New book celebrates 10 years of Santa Barbara poet laureates

The city welcomes artists, but a diminishing middle class may push them out

WhatBreathesUs

A new book called What Breathes Us brings together ten years of poetry written by Santa Barbara’s poet laureates. There have been six since the program began in 2005.

Poet and teacher David Starkey held the position from 2009 to 2011, and helped edit the book.

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian spoke with Starkey about the legacy of poets in Santa Barbara, and the difficulties they face.

“Within the past 20 or 25 years, poets have started to gather here,” said Starkey. He listed off poets like Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Kurt Brown, who both moved here from New York. The legacy goes back farther to Kenneth Rexroth, who’s believed to have created the groundwork for beat poetry, and Edgar Bowers, who taught for much of his career at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Starkey thinks Santa Barbara attracts poets because of its natural beauty, university and a supportive arts scene.

“There’s a generosity of spirit. That’s the best part of this city. You come to town and people welcome you in. There’s a sense of, ‘I care about your well being.'”

Every two years, the City of Santa Barbara seeks nominations for the position of Santa Barbara Poet Laureate. The person selected receives a small stipend to represent and celebrate the literary arts.

17 May 2014-Santa Barbara, CA: Lucky Penny Poets, Sojourner Kincaid Rolle and Perie Longo read from their children's poetry books as part of the "Indies First Storytime Day" at Granada Books in Santa Barbara, CA. Sojourner Kincaid Rolle, "Yellow Mellow Global Unbrella" (Lucky Penny Press) and Perie Longo, "A Mozaic of Poety for Kids" (Lucky Penny Press). "Indies First Storytime Day" Granada Books, a community bookstore, celebrated along with hundreds of independent bookstores across the nation on the inaugural Indies First Storytime Day! Photo by Rod Rolle
Santa Barbara’s current poet laureate is Sojourner Kincaid Rolle. (Rod Rolle)

But, sometimes what a poet wants to say and what a city official wants the public to hear are two different things.

“It’s difficult to be a public poet,” said Starkey. “We’ve had friction with what we’ve wanted to bring to the city council. But, by the same token, you’re obliged to look at the way things are and report back.”

The city’s diminishing middle class is a reoccurring theme Starkey notices in past poet laureates’ poems.

“There’s a big division in this city between people that have a lot of money and people who don’t. All of us from this book are from the middle class. We’re from that grey area.”

Ten years into the program, Starkey thinks it will continue for many more to come, as long as poets and other artists can afford to stay in Santa Barbara.

A new poet laureate will be selected in 2017.

 


What Breathes Us

By Barry Spacks (Poet Laureate 2005 – 2007)

 

Regards to the day, the great long day

that can’t be hoarded, good or ill.

What breathes us likely means us well.

 

We rise up from an earthly root

to seek the blossom of the heart.

 

What breathes us likely means us well.

We are a voice impelled to tell

where the joining of sound and silence is.

We are tides, and their witnesses.

What breathes us likely means us well.

 


The Difference Between Poets and Politicians

By David Starkey (Poet Laureate 2009 – 2011)

 

I, who have voted in every election

since turning eighteen, honor the work

of public servants, your devotion

to the larger cause, your willingness

to sit through meetings that might send me

screaming from the room. Poets,

you understand, are different. We see

a tree and rather than environment

or public park, think willow

or coral or flowering pear.

To us, fire evokes metaphors

as soon as terror, the mountains

at dusk are crepuscular,

the ocean is a vasty deep.

For you, problems are opportunities

for solutions; for us, they are occasions

for elegies and light verse. Nothing

moves poets like ambiguity:

upright Portia’s sudden cruelty,

the pathos we feel for Shylock,

though he insisted on his pound of flesh.

We swim in shades of gray and green

and aquamarine. Therefore, I receive

these laurels humbly, realizing the most

that I can likely don on your behalf is mark

a moment on the calendar, then order

the Number Six lunch special at Pepé’s,

breathe in the scent of blooming jasmine,

and change the euphonious names–

Anacapa, de la Vina, Camino

Manadero–of our lovely city’s streets…