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Prickly Poet Is Headed for a Laurel

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Times Staff Writer

Ojai poet Joan Raymund is sitting on the patio of her cheerful country house surrounded by brightly colored flowerpots and fruit trees swollen with apricots and plums.

It is a deliciously bucolic setting almost completely at odds with the blunt, sharp-tongued writer who resides there.

At 72, the former high school and college English instructor loathes sentimentality. She laments that too many young writers lack discipline, don’t know squat about language and could learn a lot by cracking open the collected works of Whitman, Auden or Frost.

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“If you really have nothing to say, shut up,” she says acidly.

Raymund’s gruff exterior belies a lifetime dedicated to opening the minds of young writers and encouraging them to find their own voices.

For the last 15 years, she has led a weekly poetry workshop at the Ojai Arts Center and edited and published an annual anthology, “rivertalk,” featuring poets from the Central Coast.

Neither has brought her fame or money.

But community leaders are expected to formally recognize Raymund’s contributions tonight by appointing her Ojai’s first poet laureate.

No other candidates were considered for the unpaid position, which will require little from Raymund other than the occasional poetry reading or public appearance.

“Ojai is very much an artist’s town, and Joan has really been the driving force behind poetry in Ojai for a long time,” said Maudette Finck, head of the Ojai Arts Commission, which is recommending the appointment.

The Ojai City Council is scheduled to take up the request this evening before holding a budget hearing and taking up other business.

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It is perhaps a fitting agenda item for a thriving arts community that plays host to the acclaimed Ojai Music Festival each spring, Shakespearean stage productions in the summer and a film festival in the fall.

Ojai is also home to numerous art galleries and studios, including the studio of the late legendary ceramist Beatrice Wood.

The arts commission hopes naming a poet laureate will raise the profile of poetry in the community while honoring the work of a local arts benefactor, editor and writer, Finck said.

If appointed, Raymund will become the first city poet laureate in Ventura County and one of only a handful across the state.

Although the Library of Congress has named a national poet laureate since 1937, local poet laureates are a new phenomenon.

In California, they are found in San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland, Alameda, Santa Rosa, San Luis Obispo and Sunland-Tujunga, according to a list kept by the California Arts Council.

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Responsibilities vary. Some poet laureates are paid stipends up to $5,000 to work closely with libraries and schools to promote an appreciation of poetry.

“These are not just honorific chucks of money thrown at somebody,” said Ray Tatar, a program manager for the California Arts Council. “These appointees in some of these cities use the honoraria to further public participation in the expression of poetry.

“Poets have been for so long invisible people in their own communities, not connected to the libraries, not connected to the schools,” he said. “But in the last few years, that has turned around.”

Tatar said the council has documented 128 long-running poetry workshops or readings up and down the state, and hopes those events and the efforts of local laureates will introduce a new generation to the genre.

“The vision of the poet laureate is more a master teacher, an inculcator of the love of language and its power to people who may not otherwise understand that the more they know, the deeper and richer their lives will be,” Tatar said.

Raymund, a feisty woman with piercing blue eyes and jet-black hair, agrees with Tatar’s concept of the poet laureate but warns that she may be unable to play such a role because of her health.

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A longtime smoker, Raymund survived lung cancer surgery only to be stricken with emphysema. Even at home, she cannot wander far without tugging an oxygen tank behind.

“Nature has forced me to slow down,” she said. “I get around, but I don’t fly around.”

Not one to take life too seriously, Raymund used her condition as a metaphor for a series of personal and reflective poems collected in her second self-published book, “Breathing In.”

The cover features a picture of a silver cylindrical oxygen tank against a blue sky. One poem, “On Nicotine & After,” was inspired by a friend and fellow smoker:

I will apologize

because I adored the way

Joan Crawford did the French inhale.

You’ll all forgive me.

My friend,

who has a cough to make Crawford proud

and is a hot wire in high wind,

admits to nothing

She blames the poisoned air,

Jason’s stark betrayal,

acupuncturists who don’t strike deep enough.

She is a village upon which

Fate has dropped an avalanche

Raymund moved to Ojai in 1986, retiring from a career of teaching, first at junior high and high schools and later at City College and Pierce College.

She began holding poetry workshops at the Ojai Arts Center in 1987 and started the anthology the same year with financial assistance from her brother. The first edition was 36 pages, stapled together, with a black-and-white cover.

Raymund pays homage to the original with the publication of the final edition, a sleek 84-page black-and-white book featuring regional writers. It will be released later this month -- the same time she is expected to be formally honored as Ojai poet laureate.

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“I was pleased and honored,” she said of the selection, though she warns she won’t write political speeches or odes to oak trees in her new role. “I am assuming it is an honor without burdening responsibilities.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Excerpt

“Losing the Juice,” a poem from “Breathing In” by Joan Raymund:

I wrote the first poem at eight.

Awful, but it rhymed.

Collected works came at 12:

poems about wanting to inhabit outer space,

and own a dog.

Words like eons and infinity

I copped from sci-fi books;

the terrier was clipped from magazine.

When adolescence bloomed its terrible flower,

I made escapes from well-fenced school.

Wrote poems with titles like Flight.

Did remembrance poems at 35.

Wrote Mother storming through midnight

rooms,

while Dad hid out in the john.

Where else, I queried, can a poor man go

to escape the lashing tongue?

I’ve given Mother up,

swept her from my poems.

Disposed of passive father and retinue of dogs.

I’ve let the stars go, too,

the wheeling galaxies,

and all the rage that let me float out there

and kept me warm.

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