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Terry Ehret: California Poets Part 6, Three Poems

Terry Ehret (photo by Scott Hess)

October 18th, 2023

California Poets: Part VI

Terry Ehret

Three Poems

Festival of the Firefly

Midsummer is the season of fireflies in Toscana, along the banks of the Arno, near the public gardens, where wild giglia blooms just as it pleases among the weeds.

Once, years ago, in this country far from home, I looked up at the early summer stars. Lying beside me in the grass, you told me how each year Florentines celebrate with the Festa di Lucioli these luminescent stars of the grass. Children catch them in their hands and hang them in tiny cages from the branches of poplar and linden. Young men, you said, give them to their sweethearts.

I imagined in the midsummer twilight, vendors crowding the banks of the Cascine, selling wooden cages, just like the ones I had seen as a child, in Chinatown, meant to catch the good luck of crickets. Wooden cages that could not, of course, keep any self-respecting firefly captive more than a blink or two.

So maybe there were no men on the riverbank selling cages for lucioli. Maybe I had confused fireflies with crickets and fashioned a festival out of a memory tilted by time. Maybe I imagined those wooden cages because cages were much on my mind that summer I was nineteen. Ephemeral cages all around in the sweet June grass on the banks of the Arno and its song.

Waking in Fire Season

Remember when you waken to be still. Whatever dream you have been wearing in the dark body of sleep still lies near, a deep fold of pleasure, a sleeve of old trouble, a name on a grave. Leave the dream-clothes under your skin that now you wash and lotion and paint. Dress slowly for the day just dawning in the smoky east. Remember from time to time to touch the prayer fringe of dream-fragments as you walk down the path under the falling sycamore leaves. Remember the sound they make rattling all night in the wind.

Previously published in Crosswinds Poetry Journal, Volume VIII, 2002.

The Journey into Joy Has Begun

This morning I woke two hours before dawn. Outside the glass doors, the darkness pressed against the four small lights in the room— one at my head, one at my feet, two at my heart. The poets were down at the shore, waiting for the ship across the vast, uninhabited southern sea. I lay still, listening to a sweet, scratchy waltz, breathing like an old squeezebox. “Once I stood at the foot of a beautiful mountain,” a voice sang, and slowly the dark sky lightened to sapphire, and the stars turned back to watch the slow-spiral theater wheeling in their eternal night. And there on the shore, the poets took turns dancing in the shallows.


November 7th, 2023

California Poets Interview Series:

Terry Ehret, Poet, Former Sonoma County Poet Laureate (2004-2006)

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: With Valerie Berry, Margaret Kaufman, Jacqueline Kudler, Diane Sher Lutovich, Carolyn Miller, and Susan Sibbet you founded Sixteen Rivers Press in 1999, a non-profit collective that aims to give alternatives to traditional publishing platforms. Can you talk a bit about the foundational process?

TE: The idea of a San Francisco Bay Area regional publishing collective started in 1996 when I was attending the Flight of the Mind writing workshops for women in Oregon. So many writers, including myself, wondered about all the money we were spending to not get published, and I was thinking out loud about writers pooling their resources to launch a publishing venture they would run themselves. Ruth Gundle, one of the directors of Flight, pulled me aside and told me that what I was musing about was something called a publishing collective. She put me in touch with one of the founders of Alice James Books, which was at that time a regional collective in the Boston area. It took three years to gather the founding members and launch Sixteen Rivers. We imagined ourselves as a kind of West Coast Alice James. Building an all-volunteer collaborative, consensus-based collective from the ground up was exciting. We’re still excited to be producing beautiful books 24 years later. Part of our mission is to mentor other groups interested in the collective publishing process, so we’ve been able to offer the documents, contracts, timelines, and other materials (some of them years in the making) to help presses launch themselves without having to reinvent the wheel.

DG: The press must have gone through many changes since its founding in 1999. Can you speak about these changes? What is different? What has stayed the same?

TE: We continue to be a nonprofit, non-hierarchical, all-volunteer organization. The authors make very little money (they are paid in copies of their books), because all our profits go towards publishing the next year’s books. It’s an unusual business model, but it seems to work.

Our first change was one we’d always planned on: opening the press beyond the founding members through an open manuscript selection process. We don’t do contests, nor do we charge a reading fee, holding to some of the original vision we had for the press. After a few successful years of publishing women (and after much discussion), we decided to open up the press to men. Since then, we’ve worked at creating a collective with poetic voices as diverse ethnically and aesthetically as the Bay Area itself. It’s been a vital but slow transformation. Perhaps too slow. But we’re committed to this. One way we’ve succeeded in being more inclusive is through the publication of our anthologies and chapbooks, which don’t require authors to make the three-year commitment to help run the press, and which allows us to promote the work of younger authors who might not be ready to submit a full-length book manuscript.

DG: How has running a publishing house influenced your own creative work?

TE: I’m not sure I’d characterize Sixteen Rivers as a publishing house. More of a cottage industry. We don’t even have a physical location. Until COVID and zoom made online meetings possible, we met for business meetings in members’ homes. I’d always hoped that the work of running a collective would free our writer-members from the mill of manuscript contests and submissions, and maybe encourage our poets to take some risks with poetry that might not fit the mainstream publishing expectations. That has been true for me, especially the press’s support of the translation projects I’ve undertaken this past decade. I really love the creative freedom and authorial control each author has over design and production. I also think it’s empowering for writers to be their own publishers.

DG: From 2004 to 2006, you served as the Poet Laureate for Sonoma County. Can you talk about the experiences you had during those two years?

TE: When I first moved to Sonoma County from San Francisco in 1990, I was struck by how supportive and non-competitive the writing community is here. Everyone’s success is celebrated. The writers here encourage and lift each other up. So being selected Poet Laureate of Sonoma County was a tremendous honor. During my two-year term, I had quite a few projects; one was to create a literary bridge between the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking communities. I started by helping to create a bilingual Poetry of Remembrance Community Reading that has become part of my home town’s annual El Día de los Muertos celebration. I also revived our county’s Poetry on the Bus project, placing poems on county transit buses and featuring work in Spanish and English by writers from all walks of life, both adults and teens. I also envisioned an online literary arts bulletin board called the Sonoma County Literary Update. We launched back in 2006 and the website is now an online fixture in the community. It’s where local writers go to find a monthly calendar of events, calls for submission, county-wide announcements, workshops, etc.

DG: On September 23, 2011, you read a poem called “How Fascism Will Come,” which you wrote specifically for the 100 Thousand Poets for Change reading. The beginning line of the last stanza reads: “When fascism comes to America, it will enter on the winds of our silence and indifference and complacency.” It’s been twelve years since you read the poem. What inspired the poem and how do you feel about it today?

TE: I am not a rant kind of gal, so this poem is somewhat out of character for me. I hadn’t intended to write a poem in this style. I started with the quote, sometimes attributed to Sinclair Lewis, “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” With Sarah Palin on the Republican ticket, and with the political shifts to the right in our country, it was clear to me that fascism had already arrived. I guess that’s what provoked the rant. The poem is composed of images and fragments of online articles I found when I googled the Sinclair Lewis quote, and I framed it all for the 100 Thousand Poets for Change event, which brought together poets from all over the world, reading and ranting in their own countries and communities. Since then, it has made the rounds of the internet and been reprinted in many blogs and newsletters. Apparently, and unfortunately, readers still find its message relevant.

DG: Along with writing and publishing, you’ve also hosted regular poetry workshops. How have these experiences not only enriched your understanding of poetry but also what poets themselves are capable of?

TE: For most of my writing life, I’ve earned my living by teaching developmental reading and writing and basic composition. But I have also had the opportunity to teach creative writing at various local colleges and universities. In 2000, I was invited to offer private workshops on whatever topics I wanted at the Sitting Room, a community library focusing on women writers and their work. Those workshops were amazing and deeply satisfying. Many friendships were forged there, and the Sitting Room has an ever-expanding shelf of book and chapbook publications by workshop participants. Some years I would choose a particular theme, like the prose poem, poetry and mythology, prosody, silence, creative revision; other years, the focus would be on a text or author, and we’d spend months together in a deep dive into Beowulf, the Romantic poets, H.D., Ann Carson, W.B. Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Dante. I invited guest poets to talk about their creative process and read their work. Each week I’d come up with writing prompts based on the work we were reading and discussing, and we’d all write together. I love the mysterious way that writing in a group creates cross-fertilization and images that seem to leap from one poet to another. Many of my own poems were drafted in these sessions. Sometimes the workshops would be followed by a field trip—two weeks in the west of Ireland or Wales or Tuscany. How lucky I was to be able to choose my teaching topics and pursue them without the burden of grades or homework or any of the aspects of academia that can dim the natural pleasures of teaching!

DG: Apart from your own writing, translation is also a part of your repertoire. You’ve talked about discovering the “Mexican poet Ulalume González de León in a workshop on the prose poem at San Francisco State in 1982.” Can you speak a bit more about how your translation efforts have developed since then? Any chance for a full-length collection in the future?

TE: Frances Mayes’s graduate workshop used the text The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, edited by Michael Benedikt. It featured a long prose poem in fifteen parts, “Anatomy of Love,” and I was instantly enthralled by the language: richly erotic imagery blending anatomical and scientific vocabulary in an unconventional syntax. To discover just how this poem’s magic worked, I experimented with the seventh part, “a la recherche du corps perdu.” I dismantled the language, organizing the words by parts of speech; then I assembled them in new patterns, rather like the process of recombinant DNA, to create a “mutant” poem. This became “Lost Body,” the title poem of my first collection.

Thirty years later, wanting to read more of González de León’s work, I Googled the name, not knowing at the time that this mysterious poet was a “she”—a confusion she apparently didn’t mind and even courted during her life. Oddly enough, the first entry that came up was my name. I had no idea how this could be, until I realized that the one reference to her name in English on the Internet was my poem, with its epigraph referencing González de León. Immediately I wanted to rectify this and find a way to bring this poet’s life and work to a wider English-speaking audience. Working with fellow Sonoma County poets John Johnson and Nancy Morales, we set to work translating some of her poems. Our project began in the fall of 2012, and has resulted so far in two published volumes of UGL’s poetry. A third volume is in the works, and should come out in 2025. I love learning the nuances of the art of translation, and I’ve come to appreciate the responsibility my partners and I have undertaken to be the first to bring this author’s collected published poems to an English-reading audience.

A full-length collection of my own work in the future? Oh, yes! I haven’t published a book of my own work since 2011, but I have many poems waiting to be assembled into one or two manuscripts. I can’t wait to turn my focus back on these poems!

DG: Who is the one poet you turn to most often for inspiration?

TE: I am always inspired by the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer. His work is endlessly resourceful, and he so skillfully manages that balancing act of suspension between the conscious and the unconscious. A prose writer I frequently reread is Jane Austen, and another, more contemporary is Ursula K. Le Guin, whom I was fortunate to know as both a mentor and a friend.

DG: What are you reading and/or working on at the moment?

TE: I’ve just finished reading, for the first time, Ursula Le Guin’s six Earthsea books. I knew her when she was writing the last three in the series, and I see in her characters, narratives, and dialogues so much of what she was exploring with us in our workshops at Flight of the Mind.

In addition to poetry manuscripts in the works, I have a long languishing novel (don’t we all?), which is a retelling of the story of the Trojan War, revisiting the Iliad, the Aeneid, and the Odyssey, but in order to unearth the female-centered pre-Hellenic world that can be found under the surface of those epic poems. It’s long overdue for a major revision, and I’m looking forward to getting back into that world.

I have always been interested in ekphrastic poetry—writing in response to visual art—and have enjoyed working with artists I know. In particular, I have quite a few poems inspired by the Slovakian abstract expressionist painter Andrea Smiskova Ehret (who is married to my nephew), and she has created a number of paintings in response to my poems. I’d love to bring out a volume of these collaborations.

Author Bio:

Writer, teacher, and translator, Terry Ehret has published four collections of poetry, most recently Night Sky Journey, and translated two volumes of poems by Mexican poet Ulalume González de León. She is a co-founder of Sixteen Rivers Press, and from 2004-2006 she served as poet laureate of Sonoma County. In the summers, she offers travel programs for writers.


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