Bill Vartnaw, poet and publisher, has many vivid memories from his years as a faithful attendee — and now organizer — of the annual Petaluma Poetry Walk, taking place for its 22nd straight year this Sunday, Sept. 17, beginning at noon. One of Vartnaw’s favorite memories is from one particular Poetry Walk, eight years ago.
“It’s a memory of seeing the poet David Meltzer at the Aqus Café,” he recalls. “Specifically, it’s when David performed his poem ‘Brother.’ Fortunately, we caught it on film, and it’s online on the Poetry Walk website. It’s an amazing poem, and an amazing performance.”
Meltzer came to fame as a poet during the Beat Movement, and is considered one of the most influential poets of the San Francisco Renaissance. Lawrence Ferlinghetti has called Meltzer “one of the greats,” and many of the poet’s fifty-something books or poetry and prose are considered classics, especially his “Beat Thing,” and epic poem about the Beat Generation. He appeared at the Petaluma Poetry Walk a number of times over the years, reading dozens of poems.
But it was Meltzer’s riveting reading of “Brother” in 2009, that stands out the most for Vartman.
“It’s a very poignant piece, that poem,” he says of the poem that contains the recurring line, “Brother died. There was no choice.” It’s a poem that blends strikingly specific detail with a mysterious lyrical vagueness. “It really was amazing, for me,” says Vartnaw, “I assume the poem is somebody dying, somebody’s brother, but it doesn’t get very explicit or explain too much. It mentions war, in a way, but it could have been about any war, or taken place at any time. It’s a very strong poem, and I’ll never forget seeing its writer perform it in his own voice.
“We lost him, last year,” Vartnaw adds, in reference to Meltzer’s sudden death, in Oakland, on December 21 of 2016.
That’s part of the importance of the Petaluma Poetry Walk, he points out. The unique literary event – in which attendees move throughout the downtown area from venue to venue, meeting new poets at every fresh location - allows rising newcomers to perform alongside greats like Meltzer, reminding poetry fans young and old how powerful a well-performed poem can be. In some cases, those performances become part of a legendary poet’s legacy.
The Petaluma Poetry Walk was founded by former Sonoma County Poet Laureate poet Geri Digiorno, back in 1995, before Vartnaw himself had moved to Petaluma.
“I was living in San Francisco, and moved up here in 1997,” Vartnaw says. “I didn’t even know about the Poetry Walk till the next year. I went, and was just dazzled by it. All of these great poets together in one town, on one afternoon. Then, sometime after, I asked if I could help. And I’ve been involved ever since.”
Every Poetry Walk, since the beginning, has featured between 20 and 25 poets, performing in venues as varied as bookstores and bars, restaurants and art galleries and seed stores, sidewalks and back alleys and museums and barbershops. The performers have included famous legends, and emerging future superstars, poets from Petaluma and the wider Sonoma County stand alongside writers from San Francisco, and beyond. Not surprisingly, a number of Sonoma County poets laureate have participated in the Poetry Walk.
This year, Vartnaw has invited all of the living laureates.
“Including myself,” he says. Vartnaw was, indeed, named the Sonoma County Poet Laureate for 2012-2013. Performing at this year’s Walk will be Gwynn O’Gara (poet laureate 2010-2011), Terry Ehret (2004-2006), Iris Jamahl Dunkle (the current poet laureate), and Poetry Walk founder Geri DiGiorno (2006-2007). Other poets on the roster include wildlife biologist and poet Maya R. Khosla (author of “Song of the Forest After Fire”), Sebastopol-based environmental poet Raphael Block (“Spangling Darkness”), Santa Rosa’s Ed Coletti (“Germs, Viruses & Catechisms”), onetime cowboy, tree-planter, and 1960s Berkeley “street poet” Jampa Dorje, and many more.
With new venues, and a few more poets than in the past, he Poetry Walk has become a bit longer, under Vartnaw’s guidance, allowing attendees more opportunities to see more poets. He admits that there was concern that eight hours of poetry might be too much for some people.
“That’s fine,” he laughs. “People may not want to do the whole thing. They can start, and then leave after a few venues, or jump in later, or pick and choose throughout the day. This ways, though, it gives people more choices.
With another laugh, he adds,“I do the whole thing, of course.”