Sonoma County, California, the west of the county specifically, received three visitors in the last days of February and early into March of 2019. One was unwelcome and made a big impact, and the other two, although welcome and appreciated, didn’t make as big of a splash. As the atmospheric river stretching from the Hawaiian Islands swept ashore on the North Coast of California bringing with it enough rain to swell the Russian River to flood levels not seen since 1995, two intrepid poets, Maureen Owen and Barbara Henning, drove up from Southern California for a scheduled reading at Moe’s Bookstore in Berkeley and then on to the final stop on the West Coast of their cross country reading tour at North Bay Letterpress Arts in Sebastopol, California.
Owen and Henning had put their ambitious plan for a cross country poetry reading tour into motion a year earlier by lining up dates and venues that would take them from Brooklyn where Barbara currently lives and end up in Denver two months later where Maureen makes her home. Their venues would include upscale bookstores, coffee houses, museums, legendary used bookstores, botanical gardens, university classrooms, art centers, and artist coops, in short, a unique sampling of poetry environments tracing an arc across the Southern states, the Southwest, and up the West Coast before hooking back to the Rockies.
Framed as a personal challenge, the poets hit the road much in the manner of itinerant preachers and musicians, lodging at discount motels, funky hostels, airbnb’s, and with friends (pobnb’s) along the way. Adding a social media touch, Maureen and Barbara created a blog of their tour so that friends, family, hosts, fellow poets as well as the pathologically curious might also share in their adventure. Their starting point on a wintery Friday the 18th of January night was the Belladonna Readings Series at the Jackson McNally Bookstore in the trendy Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. A standout crowd of New York literati was on hand to see them off. Two days and two hundred and fifty miles later, the poets found themselves in Washington, DC, for an afternoon reading with Terence Winch and Erica Howsare at the DC Arts Center. Their next stop was in Pensacola, Florida, for a reading the following Saturday, the 26th , at the Pensacola Museum of Art, which meant that they could take their time and enjoy a leisurely thousand mile drive through the much warmer Southern states and appreciate the bucolic landscapes of back road America. From Pensacola it was on to Mobile, Alabama, and a reading at the Mobile Botanical Gardens the following day, the 27th, and then to New Orleans for a Wednesday night reading at the Dragonfly Poetry and Performance Space on the 30th. At this pace, they were averaging a reading every two and half days and had traveled, accounting for stops and detours, easily fifteen hundred miles.
Although a road trip across North America calls to mind Jack Kerouac’s youthful meanderings of self discovery, this reading tour was more in the manner of Basho’s late life journeys through the backcountry of Japan. Both poets, now in their seventies, have made poetry the focus of most of their adult lives. The road trip was in a sense a pilgrimage of reengagement with their calling as poets, and a chance to reacquaint themselves with like-minded friends, old and new, in a far flung landscape of American poetry.
No stranger to remarkable adventures, Maureen Owen, as a young woman and pregnant with her first child, moved to Japan in 1965 where she studied the practices of haiku and renku as well as Zen Buddhism. She then returned to the States and New York City in 1968 where she was program coordinator for the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. In 1969, she founded the literary magazine Telephone and the press Telephone Books, publishing many poets of the New York School. Owen is also the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Edges of Water (2013), Erosion’s Pull (2006), American Rush: Selected Poems (1998), American Book Award–winner AE (Amelia Earhart) (1984), and The No-Travels Journal (1975). For nearly 30 years, she collaborated with a group of poets, including Pat Nolan and Sandy Berrigan, on haikai no renga (linked verse) which was collected in Poetry For Sale (2015). Her work is also featured in the anthology Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women (1998). A recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and the Fund for Poetry, Owen taught in the Naropa University low-residency MFA program and at Edinboro University. Maureen is a pioneer in women’s publishing as well as a poet whose unique work represents a determined esthetic that rejects the dominant mode of institutionalized literature. Her presence resonates at the center of literate culture.
Poet and fiction writer Barbara Henning arrived in New York City with her two children in 1983 from Detroit, Michigan where she had attended Wayne State University. Her first book of poems, Smoking in the Twilight Bar, was published by Lewis Warsh’s prestigious press, United Artists, in 1988. Subsequent poetry collections include: Love Makes Thinking Dark (1995), Detective Sentences (2001), My Autobiography (2007), Cities and Memory (2010), A Swift Passage (2013), and A Day Like Today (s, 2015). Henning is the author of four novels: Just Like That, Thirty Miles to Rosebud, You Me and the Insects, and Black Lace. Barbara is also the editor of a book of interviews, Looking Up Harryette Mullen (Belladonna, 2011), and The Selected Prose of Bobbie Louise Hawkins (Blazevox, 2012). She was the editor of the poetry and art journal, Long News: In the Short Century, from 1990 to 1995. As a long-time yoga practitioner, she has lived and studied in Mysore, India with Shankaranarayana Jois. She has also lived in Tucson, Arizona. Henning taught at Naropa University, the University of Arizona, and Long Island University in Brooklyn, where she is professor emerita. As a prolific author, innovator, and participant in leading edge American poetry culture, Barbara’s engagement in the making and teaching of the art of writing is nothing short of inspiring.
It should come as no surprise then that these two indomitable spirits would face the sunset in a journey that might be framed as “Thelma and Louise Ride Again” or “Grannies Go West.” Feb 2, Groundhog Day and James Joyce’s birthday, found the poets in Austin at the hub of Texas literary culture and a well attended reading at Malvern Books with local poet Ashley Smith Keyfitz joining them at the mic. From there it was on to their next gig, a seven hundred mile trek to Albuquerque for a Feb 7th reading at Bookworks that included a side trip to the Buddy Holly Museum in Lubbock, Texas. Tucson, Arizona, awaited them for their reading at the Steinfeld Warehouse Community Arts Space on February 16th after an overnight stay at the unique Rocket Inn in Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico. By now the travelers were coming to terms with the vast and empty distances of the West. They logged one hundred fifty miles from Albuquerque to Truth Or Consequences and another three hundred miles to Tucson, Barbara’s old stomping grounds. There the poets took a much needed breather to enjoy the familiar sights and reconnect with old friends before heading for California and the beginning of their sprint north up the coast the following week.
All the while the poets were making their way west, California was experiencing one of the wettest winters in decades. A keen eyed weather prognosticator might have noticed a shift in the storm patterns as early as the previous November, an indication that California was cycling out of long years of drought and was headed toward a winter of heavy rains and the potential for flooding and mud slides. The month of January saw one weather system after another batter the coast with saturating rain. Soon the overburdened hillsides could no longer absorb the inundation and began to flush the excess into the watershed of streams and rivers. Once dry washes and leisurely creeks became muddy raging torrents, hillsides gave way to slides blocking roads and undermining homes. With each storm the holding capacity of the normally placid rivers inched higher toward historic flood levels, threatening communities along their banks. It was under those conditions the poets arrived in Sothern California in mid February. By then they’d been on the road over a month.
On Thursday night, the 21st, scheduled to read to Professor Mark Wallace’s “The Community and World” series, Barbara navigated her twelve year old Fit through the blinding rain and hail on a swamped expressway looking for the exit to the State University in San Marcos. It was their welcome to winter in California. The following evening on the tail end of the storm, but still dark and blustery, the poets headed to La Jolla and their gig at the legendary D.G. Willis used bookstore. Driving the multi-laned expressway, Barbara was moved to observe, I always thought of California as more laid back than NYC, but to tell you the truth, NYC seems like old world and California, well, she is flying off the globe. By Sunday they were in Venice. That afternoon Maureen and Barbara read at Beyond Baroque, the Poetry Project of the West Coast, certainly in its longevity and reputation as an independent art space. The 25th of February they headed north for a four hundred mile drive to San Francisco and the Bay Area. The National Weather Service in Monterey had issued warnings for urban and small stream flooding. The predicted rainfall in some parts of Northern California was upwards of a foot and half in the next few days. Based on calculations of the amount of rain, the local rivers would breach their banks. The latest iteration of the “pineapple express” had arrived. And by now all that time behind the wheel was beginning to take its toll on Barbara’s shoulders and arms, and she was in need of musculature attention.
Staging at a little air bnb in Berkeley, Barbara and Maureen got a taste of Bay Area traffic congestion with a visit to Diane DiPrima at the Jewish Home for the Aged in San Francisco. To the north of them the Russian River was flooding and an evacuation order was in effect for those in the path of the rising waters. It was a cause for concern as their next stop after Berkeley was Monte Rio, a little hamlet along the flooding river, where Maureen’s long time friend, Pat Nolan, lived with his life partner, Gail King. An email from Pat updated them to alleviate any anxiety they might have about the current circumstances. Hi Maureen. We are doing fine and not among the evacuees. And we still have power! We will be high and dry through it all. The river is expected to crest at 46.1 feet (that .1 makes a difference). If you saw the sat pic of the storm, it’s like a fire hose aimed directly at Sonoma County. Anyway, tomorrow’s precipitation will determine if the predicted crest holds. At 46 feet I might get a little water (inches) in my studio downstairs. Unlike floods back East this one will be gone by Friday morning. The roads should be passable by then as well. I will update you tomorrow once I have a better idea on how all this’ll shake out.
On Thursday, the 28th, the poets once again travelled to San Francisco for a reading in Steve Dickison’s class at San Francisco State University. Then it was back across the Bay Bridge and their reading at the world-famous Moe’s Bookstore that evening attended by a select group of East Bay literati. By then the Russian River had crested at 45.4 feet and was slowly but surely retreating to nonthreatening levels.
The next day Maureen and Barbara’s arrival in the North Bay was fraught with the high drama of a post flood region under an evacuation order. As the flood waters receded, county officials scrambled to assess the damage and limit access to the area to residents only in an effort to thwart potential for looting and the inevitable crisis tourism. To get around the “residents only” restriction, their hosts arranged a rendezvous at a mutual friend’s home away from the flood area from which they would then guide the visiting poets on the winding back country roads into the heart of wetness. As it turned out, the restrictions were rescinded by midday and the poets could have easily accomplished the journey without encountering any check points. On the other hand, taking the twisty back road through the redwood, fir, and oak coastal hills circumvented having to pass through the really ugly flood debris and mud that now lined most of the passable thoroughfares in the area. And it was then also that Barbara learned that the locals do not measure distance by miles but by the time it takes to drive from one point to another. There are no straight lines in nature, and where they were heading was deep into nature.
The following day, Barbara kept her appointment with a local massage therapist while the rest of the entourage visited with Sandy Berrigan who had come down from Albion on the Mendocino coast. That evening the poets took their hosts to dinner at the New York Times rated bistro, Boon eat+drink, in the center of flood ravaged Guerneville. By then the river had settled back to below flood levels, some businesses were digging themselves out of the mud, and others, like those on like Restaurant Row, had escaped unscathed.
A somewhat soggy Sunday afternoon brought the poets to their next venue, North Bay Letterpress Arts/Iota Press in Sebastopol. The NBLA is a unique collective accommodating a dozen or more print artists and poets dedicated to the craft of letterpress printing in a workplace that houses eight press and two hundred cases of type. An industrial space that positively crackles with creative energy and esthetic ambiance, it is also on occasion used to host lectures, presentations by print artists, theater and musical events, and poetry readings. The poets were greeted by a lively audience of working artists, friends, and in Maureen’s case, relatives, who, despite the recent disaster affecting many of their lives, were delighted to be in attendance. And, as an added bonus, Eric Johnson, founder of Iota Press, handset and printed poem cards by each of the poets to commemorate the occasion.
On Monday, the 5th, the poets hooked South and on to Mojave to avoid having to go East through the snowbound Sierras. From there it was another determined jog to Santa Fe, and then the last leg of travel, arriving in Denver on the 8th. They had eleven days to rest and recuperate from their epic journey before the final reading of the tour. Then, as if extreme weather were dogging their tracks, Denver was hit with a bomb cyclone blizzard a few days later. On Tuesday, March 19th, almost two months to the day, joined by poet Crisosto Apache, Maureen Owen and Barbara Henning held the final reading of their cross country tour at the Mercury Café’s F Bomb Series in Denver. With it they brought to a close one of the great poetry odysseys of modern times. And not incidentally, in the neighborhood of five thousand five hundred fifty miles had been added to the odometer of Barbara’s little orange Honda Fit!
The details, personal observations, persons (poets), personages (famous poets), sights and sounds, and many photos and selfies of the road trip can be viewed at Owen and Henning, Poets On The Road.
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by the Parole Officer