Corners of the Mouth

Another new anthology arrived in the mail recently: Corners of the Mouth: A Celebration of Thirty Years at the Annual San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival. As the name implies, the book is a collection of poems from folks (like me) who have read at the annual SLO poetry fest. It’s a fairly hefty tome, weighing in at about 400 pages—so I must confess that I have not read every single piece yet. But I probably will, eventually. It’s a remarkable collection, and though not all of the poets are from California, the overwhelming majority of them certainly are. In that regard, it’s an intriguing view of contemporary California poetry. The poets are arranged alphabetically—perhaps not the most imaginative scheme, but it does produce some intriguing juxtapositions. I was a bit surprised at how many poets were unknown to me—though perhaps that’s to be expected: poetry in California still has a connotation of being outside the mainstream, off on the margins, and decidedly counter-culture. One such poet is Nixson Borah, whose “Back from Old Country” is one of the stand-out poems for me (at least, of those that I’ve read so far). His keen eye for imagery and metaphor is something that I try to cultivate in my own work. He describes a blossoming plum tree’s “pearl-embroidered dress,” and the individual flowers as “faint photographs punctuated / with dots for eyes and mouth.” I also love the language and sound of “the oaks are gnarled, / arthritic, lichen-flecked” and “frog song resounds.” I was also moved by Edward Martin’s “The Barracks Game,” which dispassionately recounts his experience as a bomber in WWII. The poem stands among any that have been written on the topic.

A few sweeping generalizations can also be made about California poetry, based on this collection. For one thing, it does not favor formal meter and rhyme–though stanzas are in vogue. It is deeply rooted in place, and takes inspiration from the stunning and unforgiving landscapes, from the coastal cliffs to the inland valley. California poets are also in conversation with each others. And I’m not just talking about the occasional epigram or dedication—something about these poems, collectively, seems self-referential. Perhaps it’s the influence of natives and transplants such as Larry Leavis and Phillip Levine. Perhaps it’s because poets in California are social, or lonely, and have to seek each other out. A quick look at the poet biographies indicates that most are not full-time college professors (or at least, choose not to emphasize that), while a surprising number edit literary journals. There is an undercurrent of activism, literary and social, that connects many in this anthology.

The editors, Kevin Patrick Sullivan (who started and still runs the poetry festival) and Patti Sullivan, have included a listing of all the festival participants by year. It’s curiously interesting to read through the names. At least one, Glenna Luschei, appears on both the first and final rosters.

I love the midstate region, up around SLO and Paso Robles, and am always happy for an excuse the get up there. Of course, if I actually lived there, I’m not sure how much poetry I’d get written. There’s really no need for poetry in heaven (which makes it all the more remarkable that SLO has such a vibrant poetry scene).