By Samantha Wilson
City on a Hill Press Reporter

For many poets in this city, Santa Cruz represents more than the home of a liberal university –– it also represents the embodiment of innumerable poetic efforts with a culture that embraces verbal artistry. In the eyes of many established poets both local and nationwide, the city of Santa Cruz stands strong as a formidable West Coast center of poetry.

In the words of poet and Cabrillo College English teacher Debra Spencer, “You can’t throw a dead cat without hitting another poet in Santa Cruz.”

Along Pacific Avenue, art seeps into the community. People roam the streets armed with guitars and djembes, sculptures spring from sidewalk planters and trashcans display colorful paintings from local artists.

What one may not notice upon first glance is the display of poems in the windows of vacant buildings. Large white backgrounds and plain black font grace the windows of empty businesses downtown, displaying the products of the Storefront Gallery Project: Santa Cruz’s answer to the nationwide My Favorite Poem Project, the initiative of poet laureate Robert Pinsky.

To Dennis Morton, president and founder of the nonprofit Poetry Santa Cruz organization, the city’s efforts with the Storefront Gallery Project serve to further promote the connection between people and the works they love.

“This incarnation of the Favorite Poem Project is truly moving,” Morton said. “It becomes not only about the literary merit of the works, but it takes us to an emotional level as well. We’re sharing what we love.”

For one year, Pinsky called for Americans of all ages and backgrounds to submit their most cherished works of poetry. The selected works were compiled into a series of video documentaries of participants reading the works, as well as into a book collection.

City arts program manager Crystal Birns said that the Storefront Gallery Project’s use of vacant window space allows displays of innovative visual art and poetry. In a press release, Birns asserted the opportunity existing within these refurbished windows, once forlorn and empty.

The displays showcase the works of various poets, including locals Ellen Bass, Joseph Stroud, Gary Young and high-schooler Jesus Velasco Morales. The program strives to emulate other artistic endeavors of cities such as New York, which often showcases poetry on its buses.

The Storefront Gallery Project is a large point of interest in this poetic community, but it only begins to scratch the surface of the innumerable outlets and events for poets in the area.

“Poetry Santa Cruz started as a way to bring poets to town, but it has grown into so much more,” Morton said. “We’re a hearty, broadband organization. We pursue the kind of craziness all communities should have.”

March marks eight years since the birth of Poetry Santa Cruz. Throughout its time in the city, the foundation has organized a number of poetry events in the community and the greater Santa Cruz area. Bookshop Santa Cruz is home throughout the year to frequent poetry readings put on in conjunction with Poetry Santa Cruz. The readings draw crowds including high school seniors and senior citizens, all patrons of poetry who come together to hear the spoken word.

Poetry Santa Cruz also administers the 27-year-running, all-female poetry event “In Celebration of the Muse,” often referred to simply as “Muse.” Organized in 1981 as a benefit for the National Festival of Women’s Theatre by Gael Roziere and Patrice Vecchione, Muse is the longest-running literary event in Santa Cruz County. Muse was founded as a response to the lack of female voices in the poetry community, a traditionally male-dominated world that often failed to include women in its readings and publications.

“[Muse represents] the development of a strong community of women writers in Santa Cruz, who take their work seriously, are used to appearing in public, publishing and reaching out to each other,” according to members of Poetry Santa Cruz.

Through events and organizations such as Muse, Poetry Santa Cruz attempts to bring together the writers and admirers in town with those on the UCSC campus.

“With our events we’re hoping to break this invisible barrier that exists between the university and the rest of the Santa Cruz community,” Morton said. “We want to get students to come to our events, and the rest of the community to come up to UCSC.”

Morton went on to hail the ability of these events to achieve the uncommon honor of assembling so many distinguished poets in such a concentrated area.

What is the pull toward Santa Cruz as such a center for poetry? How is it that a little West Coast town could give artistic boroughs such as Brooklyn a run for their money?

Morton suspects the influx of poets coincided with the building of UC Santa Cruz. As students graduated, they recognized the beauty of the town and opted to stay. As these graduates grew up, they became the influential members of the town who turned it into this cultural, literary haven.

An Outlet for Student Poets

“Prepare to be riveted!”

Danny Sherrard stands underneath florescent stage lights and shouts at the silent room.

The only thing in his hands is a crumpled piece of notebook paper, which looks like it has been bleeding ink. Quickly, as he glances at the dying paper scrap, he clears his throat and launches into a smooth serenade of wordplay as the audience falls silent.

Sherrard is a member of the critically acclaimed SpillJoy Ensemble, a spoken-word and poetry group that participated in the ever-growing, ever-popular Kinetic Poetics Project festival, housed in the Porter Dining Hall for one week each year.

UCSC alumna Natalie Ashodian, a founding member of the Kinetic Poetics Project, recognized the unmistakable influence of poetry on the town early on.

“I’ve seen the poetry scene in Santa Cruz being fed by a combination of rebellious artistry, young liberalism, and the awkward juxtaposition of open minds and limited experience that yearns to grow,” Ashodian said.

Ashodian should know. As an original member of Kinetic Poetics, she has helped bring poetry to an entirely new level for UCSC. This student-founded, student-run organization has made slam poetry mainstream for UCSC students, encouraging a new style of writing and pushing local poets to share their works with an audience.

The Kinetic Poetics Project started when a group of Rainbow Theatre members discovered the Hitchcock Grant, which funds student literary projects. The students applied for the grant, and upon receiving funding, built a new outlet for poetic expression.

“The Hitchcock Grant really inspired us,” said alumnus Jeremy Karafin, another Kinetic Poetics founder. “We realized the power of poetry and then saw we could reach out to a community that hadn’t fully explored it yet. It was a chance to connect, put it together and see what would happen.”

For four days every February, the Kinetic Poetics Project brings together poets, lyricists, activists and those who merely wish to watch in a multi-round poetic tour de force. Student poets battle to gain a spot on the UCSC slam poetry team, while distinguished groups such as the SpillJoy Ensemble entertain crowds between competition rounds.

Kinetic Poetics’ 2009 producer, third-year Jack Rusk, has been involved with poetry since high school and embraced the Santa Cruz scene fully.

“One thing is that, especially at school, we live our lives pretty anonymously. It’s easy at UCSC to get lost in the crowd of other students,” Rusk said. “Slams and spoken word fests like Kinetic Poetics create something very powerful for people used to anonymity, who see this power of expression. It inspires them that they can get up and stand out from the crowd. It’s a great way to process and work through a lot of heavy things.”

Kinetic Poetics also incorporates activist groups into its lineups, allowing them to table during intermission. People are allowed to get up during the breaks and learn more about PETA, the Vagina Monologues, and the Long Range Development Plan (LDRP) Resistance Campaign, while also purchasing Kinetic Poetics merchandise and picking up bounties of free swag.

“It’s a natural fit,” Karafin said. “Santa Cruz is an open-minded community with lots of ideas, lots of beliefs, frustrations. Poetry is an artistic, powerful, effective way to express this. Having this large stage and format where people can take their ideas off paper and express it out loud is powerful.”

The efforts of Ashodian, Karafin, Rusk, and innumerable others have promoted the growing poetry scene on campus, which hosts weekly slams and open mic nights at most of the different colleges. This student community often expands into the town readings and slams, allowing many poets to chip away at invisible social and emotional barriers.

“There’s nothing like coming back two years after graduation and seeing that in no way has the show even dwindled, but exploded,” Ashodian said.

Santa Cruz has become a center for an often-overlooked artistic practice, one whose beauty many have found and fought to deliver to the public.

“Especially with Kinetic Poetics, everyone walks away with something different,” Rusk said. “It’s raw emotion. It’s a freedom of expression. Really, today, so many ways that we interact are removed, like with Facebook and texting. Here there is no screen, just a poet with a message. It’s so integral to what it is to be human.”

The written word is an art form that the citizens of Santa Cruz have chosen to keep alive, and with tremendous resources and outlets for writers, many describe Santa Cruz as on par with the venerably poetic boroughs of the East Coast.

“Poetry is everywhere,” Morton said. “Now it’s up to us to light the spark.”

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