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PUTTING THEIR BEST VERSE FORWARD : Poets Aim to Place Orange County on Literary Map With Anthology of Works by Local Writers

Right now in other parts of the country, poets wrapped in mufflers are hiking through snowy woods, filling notebooks with wintry images.

For poets in Orange County, where winter is a lot like summer, inspiration is found in other places.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 09, 1987 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday February 9, 1987 Orange County Edition View Part 5 Page 2 Column 4 View Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
A caption accompanying a photograph of Orange County poets in View on Sunday incorrectly identified Kate Ozbirn, an associate editor of the anthology “The Webs We Weave,” as Diane Wakoski.

Kelli Bond, who lives in Cypress, escapes to the beach. “I go to Huntington,” she says “to watch the sun and clouds against the ocean.”

Kate Ozbirn, when she feels disturbed by the paranoia of perfectionism in the county’s meticulously planned communities, finds relief in her Placentia home “at the edge of a Chicano barrio.”

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And Mitsuye Yamada of Irvine visits the deserts and other open spaces to feel her place in “the larger universe.”

The three are among 59 poets whose work is represented in “The Webs We Weave,” the first comprehensive anthology of Orange County poetry, published in November by Literary Arts Press. The book was celebrated at a party last week at Upstart Crow and Co., a cafe-bookstore in South Coast Village in Santa Ana.

Linked by Region

The poets may be linked by region, but the work in the anthology represents many voices expressing universal concerns--love, grief, war and salvation through poetry.

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Lawyer John Brander, who conceived the anthology and served as one of its editors, says an inspirational view doesn’t necessarily translate into poetry but that, nevertheless, such solitary escapes are central to creativity.

Although his most recent poems concern a 13-year period when he lived in South Africa, Brander, who works in Santa Ana, gears up to write by roaming the older neighborhoods of Santa Ana or the Balboa Peninsula.

And unlike some of his peers, Brander sees a blessing in the emphasis here on material success. “Where there’s no sanction for being poor and talented,” he says, “poets are forced into greater involvement with the world. And for poetry to be a living form of expression, it can’t just languish in the colleges.”

Lack of Interest Cited

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Some poets and readers of poetry would probably agree with the view of Prof. Robert Peters of UC Irvine, a nationally known poet and critic, who faults Orange County for what he sees as a general lack of appreciation for the arts. “Around here,” Peters says, “the number of sequins on your dress matters more than the brains in your head.” He goes so far as to label the area “an utter wasteland of shallowness and pretentiousness.”

But Diane Wakoski, a critically acclaimed poet who is a La Habra native and the author of 16 poetry collections, says most Americans don’t read poetry. “They’re not interested,” she says.

Yet as poets gathered Monday evening at Upstart Crow, more than 100 listeners filled the tables and overflowed into the aisles.

Cheers and whistles accompanied each of the 17 poets to a music stand and hand-held microphone. Jokes and thanks preceded the reading of the poems.

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“I took up poetry,” Marcia Cohee said, “because I failed at the piano.” Poet Linda Macaluso made a point of thanking the editors of the anthology for bringing the poets’ work to a wider audience. College instructor Terri Brint Joseph dedicated a poem to her students.

The evening’s surprise guest, Diane Wakoski, who now teaches at Michigan State University, opened with a testimonial: “Orange County will always resonate for me.” She then read a poem of hers set amid the orange groves of her youth. Following is an except from “Smudging,” a term that the poet says refers to the practice of “lighting small oil fires in the orange groves at night when the temperatures are too low, to keep the leaves and fruit warm, so as not to lose the crop.”

I come out of a California orange grove the way a meteor might be plucked out of an Arizona desert. The icy origins of genes could easily be flaming ones

And in my head

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those red-hot rocks shake down into a bed of coals, oranges roll off the shelves, amber sticks on the roof of my mouth, honey glistens in glass jars, the combs full of music, --all in the back of my head /the gold of the small loops in my ears is the sound of a king cobra crossing the rocks, tigers walk across my lips / the gold is in my head. It is the honeysuckle of an island . .. During intermission, as a jazz duo played “Moondance,” several ebullient poets danced solo and in pairs while strangers hung around for autographs.

Some, like John Trollmann, a Cal State Long Beach student who attended as part of a class on oral interpretation of literature, expressed amazement: “I never knew this scene existed.”

Others, like Dianne Taylor, a “closet poet” from Washington, D.C., listened closely as Marcia Cohee announced upcoming readings in the Goat Hill Series, which is presented at 8 p.m. the first Monday of every month at Upstart Crow, and the Laguna Poets series, which is presented Fridays at 8 p.m. in the Laguna Beach Public Library.

The evening ended in thunderous applause--a heady moment for those who labor in solitude.

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But although the night brought them welcome recognition, the anthology is the real triumph for those poets who worked four years to create it.

New Image Hoped For

Bond, a technical editor for Hughes Aircraft who was an associate editor of the anthology, thinks the book will “put Orange County on the West Coast, if not the national, literary map.” Editor Yamada believes it will “counteract the county’s image as a right-wing cultural desert.” And Brander, who also edits the California State Poetry Quarterly, hopes that the anthology will change the arts community’s profile as a poor cousin to Los Angeles. “L.A. poets don’t see Orange County poets as serious,” he said, adding proudly, “but L.A. is still awaiting its anthology.”

Yamada, a Japanese-American whose husband’s job brought her to Orange County in 1960, said she had to make a special effort as a poet to combat the alienation she felt. She sought out poety workshops and began teaching. She is now a Cypress College professor and is poet-in-residence at Pitzer College. In 1978, she founded her own workshop, Multi-Cultural Women Writers of Orange County.

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“The Webs We Weave” was conceived as a kaleidoscope of poetry in the county, reflective of its various regions, socioeconomic groups and literary circles, the editors said. Before its publication, only poets affiliated with the Laguna Poets series had been anthologized, in two small typewritten volumes that appeared in 1974 and 1979.

The anthology includes work by some Laguna poets (among them, Marta Mitrovich, the series’ director) and was partly subsidized by the Laguna group. But “Webs” editors cast a wider net, distributing flyers at Goat Hill readings and at Rookery Readings at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. They asked every poet they could think of for submissions. Anyone who had ever lived or worked in Orange County was eligible. (Three of the 59 poets are deceased.)

In reading submissions, the editors judged content, literary quality and sociopolitical message. They refrained from editing poems, they said, accepting them as they were or not at all.

Collection Praised

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The result, said Elliot Fried, an English professor at Cal State Long Beach, is “a genuinely good collection.”

Discussing the review he plans to write for the The Small Press Review, an independent monthly journal, Fried said that what “Webs” lacks in “pure experimentation” it makes up for in having “complementary, harmonious voices” that lift it “a notch or two above other contemporary anthologies.”

Peters, who has published eight books of criticism in addition to his own poetry, believes that the primary value of the anthology will be as encouragement for local writers. “Because of it,” he said, “more people will write and feel that the community will listen.”

Wakoski, who left the county in 1955, said that she sees promising changes when she visits. “It’s now a sophisticated place,” she said. “People eat croissants instead of Wonder Bread. People who eat croissants might be interested in poetry.”

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And she noted a more significant national change that has implications for Orange County. “For the first time,” she said, “there’s a bigger poetry scene on the West Coast than in the East. The art center has shifted. It was Paris in the teens and ‘20s, New York in the ‘60s, and it’s California today.”

The anthology’s editors are already talking about Volume II.

“We’re looking for corporate sponsors,” said Bond, who, like several others involved with the anthology, helped finance its production.

Editors Brander, Yamada, Bond and Ozbirn all agreed that they would like to see a much broader group of poets--from diverse age, ethnic and handicapped populations--represented.

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“My goal,” Yamada said, “is for the county’s various classes and ethnic groups to come together through poetry.”

Brander, his eyes dreamy, suggested a 1989 publication date.

Why 1989?

He smiled. “That’s the 100th anniversary of Orange County.”

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