Local poets will come together this weekend to pay tribute to five of their own who have made an impact on the literary world. These Mid-Coast Literary Treasures, so named by the Ventura County Arts Council, will be celebrated on Saturday, Jan. 21, at the Masonic Center in Downtown Ventura. The distinguished poets being honored are Jackson Wheeler of Oxnard, Malibu residents Florence Weinberger and Ellen Reich, John Ridland of Santa Barbara and Glenna Luschei of Carpinteria and San Luis Obispo.
It’s true that only one (Wheeler) resides in Ventura County. But as Phil Taggart, Ventura County poet laureate and one of the event organizers explains, “Poetry doesn’t stop or change at the county line.”
Poet Marsha de la O, who is also helping to put on the celebration, says that the idea was inspired by Gary Snyder (of Turtle Island fame), who did a poetry reading at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), in which he stated, “You need to get a sense of the land you’re in.”
“When we looked at where we were as a poetry community, we have a naturally occurring stretch from Malibu to San Luis Obispo,” de la O says.
“Poetry itself is such a small art form,” Taggart continues. “We all know each other and work together in the community. [The honored poets] read here, support the local poetry journals, and have helped younger poets.”
They’ve also had an impact on the literary world at large. John Ridland, professor emeritus at UCSB, has, in addition to his original compositions, brought the works of Hungarian poets Sándor Márai and Miklós Radnóti to American audiences through his translations, while Glenna Luschei launched Café Solo to bring attention to South American poets. “Latin American voices changed the face of poetry in the United States,” notes de la O. And all have had influence as teachers, editors, publishers, salon and workshop organizers — “in diverse settings, from college students to children to hospitals to prisons to senior centers,” says de la O. “Many, many people have been touched.”
The various endeavors of Oxnard resident Jackson Wheeler, in particular, have reached into several different communities. Coming out of rural Southern Appalachia, his work is steeped in the dialect and oral traditions of that region. As a gay man whose brother died of AIDS, and who worked for many years as a social worker for the disabled community, his canon includes poetry about homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, and the voices of the marginalized — although his writings reach beyond his individual experiences to get at more universal truths.
“Wheeler’s poems brilliantly document the struggle of a soul who approaches the world with empathy, generosity and understanding,” renowned writer Christopher Buckley has said of Wheeler. Locally, the poet has supported Ventura County artists as an avid collector, and fostered emerging talent as longtime host of the Arcade Poetry Series at the Carnegie Art Museum and editor of the poetry journal Solo.
“He’s in many worlds at once,” de la O says.
Honoring Wheeler now takes on particular poignancy, as the renowned poet is currently battling brain cancer. Nevertheless, he is working on a collection of new and selected work to be published in the spring.
Taggart notes that in these uncertain times, it’s more important than ever to recognize the role poetry plays in protest and activism. “Poets are truth seekers,” he says. The political landscape was not a factor in selecting the day for the event, but with activists preparing to hit the streets during and after the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, Taggart finds it a beautiful bit of serendipity. “March in the morning, celebrate poetry in the afternoon,” he says with a smile.
But mostly, celebrating these Mid-Coast Literary Treasures is a way to honor the truth-seeking “elders” who have influenced a new generation of literary artists, and acknowledge the continuing work of writers and poets in the community.
“The poetry in this area is stunning,” says Taggart. “We’re going to celebrate what we’ve done — and remind others that we’re not stopping.”
The ceremony and reception honoring the Mid-Coast Literary Treasures takes place on Saturday, Jan. 21, at 3 p.m. at the Masonic Center, 482 E. Santa Clara St., Ventura. For more information, call 223-5988.