we do not
use words to make war on this land

              Bless the gut labyrinth of this land, for it is
                    the center of unknowing in this land

Bless the femaleness and maleness of this land, for each holds the
fluent power of becoming in this land

        When it was decided to be in this manner here in this place, this
land, all the birds made a birdly racket from indigo sky holds

Bless the two legs and two feet of this land, for the sacred always
walks beside the profane in this land

       These words walk the backbone of this land, massaging the tissue
around the cord of life, which is the tree of life, upon which this
land stands

Bless the destruction of this land, for new shoots will rise up from
fire, floods, earthquakes and fierce winds to make new this land

       We are land on turtle’s back—when the weight of greed overturns
us, who will recall the upright song of this land

Bless the creation of new land, for out of chaos we will be

compelled to remember to bless this land

       The smallest one remembered, the most humble one, the one
whose voice you’d have to lean in a thousand years to hear—we
will begin there

Bless us, these lands, said the rememberer. These lands aren’t our
lands. These lands aren’t your lands. We are this land.

       And the blessing began a graceful moving through the grasses
of time, from the beginning, to the circling around place of time,
always moving, always

This poem is the final one in Harjo’s An American Sunrise, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019. Used with the poet’s permission.

There are so many places in the poem where one could find a prompt for seeing with new eyes. “These lands aren’t our lands. These lands aren’t your lands. We are this land.” Is there a folk song or a saying that you can adapt to a more ecological interpretation? More of the need to be united with the natural world and make decisions for the common good.

Or perhaps you could personify the land, as Harjo does, and tell the story of its strengths and failings.

Now I’d like to share another favorite poem by another favorite poet – Gabriela Mistral. This translation is by Ursula K. Le Guin.

MariposaBlue Morpho butterfly, Jerry Meshulam

Look for something you find beautiful in nature. Look at it with new eyes like someone who has never seen it before. Allow the ecstasy of this beauty to permeate your writing and cause you to play with the music of language.

As always, poems you write to these prompts, or others on the topic, may be sent to Please send as attachments and with a note in the subject line that they’re for consideration for the eventual anthology.

Finally, even though I’m not positive it’s completely relevant, I can’t resist honoring W.B. Yeats’s iconic poem, “The Second Coming,” which was first published 100 years ago last month.

It was written the previous year after Yeats’s pregnant wife had recovered from that year’s pandemic. Both mother and child ended up okay, but pregnant women were dying at a rate of 70% during that outbreak. Let’s hope that something other than a “rough beast” will be born out of our current travails!


October 2020

Phyllis MeshulamOh, dear, Sonomans,
Here we go again. Wishing you all safety and shelter as fire season continues. Do vote with climate in mind this November.
This past month I’ve begun work on a second video lesson. It’s based on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, An American Lyric. (I mentioned this book to you before in my July post.) Professor Kim Hester Williams was kind enough to lend a hand in presenting the model poems so that they would be in the voice of a person of color.

Hester WilliamsProfessor Hester Williams is the chair of American Multicultural Studies, and Professor of English, AMCS, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Film Studies at CSU-Sonoma State University. She is also the co-editor of and a contributor to a collection of interdisciplinary essays on race and environment titled, Racial Ecologies, published by the University of Washington Press in 2018. Professor Kim likes to engage in projects that concern Afro-Eco-Poetics and new worldmaking (a la Octavia Butler). She also enjoys reading and writing poetry which is grounded in the long tradition of African American vernacular poetics. Yet, she still found time to come to Sebastopol so my husband could film her reading the poems!
While we were at it, we filmed a slightly excerpted version of another poem I plan to use in a different lesson aimed more at elementary school students. It alludes to this picture of Elizabeth Eckford making her way to help integrate Little Rock High School in September 1957.
Here’s the picture:
Elizabeth Eckford

Here’s the poem:
Excerpt from Soul Make A Path Through Shouting
            for Elizabeth Eckford
Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957

By Cyrus Cassells

Thick at the schoolgate are the ones
Rage has twisted
Into minotaurs, harpies
Relentlessly swift;
So you must walk past the pincers,
The swaying horns,
Sister, sister,
Straight through the gusts
Of fear and fury,
Straight through:
Where are you going?

I’m just going to school.

Here we go to meet
The hydra-headed day,
Here we go to meet
The maelstrom-

Can my voice be an angel-on-the-spot,
An amen corner?
Can my voice take you there,
Gallant girl with a notebook,
Up, up from the shadows of gallows trees
To the other shore:
A globe bathed in light,
A chalkboard blooming with equations-

I have never seen the likes of you,
Pioneer in dark glasses:
You won’t show the mob your eyes,
But I know your gaze,
Steady-on-the-North-Star, burning….

Where are you going?
I’m just going to school.

October also means Día de los Muertos and while, unfortunately, we can’t meet in person to celebrate this year, there’s an effort to do so virtually via El Día de los Muertos Petaluma Facebook page. If you have a few words of remembrance for a loved one or a poem to share about them, record this and upload it to YouTube. Then send a link of this recording to me at I will pass it along and hopefully we’ll have a nice collection of memorials! There’s an effort to do this by October 16 but it’s not a hard deadline. They plan to have things like video instructions for making sugar skulls and paper flowers, as well.

Day of the Dead

I have to admit that my primary focus between now and the election will be trying to get new leadership in Washington. Every smoky breath I’ve tried to take this past month was a reminder of climate change which scientists say we have less than 10 years to reverse course on. Not to mention social justice, women’s rights, democratic institutions, the Supreme Court.
Thank you and stay safe from the fire monsters…

Phyllis Meshulem
Sonoma County Poet Laureate 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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