Salinas poet laureate James B. Golden gives back to his hometown
Jeannie Evers, The Monterey Herald, April 2014
SALINAS >> James B. Golden is clearly grateful to be Salinas' first poet laureate, less for the title itself than for the chance to say thank you to the city that reared him.
In an interview this week, he often turned his narrative to the people and places that influenced him. His teachers, Corliss Kelly, who inspired him to pursue the arts at Gavilan View Middle School, and Elizabeth Birkeland at North Salinas High School, who "thoroughly" introduced him to the works of Langston Hughes. City officials like former Mayor Anna Caballero, who continues to be a mentor. Places like Roy's on Main Street, which filled his belly with milkshakes.
And his parents, prominent community activists James W. and Valerie Golden, who shaped the Salinas he grew up in through the youth center and NAACP and school boards.
Golden unveiled the city's official poem, "Wave to Salinas," on Tuesday. He wrote it last year before being named poet laureate, and he was still editing it in the eleventh hour, making sure to get it right."Warrior-Vikings plant strawberries in the soiled sun, dirty fingernail freedom badges, tans darker than carbon. Pass by the salad bowl of the world seasoned with the river and wave to Salinas for me."
Golden, who now lives in Los Angeles, returned to town for the Salinas Week of Poems, which celebrates young poets and culminates Friday at Sherwood Hall for a book launch for his latest, "Bull: The Journey of a Freedom Icon." Released last week, the book of poems chronicles his father's migration from the Jim Crow South to the Monterey Bay area before the Civil Rights movement.
Below, the NAACP Image Award winner talks about his city, why he wrote "Bull" and what he hopes for poetry's future.
Q What did you want to capture in "Wave to Salinas"?
A The most important thing was capturing the essence of Salinas, which to me is the migrant field workers, it's driving down 68 and seeing the rows of fields. It's Roy's. It's the high schools and the churches and the Chinese immigrants and everyone who came to Salinas for a better life and raised their children who have gone off to become amazing people. That's what Salinas really is for me.
Q What is it that draws you to poetry?
A ... There's something about poetry that's inexplicable. It's being able to tap into what you can't say with words, and to be able to put that in words, it's really unexplainable. It's something that for me, I'm able to release when I write poetry, I'm able to say things that I wouldn't usually say in sentence form, and be able to just emit some emotions that are really difficult.
Q What drove you to write "Bull"?
A "Bull" is a book about my father. It's based on his life. It intertwines other experiences that I've had, but the common thread is him.I woke up one day and said, "I have this urge to validate my dad's story." Not that he needed validation, but I wanted to make sure that people understood the total scope of his life. That him being an icon in Monterey County is not just because he ran the probation department for so many years, but there's a whole backstory that led up to him being the man he is today. People who have known him in the community have known the struggles he has had, have known about him going to prison, have known dangerous things that he was doing when he was younger. But I don't think they fully understand the redemption side of him and who he is as a man. So that for me was really important.And it was also about being able to connect back to him and to be able to rebirth by grandmother, who was this amazing woman. And when I read through the book, I'm back in her arms again. It's really incredible.... She passed last year. I started writing the book right before she died, and I lost both of my grandparents on my dad's side within about three weeks. So it was this incredible journey. The first poem I wrote I wrote for my grandfather, and it was for his funeral. And that's in the book, "The Lake Calls You home." And the last poem I wrote was my grandmother's poem, which was "Mama's Gone," which I couldn't write while she was passing away.
Q Has your father read your book yet?
A He was the first person who read it. I was very nervous. My dad is not very transparent, but he is understanding, and I think that he's accepted his flaws over the years and he's gotten to a place where he's fully embraced what has happened to him. Going through alcoholism, going to prison, selling guns to the Black Panthers — all of those things I put in the book, and I was really nervous. And my dad said, no, I'm really OK with these poems. "You need to tell the truth," is what he said.
Q What do you hope to inspire with your works?
A My overall goal as a writer in everything that I do — because I'm a journalist by day and a poet by night — I want to inspire people to live better lives and to tap into their creative side because it saves people, just like it saved me. Everything that I write, my hope is that people will take away the inspiration and hope from my story, from my dad's story, from my grandmother's story, from the story of artists that I've written about, musicians that I've written about. Take away their passion (for life) and an understanding of the creativity they use to cultivate change. To be able to evolve.... ("Bull") is really taking off. It's, I think, on the short list for the National Book Award nod. ... That doesn't matter as much to me as that it reaches people, that people start reading poetry again, that we celebrate this artform. But, I mean, a National Book Award would be nice. (chuckles)
Q Is poetry becoming a lost art then?
A No, no. There's a huge poetry community. And even in Salinas, within the last few years, and certainly in the year that I've been poet laureate, I've seen a huge cultivation, or rebirthing, of poetry. I don't think it was ever lost because poetry is in everything that we do. It's in our journalism, it's in our music. We have some incredible icons who have written poetry.
But I think in the 1800s and early 1900s there was a bigger place for poetry. It was really considered the highest artform. That's where poet laureates began, with the idea that when a major event happened, there needed to be a poem to signify that event. ... And as we go, we still have people reading poetry at the White House for inaugurations and to commemorate the birth and losses of people that we love in America.
So it's not dying, it's never dying, but I see it coming back to a place where it was.... They've had incredible poetry slams out here in the last few years. They've had children reading poetry and writing poetry, and it's just incredible. What I do wish is that the schools in Salinas would embrace academic poetry a little bit more. I know that some of the courses have cut poetry from their curriculum, and that's one of the big things that I'll be fighting for, advocating for with this next year of my poet laureateship. I really want to focus on making sure that we get poetry back into the curriculums in every single school.... There's something interesting that poetry does to students. I think it's very similar to music. ... It made me a better student in the way that I was able to express myself and to be able to challenge my thinking. And it made me a way more critical thinker when it came to reading novels and reading textbooks and asking questions. Poetry really sat there, and it just burned itself through me.