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A Gusher of Verse Erupts in Bakersfield

Arts: Thanks largely to a persistent advocate in town, big names in poetry keep dropping by.

June 03, 2002|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAKERSFIELD -- This is a town with a river that runs dry through its heart. The suburbs sprawl in every direction without rhyme. No city west of the Mississippi takes up more land (116 square miles) for fewer people (254,000).

But Bakersfield does have a soul, and it's not what you think. It reaches past the oil and farm fields. It rises above the dusty twang of Buck Owens and his Buckaroos.

This town, of all things, has become one hot ticket on the American poetry circuit. It's not quite what Ashland, Ore., is to Shakespeare, but some of the country's most respected poets have been making the trek down Highway 99 to read their stuff to fans in Bakersfield. It happened again Sunday.

The list includes Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Levine and poets such as Frank Bidart, Southern Californian B.H. Fairchild, Ted Kooser and Peter Everwine, who have won other top awards or been finalists for the Pulitzer or National Book Award. Bidart, for one, didn't quite know what to make of a giant billboard that had been rented along a main drag to promote his reading a few years back.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 05, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 367 words Type of Material: Correction
Carey McWilliams--A Section A story Monday about a gathering of poets in Bakersfield misspelled the name of Carey McWilliams, the late California author, editor and onetime state commissioner of Immigration and Housing.

Bakersfield would hardly seem to lend itself to such distinction. This is, after all, a place where authors have come to find fodder, not fans.

From John Steinbeck to Carrie McWilliams to native son Gerald Haslam, writers have discovered their prose and poem songs in the dirt of Kern County and then high-tailed it out of town. When "The Grapes of Wrath" came out in 1939 depicting the mythical Joads and their cruel life here, Steinbeck was celebrating a safe distance away while copies of his book were burned on the front steps of the local library.

Bakersfield's sudden embrace of verse has little to do with civic redemption, though. It is mostly the hard fight of one stubborn lady, a retired schoolteacher and local poet named Lee McCarthy, who calls herself "the meanest, most persistent woman in Kern County."

She has twisted literary arms and puffed up literary egos and put a few civic noses out of joint to lure fine poets to town. When the local arts council balked at her vision of a reading series this year, she dug into her own meager pockets to not only fund the series but make sure that residents--folks who may have never heard a poet read--showed up in force.

"This isn't a podunk town any more than any other town," McCarthy said. "And if you want humor and humanity to thrive in your place, you feed it. I believe in the power of words. I think beautiful words can feed people.

"As for digging into my own pockets, what else should I spend my money on? A face lift?" she said, chuckling. "How's that going to benefit my life, much less anyone else's?"

Poets in Arms

On Sunday, McCarthy had brought to town George Hitchcock, a poet who gave some of America's best writers a start in his now-defunct magazine, Kayak. It was Hitchcock's 88th birthday, and he and his wife, Marjorie, had chosen Bakersfield for his first public reading in 12 years. He was joined by his good friend and fellow poet Richard Shelton, the bard of the Southwest desert, who had driven in from Tucson with his wife, Lois.

"I came here because I couldn't have faced Lee if I hadn't," Shelton said. "And I came to celebrate the birthday of one of the most important writers in America." Shelton's first book of poetry, "The Tattooed Desert," won the International Poetry Forum's United States Award in 1970, and his fourth collection, "The Bus to Veracruz," was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

It was a literary slight that pushed McCarthy, a high school English teacher for 35 years, to take up the cause of poetry in a town where the Kern County arts council didn't recognize literature as "art." She was thumbing through the pages of "Highway 99," a 1996 collection of prose and poems by Central Valley writers, when she noticed not a single piece of writing by Frank Bidart, arguably the greatest poet to grow up in the San Joaquin Valley.

Bidart, a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle finalist who has won dozens of national awards, was living and teaching in Cambridge, Mass. McCarthy wrote a letter to the Bakersfield native asking if he might consider a reading. "It was as if he had been waiting all his writing life for someone from his hometown to ask him back," she said.

McCarthy had seen a full house turn out for a Levine reading sponsored by Bakersfield College the year before. She wanted the same for Bidart, whose extended Basque family still lived and farmed in town.

She came up with the idea of renting a huge billboard along Oak Street, a bit of promotion that cost her $1,000. FRANK BIDART IS COMING HOME, it read, giving the date, time and place of the reading. Except for the poet's relatives and old classmates at Garces High, the response to the giant invitation was, "Who in the hell is Frank Bidart?" McCarthy said. "It got lots of attention and it worked."

Shoestring Poetry

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