Stanislaus County group gives its ‘MoSt’ to spread word on poetry

pclark@modbee.comMay 3, 2014 

  • MODESTO-STANISLAUS POETRY CENTER GALA

    When: Today, 2 to 5 p.m.

    Where: Barkin’ Dog Grill, 940 11th St, Modesto

    Tickets: $15, available at the door or online at http://mostpoetrybenefit.eventbrite.com

    For more: www.mostpoetry.org

For some people, the mention of poetry conjures fuzzy memories of high school English classes and confusing stanzas filled with flowery words that sometimes rhymed and sometimes didn’t.

Or, worse still, “Beowulf.”

But the folks behind the Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center – MoSt, for short – want to dispel old, negative notions about the art form. In fact, they want to let locals know that poetry is far more interesting – and far more popular in the region – than some might think.

With the motto “promoting poetry throughout Stanislaus County and promoting Stanislaus County through poetry,” MoSt formed in January 2013 when Gillian Wegener, the group’s president, suggested the idea “to a bunch of poets who are regulars at readings and poetry events around town,” she said in an email interview.

A meeting was held to gauge interest, which turned out to be high, with poets from Modesto, Turlock, Newman and Salida all getting involved.

“Our area has a vibrant poetry scene with many readings, poetry groups, and poetry events, so we wanted to use that vibrancy to communicate to our fellow citizens and to areas beyond our county that there is a lot going on here, that Stanislaus County is not a cultural void, and especially to use poetry to communicate our appreciation for the landscape in which we live, as well as share poetry with a wider group of people within that landscape,” she said.

For Wegener, that notion of the region being a “cultural void” was a particularly driving force.

“I, for one, am tired of people complaining about Modesto and our area in general, and I’m tired of the negative reputation our area has,” she said. “Poetry is just one of the many forms of art that are thriving in our county, so we are far from being a ‘worst place to live’ or ‘most boring place to live.’ We want people to know that art and culture are alive and thriving here, and we are using poetry to communicate that message.”

MoSt will help spread that message to the public today at a benefit gala and celebration from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Barkin’ Dog Grill in Modesto. The event features music, art, food and poetry and is a fundraiser for the group to continue to promote its many community programs.

With a membership of about 45 people – which includes 15 board members – MoSt sponsors readings, workshops and other events for a variety of schools, groups and organizations throughout Stanislaus County, including senior centers and living facilities, Community Hospice, the Boys and Girls Club, the Modesto Art Museum and the Center for Human Services’ Pathways program.

Wegener said the group supports “any kind of poetry,” from traditional to prose to slam and more. In fact, MoSt was a co-sponsor of December’s Ill List Poetry Slam, held annually in Modesto.

The group has been working to incorporate more youth-based poetry and more cultural-oriented poetry into its programs to add focus to the region’s diversity, she added.

While the age of the member skews 50 and over, she said they have some young families and a couple of late teens and young adults, as well.

Board member Tom Myers said he got involved in MoSt to connect with other area poets.

“I enjoy writing and sharing poetry, but oftentimes it is a very solitary activity,” he said in an email. “Many of us are in writing groups which meet regularly, but we didn’t meet as one large group. MoSt has brought us together. We have monthly meetings where we brainstorm and plan and try to promote the spread of poetry throughout Stanislaus County. Besides writing poetry, I enjoy listening to other poets’ work, especially when they read their own material and MoSt hosts numerous readings throughout the year.”

Among those readings are two regular series. The monthly 2nd Tuesday Reading at the Barkin’ Dog Grill usually has two featured poets, a local poet and a poet “from farther afield, like Sacramento or the Bay Area,” Wegener said. Readings are followed by open-mike time for local poets. The next 2nd Tuesday reading will be on May 13 at 6:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

The group’s Poetry on Sunday Series is held quarterly at the Carnegie Arts Center in Turlock. The series was started in August by Lynn Hansen and features four local poets reading for about 15 minutes each. Wegener said the readings have been well attended, with 100 or more people at each. “The poetry camaraderie and community feeling are lovely and of course the poetry is great,” she said. The next Carnegie reading is May 23 at 2 p.m., also free and open to the public.

Today’s gala will feature the debut of a new project the group has been working on, “The Stanislaus Poem.”

“This is a community collaborative celebration of Stanislaus County,” Wegener said. “We asked interested residents of the county to submit a four-line stanza, a quatrain, to MoSt that celebrated life in our area. These quatrains were then arranged into a long poem and will be presented as a book of 104 stanzas complete with beautiful illustrations by local writer and artist Sarah Stevenson. People from nearly every city in the county contributed poems, and we have poems from poets of all ages and experiences, including a bunch of really joyful poems from children at Turlock’s Cunningham School.”

What is expected to become an annual poetry festival was held in February and featured Bay Area poet Patrice Vecchione. “She was terrific. We had about 40 people participating in what was truly a really wonderful Saturday of reading, writing, and sharing poetry,” Wegener said. A second festival is planned for February 2015 featuring Sacramento poet and playwright Indigo Moor.

Currently, MoSt is working on co-sponsoring an event at the Modesto Architecture Festival this fall, as well as putting together a reading and collection to benefit the Center for Human Services’ Pathways program – a transitional living and employment program for young adults – also planned for fall.

It’s a heavy load of programs, but members are happy to carry it.

“One of the great things about MoSt is that we all pitch in to help on whatever needs to be done,” Myers said.

All that work has been gratifying, with programs having been well received. “People really enjoyed the MoSt Poetry Festival last February and were excited that we are going to continue to host that yearly,” Wegener said. “Our readings at senior centers and living facilities have been well attended and enjoyed. And our workshops at the elementary schools have been met with a lot of enthusiasm from the students involved. We hope to expand our reach and our programs, but we are really happy with the start we’ve had over the past year.”

The group is working toward achieving nonprofit status, and board members volunteer their time and efforts. Membership dues and benefit proceeds go toward funding publications and activities.

And for those people who don’t think poetry is an accessible art form, Wegener has this advice: “The biggest thing people can do to better appreciate poetry is to just keep an open mind. Don’t feel as if poetry needs to be analyzed or as if everything in a poem needs to be understood. If there is an image or a phrase that rings true or gives the listener a new perspective or makes someone’s heart sing, poetry is doing its job.”

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