It’s ripe, the melon
by our sink. Yellow,
bee-bitten, soft, it perfumes
the house too sweetly.
At five I wake, the air
mournful in its quiet.
My wife’s eyes swim calmly
under their lids, her mouth and jaw
What is happening in the silence
of this house? Curtains
hang heavily from their rods.
Ficus leaves tremble
at my footsteps. Yet
the colors outside are perfect—
orange geranium, blue lobelia.
I wander from room to room
like a man in a museum:
wife, children, books, flowers,
melon. Such still air. Soon
the mid-morning breeze will float in
like tepid water, then hot.
How do I start this day,
I who am unsure
of how my life has happened
or how to proceed
amid this warm and steady sweetness?
by Albert Garcia, from his book Skunk Talk
Old Cohasset Road
If John and Annie Bidwell rode
this road alone,
did they rein in the team,
climb down and try to count
the poppies burning dots
of flame up through the valley floor,
and did they think the earth
was burning up inside
with wanton love,
or did they choose to see
the stars of heaven scattered
in the field, like eyes, the many eyes
of God who sees and counts
the things we do in spring
when poppies bloom and winter cloaks
come off, and John and Annie
left alone with love
of God and with their own
by Gary Thompson, from his
book On John Muir’s Trail
Some miles from a flood plane
on the Wind River,
my hands cramp
I can’t swim to chalk cliffs
and mourn the shells of oysters
lodged in their slopes. Listen,
all those ancient homes are listless.
I betrayed you.
A bittern had Noah’s tags
on his ankles.
I did my best to believe.
All the bulbs from Colorado
winters I have gulped.
With a messy platoon of petals,
a Dutch Iris tickles.
There has never been
another May. Spring
goes home folded
backwards, brown, unread.
by Kandie St. Germain,
from her book Closet Drama
Giving Western Poets Voice
Poets find a champion in CSU, Chico alumna and teacher Beth Spencer
By Christine Vovakes
From her home high on the Cohasset ridge east of Chico, Beth Spencer
is pursuing her dream—and helping poets realize theirs.
Ten years ago, Spencer (BA, English, ’83; MA, English, ’87)
founded Bear Star Press to focus on the work of writers living
in the West. Spencer and a panel of judges annually award the Dorothy
Brunsman Poetry Prize to a writer from the western United States—the
mountain and Pacific time zones, as well as Alaska and Hawaii.
The award is named in honor of her mother, Dorothy Brunsman Spencer,
who funds the competition and has encouraged her daughter’s
efforts from the beginning. “She told me, ‘I’ll
stake you,’ ” recalls Spencer. “At that time,
the prize was $50.”
The number of submissions has grown, as has the award, says Spencer,
who also teaches in the literary editing and publishing program
at California State University, Chico. The winners now receive
$1,000 along with publication of a book of their poetry.
Acclaim for Bear Star Press has also grown, says poet Gary Thompson,
who is retired after teaching creative writing at CSU, Chico for
nearly three decades. Thompson has recently become a poetry publisher
himself, with Cedar House Books in Port Orchard, Washington, where
he now lives.
I’m impressed with what Beth has done,” he says. “She
began with occasional chapbooks [small books containing poems],
but by the second year, she was publishing full-length manuscripts
with handsome presentations. Suddenly, she was making a national
reputation for Bear Star Press. Beth has done an outstanding job
of presenting western state poets to the rest of the country.”
One of those poets is CSU, Chico graduate Albert Garcia (BA, English, ’85).
He stepped into the spotlight with his 2005 book, Skunk Talk, when
Garrison Keillor twice read poems from that collection during broadcasts
of The Writer’s Almanac on National Public Radio last fall.
Later this year, U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser will feature “August
Morning,” the first poem in the collection, in a weekly syndicated
column about poetry in America, The Poet and the Poem from
the Library of Congress, a radio program available to all public radio
stations through NPR. (Audio cybercasts of The Poet and the
Poem are available for listening at www.loc.gov/poetry/poetpoem.html.)
“Beth is a terrific reader and editor,” says Garcia,
dean of language and literature at Sacramento City College. “She
gave my book such careful attention and seemed excited about it
through the whole process. She made suggestions but left all the
decisions up to me, so I never felt pressured to change the wording.” In
addition to publishing the work of the annual Dorothy Brunsman
award winner, Spencer usually publishes a second book. Garcia’s
collection was one of them, as was Thompson’s book, On
John Muir’s Trail, in 1999.
“The truth is that more manuscripts of publishable quality
come through than I can possibly publish,” notes Spencer.
Most of the additional books that she chooses are gleaned from
submissions received during the September-through-November contest
period. “I would rather have earlier submissions than later
ones, but about 90 percent arrive at deadline,” she says. “I
try to read everything as it comes in.”
That process involves sitting on cushions in front of a woodstove,
going through the poetry, often on misty autumn days. Her home
in Cohasset is surrounded by trees, a setting that she describes
as “a rainforest” during Northern California’s
“What I love about manuscripts is that I’m reading
the fresh dream of the West,” she says. “I’m
in awe and feel humbled by the quality of some of the poetry I’m
allowed to read.”
Next, she winnows the submissions down to semifinalists. For help
in determining the winner, she depends on the critical judgment
of her associate editors, poets Deborah Woodard from Seattle and
Joanne Allred (MA, English, ’79) of Chico, both of whom taught
creative writing at CSU, Chico.
“There’s so much to like at the end,” says Spencer. “Several
manuscripts jostle for attention, and it’s hard to pick a
She decided to feature writers from the western states because
they have a more difficult time getting noticed by the preponderance
of presses on the East Coast. “Bear Star Press is my little
way of balancing things out,” she says.
Spencer, who had gone through CSU, Chico’s editing and publishing
program, felt confident that she had the skills to be an editor
and publisher. “I had the ridiculous notion I might be able
to make money publishing poetry books,” she says with a laugh. “I
worked at Tower Books before its demise and always loved the feel
of books and their design, not just what lay inside the covers.
I thought I might have a head for the work, and I knew I wanted
to work at something I loved. Voila: Bear Star.”
But Spencer soon discovered that publishing costs gobble up any
hope of profits. Fortunately, her husband, Tony Baptiste, community
services director for the city of Chico, fully supports her efforts.
Her mother, a retired teacher and lifelong avid reader, continues
to bolster Bear Star Press. When an inheritance from Brunsman’s
brother gave her an annual stipend, she upped the prize money in
1998 to the current $1,000 award.
“I’m glad she’s my mom,” says Spencer. “She’s
always been a huge fighter for social justice issues, and I’ve
appreciated that she has been on the side of the underdog, the
less privileged, the unfortunate ones.”
Those are issues she thinks poetry often addresses. “Poetry
takes the less celebrated aspects of life and celebrates them.
It moves beyond the conventional pieties and says something bigger.
At least, good poetry does.”
Her father, Donald, a playwright and retired college drama teacher,
nurtured his daughter’s love of the written word. “Both
of my parents encouraged anything I did that was creative,” she
says. “My parents are big readers, and my dad’s a writer.
I inherited all my weirdness, and I say this proudly, from my folks.”
Spencer began her young adult years interested in becoming a tapestry
weaver. She zigzagged through diverse jobs that included stints
as a zookeeper, a waitress, and a poker dealer. Along the way,
she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees, and found her niche
when she began shepherding books through the publishing process. “The
press keeps most parts of my brain alive more than anything else,” she
says. That brain activity applied to visual art, as well. She designs
the covers for Bear Star books and is occasionally hired by other
presses to design their covers.
CSU, Chico professor emeritus George Keithley has published several
books of poetry, including a poetry chapbook
Living Again in 1997 with Bear Star Press.
“It won the first competition, when the prize was $50 and
a couple hundred copies,” he says, and praises Spencer’s
commitment to Bear Star Press.
Keithley now concentrates on fiction and nonfiction, but says that
during his years at CSU, Chico, there was “a good supportive
feeling among the poets pulling for each other to write well and
to get published. There were a number of people in other departments
who were writers and who were interested in what you were doing.”
An atmosphere that supported creativity is what Kandie St. Germain
(BA, English, ’94) remembers best about CSU, Chico’s
English department. While in Chico, she had several poems published
in the campus literary magazine, Watershed. She currently writes
mostly plays and teaches theatre at the University of California,
Riverside. Her poetry collection, Closet Drama, was published by
Bear Star Press in 2001. “I love Chico and loved my experience
at Chico State,” she says. “Actually, I started as
a nursing major, took one class with Gary Thompson, who read us
a Nazim Hikmet poem, and that was that. I’ve written every
Garcia entered CSU, Chico as a business major but switched to English
after taking creative writing courses with Thompson and Quinton
“What they helped me understand is that growing up in Red
Bluff [California] and on a walnut orchard could be the stuff of
Garcia. “They got me to read good poets, and that influenced
But getting poetry off the page, into print, and out to readers
is increasingly difficult. Poets look to dedicated publishers like
Spencer to champion their work, says Joshua McKinney, whose collection The
Novice Mourner won the 2005 Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize.
“Let’s face it—poetry is not a moneymaking venture,” says
McKinney, an associate professor of English at California State
University, Sacramento. “Most presses that have a poetry
series expect to lose money on it. And because poetry makes no
money, many presses don’t publish it—or if they do,
they publish a small group of select poets, the proven moneymakers.
Therefore, small presses like Bear Star keep poetry alive in the
Sustaining poetry is important, notes Garcia, because it helps
those caught up in a fast-paced society to slow down and pay attention.
“We’re an easily distracted people now,” he says. “Maybe
poetry is one way of focusing on the things that matter.”
Believing in Poetry
Arlitia Jones was no stranger to awards when she won the 2001
Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize. The Anchorage, Alaska, resident
had snagged top honors from the American Academy of Poets and Atlantic
Monthly in college writing contests.
But it was the Bear Star Press publication of her poetry collection, The
Bandsaw Riots, that propelled her more fully into a literary
“It continues to open doors for me,” she said in a
phone interview from her job in her parents’ meat market.
The poems revolve around Jones’ experiences at the butcher
shop and in Alaska’s weather-ravaged terrain. The collection
began attracting a wider audience when Garrison Keillor read a
selection during his broadcast of The Writer’s Almanac on
National Public Radio. Renowned poet Adrienne Rich read the book
and sent Jones a note expressing admiration for her work. Jones
was invited to read her poems at Union College in Schenectady,
New York. The Utne Reader listed the book as one of its top picks
When Alaska’s art council recently asked Jones to give a
lecture, she spoke about “Citizen Poet in the Real World,” a
subject she integrated into the writing class she teaches at the
University of Alaska, Anchorage.
“Beth Spencer was one of the first people who understood
what the poems were about,” said Jones. “I continue
to be asked to do readings. I’m able to take those poems
that she believed in and share them with others.”
Excerpt from The Bandsaw Riots
Winter Night on the Yentna River
for my father
If the lives we live depend on the stories we tell,
our story, I think, goes something like this:
Late December and the ambient temperature is -45º F.
Every sound becomes an echo rolling down
the frozen river—ice popping, trees cracking
and the few words we say to one another.
I am in the lead. It’s the only way, you say, you’re gonna
learn to pick a trail. We travel by full moon
dogging us over our left shoulders—a bright body loping
along the rim of land, coming through black spruce
and alder like an enormous white bear.
How am I not frightened by its approach?
Preparing the Next Generation of Editors
What’s involved in producing a book, a magazine,
or a journal? For starters, meeting deadlines, editing
content, and designing layouts. And that’s just
the beginning of a long process that involves collaboration,
creativity, and discipline to produce a publication
that meets the needs of its readers.
To become fully immersed in the process, students dive
into CSU, Chico’s hands-on literary editing and
publishing certificate program in the Department of
The program is open to students seeking degrees in
any major, as well as to those interested only in earning
the certificate, explains coordinator Casey Huff, who
is also the University’s publications editor.
The 25-unit program is designed to prepare students
for careers in publishing.
Students demonstrate mastery of language and editing
fundamentals, learn about the publishing industry,
and then edit magazines and chapbooks. Most also help
with editorial tasks for the national literary contest
sponsored each year by the University’s Flume
Press, a publisher of poetry and fiction chapbooks.
Professor emerita of English Ellen Walker began the
program in 1977. Huff was one of her first students
in the program. As a class project, he and a classmate
started a magazine that evolved into CSU, Chico’s
biannual literary magazine called Watershed. It is
one of the oldest continuously published student-edited
literary magazines in the nation.
Students produce the magazine from start to finish
as their semester project. Beth Spencer teaches the
course in the fall semester. Huff supervises a small
group of experienced interns who publish the magazine
in the spring.
“Beth and I provide guidance for the project,
but the students have editorial control,” says
their magazine, a place for them to hone their literary
sensibilities and their editing skills. They also learn
firsthand how the production process works, and why
it’s so important to meet deadlines.”
Spencer both lectures and shares the knowledge that
she has gained through running Bear Star Press. “What
makes Beth so valuable to the process is the practical
experience she brings,” says Huff.
Graduates of the program have been successful finding
jobs in diverse fields of publishing, from editing
children’s books and computer magazines to coordinating
online publications and publicizing graphic novels.
For more information about the program, see the Web
site at www.csuchico.edu/engl/editingcertificate/index.html.
About the author
Christine Vovakes is a freelance writer in Red Bluff. Her
articles focusing on the North State often appear in The