THIS WEEK WE'VE TURNED THE JOURNAL COVER STORY OVER TO WRITERS.
This is not to say that our own skilled staff of journalists are not writers, but these six are some of the stars of Humboldt County's literary community. The prose and poetry they've written for us is a preview, in a way, of a truly unique event taking place next weekend at College of the Redwoods: A marathon reading by a score of North Coast authors and poets.
The gathering is the brainchild of CR English professor David Holper, who has a knack for energizing local writers -- a couple of years ago, for example, he commissioned Jeff DeMark's "Hard as a Diamond" monologue. The inspiration for "In a Town This Size," as the April 2 performance is called, came from Kent Haruf's Plainsong, last year's CR Book of the Year. The novel told a spare, simple and beautiful story of small-town life. Holper realized that Humboldt County authors had their own stories to share about living in a small town and should be given an opportunity to do so.
The reading is a CR Visiting Writers Series event organized in conjunction with Humboldt State University -- the first such joint venture since the series began. It begins at 7 p.m. at CR's Forum Theater. Admission is free and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.
The writers/performers include Daryl Chinn, Dick Day, Jeff DeMark, Jim Dodge, Ellen Givins, Cecelia Holland, Celia Homesley, Freeman House, Laura Koskinen, Julian Lang, Jerry Martien, Pat McCutcheon, Ruth Mountaingrove, Jude Nutter, Roy Parvin, Vinnie Peloso, Ray Raphael, Jerry Rohde, Dick Stull and Journal columnist Amy Stewart.
A few weeks back Stewart sent me an e-mail suggesting the event "might make a great cover story," and adding that she'd "be perfectly happy" if it wasn't her task. After batting around a couple of ideas with Stewart, Holper and Dodge, head of the creative writing program at HSU, we settled on a mini-anthology with a subset of those who will read at CR waxing poetic on the communities they live in. (What follows is not what these writers will present at the reading.)
The results are as varied as the writers group. Dodge chose to focus on the writers' community. Jerry Martien figured he would "get in trouble again" if he wrote about his town, Manila; instead he sent one of his bioregional poems. Novelist Cecelia Holland offered a paean to Fortuna; friends Dick Stull and Jeff DeMark focused on family and their lives in McKinleyville and Blue Lake, respectively. Stewart, author of The Earth Moved, a book about earthworms that is drawing raves, wrote about the blessed lack of distractions in Eureka -- compared at least to big cities.
-- Introduction & photos by Bob Doran
Working in a Small Town -- by Amy Stewart
My husband Scott has a terrible sense of direction. He can get lost on the way to the grocery store. We lived in the Bay Area for six years and he never did learn his way around. He told me that he wanted to live in a small town because he'd be able to get his mind around it. He could hold the whole of it in his head, like a single thought, and then he wouldn't get lost.
I was worried about losing my way too, but in a different way. We couldn't afford to buy a house in the Bay Area, and between the real estate and the tony shopping and restaurant districts a short drive from my house, I was always tempted to spend my money on stuff I couldn't afford, a practice that was keeping me chained to a day job.
Then there are all the other big-city distractions that can get in the way of writing. When I page through the entertainment listings in the New Yorker, I'm enormously relieved that I don't have to choose between sitting alone at my desk or, say, going down the street to hear Diana Krall sing or heading to a bookstore to meet Philip Roth. Sure, we have a thriving arts and cultural scene here on the North Coast, but when I had a deadline to meet last Saturday, I skipped Arts Alive without giving it a second thought.
Cities are full of writers who manage to get their work done in spite of all the temptations and the demands on their time and money. I'm just not one of them. I love the feeling of driving home to Humboldt County after I've been away. The garish and noisy world recedes, and the fog-shrouded redwoods actually do feel like a curtain I'm slipping behind. Living here is like being on retreat. It feels like I've stepped back from the crowd so I can get a better look at it.
Now Eureka's grid of streets is firmly fixed in Scott's mind; he can say, "You know that building at the corner of Third and E?" and while I struggle to picture it, he sees it perfectly. Finally, a layout that makes sense to him. Our lives have gotten smaller, too. On most days, my longest trip is between my house and the Co-op, four blocks away -- and even on that walk, I'll probably run into someone I know.
I wish I could say that this smallness, this intimacy, suggests stories and characters to me. But I don't write novels, I write nonfiction. I need silence, a room with a door that closes, and the patience and presence of mind to bring the details into focus. I've found what I need here, and so has Scott. Neither one of us loses our way anymore.
Amy Stewart is the author of From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden and The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable
Achievements of Earthworms. She also writes a gardening column, a book column and theater reviews for the Journal.
Fortuna's Honest Heart -- by Cecelia Holland
Fortuna is the perfect size -- small enough that everybody knows everybody else's business, large enough that there's always somebody whose business is interesting. The little city has had a number of different names, and its center of gravity has moved considerably over time, according to the dictates of the Eel River, which has been known to exercise authority over the landscape; Fortuna currently sits on the sunny benches and slopes east of the river, a little north of where the Eel gathers in the Van Duzen, and behind the perhaps illusory safety of the 12th Street levee. The views from the second story of River Lodge, which sits on the levee looking south, are among the loveliest in the world.
Fortuna is a contentious town, ground zero in the redwood wars, with an active political life, although not perhaps as politically correct as Arcata's. Civic life is often noisy. Once, during a lull in the endless timber battles, the pious wing of Fortuna society took out after the party wing, domesticated the rodeo, and nearly toppled perennial councilperson Mel Berti. The rodeo has never truly recovered, but Fortuna's irrepressible urge to party has reasserted itself in the Autorama, a week of sheet metal gothic, incredible traffic jams and overheated tail pipes, which also thoroughly reconfirms the city's claim to be cowboy capital of the county, if not the known universe. We have our art and wine tasting in the park, and the monthly concerts at the Monday Club, but Fortuna's heart belongs to pick-up trucks, cowboy hats and deer season.
I came up here from Los Angeles 30 years ago and knew right away I was home. One early clue was when I got into a conversation with the clerk at the Safeway and the person behind me in line not only didn't object, but joined in. I loved Clendenen's cider. I liked that the kids rode their horses down Main Street and cars stopped at crosswalks even before somebody stepped off the sidewalk. In a pasture above the old park, behind what was then Goble's, a deer had a relationship with a German shepherd; they would stand side by side watching the cars go by on Main Street, the deer sometimes licking the dog's face. There were more mills in town then, and the big one belonged to Louisiana Pacific. Where the shopping mall is now was an open field, with a billboard on which some wag had crudely drawn, in red paint, a smoking joint.
These are not easy times for Fortuna. It's hard to watch a way of life destroyed, whomever you blame for it, and it's hard not to see change as loss. The kids still ride their horses through town. The deer is gone, victim of an overzealous Fish and Game agent. The old fields are full of new houses. Mel is still mayor. The rowdy, hard-working, outdoor town still lives, where some misguided cowboys can turn a herd of horses loose on Main Street and spend the rest of the afternoon trying to round them up, and a pick-up girls softball team can go all the way to the national championships, but it's sometimes hard to figure where the jobs are going to come from. The kids all seem to be leaving town. Half the kindergarten speaks Spanish.
Just before the last election I went to a candidates' debate for the 2nd District Supervisor. The election's hot button, of course, was the Gallegos recall, propelled and financed by outsiders, a brutal campaign to which I had added more than my share of acrimony, and which had left me feeling ugly about politics. But the supervisor's race had drawn an unusual crowd of candidates, and since Fortuna is the heart of the 2nd District, I couldn't stay away.
The debate was wonderful. At various times I wanted to vote for all four candidates -- intelligent, knowledgeable, well-spoken, forthright, and engaged with the problems. Above all, in spite of the sharp differences among them, they treated the audience and each other with a profound civility -- the civility of knowing that, after the election, win or lose, they would all have to walk down the same streets, among people who would know everybody else's business. I left reassured and grateful for the honest heart of a small town.
Cecelia Holland is the author of 28 novels, including The Soul Thief, The Angel and the Sword, and Lily Nevada. She is working on a nonfiction book on the Railroad Riots of 1887.
the ones close in -- by Jerry Martien
ones close in
Jerry Martien has taught creative writing and nature writing for the past seven years at Humboldt State University. His published work includes Shell Game: A True Account of Beads and Money in North America, and a collection of poetry, Pieces in Place.
How We Ended Up in Blue Lake -- by Jeff DeMark
We had never planned to leave our cozy little house on Buttermilk Lane in Sunny Brae. My wife Gayle and I had lived on that bucolic street since 1990. Like many Sunny Brae houses, it's a modest place, just 850 square feet plus a garage. However, we could look out our kitchen window and see horses grazing and a terraced backyard overflowed with roses. It was a prefect house for two. Then, a child named Alice entered our world and our house felt happier but smaller. A few years later Jesse appeared. Our house felt much smaller. Things accumulated: furniture, books, papers, art, CDs, cats, toys and clothes. Our cozy little house morphed into a crazy little house. We still loved living on Buttermilk Lane but, to misquote the Jimi Hendrix song, "The wind cried: SPACE!"
We embarked on a search for a new home that lasted more than five years. We backed out of three or four escrow situations, a few verbal agreements, and passed on numerous situations that now look like amazing deals. Realtors put us on a black list of clients to avoid. We scoured real estate magazines and attended open houses. We toured scores of homes everywhere but nothing clicked. Regret and self-doubt followed us like street dogs.
Then we went to a potluck at Kate's house in Blue Lake. There we met a gang of young kids running around, friends who'd recently moved there, and felt the warm sun. I noticed alleyways everywhere, like those I used to ride back where I grew up. I thought "Our kids could ride their bikes here much easier than dangerous Buttermilk Lane." We looked around and saw a few stately old houses. Gayle and I later said to each other, "Why didn't we ever think of Blue Lake? Now it's probably too late." More regret.
A year after that potluck Kate called and said a two-story house was for sale three doors down from hers. We raced out to Blue Lake and saw a gorgeous East Lake-style Victorian built in 1903 with white trim, corbels, high windows and porches. It looked a little battered, but graceful and spacious.
We went for the jugular and bought the place. It turned out to be more than a little battered. After a year of renovation and gnashing of teeth, we moved in this past December. Gayle said, since it was exactly a century old, "We gave it a 100-year makeover."
On a recent Sunday we understood exactly why we were attracted to this little town with no commercial district or grocery store. With the sun shining brightly we went to the Mad River Grange for a delicious breakfast where neighbors, friends and Dell'Arte students brought us our pancakes and eggs. Then we meandered over to the Mad River, a place everybody walks to almost daily, and watched the kids toss rocks and splash around for hours. As dusk approached friends called and we enjoyed a delicious barbecue. My 5-year-old son, Jesse, said, "Daddy, I don't know why they call it Blue Lake. They should call it Blue Skies because the sun's always out."
Jeff DeMark has worked as a factory worker, a cab driver, a substitute English teacher, and an ad salesman for the San Francisco Giants.
His monologues include "Writing My Way Out of Adolescence," "Went to Lunch, Never Returned," "Making Every Mistake Twice," and "Hard as a Diamond, Soft as the Dirt."
Meditation on McKinleyville -- by Richard Arlin Stull
Our family moved into the new Heartwood development in McKinleyville in 1993. There was a lot of open space. We watched outside our kitchen window as new houses sprouted up and young families moved into our cul-de-sac. In the evenings our families, kids and dogs would sit on our front lawns. The neighborhood dads made beer together. We had regular Fourth of July barbecues and fireworks. When friends or relatives flew in, we would wait for the plane to fly overhead, jump in the car and be at the airport in time to greet them. When my wife's aunt visited, she wanted to see the tallest totem pole in the world. "Well, I'll be!" she said in her Texas drawl.
When our son started playing Little League, we could hear Coach Lonn's boom-box voice reverberate from a just few blocks away, not far from the totem pole, so we always knew how practice was faring. We watched on opening day as kids in uniforms of all colors of the rainbow stood on the infield, said the pledge, had our own Coast Guard helicopter fly-over, and then listened to the cry, "Play ball!" On game day you could sit with your neighbors and friends in the stands, watch your kids, and always catch up with the local gossip at the snack shack.
Our family could drive for seven minutes and walk for an hour along Clam Beach, let our yellow lab frolic in the ocean, and never have to worry about a crowd. And we always enjoyed watching our kids march down Central Avenue each year for Pony Express Days.
There was a good deal of Norman Rockwell in the life we'd been privileged to live. But our eyes weren't closed to how quickly the community was growing, and how the difficult questions of development and of incorporation were central to the long-term health of McKinleyville, whose rural atmosphere was so appealing. We saw old families move out and new families move in. We saw families break up. There are things that occur that divide communities and things that bring communities together. We are no different in these respects than any growing community anywhere in the United States.
When our 9-year-old daughter, Camilla, was diagnosed two months ago with leukemia, our world changed. One day Camilla was racing down the basketball court; the next day her mother and I huddled around her in a hospital bed in San Francisco with a team of doctors, nurses and social workers explaining how her life and ours would be different. And while her potential for cure is high, we understand how difficult it will be for her and our family in the next years.
Immediately, we were inundated with telephone calls from friends in the neighborhood, the schools and in the community with offers of help. Flowers, balloons and stuffed animals started arriving at Children's Hospital. A caravan of friends, neighbors and schoolmates from McKinleyville came to San Francisco -- so many that for a week we were almost never without visitors.
Judy Johnston, our daughter's fourth-grade teacher at Dow's Prairie School, drove down on her break with a carload of pictures and gifts from all the fourth-grade classes, including a 4-foot stuffed rabbit buckled beside her in the passenger seat, allowing her to make good time driving in the carpool lanes. By the end of the week, there was so much stuff in my daughter's hospital room people mistook it for the gift shop.
Meanwhile, neighbors arranged for dinners to be delivered for six weeks in advance and came by to help decorate and clean our house for my daughter's homecoming. Once Camilla was home, Mrs. Johnston came by the house on a regular basis to check on her and tutor her. Our daughter's basketball team had her number (#7) stitched on their uniforms and sent a giant photo of the team pointing to her number. Parents videotaped the games for us to watch. Friends, close and casual, coaches, teachers and parents offered to help raise funds and donate time, services, hair for wigs, and blood. Families whom we'd barely known through community activities five years previous called and asked if they could help. It didn't matter, rich or poor, young or old, single or married -- everyone showed us the face of a community that truly cared, offering love, concern, support and prayers. My wife kept saying in astonishment, "But Dick, we barely know them."
When we moved to McKinleyville in 1993 it was a community that already had a tradition, an identity, a history and local pride. We were the "new arrivals" in the '90s looking for a place to live our version of the American Dream -- not to have the most expensive house or car, but to live with dignity and values. We saw McKinleyville as a growing community -- a place that offered good schools, access to parks and the ocean, helpful and friendly local merchants and the promise of a life oriented toward families. Little did we know how truly lucky we were -- for ultimately, community is defined by the goodwill and love of its people.
Dick Stull is an HSU professor and a poet who has performed at the Morris Graves and other venues.
Some Principles for a Writing Community -- by Jim Dodge
Because writers spend their defining hours alone with their own imaginations in rooms full of language, it seems almost foolishly hopeful to speak of a North Coast literary community, especially considering the North Coast lacks a metropolitan center where the literati can gather. In fact, during the 40 years that I've considered myself a North Coast writer, I've been drawn to the relative isolation of these west-slope Coast Range watersheds precisely because I would rather write than talk about writing, and I know many others who share that sensibility. Like me, they either intuit or have learned from experiences elsewhere that literary scenes, with rare exception, consume more light than they produce.
For instance, I did my undergraduate work behind the Redwood Curtain, starting as a fisheries major at HSU and then attending the notorious University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. During my time there, Iowa City was a scene, not a community, and I saw such a Shakespearean "expense of spirit and a waste of shame," and so many young writers damaged, that I soon retreated to the coastal hills near the headwaters of the Gualala to live on a small commune while I worked on my chops. I'd learned enough through schooling to learn more on my own, and I worked on poems and poetry every night, and through readings and correspondence -- many involving old writing friends in Arcata -- I kept in touch with those of my kind.
Out of my 40 years of experience, I've evolved some definite ideas about writing communities, which I'm only too glad to share:
1. A writing community is much healthier than a writing scene, though perhaps not as exciting.
2. Poetry (all writing for that matter) is greater than any individual practitioner.
3. The first job of a writing community is to write; the second is to write well. The energies of the writing community are best focused on those two tasks.
4. There is no "best" writer in any community. Writers should aspire to excellence, and beyond excellence, judgment is really a matter of taste or interest. Time will decide whose work passes to succeeding generations, for as Steinbeck so eloquently noted, "Time is the only critic without ambition."
5. Anyone who tells you poetry must be written a certain way, or stories told in a certain fashion, especially if the preferred aesthetic is based upon a French literary theory, a political position, or some particularly twisted expression of envy, that person should be summarily executed. However, because a writing community should be marked by a mercy equal to its understanding, anyone who claims there is only one path to the mountain should be properly chastised and then ignored. Art is always open, and that you can only say the truth beautifully in your own voice and from your own vantage is the very predication of an arts community.
6. Criticism is essential for improvement, and is especially important early on the path. You should tell the truth, but you should do so like a great teacher, with abundant generosity and clear, constructive alternatives, and always temper the truth with tact.
7. Respect each other and respect the art. Fulfill your debt of gratitude to the elders by helping those who follow you. Remember and believe what Robert Duncan said so well: "We are all working on the same song." Do your part to the best of your ability.
8. A writing community is made up of writers. Journalists are writers. Secretaries are writers. The second-grader working on his essay, "Our Friend, the Beaver," is a writer. All welcome. No snobbery.
9. A literary community is composed of the writers/speakers and the reader/listeners. If you speak, also learn to listen. Writing is a collaborative act of imagination with another human being through the medium of language. Writers should never forget that they can be no better than their best reader. That knowledge, along with the stars, should be enough to keep one humble.
Jim Dodge is the author of FUP, Not Fade Away, and Stone Junction, as well as a number of books of poetry. Since 1995, he has
been Assistant Professor and Director of the Creative Writing Program in the department of English at Humboldt State University.
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