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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Book or buck? Offered a chance at free verse, Petaluma teenager Jenna Burns considers her options--would she rather be gifted by the sublime beauty of poetry or snag a quick dollar?


Pop Quiz

How much is a good poem worth?

By David Templeton

"EXCUSE ME!" calls Geri Digiorno, flagging down a group of pedestrians walking through the courtyard of Petaluma's Putnam Plaza. "Excuse me. May I ask you a question?"

The passersby stop and turn, gazing suspiciously at Digiorno, who approaches them, eyes a-twinkle, clutching a crisp new dollar bill in one hand and a shiny new book--a collection of poetry by William Talcott--in the other. Reluctantly intrigued, a tall gentleman steps from the pack to hear Digiorno's proposition.

"Which would you rather have," she asks, as the afternoon breeze makes a wild ballet of her flowing white hair, "this book of poetry or this dollar bill? You're welcome to whichever you choose."

Jerry (who declines to give his last name), a visitor from Washington, barely glances at the book before making his decision.

"I'll take the dollar," he rumbles. Accepting the bill from Digiorno, he cheerfully explains his decision. "Well, I guess I just never developed an appreciation for poetry." As Jerry and company continue on their way, Digiorno merely laughs.

"Well, at least he was honest," she says, scouting the scene for the next moving target. "A lot of people don't appreciate poetry."

And that's exactly why Geri Digiorno, poet and teacher, is out here today, taking her own love of poetry to the streets. Of course, taking poetry to the streets is what Digiorno does best.

As the founder of the popular Petaluma Poetry Walk--an annual walking poetry festival--Digiorno has watched the modest event evolve into a major literary happening that attracts enlightened swarms of poetry fans from around the Bay Area. The Poetry Walk, patterned after a similar event held each year in Pennsylvania, is a step-by-step walking tour of downtown Petaluma, with hourly poetry readings at various venues featuring renowned local poets and far-flung poetry stars.

This year's Poetry Walk, which marks the event's fifth anniversary, takes place on Sunday, Sept. 17, beginning at high noon. It features 16 poets, including Sonoma Poet Laureate Don Emblen, legendary beat poet Diane di Prima, writer and critic Jonah Raskin, Irish author Siobhan Campbell, and Petaluma's own Eugene Ruggles. Sponsored in part by Poets & Writers Inc. and Poetry Flash Magazine, the event is free to the public.

"Sonoma County was starving for this kind of event," says Digiorno, standing across the street from Deaf Dog Coffee, where, in keeping with Poetry Walk tradition, the first round of readings will take place. "Some people pick and choose their poets. They visit two or three venues, and that's it--they've had their fill. Others stay with it from beginning to end. I commend those people."

Of course, even in Sonoma County there are always those who, upon hearing the telltale rhythms of the spoken word spilling out onto the sidewalks, quicken their pace to walk on by. "Though there does seem to be a higher enthusiasm for poetry in the North Bay area than a lot of other places in the country," Digiorno points out, "there are always those who never developed that appreciation."

So here she stands, with a pocketful of dollar bills and a cloth bag stuffed with books--all featuring authors like Diana O'Hehire and Jenelle Moon, poets who've read at past Poetry Walks--gleefully spreading the word about this weekend's event. At the same time, she's attempting a little nonscientific experiment to find out how much poetry is really worth to the average person on the street.

Spying a pair of teenage girls sitting outside Hot Lips Pizza, Digiorno approaches, making them each the same offer.

"I like poetry," says Jenna Burns, choosing a book from Digiorno's stash. "I like reading poetry and I like writing it. Also, I know you can't get a book for a dollar."

"I'd rather have the dollar," admits Hillary Hanselman, accepting the buck. "Poetry's OK. I like it and everything, but I already have enough to read. Besides, my stepdad's a poet, so we have plenty of poetry at home." Hanselman's stepdad, in fact, is Ron Salsbury, owner of Deaf Dog and a favorite performer at each year's Walk.

THERE ARE so many poets in Petaluma these days that some people call the town a heaven for the art form. Even so, Digiorno seems to be giving away a lot more money than poetry.

"I'm not a poetry kind of guy," admits Charlie Pautsangee, unabashedly pocketing his new dollar. "I used to like Shakespeare--'to be or not to be' and all that--but it doesn't really interest me now."

John Bidaurretta agrees. Both he and Pautsangee identify themselves as Bible students. "I liked poetry when we studied it in high school, but now I don't have time for anything that doesn't relate to my current studies. We have been reading the poetry texts of the Old Testament, though," he allows.

IT JUST SO HAPPENS that this year's Poetry Walk will include a reading by Chana Bloch, a professor of English at Mills College--and the author of a new translation of the Song of Solomon, the book that falls between Psalms and Proverbs.

"Now that interests me," says Bidaurretta, taking a Poetry Walk flyer and scouring its listings. "This is exactly what I was talking about. If you can show that a particular poet connects to my life somehow, I'll take an interest."

"I'll bet if someone wrote poems about money or about sports," adds Pautsangee, "a lot of people would be interested."

Digiorno is glad to hear this.

"One of the wonderful things about poetry," she tells the two young men, "is that there are poets who write about sports and who write about money. There are all kinds of poetry out there, if you are open to it."

Digiorno's experiment is now picking up speed. The next seven people all choose a book of poetry instead of the dollar.

"Give me a good book and I'm happy," says Eleanor Knapcrek, immediately cracking open her new book to peruse its pages.

"My mother used to write poetry," muses Nina Dessart, choosing a book of children's poems.

"Oh, poetry is my superpassion," exclaims Shirley Trimble (mother of frequent Poetry Walk performer Patty Trimble), as her companion, Elaine Anderson, after carefully listening to Digiorno's pitch, solemnly accepts her new book, saying, "Poetry, you know, is very important."

After an hour, the experiment ends, and Digiorno tallies up the results.

It turns out she's given away two books for every buck.

"I love that people were so open and honest," she remarks, peering into her nearly empty bag. "That they would be willing to talk about what poetry meant to them--whether they took a dollar or not--was a good thing.

"Talking about poetry," says Digiorno, "is always a good thing."


The Petaluma Poetry Walk hits the streets on Sunday, Sept. 17, at various locations around downtown Petaluma, beginning at high noon at Deaf Dog Coffee, 134 Petaluma Blvd. N. For details, pick up a flyer at Copperfield's Books or call 763-4271.

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From the September 7-13, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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