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ABSOLUTE EVERYWHERE: Sonoma County's poet laureate Mike Tuggle.

The Move West

Mike Tuggle: poet laureate as sheriff

By Bart Schneider

I first met Sonoma County's poet laureate Mike Tuggle 40 years ago in San Francisco. A tall, handsome cabbie, he wrote forceful poems and read them in a Southwestern brogue, tossing in a measure of Dylan Thomas if he was really wailing.

Born in Tulsa, Mike grew up in a half-dozen ugly Texas towns, always the new kid in school. In 1962, after studying art and writing at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, he was drafted as the first troops were being mobilized for Vietnam. During basic training at Fort Ord, he announced that he would not carry a gun, and was ultimately discharged as a conscientious objector.

When I met Mike in 1968, in a poetry workshop at San Francisco State, he was living with his first wife, Barbara, and their young daughter, Melissa, in a stylish bohemian flat in Upper Haight. I was still in high school at the time, and Mike became a laid-back mentor and generous friend, turning me on to Yeats and trying to teach me how to drive.

Ten years later, Mike and his next wife, poet Susan Kennedy, moved to Marin County. The couple lived in several West Marin towns with their daughter, Lilah, before settling in Cazadero, in Sonoma County.

I've always admired Mike's ability to write poems that are powerful and transparent at once. Here's one from his first collection, Absolute Elsewhere:

"The Return"
Ah, the beautiful old awfulness of the city!
The edge, the gleaming, blood-thirsty, love-thirsty edge
of the steaming city!
I left the city and moved to the country for twenty years
for just this moment—
when I would return and be opened by it
like an unsuspecting oyster.

 After he and Susan divorced in the late '90s, Mike moved to a remote setting 12 miles north of Cazadero, where it rained 130 inches the first winter. He lived there in what he describes as the "swampy depths" of solitude. It may have been during those swampy years that he wrote this amusing, apocalyptic poem, which will appear in his forthcoming collection, The Singing Itself:

"After the Bombing"
The cats have gone mad
and run screaming into the hills,
the rats have declared victory.
Even the dogs are giving up on the human race.
Representatives from the entire
microbiological microcosm
are meeting right now
in a secret place underground.
Some are for showing mercy
others are making a strong case
for our complete annihilation.

 Now, in the fall of his 70th year, Mike lives between Monte Rio and Duncans Mills, close to his daughter's family. A beloved figure in Sonoma County, he looks—in his beige Stetson with beaded headband—like the sheriff of a town that hasn't seen trouble for quite a while. As Sonoma County poet laureate, he not only keeps the peace, but maintains a hot circuit of readings, driving everywhere in his 1986 Toyota pickup.

 Mike Tuggle reads on Friday, Oct. 10, in the Word Temple series at Copperfield's Books, 2316 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa. 7pm. Free.707.578.8938. And catch him on Thursday, Nov. 13, at Quicksilver Gallery, with bassist Dalton Dillingham. 6671 Front St., Forestville. 7pm. Free. 707.887.0799.

Novelist Bart Schneider was the founding editor of 'Hungry Mind Review' and 'Speakeasy Magazine.' His latest novel is 'The Man in the Blizzard.' Lit Life is a new biweekly feature. You can contact Bart at [email protected].

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