Home at the Edge of the World Alameda Poet Laureate Inaugural Poem
There are houses down your shaded streets –
beneath your oaks, your ginkos, your avenues of palm –
Leaded in glass, shingled in fish-scale, spangled with gingerbread,
Victorian ladies tarted up for Carnival,
their history and lore curving like a staircase into view.
Gentlemen strolled in spats, ladies swung their parasols,
bay breezes curling with fog and the clank of halyards, snapping flags. Water, at every turn,
glittering to shore, to ship, to ankles and toes.
Neptune would have been pleased to see his name emblazoned,
to hear the calliope, the splash and crank, the punch of tickets.
Men pummeled each other in the ring at Croll’s, the Nickelodeon competing with the cry of merchants, seagulls, girls on the beach.
With popsicles and peanut butter.
The famous train stopped here, golden, spiked. Immigrants worked invisibly,
then vanished from the record,
as if they’d never owned that shop, inhabited this neighborhood.
We’re at the edge of the continent, a dot on the map, an island of sand and silt.
We have our own secrets, our dirty clothes, our backyard politics – small minds and big mouths –
our stories of brutality and red-lining, of spite and malice.
I came here a refugee from the Marriage Wars, empty-handed at Starbucks, where I found a roommate, a latte, a lifeline.
The past was closed to me then, our future uncertain
as airplanes crashed into buildings and fell to dust.
From desperate shores I washed up, crumbled like the missing tower of City Hall.
I didn’t know yet
That in Alameda the past is under your feet, in shell and sand.
That the streets of Bay Farm were paved with the bones of other people’s ancestors.
I didn’t know
That some islands are real and some islands are made.
That we could live here for three generations and still be new.
But I have roots here, I’m an Alamedan, too —
My mother, just a child in the Depression, came down
from tawny oak-strewn hills for sand from the beaches for her sandbox.
My father, just off the ship, his Navy uniform still salt-damp from the Sea of Japan,
took a drink at Wally’s Corner, then
crossed the green bridge, up the road to the University, to stand at Strawberry Creek and think,
I’m finally home.
He brought my mother down Trestle Glen, Park Boulevard, Grand Avenue, Webster, through the Tube to their apartment on Lincoln Avenue – the Ulysses S Grant – to take out trash and mop the halls in exchange for rent.
My brother came, a squalling newborn at the hospital where consumptives once went
to bask in sunlight, to dry their shattered lungs.
He crawled, he walked; my sister followed, and we moved away
to suburbs where there was room to grow.
But I came back.
My daughters became Jets; my stepchildren were Hornets,
my allegiance to the home team shifting when the rent was raised.
I’ve met a prince here, and been a pauper,
and married the same man twice on green grass by the water,
lived in houses big and small, with stories of their own.
Alameda, Alameda, your name is lyrical on my lips —
you showed me how far I could walk on shifting sands before drowning.
Before I was in too deep.
Before I thought to ask for help.
Before I learned to save myself.
Alameda taught me that even the least of terns has power.
That even people living in mansions sometimes lose their beach.
That two newspapers are better than none.
That when there’s trouble, raise the bridges.
That when in doubt, hold a street fair.
Alameda, Alameda, you’ve unfurled me, shucked me like an oyster.
Tell me your secrets. Send me scribbling
to the page.
I’m writing while I sit by my husband’s bed awaiting his back surgery.
I’m writing while I drive home late at night.
I’m writing when I get up at 3 a.m. to let the cat in. Or out.
I’m writing when it looks like I’m reading. Or spacing out. Or chopping vegetables.
Because, for me, writing doesn’t look like writing until the last 10 percent.
“Genius is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.” — Thomas Alva Edison
Writing — for me — is like that, too, sort of. It’s all in my head until the last bit, which is writing it down (on paper or screen). I don’t sit at my desk and wonder what will come. I write all the time, and then sit down and let it out.
And that’s about all I have to say. Tomorrow I have an essay to write. A chapter to finish. Some poetry that is weeping my name.
April is National Poetry Month. As the Poet Laureate of Alameda, I’d like to invite you to crack open a poetry book and read one, just once, this month. Read an old favorite, like T.S. Eliot, perhaps, whose Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is one of the finest examples of 20th Century poetry (“Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table…”) – or maybe watch performance poets you’ll find on YouTube, like Suli Breaks’ “Why I Hate School but Love Education,” or Savanna Brown’s “What Guys Look for in Girls.” (No, seriously, GO WATCH.)
Poetry is dangerous, not weak or sappy. Poetry is powerful. It’s spoken or written truth.
Or read this and dismiss the entire topic. Why read a poem? Why should poetry matter, anyway? Elena Aquilar, an educator from Oakland, California, says that, “Poetry promotes literacy, builds community, and fosters emotional resilience. It can cross boundaries that little else can.” And she gives five good reasons why we need poetry in our lives.
Poetry helps us know each other and build community. I saw this in action at Island High School’s poetry slam in October, when students reading poems about their lives were uplifted by the entire school listening, appreciating and applauding each individual’s work. Their poems rocked my world.
When read aloud, poetry is rhythm and music and sounds and beats. Babies and toddlers may not speak yet, but they hear your words and learn from you. Nursery rhymes matter – they tell stories, show playful use of words; children learn rudiments of music and math from keeping a beat in a poem.
Poetry opens venues for speaking and listening. It’s good for children and students of all ages to practice both speaking (reading aloud or memorizing), and hearing the words of other students, or other cultures, told in poetry. Rhyming poems are easier to remember than non-rhyming poems (they’re harder to write well, too!). I read some old favorite poems with the Trinity Seniors a few months ago and the elders listening spoke the lines they remembered along with me.
Poetry has space for those learning a new language – English or other languages. A simple haiku (three lines of 17 syllables total) is a simple glimpse into nature, and a toddler can appreciate it, a kindergartner can write it, and an English language-learner can access it. Poetry is universal. Take a listen to the bilingual students at St. Joseph Notre Dame, who publish their works in English, Spanish and French, in their annual poetry journal, Prisms.
Poetry opens the world to us. W.B. Yeats said this about poetry: “It is blood, imagination, intellect running together…It bids us to touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrink from all that is of the brain only.” (Italics mine.) Every time you “like” a Facebook meme featuring a line from Rumi, Maya Angelou, or Basho, you’re sharing poetry. You are opening yourself to a wider imagination, to the current of creativity that flows among us, unique to humans. You set your foot into the river of human experience.
But doesn’t it sound boring? Go read a poem? Yawn…Worse than algebra! Worse than memorizing dates in history! Better, then, read along with me this month as I explore the poetry of four high schools and the students writing and reveling in the spoken and written word. I’ll be posting a feature every week in the Alameda Sun for the month of April – National Poetry Month.
If poetry isn’t for you, perhaps the almost-adults who are about to step into the world will enlighten you about how poetry matters to them. You like Alameda, don’t you? These students will help shine a light on the future we all share.
And by the way, it was T.S. Eliot who said that “April is the cruelest month” (The Wasteland), but I like my way better.
Julia Park Tracey is Alameda’s Poet Laureate. Follow her on Facebook at Facebook/AlamedaPoetLaureate. If you’d like her to visit your classroom or club, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yes, I was chosen to be Alameda’s Poet Laureate in a ceremony at City Hall on September 16. On television and before a full chamber, I read a poem about Alameda, called “Home at the Edge of the World,” the title a nod to one of my mentors, Michael Cunningham (The Hours), and the content a personal and historical journey through Alameda. The poem will be published in the October issue of Alameda Magazine. You can also hear me read it here on Voqel.
And with the change of seasons, my calendar is full. I spent September attending as many open mics and writing workshops as possible. I read several days at the Alameda Free Library’s Banned Books Week reading marathon. I read aloud from Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Giver, and The Handmaid’s Tale. That week, I also led the library’s open mic night with a selection of banned poetry, reading from Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” Shel Silverstein’s “If You Have to Dry the Dishes,” and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” It was a challenging selection of works, with banned-book objections such as obscenity, cursing, sexual content, homoeroticism, racism, satanism and “encouraging children to misbehave.” I would imagine this is the first time the library has had the words “cock” and “asshole” read aloud at a gathering. But I could be wrong.
In any case, the deed was done, and I wasn’t banned. In fact, it went over well and I think people thought a little harder about what banning books means.
“Poetry is kind of like Brussels sprouts,” a friend of mine said recently. “Some people love it and most people hate it.”
I find this both funny and, sadly, true; sadly because I consider myself a poet – but it took a long time, a lot of work and even more encouragement by fellow poets and mentors to claim that title.
The woman who made that tasty analogy is Julia Park Tracey, and she was recently named Poet Laureate for the city of Alameda, where she lives in California. In addition to being newly minted as Poet Laureate, Julia is also an accomplished editor and journalist, and has published books in a variety of genres, including novels, the collected diaries of her great aunt (a fabulous Flapper in the Roaring 20s) and, of course, poetry. It’s my distinct pleasure to sit down with Julia and, on behalf of Sweatpants and Coffee, learn more about what makes this pretty poet tick.
Tomi: Julia, how exciting to be named a Poet Laureate! Tell us the story of how you were appointed.
Julia: Alameda had a Poet Laureate named Mary Rudge for a long time – about 10 years. Mary passed away early in 2014 and the position was vacant. I was asked to apply by some folks at the city, and decided I would. I was surprised to be selected – I am known for many other things besides poetry, but poetry is my first literary love. So I’m pretty chuffed about the title.
Tomi: When and how did you start writing poetry?
Julia: My first exposure to real poetry came in 9th grade when I was home sick and my mom brought me some books from the library. On a whim, I asked her for poetry, and she brought me a large engraved picture book of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I fell in love with the cadences. Another of the books had “Kubla Kahn” and I loved that, too. Very old-fashioned stuff, but soon I was reading Plath and Alice Walker and Marge Piercy and writing my own rhymey and not-rhymey verses. “Rhymey” is a technical term, right?
Tomi: Of course it is. Now, who would you say is your favorite poet, and what are a few of your go-to poems when you feel the need to be inspired, comforted or just need a few beautiful, brilliant words?
Julia: Favorites for many years have been Sappho, Rumi, Piercy and Walker – their words always resonate and make me feel larger, somehow. Sylvia Plath is interesting but she is impenetrable sometimes. She needs a hammer and chisel to break open. I am not a fan of McClure and the Beats in general, though there are some that I like. I was Harold Norse’s secretary for a summer in the early 90s. He was a good teacher. TS Eliot, Charles Simic, Sparrow – whoever is getting printed in The Sun – those poets are very good in general.
Tomi: You’ve written and published a lot more than poetry: you worked diligently through your great aunt Doris’s diaries and published them in two volumes. What inspired you to take on that project, and what did you learn from it?
How has the response been to the Diaries?
Julia: The Doris Diaries project has been an homage to my great aunt – she was an amazing writer but never published her best work. She wrote her life story and self-pubbed it at age 96 – but the magic had gone out of her words. The diaries are so vibrant – it was like discovering a trove of Virginia Woolf. Her way of telling stories, of accessing the human heart – lovely. I have been publishing these myself, but BookTrope is going to reissue the two I have done, and will support more volumes to come. All the profits I’ve received from publishing Doris’s words have gone to Reed College in Doris’s name, as scholarship monies.
People love Doris and her stories. I have a good following on Facebook and Twitter (look for The Doris Diaries) and I get comments and feedback every day from people who feel her pain or laugh at or with her. I’ve had nothing but good since I started publishing Doris’s diaries.
Tomi: I love that you’re donating the profits, and I think Doris would have dug it, too. I’m glad her life and stories are being shared and touching people, that’s awesome.
You also have one novel under your belt, and one to be published by BookTrope this fall (a very steamy novel, I will add). Give us a glimpse into those novels and what sparked you to write them.
Julia: My first novel was literary fiction and was my thesis from my MA program. It’s called Tongues of Angelsand is about a Catholic priest and the politics of falling in love when you’re vowed to celibacy. It was inspired by my former husband, who had been a priest before we married. It’s edgy and sensuous but not overtly sexy. It’s really about coming to a fork in the road and deciding what kind of life to lead – fulfilled or thwarted? Living truth or living a lie, and how your choices change your life.
The novel that BookTrope is publishing this fall is a fun, sassy chick-lit suspense novel about a tattooed and pierced reporter who stumbles across a big story and has to race the clock to save an Indian burial ground from real estate developers, and beat the competition, too. Plus she has lots of hot sex. It’s called Veronika Layne Gets the Scoop and is the first in a series of three (or maybe more). I have been a journalist for 30 years; you can count on the newspaper atmosphere to feel very authentic. You’ll have to guess about the sex, though.
Tomi: Oooh, having been a beat reporter myself, I look forward to that.
So, as if all this writing and publishing and poetry isn’t enough, you do a lot of good work in your community, including teaching workshops in journalism, creative writing and marketing for authors.
Julia: I like working with kids, so I teach journalism classes to kids after school. I have taught poetry or creative writing to all ages of classes – mostly through volunteering in my daughters’ classrooms over the years. I have three daughters plus two stepchildren, and so I’ve had kids in school for about 25 straight years. That’s a lot of volunteering. I have also done workshops at writing conferences about marketing and PR for writers – I ran my own boutique publicity firm for three years, specializing in PR for non-profits and artists, most of whom can’t afford a PR person – so I learned how to DIY, and that’s how I teach it.
It’s important to be a part of the community you live in, to make it better. I can’t throw buckets of money at projects like Bill Gates can, and my time is limited by family and work, but when I have a skill to share, and I see a need, I will offer it up. For example, I made my poetry book launch a food drive for our local food bank – to thank them for when I was a single mother and was a food bank client. I have made the “admission fee” to various events a new or used children’s book, and then shared those with local preschools. I have donated books or free consultations to the many silent auctions that our local charities have. Even if you don’t have money or time, there are things you can do. In September, I am reading aloud for an hour at a Banned Books read-a-thon. Anyone who can read can do that. It’s a pay-it-forward kind of thinking.
Tomi: That is a lot of do-gooding. Thank you for that, sister. Anything else you’d like to share before our Poetry Coffee Break is over?
Julia: The biggest help to me in the last few years has been to gather a strong community of other writers around me. Not to work alone – because writing is very lonely. You work in a vacuum and it’s hard to tell if you’re a genius or if you suck. Find other writers who can support you and give feedback, cross-market or go to events with you. I have had a handful of supportive women close at hand for the past three years especially, and they have made a world of difference to my writing, my sense of connectedness, and my outlook. Don’t go it alone – take a buddy!
Elegy for October 1989
After the earthquake, we half-laughed and half-cried
as we picked through our belongings
strewn in sliding piles on the tilted floor.
That night, we blinked for endless hours in the dark,
all of us in one bed, covers pulled to our chins.
Our eyes snapped open like Roman shades
when ceiling creaked or house settled.
The house seemed a trap, yet our only haven.
The earth bumped and shrugged some more,
tore me back under to the dark place, where I remembered the attack,
how I’d screamed and fought my panic, losing;
and I felt some embedded part of me hit open air,
torn from its protective sheath,
burning like a first breath, like pepper in the eye:
I am weak, there is something much stronger than I am.
I was weak then; they outgrew my control:
the faceless one,
the moving ground,
the shudders and hiccups that followed, for weeks, years,
that still send me, adrenaline-crazed, to doorjambs,
while my teacups and windows rattle.
Over Lake Merritt
I come down the steps of the bank building,
invisible in the evening rush,
a check in my hand for the money from the house
that is no longer mine, the life
that is no longer mine,
pinwheeling, careening toward whatever and who the fuck,
from some bliss and pain and secrets,
dead to their world, they dead to mine;
pelicans wheel above,
pterodactyls on the hunt,
their reptile legs tucked under,
their cold yellow eyes,
silent but screaming that aik aik that I hear
when I can’t open my eyes at night, when I am awake and yet asleep,
when I reach for what I had that is gone,
when I wake and am cold.
When I rise and am silent.
*originally published PEN West anthology, April 2007
You can follow Julia Park Tracey on Twitter and Facebook under her own name. Look for the Twitter hashtags #poetlaureate and #whypoetrymatters, and like the new Facebook page, Alameda Poet Laureate, for Julia’s latest poetry and literary happenings.
Tomi L. Wiley is the Poetry and Short Fiction Editor for Sweatpants & Coffee. She has written and edited for mainstream and private media including Southern Living and Oxford American magazines, edited numerous manuscripts and literary anthologies, procured authors and coordinated panels for the Southern Festival of Books and am a past President of the Tennessee Writers Alliance. She studied poetry in France as part of a program with the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is a published author and poet. She digs ice cream, goat cheese, red wine and very loud jazz. She is working on her first novel.