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Sonoma County names new poet laureate

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging and with people sheltering at home and wearing masks in public, it may seem an awkward moment for Phyllis Meshulam to start her two-year term as Sonoma County’s Poet Laureate.

But she believes that at a time like this, when almost everyone is isolated to some extent, poetry is more important than ever. She plans to encourage people to not only appreciate poetry but write their own.

“When sharing something private within yourself, you find out that other people feel the same way and you don’t feel so alone anymore,” she said. “We all need to process what we’re going through.”

Meshulam, 71, is a published poet and has worked with local students through the California Poets in the Schools program for the past 20 years.

Her goal is to publish an anthology of new poetry written by Sonoma County residents by the end of her tenure as Poet Laureate. She also hopes to supplement the Poets in the Schools program by giving teachers additional training and resources for encouraging students to write poetry.

“Nothing can take the place of a person who lives and breathes poetry coming into the classroom,” she said. But with plans for the next school year up in the air, online versions of the program have become more important.

Meshulam also aims to encourage submissions of poetry from the public through notices in the monthly Sonoma County Literary Update (socolitupdate.com).

“I will be collecting these,” she said. “The idea is to put together a book.”

Meshulam’s published work includes “Land of My Father’s War,” published by Cherry Grove Collections in Cincinnati, as well as “Doll, Moon” from Finishing Line Press in Georgetown, Kentucky; “Doors,” from War and Peace Press in Loomis and Sebastopol and “Valley of Moon” from D Press in Sebastopol.

The poet has lived in Sebastopol for 37 years. She is married to Jerry Meshulam, who is retired from the Sonoma County Department of Health, where he served as program manager for the environmental health division. They have two grown daughters, Robyn Meshulam of Seattle and Audrey Meshulam of Silver Spring, Maryland.

There will be an online reception for Meshulam and for the county’s Youth Poet Laureate, Zoya Ahmed, at 4 p.m. Sunday, July 12. To sign up for this event, RSVP at sebarts.org/poet-laureate

The Sonoma County Poet Laureate program is administered by the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Each person appointed to the post selects projects to promote the appreciation of poetry.

Meshulam succeeds Maya Khosla, county Poet Laureate for the past two years, who conducted public poetry readings and classroom poetry sessions, which she filmed.

Here is an excerpt from Meshulam’s poem “New Scripture in the Time of the Virus.”

With thanks to “First Verse” by Tim Seibles

… in this time of great restrictions,

the great outdoors is still on tap for us.

And there I learn more secrets than

all the investigative reporting about hush

efforts in Beijing and in Washington.

Like how the red maple starts the season

where it will end. Red beginnings

on the slim gray limbs.

The tree teaches me I can be upright,

patient, drop my shoulders

and allow new growth at my tips.

In spite of our national divisions, nothing should stop

me from awe. From hearing the rain in the lute,

and hearing the lute in the rain.

Who first strung that kind of instrument?

Some used the shell of an armadillo and

the guts of cats. Was that not a determined effort

to celebrate nature’s song? Have we

monetized everything, losing the music?

Tim Seibles said it well, writing new scripture:

Embrace the world. Be friendly.

The forests are glad you breathe.

What words might Earth wish to speak?

Embrace me. Be friendly to large and small.

Be glad the forests breathe.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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