Laureate Archive 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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