Art & Culture

Poets gather in San Juan Bautista for three-day symposium

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and others hold workshops at Saint Francis Retreat.
The three-day poetry symposium took place from Aug. 2-4 at Saint Francis Retreat. Photo by Carmel de Bertaut.
The three-day poetry symposium took place from Aug. 2-4 at Saint Francis Retreat. Photo by Carmel de Bertaut.
Meg Hamill opens symposium Photo by Carmel de Bertaut.
Meg Hamill opens symposium. Photo by Carmel de Bertaut.
Herrera engages poets. Photo by Carmel de Bertaut
Herrera engages poets. Photo by Carmel de Bertaut.

In the oak woodland of Saint Francis Retreat, among the sounds of ravens croaking, scrub-jays squawking and red-tailed hawk whistles, local poets and writers gathered under the blue San Juan Bautista sky for a three-day symposium. The keynote speaker for the event was former U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.

The symposium took place Aug. 2-4 and was organized by California Poets in the Schools with help from the San Benito Arts Council.

Herrera presented a poetry workshop and gave a reading on opening night at El Teatro Campesino. During his keynote speech, he talked about the importance of nature and landscape to the poet.

“The heart of the trees speaks in its stillness,” he said.

Herrera told BenitoLink it was important for him to be at the local gathering to “reconnect with El Teatro Campesino, to reconnect with California Poets in the Schools, and to see many of my good friends—perhaps to get a truer sense of myself and a little time out.” He likened the event to “coming together with your tribe.”

Eleven workshops gave participants insights and tools to take into their classrooms. The workshop “Dancing the Poem” by Amanda Chiado, a local poet and director of arts education for the San Benito Arts Council, showed participants the advantages of teaching children to use their body to release stress, and to use movement to gain knowledge of self. This, she said, helps children to reach into their creative minds to write. 

“It is exciting to have 50 or more artists sharing in our community,” Chiado said. She hopes to bring the symposium back to San Juan Bautista next year, and believes it is “important to have the opportunity to engage larger audiences in the importance of poetry.” 

Other workshops focused on topics including bookmaking and classroom management.

The most powerful workshop was led by Herrera on the first day. Noting the symposium’s theme of creativity for change, he asked the poets in attendance to break into groups and create a story of a family migrating from Latin America to El Norte—the United States. Following this, the group exchanged their family dynamics: age, gender, number of family members and more. The story then switched from written and spoken forms to an activity.

Splitting participants into groups of soldiers, border patrol officers and migrants, Herrera set the stage with the backdrop of a choir of witnesses singing the events as the families worked to reach the area of the room that represented sanctuary. In the breakdown that followed, the players related their feelings.

“I had to suspend my humanity,” said one soldier. “I was so afraid,” said one family member, “I had to hold my partner’s hand for comfort.” Several players said it took a few hours to shake the effect. 

Not all participants were members of Poets in the Schools. Former English teacher, writer and Hollister resident Janet Mayou, who reads with students at Tres Pinos School, said she was there because “I want to be inspired.” 

Meg Hamill, executive director of California Poets in the Schools, said, “It is important, as a statewide organization, to come together as a community.”

That community was present during the open mic on Saturday night when the raw emotion of the poets who read was unapologetic. Testifying about different life experiences including autism, sexual abuse and the loss of loved ones, several poets brought their own tears and the tears of others to bear. 


Carmel de Bertaut

Carmel has a BA in Natural Sciences/Biodiversity Stewardship from San Jose State University and an AA in Communications Studies from West Valley Community College. She reports on science and the environment, arts and human interest pieces. Carmel has worked in the ecological and communication fields and is an avid creative writer and hiker. She has been reporting for BenitoLink since May, 2018 and covers Science and the Environment and Arts and Culture.