Poets dig into gardening themes in new anthology
SANTA CRUZ — If you truly think you shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree, a new poetry anthology might beg to disagree.
“Leaning Toward Light: Poems for Gardens and the Hands That Tend Them,” edited by El Cerrito poet and avid gardener Tess Taylor, compiles many poems from classic and contemporary poets that capture the essence of gardening and the connection to the natural world. Taylor, along with local poets Ellen Bass and Danusha Laméris — who both contributed to the book — will be at Bookshop Santa Cruz Thursday for readings and signings.
Taylor said the idea came from her friend, an editor at the book’s eventual publisher, Storey Press. The friend knew Taylor when she worked on a farm in the Berkshires in Massachusetts and remembered she loved three things: gardening, food and poetry. Storey specializes in how-to books, but has also gotten into publishing more literary works, such as illustrated adaptations of global folktales covered on the podcast “Circle Round.”
“She said, ‘I think that this would be the perfect moment to do an anthology of contemporary gardening poems,'” said Taylor. “Everybody’s into gardening right now. Gardening is so important.”
Taylor has written four other poetry books and is a poetry critic for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” However, she had never published an anthology and needed to determine what the angle would be. She settled on gardening after determining that a lot of the poems she had read about gardening were very old.
“There’s a kind of old, frilly poetry aspect to them and yet, the reason that people garden right now is pretty radical,” she said. “They really are hungry for this connection to the earth, they are anxious about climate change, they are trying to figure out how to take care of the earth. They’re really rewarded by a sort of intimacy with growing things our society maybe doesn’t always allow us to have.”
Taylor said garden poems also lent to a lot of diverse voices.
“We’re concerned about food justice and climate change and social justice as well,” she said. “It just didn’t feel like there was an anthology of poems that had that kind of vibe to it. What really excited me was having the chance to tell the story of gardening for this moment, and I was able to get some of the most incredible poets working today to share their gardening poems.”
Among the poets featured in the collection are contemporary poets such as Jericho Brown, Ross Gay, Robert Hass, Jane Hirshfield and Ada Limon to go with legends such as Lucille Clifton, John Keats, Walt Whitman and Virgil.
“I wasn’t trying to capture every gardening poem ever written,” said Taylor. “I was just trying to chime a little bit against the fact that we’re people who live with plants and cultivated plants in every generation and that plants are beautiful and we write about our time with them. I was trying to capture the way that this moment and this generation is doing some of that work and adding to that literature.”
The poets wax poetic on everything from garlic to carrots to aloe to daffodils. Brenda Hillman writes about talking to plants, Bass writes about the pleasure of cutting cucumbers in the middle of summer and Laméris writes about grieving in gardens.
“She has a very heart-rending poem about losing a child and being in a garden as a way of getting through managing the grief at that time,” said Taylor.
To really make the experiences of gardening come alive, Taylor has done readings at botanical gardens and invited gardeners and poets to sit together, including a sold-out event at the University of California Botanical Garden in Berkeley.
“People are hungry for this kind of thing right now,” she said. “In a way, the book feels like it’s built its own kind of garden. It’s pulling all kinds of people in and helping poetry not just to be poetry or gardening not just to be gardening, but helping these groups of people come together to celebrate together has been one of the joyful parts of making this.”
Taylor likes the different ways the books captured the nourishment of gardening, from providing nourishing vegetables to nourishing the mind.
“Poems are these dense ecosystems where the language is really rich, and it heightens your attentiveness to the world around you,” she said. “You can go into the small space of a poem and come out feeling like you’ve had a big experience, and I think gardens are the same way. They have this density of plants and animals, and you can go into a small space that’s a garden and come out feeling that you’ve had an enriching experience that makes you more alert to your own life.”
Taylor will be joined by Bass and Laméris as they read their own poems and other poems, talk about why both poetry and gardening matter and sign copies. Taylor is looking forward to it.
“Bookshop Santa Cruz is one of my favorite bookstores in the world,” she said. “I hope people will come out and celebrate this book.”
The event will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave. People can register at BookshopSantaCruz.com. The event is co-sponsored by The Hive Poetry Collective and The Humanities Institute at UC Santa Cruz. “Leaning Toward Light” will go on sale Tuesday.
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