Monday, October 31, 2016

El Dia de los Muertos was moved atop our Day of the Dead/New Year....

There was an altar for a poet friend who died last year, Francisco Alarcon, and a woman posting it said: "Dear White People: Día de los muertos is not your Halloween!" Not knowing the background as to why El Dia de los Muertos was moved to our Day of the Dead/New Year....

I wrote back:

Hallowe'en/Samhain is when we Celts celebrate the end of the year (it's our New Year), and it's a day we also honor our visiting ancestors with food, song, and storytelling. It's a time when the doors to the Otherworld are open. Francisco was a longtime friend, and he would've also honored our traditions as well. FYI, El Dia de Los Muertos was moved atop our holiday, and there are also shared traditions. Francisco would've also honored that.

On Jack O Lanterns and squashes

This was a diatribe against a medievalist's "scholar" post, who conflated pumpkins, New World squashes with old world species.
The author also lumped the Renaissance with the Medieval world. We (imperially speaking) came undone. These are from my notes to I had reposted some of my comments on Facebook. I always meant to make a blog of it, but never did, so this is a placeholder.

I wrote: Did something get lost in translation? We don't call cucumbers squashes. Citrullus was the other form eaten. Melons are not called squashes. Lagenaria was mostly inedible (gourd, clalbash). The word cucurbita means "gourd".

 Most squash as we know them, came from the New World. Note the country of origin in the list below.
"squash, pumpkin, or gourd depending on species, variety, and local parlance,[a] and for their seeds. First cultivated in the Americas before being brought to Europe by returning explorers after their discovery of the New World, plants in the genus Cucurbita are important sources of human food and oil....Cucurbita fruits have played a role in human culture for at least 2,000 years. They are often represented in Moche ceramics from Peru. After Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World, paintings of squashes started to appear in Europe early in the sixteenth century. " —Cucurbita- Wiki
The genus Cucumis in the Cucurbitaceae family, including some gourds, do not include New World squashes. Most gourds are inedible, and you can't eat a loofah! Some gourds (calabashes), and several melons were native to the Old World.
Cucurbita – squash, pumpkin, zucchini, some gourds
Lagenaria – mostly inedible gourds
Citrullus – watermelon (C. lanatus, C. colocynthis) and others
Cucumis – cucumber (C. sativus), various melons
Luffa – the common name is also luffa, sometimes spelled loofah (when fully ripened, two species of this fibrous fruit are the source of the loofah scrubbing sponge)
"Six cucurbit crops are represented in 23 Byzantine-era mosaics from Israel, these being round melons (Cucumis melo), watermelons (Citrullus lanatus), sponge gourds (Luffa aegyptiaca), snake melons (faqqous, Cucumis melo Flexuosus Group), adzhur melons (Cucumis melo Adzhur Group), and bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria). Cucurbits are represented in 23 of the 134 mosaics containing images of crop plants." —Cucurbitaceae - Wikipedia
The Cucurbits of Mediterranean Antiquity: Identification of Taxa from Ancient Images and Descriptions
"By ancient times, long-fruited forms of Cucumis melo (melon) and Lagenaria siceraria (bottle gourd) were selected, cultivated and used as vegetables around the Mediterranean and, in addition, bottle-shaped fruits of L. siceraria were employed as vessels. Citrullus lanatus (watermelons) and round-fruited forms of Cucumis melo (melons) were also consumed, but less commonly. A number of cucurbit species, including Bryonia alba, B. dioica, Citrullus colocynthis and Ecballium elaterium, were employed for medicinal purposes. No unequivocal evidence was found to suggest the presence of Cucumis sativus (cucumber) in the Mediterranean area during this era. The cucumis of Columella and Pliny was not cucumber, as commonly translated, but Cucumis melo subsp. melo Flexuosus Group (snake melon or vegetable melon).
Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples
"The cucumber was much cultivated in Egypt in Pliny's day and known in Early ... Apicius cooked them with brains, cumin, honey, celery seed, liquamen and oil, ... "

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Triskeles, whiteface, and woad, photos

Celtic triskeles and spiral inspired by La Tene art in whiteface and woad—I mean Maybelline. As to the usual: Yes, but what are you supposed to be, my answer was I am that I am. If you need a name, the hag cycle of the Morríghan, the phantom queen, goddess of fertility, war and death; or the Cailleach, the divine crone, a creator/weather/ancestor deity. (From caille, mantle, the veiled one.) The feather growth on the side of my head is part of a plaster bandage mask/cast of my face—also in whiteface and spirals. But prettier. The maiden aspect. I couldn't wear my scary face when I taught kids poetry, so the mask was a compromise. I either wore the mask on my face, or on the back of my head—which really freaked people out. They couldn't tell whether I was coming or going. Nor could I, apparently. 

I always painted my face up as the grotesque Celtic hag with triskeles, but people complained, asked, can't you do something nice....I just wasn't into "pretty" so this was as good as it got. Only once, and once only. I got tired of explaining my character/costume. A New Age Pierrot-Columbina character?

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Halloween Traditions (notes for the UICC Samhain series)

Oíche Shamhna! Happy Samhain. Hallowe'en, aka All Hallows Evening, has its roots in an Irish Catholic tradition that supplanted ancient pagan Celtic Samhain customs. It was introduced to Scotland ca. the 16th century, and came to America in the 19th century via the Irish refugees.

Oíche Shamhna ( night of Samhain) Hallowe’en is the evening before the Feast of All Saints (The Hallowed Ones). But it wasn't always so. In 608 AD, Pope Boniface IV decided to commemorate all the martyrs, so the 13th of May was
designated as the Feast of All Holy Martyrs. In 837 Pope Gregory IV extended the festival to remember all the known and unknown saints. The festival was renamed the Feast of All Saints and the 1st of November was chosen for the festival. The Martyrology of Oengus written circa 800 records the Irish keeping All Saints on the 1st of November but additional feasts of All Saints of Europe on the 20th of April and All Saints of Africa on the 20th of December. Later the 1st of November became the sole commemoration date for All Saints in Ireland. The 2nd of November is the feast of All Souls a day which commemorates the faithful departed. The feast began in the 11th century and was connected with Christian concerns with death and purgatory. Later a popular belief developed that the souls in purgatory could on this day appear back on earth to haunt those who had wronged them. The souls would take the form of ghost, witches or toads. (Farmer 2011, 14). It was also believed one could help the dead on this day by giving alms in the form of coins or food (ibid). In Britain a small round cake called soul cake was made and the cakes were given out to soulers (mainly consisting of children and the poor) who would go from door to door on Halloween, singing and saying prayers for the dead. (BBC)

All-hallows or All-hallowmas (Middle English Alholowmesse: All Saints' Day) the night before was called All-hallows Eve, shortened to Halloween. Pope Gregory IV in 83 AD, moved All Hallowmas to November first. Another harvest holiday was co-opted, one celebrating a Roman Harvest Goddess (of apples) Pomona. Later, the New World Aztec holiday, which shares a remarkable amount of customs with Samhain, El Dia de los Muertos, was moved from August, and added to the melange.

The first historical reference of Hallowe'en in America dates back to 1919, The Book of Hallowe'en. A Massachusetts librarian, Ruth Edna Kelley, credited the Famine Irish with bringing Hallowe'en customs to the new world.
The place of the old lord of the dead, the Tuatha god Saman, to whom vigil was kept and prayers said on November Eve for the good of departed souls, was taken in Christian times by St. Colomba or Columb Kill, the founder of a monastery in Iona in the fifth century. In the seventeenth century the Irish peasants went about begging money and goodies for a feast, and demanding in the name of Columb Kill that fatted calved and black sheep be prepared. In place of the Druid fires, candles were collected and lighted on Hallowe'en, and prayers for the souls of the givers said before them. The name of Saman is kept in the title "Oidhche Shamhna," "vigil of Saman," by which the night of October 31st was until recently called in Ireland.
AS in Ireland the Scotch Baal (fire) festival of November was called Samhain. Western Scotland, lying nearest Tara, center alike of pagan and Christian religion in Ireland, was colonized by both the people and the customs of eastern Ireland.The November Eve fires which in Ireland were replaced by candles and were continued in Scotland. In Buchan, where was the altar-source of the Samhain fire, bonfires were lighted on hilltops in the eighteenth century; and in Moray the idea of fires of thanksgiving for harvest was kept to as late as 1866. The Book of Hallowe'en

I will touch briefly on some of the tropes connected with Halloween, and share some of the ancient traditions associated with this modern holiday. Incidentally, the American candy industry saw a chance to capitalize on Halloween and expand candy sales, and created this dentist's nightmare (or dream) that we celebrate today.


The Celts celebrated four major Fire Festivals: Imbolg/c, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain, which fall on what is called ‘cross quarter’ days – half way between the solstices and equinoxes (celebrated Feb. 1, May 1, July 1 and Nov. 1 for convenience. There is some calendrical variation).

Tochmarc Emire (The Wooing of Emer) from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, mentions the four cross-quarter days, and Samhain is the first mentioned, hence the New Year. Samhain translates as "summer's end," the birth of the dark of the year.

Speaking of fire, of course, there were no flashlights (or torches) way back when, so carving a turnip root lantern makes sense if one wanted light at night whether in Scotland or Ireland. Just try using a naked candle outside at night—even if there's no wind (or rain) you're blinded by it. Turnip lanterns were a brilliant, if practical rural invention—like organic alabaster lamps. Feed them to the cows when you're done with them.

As a child, my grandmother carved turnips (or swedes, or even mangles—any big pithy round roots used for cow fodder) in Bantry during the 1890s. Turnips were used as lanterns, candles were placed in the window. Carving a turnip with a spoon was hard work, and usually broke the spoon.

Carved turnips are terrifying as compared to pumpkins. When lit, they resemble glowing human skulls—and since ancient Celtic warriors collected heads of their enemies and displayed their skulls on special niches, then perhaps there is more to this tradition than meets the eye (or skull).

This is what I turniped on the Irish ancestors of Jack o'lanterns: The turnip or white turnip (Brassica rapa, subsp. rapa) is a root vegetable with a white, bulbous taproot. Apparently a rutabaga (Brassica napus, subsp. rapifera—it means ram's horn in Old Swedish), or yellow turnip, is the result of a sordid little love affair between a cabbage and a turnip, see, the little rutabeggar love child had double the chromosomes. Busted.

Rutabagas were carved out and used as candle lanterns in Halloween celebrations in Scotland and Ireland. The tough root vegetables were considered famine foods, fit only for livestock.

So the origin of Jack o'lanterns was really a poor man's torch. What you couldn't eat. Somehow our family survived the Great Potato Famine: an Gorta Mór (1845-52), in the hills of Coomanore, and I suspect it was because they ate lots of turnips. Candles were placed in the windows to show the dead the way back home.

And of course there's the story of Hard Jack or Stingy Jack, the drunken farmer who was so wicked in his ways, that when he tricked the devil, the devil kicked him out of Hell and tossed a coal after him to light his way.

Jack, who was 86ed from both Heaven and Hell, was destined to wander the Netherworld for eternity. Jack begged the Devil for a light and a little something to keep him warm in limboland. The devil actually felt sorry for Jack and threw him a coal to light his way, but it was too hot to handle, so Jack carved the first lantern from a turnip as he wanders purgatory looking for a place to call home.

According to folklore, the Jack O’Lantern is named after a blacksmith Stingy Jack who tricked the devil into paying for his drinks. Unable to enter heaven or hell when he died, the devil threw him a burning ember. He was left to wander the earth carrying it about inside a turnip – or should that be a pumpkin? (Fowler 2005)

New World pumpkins were already conveniently hollowed out, and made for a much better Jack o'Lantern. Using turnips as lanterns was not solely an Irish tradition. Apparently turnip “Hoberdy’s Lantern” were also used in Worcestershire, England at the end of the 18th c.

Here's the full story of Jack.
A man called Stingy Jack invited the devil for a drink and convinced him to shape-shift into a coin to pay with. When the devil obliged, Jack decided he wanted the coin for other purposes, and kept it in his pocket beside a small, silver cross to prevent it from turning back into the devil.
Jack eventually freed the devil under the condition that he wouldn’t bother Jack for one year, and wouldn’t claim Jack’s soul once he died. The next year, Jack tricked the devil once more by convincing him to climb up a tree to fetch a piece of fruit. When he was up in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the trunk so the devil couldn’t come down until he swore he wouldn’t bother Stingy Jack for another ten years.
When Jack died, God wouldn’t allow him into heaven and the devil wouldn’t allow him into hell. He was instead sent into the eternal night, with a burning coal inside a carved-out turnip to light his way. He’s been roaming the earth ever since. The Irish began to refer to this spooky figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” which then became “Jack O’Lantern.” —By way of Irish Central.

Believe it or not, Samhain was never Satanic. It was a dangerous time, but not evil. We can thank the fire and brimstone aspect from evangelical, or Puritan Christian influence. There was no concept of heaven or hell in Celtic mythology, just Otherworlds. The Cruachan, and Owenyngat were considered to be gateways to the Sídhe Otherworld—which was underground. The word banshee, the keening woman who heralds death, comes from woman of the Sídhe.

Jack wasn't the only one to look out for on Halloween, there were other creatures wandering about, some benign ancestors, others, not so much. There are also tales of shapeshifter cats from the sídhe, as Otherworld sentries, and useful as spare parts if a god lost an eye. Owenyngat is the cave of cats. There's an Irish saying, "God save all here, except the cat."

And the Púca was one very busy goat pissing on all the berries on Hallowe'en, so you couldn't eat them after Nov 1.


It was also an Irish tradition to let the hearth fire die, and relight them for the New Year. My grandmother cleaned the hearth, buried the ashes in the garden, and then she told me the of the tradition of relighting the fire—from the runners carrying the sacred flame in those traveling turnips.

Theoretically all the hearth fires of Ireland were relit from the Druid fire of Tara. But the New World was a bit of a jog from Tara. So we used a strand of broom from the stove to carry the fire to the living room. Out with the old, in with the new. It was New Year's Eve, and first day of winter, after all! The other cross quarter holiday is Bealtaine, which is the feast of Bel's fires.

My great-grandfather also used to run his cattle between two bonfires, on his farm in the hills of Coomanore. My grandmother told me he also filled an oak (whiskey?) barrel with tar, set it alight and rolled it down the hill. An Irish Catherine wheel of sorts. (The Walsh farm, Coomanore.)

And the fire festival of Up Helly Aa, in the Shetlands, supposedly a Norse tradition, as well as Guy Fawkes Day, seem to have been retrofitted from earlier Celtic customs—in a manner similar to what the Catholic church co-opted and made its own. A penny for the Guy?


The ancient Celts believed that the dead were placed went into the (divine hag/crone) Cailleach's cauldron, which symbolized the womb of rebirth, the dead awaited earthly reincarnation—which directly contradicted the Catholic Church's teachings. One of the four legendary Tteasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Allfather god, Dagda's Otherworld cauldron of plenty, the horn, or cornucopia. His cauldron, the Undry was probably the origin of the Grail myth—was nefariously used to create vast armies of undead (zombies), to fight battles. And then there's the most famous Celtic cauldron of all, the Gundestrup cauldron, with the antlered Cernunnos deity.

Gundestrup Cauldron; plate g; one of the 8 plates is missing. —Wiki


Samhain Feis na Samhna, (named after a god), was also the time of harvest and plenitude, the end of the pastoral year, as well as a time of hospitality. Food was laid out for both the living and the dead—soul cakes, apples and nuts. In my grandmother's time, prized Valencia oranges—a luxury item wrapped in foil—were also given as gifts.

Put the kettle on the hob, my grannie would say when she fancied a cup of tea. Special tea dishes included ham, colcannon, a cabbage and potato dish, or fried potato cakes (soulcakes?), and sodabread, or the magic barmbrack cake. It was also a time to tell ghost stories or tell the future.

Forms of divination is still practiced, in the west of Ireland, four plates were used to foretell marriage, prosperity, travel, or death.

Then there was the barmbrack, or Halloween cake with its symbolic ring key, penny thimble, button and baked inside. (See James Joyce's, story, The Dead.) The ring was a hasty marriage, the key—a journey, a penny—wealth; the thimble-spinsterhood, and the button—bachelorhood.

Bunworth Banshee, Fairy Legends & Traditions of the South of Ireland, Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825 —Wiki

Apple bobbing, if you managed to grab an apple floating in a barrel at the first try, or snap-apple, apple on a string at first bite, meant good luck, or you'd be the first to marry, or that you'd find true love.

Apples on strings are as fickle as love, so girls would place bobbed apple under their pillow on Halloween night, to dream of their future husband. Sort of like the Tooth Fairy on a matchmaking spree.

There was also scrying in water or mirrors—if you owned one. Peeling an apple in one long peel and see what letter it represented when it fell on the floor. The initials of who a girl would marry.

I've read that special straw crosses, similar to St. Brigid's cross, but made with a spiral in the cross arms instead of a woven square, were made and placed above the lintel to protect the home from bad luck during the coming year. But I've never seen one. My grandmother once showed me how to make St. Brigid's crosses, but the tradition never took. I was all thumbs.


Oídche na h-aimléise: Mischief Night (wearing a mask was to scare off the scary wanderers).

Wearing rags, and masks (as a disguise) and using bull roarers to scare off evil spirits—were all part and parcel of a long ongoing tradition of Hallowe'en. Since the doors to the Otherwirld were wide open and all manner of spirits, and gods could freely travel between worlds, not to mention one's ancestors, masks were a precautionary disguise to keep the living safe from the nefarious characters juking about.

Traditional Irish Halloween masks were often made of cloth or papier-mâché, and were called false faces, or fiddle faces. Gangs of masked boys would visit local farmhouses to beg for food or money, creating mischief if they were not rewarded, like throwing cabbages at people's doors, tilting outhouses, or practical jokes like removing hinges from gates, or swapping them with the gates from a neighboring farm, etc.

I found a reference that Mischief Night turned deadly in the hands of Irish gangs roaming New York's Hell's Kitchen. So Irish families organized Halloween parties—from which many of our American traditions stem.


My grannie was thoroughly disgusted with the American tradition of Trick or Treat. She said, in Ireland, one had to dance and sing, or recite a poem or story, and then, if one was good, they might be given a treat, hazelnuts (the nut of knowledge), or an orange, or a ha-penny if they were very, very good. (Singing a song for a treat was considered fair trade, hence the term, a "trick for a treat." This tradition was also associated with Christmas.) One was expected to trot out one's best pony show. Move over, Simon Cowell.

Samhain has been a big date in the Celtic Irish world for at least 2000 years—with and without church sanction. All the ancient Irish epic tales (dating back 2000 years) usually began on on the last day of the old harvest year, All Hallow's Eve, and included many traditions we now associate with Hallowe'en—when the gates to the Otherworld were open. Samhain was the date the itinerant bards, the storytellers also arrived to tell their tales through the winter months.

As to the Scottish Hallowe'en connection: not only were the Highlands settled by the Dalriada Irish during the Dark Ages, much of Glasgow (and River Clyde shipyards) environs—especially the slums, the Barrowland—were continuously resettled by waves of itinerant Catholic Irish workers—through the Industrial Revolution—especially after the Irish Famine.

One could also include most of Renfrewshire in that Irish matrix—especially Johnstone, where Neil is from, one epicenter of the Industrial Revolution: paper, flax, cotton mills, lathes. One curious Scottish custom, which probably has roots in Halloween traditions, is instead of trick or treat, it was to feed the Galotians. Or as Neil said the na-glotians. His friend, Jane Bark, from Barra remembers dressing up as the galotians.

Galotian pageants, sort of like Everyman plays, were not restricted to Hallloween.

There is a crossover with the tradition of mumming or guising (dressing in costumes, part and parcel of many holidays, including Christmas). I suspect the Scottish Christmas Panto(mime) is related.


Trick or Treat is also related to Catholic traditions associated with November 2nd, All Souls Day. Christians begged for "soul cakes" or "go a-soulin" with promise to say prayers on the behalf of those who had recently died.

The round, Hey Ho, Nobody Home was one of my favorite caroling songs when I was young. My grandmother heard me singing it and told me of soulcakes and filled me in on other verses. (See Mudcat) Apparently the nautical term, "hey-ho" first appeared in print in 1471, which suggests the song is medieval in origin.

Soul Cake (an ancestor of trick or treating)

1. Soul, soul, soul cake. Please, Good mama, a soul cake, an
2. Apple, a plum, a peach or cherry, Any good thing to make us merry
3. One for Peter, two for Paul. Three for Him that made us all.


Hallowe'en itself arose because the older Celtic pagan traditions of worshipping ancestors and mythological deities needed to be Catholicised and brought into the churchfold: hence we have All Hallows Eve(n), All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

BTW—there's a reason why there are shared customs in both the Old, and New World. In the 9th c., Pope Boniface IV decided to show those heathens a thing or two, and Christianized the holidays (holy days). And from the Aztec world, there was El Dia de los Muertos, an August festival. Not really, it was more complicated than that. Besides, the New World hadn't been "discovered" yet. Detail.

But eventually November 1 was a time to honor "saints and martyrs" and it was called All Saints' Day, or All-hallows or All-hallowmas, and the night before, Samhain, was renamed All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

Then in the year 1000, the Catholic church set up November 2 to be All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated much like Samhain, with bonfires, parades, while the people dressed as saints, angels, and devils. Fast Forward to the discovery of the New World, the Aztec ancestor celebration was moved to the Celtic celebration to keep it all together.

However it all went down, the secular aspect of Hallowe'en certainly caught fire. And we're still celebrating it to this day.

On Irish Saints' Names and Family Names

Molly posts a photograph of the two churches in Nevada City, stranded  on opposite sides of the freeway, St. Canice's & Trinity Episcopal. If you stand just so, you can see both spires at once. Two churches separated by road and by faith.

Few know that Canice was an Irish saint, Cainnech moccu Dalánn, he was born in Glengiven, Ireland, and was a close friend of St. Columba's. Helped convert the Picts. 

I'm sure everybody mispronounces the church name. That's Canice, not Candace—which drove my aunt Canice crazy. Just. Don't.

My aunt Canice, the last child in line, was named after a dude. Yep. That would be Kenneth, in English, or Anguish as my grannie would say... 

The name gave my aunt Canice much anguish during her lifetime. She gave up trying to correct people and eventually went by the handle of Candy. People couldn't screw that name up. How sweet.

Sort of like why I cowped to using Mo vs. Maureen after resisting for decades. Not that there was a Saint Maureen, but it means Little Mary, or bitter herbs. Take your pick.

It's a good thing my granny didn't choose St. Kevin. Can you imagine what would've happened with the moniker, Caoimhín, in the mouths of the English speakers? 

Keeping in the family tradition of unpronounceable Irish names, Canice named her only daughter  Sinead, after my grandmother. You'd think she would've known better.  I guess it could've been Siobhan. St. Joan.

My cousin Sinead doesn't let anyone read her nametag at work, their eyes get all tangled up in the random assortment of vowels. And she won't give her real name out to baristas—it comes out as Sin-head, or Sineed! We liked Sinhead. It makes us laugh. 

All this naming after saints in my family to keep us in line. Not that it ever took.

Monday, October 24, 2016

So long, Tom Hayden

So long, Tom. May the roads rise up to meet you...

I got to hang out with the “Chicago 7” anti-war activist Tom Hayden at the Santa Anita Irish Faire, in 1997, his anthology, Irish Hunger just came out. I tried to buy it, he said No, poets shouldn't have to pay for this book. And he signed it with a flourish.

I used to run into Tom when we lobbied for the arts at the state capitol in Sacramento. Tom's office was always open, a refuge for artists. Tom, former husband of actress Jane Fonda (17 years), tried to make change from within politics. He was a real mover and shaker.  The radical inside the system. He worked both sides of the floor. Tom was elected to the assembly in 1982, and in 1992, Hayden was elected to the state senate.

We kept in touch via Facebook and Twitter, but he'd been quiet for a while, he had a stroke in 2015, I guess it was a long illness. He died year minus a day just shy of Maureen O'Hara (2015).

Wow, 2016, helluva year for our cultural icons. May the righteous roads rise with him and may he rest in justice.

Hayden legislated the Great Hunger be included in curriculum 1997 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Napa Poetry Conference cartoon

Once upon a time we were an extraordinary group of poets who met each summer in Napa. Organizing poets for this photo shoot was like herding cats. My photo traveled far and wide, so I made a parody drawing of it. Can you recognize any of the poets? It's 1985. Some of the poets no longer walk with us.

Napa Valley College English Chair, Dave Evans founded the Napa Poetry Conference in the summer of 1981. It began as a collective of Berkeley poets and students who came together to share their expertise and perfect writing skills. 

I'm not sure how I got roped in, probably to do a potential story. But I attended most. if not all, the conferences through 1987; Dave kept the tuition low. In my case, he waived it entirely in exchange for photographic documentation. At first, I merely observed, but then, Dave brought me in as a participant and presenter. My writing life was irrevocably changed.

Word got out and poets from all over the US and beyond attended the workshops. Several came from the Bahamas, of all places. So during the spring of 1985, we all packed up and flew south—to Nassau, for an international conference. Extraordinary times.

One of the unique aspects of the Napa Poetry Conference was that we were all housed within the community, no motels. I stayed as some extraordinary homes, one place on top of Mt. Veder, another ranch in the Mayacamas, replete with lake and rowboat, our hosts were a medic and a combat helicopter pilot, each was carrying on a secret affair, so life was intense. Because we were all poet-roommates, we made deeper bonds.

After Dave died, John Leggett took over, and the direction of the Napa Poetry Conference drastically changed. It became the Napa Valley Writers' Conference. Some of the old guard were invited back; Frank Bidart, Robert Pinsky, but the flavor had changed, with Dave Evans gone, there was no community housing offered, and tuition was stiff. A tony new era was ushered in. I never went back.

Stay tuned, I found a large box of photos from NPC, and am scanning old memorabilia.

Another photo, Poets on the landing. Still can't get everyone's attention.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

River of Words Workshop with Pam Michael

Warm up, blind contour line drawing of an object in a paper bag. Using your finger as your  new "eyes" trace along the edges of your object, and make a drawing from what you feel. 

I had to laugh, Pam also used rubber bands to keep our non-drawing hands inside the bag, and so we couldn't peek. Also, snails have weird eyestalks very much like little fingers, art imitating life imitating art.

When you're done with your drawing, make a word cluster. Any words that come to mind. Don't censor, don't think. I didn't use any of them in my poem, but it was pleasant to warm up by drawing...

Then unmask your object, after you've speculated as to color, texture, etc. Share the drawing with the class. I speculated the stripes but not the brown color. I went for pink. Sometime what you  already know isn't useful. begin fresh each time.

write down 5 images

1. Outdoor setting
2. weather
3. something lost
4. something found
5. final line, wrap it up: comment, compare, contrast, complain, question. Revise. Read aloud to class.

The wind plays the barbed wire 
with its ghost fingers
The trees hiss and sigh 
while the grass whispers secrets
Cumulus clouds gather on the horizon
ladened with the promise of rain
Looking for remnants of lost childhood 
on this lonesome ridge
Garnered the wisdom of experience,
remembering then, and now, as one thing.
What other secrets does the wind dream up?


Pam also gave us a historical perspective and slide show of River of Words highlights. An amazing annual international poetry and art contest for children and a program that reached students from around the world. Fantastic art and touching stories of students in refugee camps sending in their artwork. Perhaps the saddest story is that Pam turned over the project, her life's work, and all the memorabilia to St. Mary's College, and they've let it go defunct. Tossed 20 years' worth of art out.  But the ROW website is still up. Check out the website and download her free PDF River of Words Teacher's Guide.