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Let Freedom Ring

In Celebration of the Muse
Robert Scheer

The Four Tops: Artists and poets Mary Warshaw (left), Amber Coverdale Sumrall, Felicia Rice and Patrice Vecchione, who oversee both the "In Celebration of the Muse" event and book, prepare for an evening of poetry and verse from local women writers on Friday at Palookaville.

In Celebration of the Muse breaks down the walls of isolation to allow women to share their voices with each other and the world

By Sarah Phelan

SOMEONE ONCE SAID, "Publishing a book of poetry is like throwing a feather into the Grand Canyon and waiting to hear its echo." Ironically, since no one can remember who this someone was who so succinctly summed up the poetry scene, chances are she was a poet. But one thing's for sure: Poetry ain't no shortcut to fame, fortune and fan mail--unless you happen to be Pablo Neruda. Yet despite a yawning indifference on the part of the general public and a lightweight status at the publishing houses, poetry has a heavy reputation in the anarchy department.

As nationally acclaimed Santa Cruz poet Maude Meehan explains, "Poetry is the distillation of thought, the throwing away of everything superfluous." What's left are concentrated crystals of emotion and imagery capable of triggering powerful reactions in receptive minds. Small wonder that in times of revolution, it's the poets they kill first.

But no amount of bullets or blacklists can put a stop to original thought, and even in the most totalitarian regimes you'll find graffiti on the bathroom walls and radical verse ringing in the attics. As Dylan Thomas once wrote, poetry is "the rhythmic, inevitably narrative, movement from an overclothed blindness to a naked vision." And it's this vision, not delusions of grandeur, that drives most poets to create no matter what obstacles--time, power or money--they face.

Inspiring stuff, but it doesn't solve the problem of just whose naked vision we get to see. As Adrienne Rich writes in her eloquent introduction to The Best American Poetry 1996: "The great majority of poets published in literary magazines are white. ... The major awards and support grants for poets are administered largely by white judges and bestowed largely on white men." No big surprise, then, to find that the voices of women writers, African American, Native American, Asian American, Latino and gay and lesbian poets are largely absent from most poetry readings and anthologies.

Faced with this stifling situation, Santa Cruz women writers declared war on the local poetry establishment back in the early '80s. Explains poet and editor Amber Coverdale Sumrall, "Women were having a hard time being included in poetry readings, which were dominated by cock poetry--verse with an extremely male sexual orientation. Women's focus on more mysterious and personal issues was not welcome."

So when director and poet Wilma Marcus conceived of a reading by women writers in 1981, the idea took off like wildfire. "There was tremendous support for the idea because of the very nature of Santa Cruz," Sumrall recalls. "There was a lot of respect for the individual voice, and women were supportive, nurturing and generous as they shared in workshops, listened to and validated one another's experiences. The climate was ideal and, like streams and creeks feeding into a river, there was room for everyone."

Named "In Celebration of the Muse," the reading started as a benefit for the National Festival of Women's Theatre and became a venue to hear, celebrate and honor the words of women. At first, audiences fit comfortably into a classroom in the Louden Nelson Community Center. But the Muse, as it's affectionately known, quickly outgrew auditoriums at Louden Nelson, Pacific Cultural Center and Kuumbwa as new and well-known writers joined in the quest.

"In the early years, we were amazed to find ourselves opening to standing-room-only crowds, surprised to discover that poetry and the art of the story can call hundreds of people out," says Sumrall, who's coordinated the event with Patrice Vecchione since 1984. But in hindsight, she better understands the overwhelming response. "Women had been silenced for so long. The outpouring of their words was so necessary.

"Poetry is part of a long oral tradition," she continues, "of being something that's spoken and heard. Normally, writers work in isolation, but this celebration gives each author the chance to bring her own nuances to the reading, put her own imprint on the writing. And at the Muse, people are so appreciative, so receptive, they can't get enough. It's like entering another world to be in that auditorium. There's an energy in there that's unbelievable. It's like being in an altered state. There are women weeping, and men weeping, too."

A Party of Poets

KLEENEX IS DEFINITELY de rigueur, since who wouldn't weep on hearing women poets tell it like it is for the first time in centuries, or on realizing how many other voices have slipped by unrecorded? But it's not all salty eyes. You'll laugh your head off with relief to find that one-breasted, bald-headed and unwedded women also rule here.

Local poet and playwright Claire Braz-Valentine describes it as one of the most enjoyable evenings of the year. "People come to celebrate, and it feels like a party with everyone having a wonderful time," notes the local poet/playwright. "Because of this special energy, I try to choose upbeat poetry like the Godzilla poems. And with so many wonderful women who I look up to in the room, it's a great time to come out and celebrate art. For me it's a time to be grateful that I'm a writer."

So far more than 100 inspired women writers have participated in the Muse, and Sumrall says she and Vecchione are committed to featuring nationally acclaimed, locally recognized and emerging writers. In each of the last three years, a high school writer also has been invited to participate.

"We're dedicated to providing a forum for women's writing in Santa Cruz," Sumrall says, "to create a place where both author and audience can find recognition, appreciation and respect for our similarities, shared experiences and the differences that make us whole. We want Santa Cruz to see just who its women writers are and where their words can take us.

"Men call every year, asking how come they can't read. I tell them that women need this space for themselves. The men can start their own series and do what they want," Sumrall says firmly.

Fifteen years after its inception, the Muse has become the community's longest-running literary event, and will be held at Palookaville on Friday night to accommodate the anticipated 400-plus turnout. Proceeds benefit WomenCARE (Women's Cancer Advocacy, Resources and Education), which serves Santa Cruz women with cancer and their families free of charge. "More than one Muse reader has survived cancer herself," says Sumrall. "One did not. And many of the other writers, if not most, have been affected by cancer's toll on someone dear to their lives. Hence the commitment to supporting this grassroots Santa Cruz organization that has done so much on so little."

Sumrall believes that writing heals us and even saves lives. "It takes us down into the deepest recesses of our spirit," she says. "It tells us what's true. It's our muse, our guardian angel, the Great Spirit. I have many muses--a lot comes out of my dreams--but my life's so hectic that my guardian angel is always trying to get me out of town, where I'm not anchored, but free-floating and at my freshest. So I take off, and that's when I write poem after poem. Otherwise, it's hard to get chunks of inspired time in my daily life."

This year a large chunk of inspired time can be had by purchasing the In Celebration of the Muse: 15th Anniversary Anthology. According to Sumrall, "People have been clamoring for a book highlighting the celebration ever since 1987, when we edited the first collection of writing by women who'd participated in the Celebration of the Muse. So we invited all those who'd read since the series began to send in their best work."

The result is an eclectic mix, featuring 72 printmakers and authors who take you on uncommon tours of the female experience--everything from burned breakfasts to time-lapse photography. The collection was published as the 33rd issue of UCSC's Quarry West, with Felicia Rice acting as art director, and will be available for sale at the reading on Friday night.


In Celebration of the Muse features readings by Adrienne Rich, Maude Meehan, Claire Braz-Valentine, Roz Spafford and others on Friday (8pm) at Palookaville, 1133 Pacific Ave., SC. Tickets ($15) are available at Bookshop Santa Cruz and Palookaville. For more info, call 457 2273.

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From the March 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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