April is poetry month, and throughout San Luis Obispo County local artists have been performing and workshopping their poems.
Local poets have been sharing their writings all month in workshops, on small stages and in Zoom calls. Mary Anne Anderson is a local who frequently attends writing workshops in Cambria with other artists.
“Poetry has sort of been my altar of peace,” Anderson said. “It's where I go to pray out loud, to pray with the words. It's a quiet place. It's a safe place. It's a holy place.”
Anderson said she’s often inspired by her surrounding environment.
“And I love being in Cambria because we're in such gorgeous nature,” Anderson said. “I feel very, very attached and connected to it.”
Anderson said her art has been keeping her calm throughout the pandemic, and it’s giving her a sense of community. She released a new poetry book in January titled, “Before the After. Love, Loss and Revolution in the Time of COVID”.
“The artist in any form — poetry, art painting, dance — has an innate responsibility to be the mirror of what's happening in the world.” Anderson said. “Also the mirror of what's happening inside them. It's sort of a two-way thing we need, in order to understand our inner selves. We need to understand — or try to understand, or depict — what's going on outside.”
Dresden Smith is a recent Cal Poly university graduate who grew up in San Luis Obispo County. She said writing poetry helps with her mental health.
“I started writing poetry when I was actually super, super depressed. Being at Cal Poly was really, really hard for me,” Smith said. “I did not feel supported or like I fit in at the university — just being, not only a person of color, but a black person and a person with multi-racial identities.”
Smith said she felt she didn’t really fit in any of the boxes that were available at Cal Poly or the world in general, and she was finding herself going through changes, finding and losing friends.
“I was very out of touch with who I was meant to be or who I felt like I should be,” Smith said. “And poetry was really a way for me to express that sadness and anxiety, but in a way that felt productive and positive.”
Smith said the act of writing poetry was a grounding and introspective act for her.
“It's always been a way for me to express the way that I'm feeling inside my body, really, rather than my thoughts — but aligning those bodily feelings with my thoughts through writing poetry,” Smith said. “And I've always thought the power of poetry for me is to pour these, you know, these feelings that I couldn't quite pin down into words.”
Smith said looking back at poems she wrote in 2018 right before graduation, while she was experiencing a breakup, helps her reflect on her personal growth.
“Things that I wrote in those periods of my life, I look back on them and it's like, I'm taken back to that moment, but it's not as painful,” Smith said. “I can remember what I've learned from those moments and remember how I healed myself.”
Kevin Patrick Sullivan is a poet who is very involved in the arts community in SLO County. Among other roles, he’s the co-founder and director of the annual San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival. He was also the co-founder and director of Corners of the Mouth, a monthly poetry series at Linnaea's Cafe that ran for 35 years.
Sullivan said many of his poems are about environmental justice, and poets can use their work to awaken others.
“There are many ways that we [poets] are involved in the community. And like I say, every poem — every poem written — is against the machine because it is an act of resistance, because they try and take you and make you conform,” Sullivan said. “And a poet comes along and writes about an experience, you know, and then that made people realize, ‘well, wait a minute, I have human experiences, too. I'm not — no — we are not cogs in the machine.’”
Although Poetry Month is just about over — during the rest of the year, poetry events are scheduled several times a month in San Luis Obispo County. Many have moved to Zoom, including readings based in Morro Bay and Los Osos. There are also in-person open mic readings at Kin Coffee in Downtown San Luis Obispo.
The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.