Too bad the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t keep “poets per capita” stats, because Santa Cruz would probably be a national leader in that arena.
If you’re looking for a leading indicator on the richness of Santa Cruz’s poetry culture, take the high turnover in county’s poet laureate program. A new poet laureate comes along every two years, which is more often than some people buy new sneakers.
“What happens in some places is that they have the same poet laureate for a long time,” says poet and teacher Danusha Laméris. “That’s because they don’t necessarily have a wide pool of poets to choose from. Here we can turn it over every two years exactly because we have so many people who are seriously pursuing their writing.”
Laméris is now experiencing that phenomenon first-hand. She was recently named Santa Cruz County’s new poet laureate, taking the baton from the incumbent Robert Sward, who himself followed a string of luminaries in the position, including Ellen Bass, Gary Young and David Swanger.
It’s a sudden boost in credibility and visibility for the author of the 2014 volume The Moons of August, who has also published in the New York Times, Ploughshares, Best American Poetry and several other journals and anthologies.
A decade ago, Laméris was part of the effort to establish the program as a board member for the local group Poetry Santa Cruz. This time, her friends in the organization approached her with what they called an “invitation.”
“They said, ‘We have an invitation for you,’ and I said, ‘Is it a party?’ They were like, ‘Well, it’s a two-year party.’”
Each poet laureate comes into office with a specific mission. Laméris’s mission is to initiate what she calls “poetry pop-ups,” to bring poetry events to venues and settings where you probably would not encounter poetry otherwise. The first example will take place on Feb. 9 at the downtown yoga studio Nourish. It’s a pre-Valentine’s Day event called One Breath. “It’ll be an event for Valentine’s that’s not necessarily for couples, but for everybody,” she says.
Laméris came to poetry from an unusual parallel path. When she first came to Santa Cruz as an undergrad at UCSC, she studied painting. But poetry had been a central theme of her upbringing. One of the drivers of the carpool she belonged to as a kid growing up in Berkeley was U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. In high school, she met acclaimed poet Tony Hoagland (“He just happened to be dating my Spanish teacher,” she says).
But most fundamentally of all, her grandfather was a poet who published a collection of poems about life in his native Barbados.
“I remember going (to Barbados) when I was 9 or 10,” she says, “and being with my granddad talking with his friends who were all poets. Years later, I read their work in anthologies. And the conversations they were having were so fascinating to me, these men in their West Indian accents, quoting verse and debating it. It was very pivotal for me.”
Still, Laméris didn’t turn to poetry until after graduation, when she saw a flyer for a workshop with poet Ellen Bass. Since then, it has not only been her artistic playground and an avenue to meet mentors and other inspiring people; it has helped her survive considerable family tragedy, specifically the death of her son and the suicide of her twin brother.
“I feel that as artists, we all have some kind of irritant that we work on over a lifetime,” she says. “You know, that whole grain-of-sand-in-an-oyster thing. For me, that irritant has been grief.”
Today, Laméris is not only writing—she’s just completed a new manuscript of what she hopes will become her second book of poetry—but also leading workshops for other aspiring poets. As poet laureate, she’ll be part of the Hive Collective, which will broadcast a poetry show on Santa Cruz’s new non-commercial radio station KSQD in the new year.
She’ll also become the public face of a thriving culture of poetry that goes back generations in Santa Cruz, which has produced high-profile poets and poetry events and created an environment where poetry can continue to pop up in unexpected places.
“I’m just looking forward to creating more poetry communities and pollinating poetry in the community,” she says. “That’s my passion and dedication.”