"From Ina to Ayodele" — celebrating our new Poet Laureate

Oakland's selection of a poet laureate seemed a momentous event to the  California Writers Club, since the state's first poet laureate was so influential in bringing our club into existence. I was honored to preside over an event last Saturday in honor of Dr. Ayodele "Wordslanger" Nzinga, in the Fire Circle built by Joaquin Miller's daughter Juanita. This was the day I formally announced my Song Project at the Friends of Joaquin Miller Park annual meeting.  I told my sad tale about losing a Cultural Fund grant as a way to talk about the great poet's complicated life, cleverly weaving in lines from my simple song about trees and possums and poppies and water.

To an intimate audience among the fir trees, I talked about who Joaquin Miller really was, and we heard readings by his friends by my friends. Each of whom became my friend after I heard them read their poetry and it struck me deeply. To hear the chimes of their voices ringing in the woods, bringing the great voices back to life with their own greatness, well it made me feel pretty great.

After talking a bit about my Song Project (please donate!) Outlaw poet-with-glasses Paul Corman-Roberts read Miller's purple poems—not just purple but vivid with color: raven hair and golden poppies and deep blue twilight from The Hights—poems he probably wrote, or read, from that very spot, when the trees were young. And then the shapeshifter, the  dazzled our brains and hearts with We Shoot Typewriters and The Imperialist at the End of This Book, sharing "reflctions worthy of human reflection, worthy of human truth." 

Then current CWCBB president Karma Bennett killed it with a rare comic essay by Jack London about people stealing his poppies...with images of a time when the Piedmont hills were home to many species of poppies not just the one we know. She followed her exuberant delivery with an reading of her own poem, From the West, about love in San Francisco (parrots and red thorns, the things a California Writer sees). (Don't miss Karma's standout performance as a boistrous hair metal rocker in The Dirndl Diaspora!)

We decided Joaquin Miller would be the FIRST person to celebrate the newly-named Indigenous People's day on Monday, even though he penned the famous poem "Columbus" for fifty bucks. I shared his playful comments about that poem and turned the mic over to our next reader.

Randy McNair "Poet Laureate of the Absurd," brought George Sterling back to life with a beautiful sonnet about wind and water, about waiting birds and time, and a second called Kindred that took us to Arcturus and the sea, but Randy's poems from The Swinging Door Saloon about the emptiness of the work world, the fullness of bar life, and an award winning poem from the forthcoming Last Call, a poignant ode to beer, perfect for Oaktoberfest, which was taking place simultaneously down the hill! 

Next up was magnificent presenter Amos White, who has been taking a break from poetry to plant trees. He talked about coming full circle, about living in the clouds, about bleeding words—and introduced Joaquin's admirer, Yone Noguchi, who helped the The Great Poet with his hijinx and brought Haiku to America. He brought us to temple-bell silence with his own haiku imagery.


Finally, it was time to introduce our beloved special guest, Dr. Ayodele "Wordslanger" Nzinga, Oakland's first Poet Laureate.  I imagined myself introducing her to the poets of the past, whose spirits swayed in the trees above us.  Just as I was starting to gush about her amazing work, the Blue Angels flew overhead! Ayodele threw her hands into the air and praised us for arranging such a magnificent salute! Then she slang Ina Coolbrith back to life, bringing grace and gravitas into the space with two exquisite poems about death. We were privileged to hear fresh poems from her forthcoming Gratitude cycle, Crossroads, and I'll Color Inside My Lines. Our hearts were cracked open with emotion.

Then we named her honors: Ayodele will receive an honorary membership to the California Writers Club, and we will plant a tree in her honor in a new Writers Memorial Grove that will be established this year in the Park. I introduced Dale Risden, FOJMP president, who, with several other members of that honorable coalition, had devoured the spoken words that rocked the small grove of trees on that hill, hungry for the arts to return. 

Finally, because trees are so important, and because writing is so important, I announced a forthcoming partnership between the CWC and 100K Trees for Humanity in which donors can dedicate a grove of trees to a California Writer. Stay tuned for more about that. And get started now, planting trees, our only hope of survival.

Listen to the whole event right here

You can hear the curious jays commenting on the poetry, the roar of the jet power, the awe in our souls.

photo of the presenter and five readers

Clockwise: Karma Bennett, Kristen Caven, Paul Corman-Roberts, Randy McNair,
Amos White, Dr. Ayodele Nzinga

"Pass the torch without scorching; the fire is lit."

PHOTOS by Donald Caven please credit source.


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