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3,000 students meet with authors at Sonoma Valley Authors Festival program

In her honors English class at Sonoma Valley High on Thursday, Tayah Simpson and her classmates read “The Lanyard” by two-time U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins. Then, much to their delight, they heard it once again on Friday, this time from Collins himself.

“He’s really funny, and he’s really interesting, and it’s really easy to pay attention to him the whole time,” said Simpson, 18.

The power of the written word and storytelling was on full display Friday for about 3,000 students at Sonoma Valley High School, Altimira Middle School, Adele Harrison Middle School and Sonoma Academy. They were visited by an array of the invited writers participating in the Sonoma Valley Authors Festival’s Student Day.

The three-day festival began Friday and runs through Sunday at The Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort & Spa. Weekend passes run $750 a piece.

But the one-day students day program is free, and there will be free author events on the Sonoma Plaza Saturday, both part of the second-year festival’s outreach efforts.

The speakers who visited students Friday signed donated copies of their books.

“It’s part of our efforts to bring more of the arts to Sonoma Valley for the benefit of all Sonoma citizens,” said James R. Woods, a Sonoma attorney and festival sponsor.

Collins, a former U.S. poet laureate, read some of his work to students, including “Hippos on Holiday,” “Flock,” “Love,” “Cheerios,” and “Only Child.” He then shared stories and writing techniques with students during a question and answer session.

Asked where he found inspiration to write, Collins told them poetry is everywhere. Whether he’s looking at paintings in a museum, or leafing through an encyclopedia, there’s always something to find and explore by way of poetry.

“It’s not a hidden thing. It’s all around you,” Collins said. “Every human being has reaction to that. It’s just that poets make a big deal of it. They make a profession out of it.”

He described his experience serving as poet laureate, including when he wrote and read a poem to Congress on the one year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

“What was it like to be the poet laureate? Well, it really took care of my self-esteem problems for quite a while,” he said.

The Sonoma Valley High library had Collins’ poetry collections on display at the front desk. Janet Hansen, school librarian, said students particularly enjoy reading and hearing “The Lanyard,” a humorous and loving poem Collins penned about a gift he made for his mother.

“We teach him heavily in English so he has kind of a fan club here,” Hansen said.

Hansen said she enjoys seeing students get excited about books and writing. After they see an author speak they often head her direction asking for the book. And getting students out of their everyday schedules, while still learning, feels like a field trip.

“This is like 20 field trips in one day, for everybody,” she said.

Mary Spragens, English teacher at Sonoma Valley, said the festival’s students program was one of the best days of the year, and the interactions with thought leaders have a lasting impact on her pupils.

“Writers and thinkers and scientists and poets are here and they talk to our students directly,” she said. “They meet our students, they talk to them about their dreams, their education and their passions.”

A junior at Sonoma Valley, Ramses Laurel, hadn’t heard of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jose Antonio Vargas before sitting with hundreds of his schoolmates during the Friday morning session at the school’s gymnasium. But he ended up listening intently to Vargas share his experience as an undocumented immigrant and speak about themes of American identity.

Laurel was struck by how much he related to the acclaimed guest. Vargas hasn’t seen his mother since he was 12, and Laurel, who immigrated from Mexico as a young child, was separated from his mother for a five-year period.

“His words really got to me. He really inspired me to succeed as an immigrant in this country,” said Laurel, who secured a copy of Vargas’s book shortly after the question and answer period.

Vargas, who grew up in Mountain View and now has an elementary school named after him, has had a wildly successful journalism career. He was part of the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning breaking news coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. In 2011, he boldly came out as an undocumented immigrant in a New York Times Magazine cover story.

“I wrote so I could see my whole name, Jose Antonio Vargas, on a piece of paper. It was my own way of rebellion against what this was and what this is,” Vargas said. “I actually write to write my way into America.”

Other authors who participated in the students day program included Jamie Bernstein, Charina Chou, Andrew Zaldivar, Wade Davis, Alex Filippenko, Anthony Ray Hinton, Pedro Irazoqui, Alana Nichols, Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, Claire Spafford, Simon Winchester and Trudy Trueit.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com.

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