World of wonder: SLO’s new poet laureate

San Luis Obispo poet laureate Bonnie Young finds inspiration in her surroundings — the quiet bliss of her Arroyo Grande garden, the beautiful beaches she sees from the Grand Avenue boardwalk, the hungry people she serves at the South County People’s Kitchen.

“There are just spectacular moments in which we are lifted,” she said. “We relate to other people and to the world.”

Young, who succeeds Cal Poly lecturer James Cushing as poet laureate, will read from her work next week at the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival along with several local and visiting literary luminaries.

Festival organizer Kevin Patrick Sullivan praised Young’s playful yet insightful poetry.

“Her poems are lovely and full of warmth and wit,” Sullivan said. “She’s revealing herself to us, and the way she does it is so brilliant and clear.”

Poor without knowing it

According to Sullivan, the festival board looks at three factors when choosing a poet laureate to represent the county: the writer’s work, community involvement and ability to represent the region in a positive light.

“Bonnie wonderfully fits into the criteria,” he said.

Her duties as poet laureate include orchestrating community outreach and participating in the poetry festival and the Corners of the Mouth monthly reading series.

“I realize it’s a big honor, but I also know it’s a big responsibility,” Young said.

The daughter of a rural teacher and a railroad worker, Young grew up in Mason City, Iowa, best known as the hometown of “The Music Man” creator Meredith Willson.

“I didn’t know it, but I came from a poor family,” the poet recalled.

Her family, who lived in a series of rental houses near the railroad tracks, didn’t own a car or a telephone. Young shared a bed with her grandmother until she was 14 and got her first job in eighth grade.

Despite those economic hardships, Young grew up with a deep appreciation for music, literature and the arts.

In high school, she wrote short stories and contest-winning essays on the theme, “I Love Democracy.” Her first “serious poem” was about a friend’s older sister whose fiance died in World War II, she said.

At age 17, Young enrolled at the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota. She soon transferred to a small Catholic college in Iowa to pursue a two-year degree in elementary education.

After a year of teaching, Young met and married her husband, a plumber. The couple moved to California in 1953, where Young raised six children, pursued an English literature degree at Cal State L.A. and worked as a substitute teacher.

After retiring in 1991, Young and her husband moved to the Central Coast.

Local involvement

She’s since become an active member of the local literary scene, serving on the San Luis Obispo Arts Council’s Poetry Committee and organizing a poetry program for a South County Newcomers Club.

Young has also spent seven years as head of Poets on the Edge, a group that arose from monthly meetings at the home of former poet laureate Rosemary Wilvert.

Last year, Young and her fellow members organized the “Put a Poem in Your Pocket” campaign, distributing copies of poems to patrons at three local libraries. She also helmed efforts to create a teen writing scholarship to the Cuesta College Writers’ Conference in memory of group member Margaret Perrin.

Like herself, Young said, the 13 members of Poets on the Edge strive to find meaning in everyday life. (The group meets the first and third Tuesdays of every month in San Luis Obispo.)

“A lot of people who write poetry are searching for whatever is really beautiful and meaningful in life that we may be missing,” Young said. “There’s an inner soul that’s reaching out for something else, and that’s poetry.”

Young’s poems have been published in several literary magazines, including Flyway, The Midwest Quarterly, Rattle and Thema, as well as locally in The Tribune, New Times and Café Solo.

At the urging of her children, Young published the chapbook “Inside Pockets” in December.

“It’s really a book of love, marriage and loss,” said the poet, whose husband’s death in 2001 inspired several of the poems.

Poetry as art

During her two-year tenure as poet laureate, Young hopes to “spread the love of poetry in this particular area,” she said, by reaching out to local elementary school students and the community at large.

She’d also like to see poems as a public art form — maybe printed on metal plaques embedded into sidewalks and walls.

“There’s a great need for (approachable poetry),” she said. “I think it’s sad in America that people have begun to think, ‘What are they talking about and who cares?’ ”

Although Young avoids the term “accessible” when describing her own work, she said, “I want my poetry to communicate.”

“My hope would be if you read it, that you would be touched enough by it that you would want to go back and read it again,” she said.

More about the Poetry Festival

Poet laureate Bonnie Young will read from her work later this month at the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival.

She’s slated to appear Nov. 19 alongside Amy M. Clark and Jonathan Weinert at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, 1010 Broad St. in San Luis Obispo.

Now in its 27th year, the festival kicks off Nov. 11 with a reading by New York City poet Eleanor Lerman at the art museum.

Other participating poets include:

Cal Poly professor Kevin Clark

Molly Fisk of Grass Valley

Ricardo Means Ybarra of Santa Monica

Bill Pearlman of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Paul Lobo Portuges of Santa Barbara

Gregory Ramirez of Fresno

Luke Warm Water of Oakland

J-son Wooi-chin of Los Angeles

The San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival runs Nov. 11 through 14 and Nov. 19 through 21 at various San Luis Obispo locations, including Cal Poly’s Phillips Recital Hall, the Dallidet Adobe and Linnaea’s Café. All events start at 7 p.m.

Tickets are $5, or $3 for students and seniors.

For more information, call 547-1318 or visit www.languageofthesoul.org.

— Sarah Linn