Women of their word

Four female poets to be honored as literary treasures

By Jenny Lower 04/11/2013

Poetry may sometimes be regarded as the ugly stepchild of the arts — the pale, anemic one who doesn’t get out much — but it’s healthy, beloved and thriving in Ventura County. Now the vibrant arts community will honor four of its own at a special ceremony April 17, 5:30 p.m.

Joyce LaMers of Oxnard, Doris Vernon of Camarillo, Polly Bee of Ojai, and Elnora McNaughton of Oxnard, all poet-matriarchs in their late 80s and 90s, will be dubbed literary treasures at the Ventura County Government Center event. The ceremony is hosted by the Ventura County Arts Council and the Groundswell Committee, a panel of writers who aim to bring greater visibility to the art form at the local level. Defying Gravity, a chapbook of the women’s work, will also be made available at the event.

Phil Taggart, a Groundswell member who co-edits the literary journal Askew with Marsha de la O and organizes weekly readings at the E.P. Foster Library, says the awards arose from early talks about establishing a future poet laureateship for Ventura County, along with a desire to recognize the women’s achievements as long-standing contributors in the close-knit community. 

“They have been mentors to many, many people,” says Taggart. “Their craft is so good. They’re all pistols.”

The honorees, all of whom are friendly with each other, have been involved in various projects throughout town, including the now defunct Ojai-based publication Rivertalk and the Ventura County Writers’ Club. LaMers, Vernon and Bee have been regular (and popular) contributors at the annual erotic poetry event.

LaMers, 92, published her first poem at age 7, and later appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and Good Housekeeping. She specializes in what Taggart calls “pithy brilliance” — short, light verse punctuated by Dorothy Parker-like barbs. In a four-line composition called “Nostalgia,” LaMers wryly muses,

“It’s hard to see how,
when I come to review it,
what’s glamorous now
was so dull living through it.”

“If you look at most good light verse you’ll find there’s a very serious undertone in it,” says LaMers. “It has to be based on something real.”

McNaughton, 94, grew up in Nebraska; her love of jazz and a “sharp Midwestern tang” (Taggart’s words) recur in lines like this one relishing the word “duplicitous.”

“That extra syllable
creates a craftier
heart gives
the line more poetry
than a word
like deceitful.”

One of the strengths of these older poets, Taggart observes, is their ability to speak with eloquence and candor about the realities of aging. Bee, 87, whose ampersand-littered verses bespeak a life still lived at breakneck speed, fumes at one point:

“the Internet’s make-believe gods espouse
’tis a mortal sin to help someone die
What in the hell is a mortal sin anyway?”

In the thanatopsis “Happy Faces,” Vernon, 88, writes,

“She painted happy faces
Where her breasts had been
Put a cross on her pubic crest … Regretful
that her eye sockets
Would soon be empty.”

Somber thoughts, but Vernon resists efforts to dissect her work too closely.  “When you start analyzing a creative effort, it’s sort of like examining a beautiful bird by taking it apart,” she says. “You end up with a heap of bones and feathers, and it’s no longer a bird.”

Their work may be serious, but the ceremony remains distinctly light-hearted. The four poets will each receive a rhinestone-studded flask engraved with their name and new status.

“We spend a lot of time being worried about things,” says Taggart. “This is a joyous occasion. We’re honoring our friends.” 

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