Why Sonoma County Poet Laureate Maya Khosla wants to reach everyone
When Maya Khosla talks about the resilience of nature and the potential of poetry and film to bring people together, she glows with energy. The 55-year-old biologist, poet and filmmaker seems to have an abundance of vitality, and she needs a lot of it to fulfill her multiple ambitions.
Nearly halfway through her two-year term as Sonoma County Poet Laureate, her fire-inspired “Local Legacy Project” - a series of public, participatory poetry readings, which will result in two documentary films - has steadily gained momentum.
Meanwhile, Khosla's fourth book, a collection of her poetry titled “All the Fires of Wind and Light,” is due out early next month from Sixteen Rivers in San Francisco.
For anyone who still thinks of poetry as something dry and pedantic, in a reaction based on painful school memories, it's important to point out just how exciting Khosla's project really is.
“The readings are very emotional. I am hearing back from people that these are the best readings they've ever attended,” she said. She has recorded some 80 local people so far, reading aloud their own poetry about the North Bay fires of 2017 and other topics as time goes on.
“At this point, it has broadened considerably, from the original theme of fire-related stories and poems. People tend to explain their fire stories and then read their poems, and that is the most valuable combination,” she said.
“That's still happening, but people are broadening the scope of the presentations, which is wonderful for me, because it tends to give me a narrative arc of healing. That's going to be important to establish for the films.”
The next public reading is April 28 at the Sitting Room in Santa Rosa. Khosla also will make appearances to promote her newest book, with one event expected in May at Corte Madera and another in September at Petaluma.
In addition to the 16 public readings she has held in the past year, Khosla is also going to local schools to gather material, with students of all ages reading their own poems that they've written. She has made six school presentations, combined with readings so far.
“I am envisioning two films, because one is about students from many schools. There are two sets of readings: one for elementary and middle schools, and the other for college students, emerging writers and established writers. The titles of the films will come from a line or a title from two of the poems,” Khosla said.
“A lot of the poems are about being hopeful,” she said. “I'm not dictating terms. Obviously, it's a free series of readings. People speak of whatever they want to speak of. That's how it's designed. I really want to get the maximum amount of voices.”
While Khosla will be forced by time considerations to use excerpts from the readings and of individual poems for her films, the full texts will be available online. She hopes to wrap her project by April 2020, in time for National Poetry Month next year.
Khosla's “Local Legacies Project” is backed by a grant from Creative Sonoma, a division of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board that supports the arts.
“Maya Khosla is an evangelist for poetry and its ability to expand our understanding of our internal and external worlds. Her work is grounded in the intersection between the human and natural environment, and it is easily accessible to anyone who has the opportunity to hear or read it,” said Kristen Madsen, the agency's director.
“Khosla's project for which she received a Creative Sonoma grant funds has a particular poignancy as it is documenting the voices of our local poets and residents as the reflect on the impact of the 2017 fires,” Madsen added.
Khosla, who lives in Rohnert Park, settled in Sonoma County about 15 years ago. Her family is originally from India, but she was born in London, England. She came to United States in 1984 and holds master's degrees in chemistry and ecotoxicology from Virginia Tech.
As a writer, she is the author of one nonfiction work and two previous books of poetry, including “Keel Bone,” published by Bear Star Press in Cohasset, Calif., winner of the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize. As a professional biologist, she works with the Ecological Studies Group in Watsonviille and the Earth Island Institute in Berkeley.
“Khosla's work over the past decade has had the sad coincidence of being centered on the impacts of wildfires in other California communities. Now she is bringing those experiences and her artful expressions here to her home community,” said Madsen of Creative Sonoma.
The beauty of Khosla's project is that draws on all of her varied talents and expertise, and that it's both an indoors and outdoors project. Her research is ongoing on both fronts.
For one outing, she took people from the Petaluma Arts Council on a walk through Annadel State Park to witness the rapid recovery of the plant life from the area's epic fires.
“You can see the shadow, the darker side of where the fire was and then the new side. That tends to be inspirational,” she said.
The healing process isn't confined to human beings, but includes the ravaged landscape itself in natural areas ranging from the Pepperwood Preserve at Santa Rosa to the Bouverie Preserve in Sonoma Valley.
“These are really unique, magical places that are going through this process, and they're all naturally going through that,” Khosla said. “They're vibrant. The biological diversity is high. The birds are back. The animals are back. There are incredible stories from biologists about mountain lions coming back where we had thought they had disappeared.”
Along with the return of animal life, new growth of at least eight rare species of plants has been spotted at one of the sites.
In her films, Khosla plans to combine photography of the new natural regrowth since the fires with the poetry readings.
“The visuals will speak for themselves,” she said, “and often while the poet is speaking, there will be this backdrop showing up.”
You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On twitter @danarts.