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Words, Words, Words

Sonoma County Book Fair celebrates the area's rich literary stew

By Gretchen Giles

Sonoma County poet laureate Terry Ehret gives a short, quick chuckle. "I grew up thinking that, for the most part, writers were dead people--nice dead people, but dead people nonetheless."

Speaking by phone from her Petaluma home, Ehret muses about the importance to aspiring writers of actually seeing live, available writers read their work aloud.

"There was nothing like this when I was growing up," she says, referring to the Sonoma County Book Fair, slated for Sept. 18. "I could not have imagined going to a fair and seeing hundreds of people who were actively engaged in creating books."

This, of course, is exactly what happens with the annual Book Fair, now in its fifth year, a swarm of literary tents and events covering Santa Rosa's Old Courthouse Square. The brainchild of NEA chairman Dana Gioia--then just a celebrated Windsor poet and the progenitor of a vigorous national debate on the role of poetry in modern life--and philanthropist painter Jack Stuppin, the fair was founded in order to take greater notice of the North Bay's thriving literary arts scene.

"Dana's idea was perhaps a little more trade-book-oriented, the kind of thing that might generate income that would be used to keep such a thing going and support the arts," Ehret remembers. "This was back in 1999. And then I sort of fell out of the discussion for a while. Eventually, the idea evolved of having this be much more of a local event, focusing on writers and publishers who lived in Sonoma County. I thought that was a brilliant idea, to shift it back to being a celebration of what is really a remarkable literary community."

And indeed, while many of the writers featured at this all-day event--such as novelist Jean Hegland (Into the Forest, Windfalls), SSU professor and author Jonah Raskin (American Scream), teen expert Mavis Jukes (Like Jake and Me), Press Democrat historian emeritus Gaye LeBaron, 2003 O'Henry winner Molly Giles and a host of others--have area roots, the fair also offers writers swinging by as part of national book tours.

East Bay novelist Chitra Divakaruni reads from Queen of Dreams, her Berkeley-based novel about how the events of 9-11 disrupt a woman's life through postattack racism, which publishes this week. Diane Johnson, who not only wrote the screenplay adaptation of Stephen King's terrifying Shining, but also adapted her recent work, Le Divorce, for the benefit of actress Kate Hudson and the big screen, comes on Saturday to read from her natural sequel, L'Affaire. And Marin poet Jane Hirshfield, whose plans to attend three years ago were snarled by the disasters of 9-11, reads from Given Sugar, Given Salt in fulfillment of the commitment she made then.

Indeed, 9-11 still weighs heavily on the event.

"We were really worried that we would not have an audience come out [that year]," Ehret says. "Understandably, people were nervous about gathering in large groups in small places. Many of our authors were stranded. But it was remarkably well-attended. Many people came because they felt the need to be with other people and because at every venue, our national grief was addressed and people needed that. It was very gratifying."

In addition to big names and local artists, this year's fair salutes cartoonist Charles Schulz. While certainly a beloved figure, does the work of a cartoonist belong at such an event?

Ehret brooks no doubt.

"Charles Schulz was someone who, along with his wife Jean, contributed enormously to the community," she says. "I've never questioned for a minute that a cartoonist is a serious artist and producer of literature. I've never excluded 'cartoonist' from Literature-with-a-capital-L. I would say that my early political education and that of my children came from cartoons. Like satire, humor is a great vehicle for critical thinking. As a commentator on American culture, human nature and children, Schulz is surprisingly philosophical; you might not immediately see that one strip at a time, but when you look at them collected, you really get a feeling of that cartoonist's feeling for life. It's all right there in the little balloons."

As an acclaimed poet and the county's laureate, it's only natural that Ehret's main focus be on the poetry tent, featuring a reading lineup and event tally she personally organized this year. For Ehret, hearing the artist read his or her own work offers special insight to feeling the poem.

"Hearing the author's voice--where cadence, intonation, all of that is so deeply embedded in the language and so essential to the meaning--is very important in poetry," she says. "People have said many times that after hearing me or another poet read the work out loud, they could go to the page and find a place to begin. They felt that they had been welcomed to the house of that poem and felt comfortable wandering around its rooms and looking in its medicine cabinet.

"For many readers," she muses, "poetry can feel like a closed house."

In order to keep its metaphorical house open, the poetry tent is situated smack amid all of the other events in Old Courthouse Square. "I didn't realize how much of an effort it takes for some people to say, 'I'm going to listen to a poem,'" she laughs, "so we made it as easy as possible for them to dip in and out of our location."

Also honored this year is the late poet Gene Ruggles, who died this June at the Hotel Petaluma, in great part due to his love of drink. Ruggles' demons kept him from reading his work much in public. Ehret aims to saturate fairgoers in Ruggles' oeuvre by having one of his poems read every half hour or so before each new poet reads. "He'll be heard all day long," she says. "Whatever people may feel about the man, we admire the work."

Later, she says, "The writing community here is very supportive of each other. The difference between New York or L.A. or San Francisco, where I did work and live for some time, is the difference between a kind of acting company that's star-oriented and that which is ensemble. I think that in New York it just has to be [star-oriented]; that's the way that books are made and sold there. Sonoma County is different in that respect, but I think that's probably true of many literary communities around the country. There aren't any stars, but we do have an incredibly rich literary community."

And, she says firmly, "We care that our community of writers is a healthy one."


The Sonoma County Book Fair flourishes on Saturday, Sept. 18, in downtown Santa Rosa. Events include adult readings and children's activities at the Sonoma County Library (main branch, Third and E streets); a poetry tent and activity stage in Old Courthouse Square; readings at the Cultural Arts Council (529 Fifth St.); and the Literary Arts Guild's booth (Mendocino Avenue and Fourth Street). 10am to 5pm. Free. 707.527.5412.

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From the September 15-21, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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