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O laureate, our laureate

Albert Flynn DeSilver crowned Marin's first-ever ambassador bard...

by By Joy Lanzendorfer Pacific Sun Staff

Marin County is home to many well-known poets, from former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass to Jane Hirshfield to Gary Snyder. So it has long been expected that Marin would appoint its own poet laureate. After all, a place so rich in poetry would naturally need someone to champion and promote that poetry. And so, this month--which also happens to be National Poetry Month--the Marin Arts Council (MAC) named Albert Flynn DeSilver the first Marin County Poet Laureate. DeSilver, who lives in Woodacre, will start his term May 13."Marin has such a large and talented population of poets, an active poetry center and Poets in the Schools organization, that it seems a natural to have created this position," says Jeanne Bogardus, executive director of MAC. "Actually, the idea has been discussed for many years among the poetry community."To determine who the poet laureate would be, MAC, the Marin Poetry Center and the Cultural Services Commission formed a steering committee to field nominations and interview candidates. DeSilver was awarded $5,000 for the honor and will serve as a kind of ambassador for poetry, both by promoting it and uniting the poetry community.DeSilver has published several books of poetry, including two in the last year alone: "Walking Tooth & Cloud," published in January 2007 by French Connection Press in Paris and "Letters to Early Street," published in April 2007 by La Alameda Press in New Mexico. He is editor and publisher of The Owl Press and his work has appeared in both national and international literary journals.

DeSilver's work in the community--most notably as a teacher with California Poets in the Schools--played a major role in his being chosen for this honor. For the last 11 years, DeSilver has taught poetry to virtually every grade, from kindergarten on up, throughout Marin and San Francisco.DeSilver especially enjoys teaching kids between third and fifth grades, when sophisticated language is still developing and comes out in surprising ways."I don't really even do that much for them," he says. "I just give them an opportunity to express themselves and I accept every one of them. Every kid has a capacity to speak and write in a poetic way. They open up emotionally to that realm of language and it's powerful and insightful and wise. I learn a tremendous amount from the kids. They teach me that the whole key to life is to keep wonder and creativity alive."When poet laureates do their job well, they not only inspire people to write poetry, they inspire them to read it. Billy Collins is one such person. Collins has served two terms as the U.S. Poet Laureate and one term as the New York State Poet Laureate, and is also one of the best-selling poets in the country. On April 16, Marin Academy invited Collins to speak at its ninth annual James F. Thacher Lecture--an endowment created in honor of the school's founding board president.At the event, Collins read his work for over an hour, including poems from his newest book, "The Trouble with Poetry." Earlier that day, Collins led a group of Marin Academy students in a poetry workshop and, like the students, the audience was treated to Collins's insightful thoughts on poetry--as well as his self-deprecating sense of humor."You don't need a lot of subject matter in poetry," he said. "In fact, the less, the better. So I thought I'd read a couple of poems that are completely devoid of topic."Collins also alluded to the difficulty of teaching something like poetry--which seems to spring up from strange, unknown parts of the mind. Often the poet is as mystified by where the poems come from as the reader."A poet friend said that if I knew where my poems come from, I would go there and stay there," Collins said.Since so many people expect poetry to be incomprehensible and difficult, humor--such as the kind Collins uses--can open up the world of poetry to the reader for the first time. In fact, humor is part of how DeSilver first became interested in poetry.In 1994, he was studying photography at the San Francisco Art Institute when he heard about a reading to celebrate the release of the "Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry." The readers included poets Diane di Prima, Alice Notley and Bolinas's own Bob Grenier, among others."There was a host of amazing poets doing all kinds of things," says DeSilver. "I didn't think poetry could be funny before. I didn't think it could include visual art or that it could be like theater. It got me really excited about the possibility of language. After that, I started jotting thoughts and ideas and phrases into a notebook. And it struck me one night that I can do this, that I should be doing this."Because his official term hasn't started, DeSilver can't discuss what he plans to do as Marin County Poet Laureate yet. But he hopes it will include collaborations between poetry and other artistic mediums, such as visual art or music.DeSilver recognizes that he is not the most prestigious poet in Marin. In fact, he is somewhere in the middle of the poetry ladder, having published regularly but not having achieved the status of poets like Hass and Hirshfield.As the Marin County Poet Laureate, he hopes to act as a bridge between different factions of the community--well-known poets and fledgling amateurs, poetry lovers and those who've never read a poem, poets and other kinds of artists, etc.And most of all, he wants to continue working with young people, as much for himself as for them.

"The struggle as an adult is to keep that creativity alive, to keep poetry alive," says DeSilver. "And poetry is about play. I love to play."