Saturday, 18 of May of 2024

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Report: This Year’s Watershed Poetry Festival


This year’s Watershed got off to a slow start for me since I was busy gathering stuff to set up on the Poetry Flash table, as well as other things like emergency food, sunscreen etc. It was taking so much time I knew I wouldn’t make the Creek Walk this year, but oh well.

Finally I got everything together and left, shouldering a black daypack and carrying, rolled up, the warrior poets poster I planned to tape to a table edge if it was possible. I also brought a stack of warrior poet cards to leave on the table above the poster and to give out to each of the poets on stage as they finished their set, which I did but more about that later.

I set out across campus and hiked down one of the familiar ways that led to a eucalyptus grove named the Grinnell Natural Study area. The grove has the creek running through it, and as I skirted the Life Sciences building on my way to the west entrance of the campus I noticed a file of people making their way ahead of me. I caught up with them just in time to ask the last person in line if this was the Creek Walk. It was.

So I didn’t miss it after all, at least for a few steps. As the line continued to veer off to the east where the creek emerges from another grove of trees I went west and paralleled its culverted course as it swung through downtown and over, finally, to hide below Martin Luther King Jr. Park. where the Watershed event was being busily gotten ready for with people putting up banners, flags, and folding chairs for the day’s festivities.


I spotted Joyce right away and asked if it would be okay to put a few things out. She said yes and we walked over to the Poetry Flash booth to see what was available. When we got there I wound up taping the poster to a corner under a photo of the redwood whale that was at a couple of Watershed events, and put out a stack of warrior poet cards for people to see and take.

Then I drifted off and found Mark to see if he needed any help setting things up. He said everything was under control so thanks but no thanks. That gave me liberty to wander over to the Farmer’s Market for a look-around, then back to check out the other tables. At one of them the local chapter of had set up and I stopped and chatted with its members and gave one of them a warrior poet card.

I also walked by the Ecology Center booth but didn’t see anyone I knew, so I continued on my way until I finally grabbed a seat in the main viewing area, under a tie-dyed surplus parachute Mark had discovered while visiting a surplus store. The parachute provided good shade and the sound was excellent as I was right in front of the speakers albeit thirty feet away.

SilbergI was up from my seat looking at pictures from past events that were on a pole right behind me when Richard Silberg stepped up to the mic and welcomed everybody to the 18th Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival. That’s when I knew the hands of the clock had finally touched twelve, as Watershed always starts at the crack of noon.

After Richard’s introductory welcome we were treated to music from the Barry Finnerty Trio, a very fine jazz trio that’s been serenading Watershed-goers for years. The program called Richard’s introductory welcome “Stand Up for the Earth!” and this set the tone for everything to come.

After listening to a little jazz Richard came back to the mic and announced the “We Are Nature” open reading and called out six names. Six people who had their names pulled from a hat who wanted to read all came up, one by one, in the order Richard announced them.

This year the open reading had some mighty good poetry in it. Each of the readers was articulate, evocative, and kept to the day’s theme. So anyone who came late and missed this part missed a really good section. And this was just the beginning.

Dennis & ChrisNext David Lukas, free-lance naturalist who led the Creek Walk, took the stage and spoke eloquently and succinctly about the Creek and its history and ecology and relation to the campus. His extemporaneous remarks didn’t last long but served as good background for the next part of the event, which was the readings by the poets who had also gone on the Creek Walk.

Richard, our emcee for the day, introduced the Creek Walk poets one by one, and the first to read was Mary Mackey, who set the bar high with her passionate, well-crafted reading and poems. Mary was followed by John Shoptaw, Barbara Jane Reyes, Tom Wilson, Jennifer Elise Foerster, and finally by performance poet Chris Olander, wearing his warrior poets t-shirt for the occasion.

When Chris finished we were treated to readings by the youngest among us, student poets from California Poets in the Schools introduced by Maureen Hurley, and River of Words and Poetry Inside Out winners introduced by John Oliver Simon. This is a traditional part of the program and what helps make Watershed unique, not to mention enjoyable for people of all ages.

After listening to the poems of “the poets of the future” as Richard introduced them, we heard a little more from the Barry Finnity Trio. I decided it was time to revisit the Farmer’s Market and did so while very good strains of jazz were rising in the background.
Dennis & Gary Snyder
Suddenly the strains stopped and I heard a familiar voice. I hurried back from the market to hear Kirk Lumpkin, Ecology Center/Farmer’s Market presenter, speak to the crowd. I regained my seat in time to hear Kirk do a poem then introduce Ozzie Zehner, author of “Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism.”

Taking the mic, Ozzie began by saying he wasn’t attempting to overthrow environmentalism, just to question some of the assumptions we have about “clean energy”. Then he launched into an anecdote about his career as a green architect, and read a short section from his book to illustrate his point, which threw cold water on numerous “tekkie” ideas about having our cake and eating it too.

When Ozzie walked offstage our emcee regained the mic and introduced poet Alan Soldofsky, who steered the day’s event back to ecopoetry. Then Alan was followed by Ann Fisher-Wirth, reading from her six-year long project that just got 51jXRJ9LpUL._SY300_published this year, “The Ecopoetry Anthology”. As you can see the Watershed event had a lot of depth this year, and we’re just getting started.

After Ann Fisher Wirth we heard Giovanni Singleton, and then Brian Teare took center stage and read us a number of long, naturalistic poems, most of them set in California. Then we were treated to more jazz followed by Matthew Zapruder, who started with a poem titled “Global Warming”. With the sun beating down as hard as it did for most of the day, no one in attendance needed to be convinced of that, although, of course, scientifically there’s no connection.

Following Matthew we got to listen to Brenda Hillman, whose monumental series of books about Earth, Air and Water has now been completed with one about Fire called “Seasonal Works With Letters On Fire“. Just to hear Brenda read from her latest book was a treat, and she also pointed out that the hat she was wearing was a souvenir from a global warming demo at the White House where she and her husband and the president of the Sierra Club all got arrested. Going to a demo was a good way to get a free hat, she said.

Five sixths of the day was now over and we were ready for the final sixth, which started with Bob Hass taking center stage with special guest Wang Jiaxin. Wang is a poet from China visiting in the U.S. and teaching here. Together they did a reading and translation duet with Wang reading the original and Bob following with the English translation. I don’t remember a similar event at any of the previous Watersheds, so this gave this year’s Watershed a flavor all its own.
Hass & Jiaxin

The poems, in English at least, were imagistic and, at times, funny. They may also have been political in the original, but I wouldn’t know that. After the dual reading, Bob Hass read us a few short poems of his own, giving Richard Silberg enough time to come up and introduce the final reader of the day’s event, Gary Snyder.

Richard always has a personal way of introducing the next poet or reader or music trio, and by the time the poet or reader or trio comes up we feel we know enough about them to get ready to listen to them. Of course everyone there at Watershed already knew something about Gary Snyder or had at least heard about him, so Richard had to come up with something to tell us that we didn’t know. This he did by telling us what he didn’t know about Gary, that Gary had begun his career as a mountain climber, even before he took up poetry. Then he added that Gary was one of the original readers in the Gallery Six Reading that launched the so-called “Beat Generation”, and invited us to “Welcome Gary Snyder” which we did, to thunderous applause.

GGarySnyderary, now in his eighth decade but hardly looking it, stepped up to the mic and immediately put everyone at ease by talking to us just like we were guests in his living room.

After a few anecdotes he said he was going to read us a few poems that had not been published (“at least yet”) and read us “Gnarly”, “Anger, Cattle and Achilles”, “Why California Will Never Be Like Tuscany”, “Starting the Spring Garden and Thinking of Tom Jefferson” and several other poems, ending us with “Five Short Poems for Fixing the System”.

After the first poem (applause from the crowd) Gary said “I should have said this before I started, I’m going to make a rule–no applause after a poem. When I’m finished if you applaud, that’s your business.” It was tough, at times, holding back, but we did the best we could. And at the end, everybody applauded.

Then Bob Hass came back on and invited several of the other poets who had read that day (including Joyce Jenkins, who with Mark Baldridge are the mainstays of Watershed and the reason it goes on each year, who hadn’t read) to end the day by doing a group reading of a poem by Seamus Heaney, who recently passed away. Each read four lines with Bob reading the end of the poem, and with it, ending this year’s Watershed. Except for more great jazz from the Barry Finnerty Trio and getting in line at the book table for signed copies by the poets that had read that day.

–Dennis Fritzinger

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