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A magazine from California State University, Chico -- On-line Edition  
Fall 2005
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August Morning

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
relaxed, different.
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
stern passion?

by Gary Thompson, from his book On John Muir’s Trail


Relief Map

Some miles from a flood plane
on the Wind River,
my hands cramp
into driftwood.

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

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 wet season.

“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 winner.”

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 called 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 day since.”

Garcia entered CSU, Chico as a business major but switched to English after taking creative writing courses with Thompson and Quinton Duval.

“What they helped me understand is that growing up in Red Bluff [California] and on a walnut orchard could be the stuff of poetry,” says Garcia. “They got me to read good poets, and that influenced my work.”

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 U.S.”

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 life.

“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 that year.

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 English.

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 Huff. “It’s 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 Sacramento Bee.