Running the River: Art & Literature in the Delta


This photo from 1900 shows European-Americans boarding rowboats on the banks of the San Joaquin River in California. Using archives records like maps and photographs, scientists are trying to revive the delta. Photo courtesy Bank of Stockton

Given its isolation from major Northern California urban centers, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has resisted development and remains suspended in time, but not for much longer. It’s a place of wonder—1.1 million square-miles of rivers, creeks, marshes, sloughs, levees, 500,000 acres of farmland, and it is the font of about 7.5 million acre-feet of water that’s distributed to cities and farms throughout California—it’s a playground for recreation, an agricultural hub and there are those who say, without blushing, it’s a paradise fraught with political maneuvering and environmental threats.

Few will say, however, that the largest river delta on the Pacific Ocean side of the Americas is a hotbed of literature and art. But those working to protect and restore the delta say that is wrong. Various groups, including writers, poets, artists, academics and community advocates are busy collecting the cultural artifacts that help mark the delta as a unique place in the world, one with a rich and diverse creative history.


Because I’m currently working on a novel set in the delta, I attended a discussion this week sponsored by the grassroots organization Restore the Delta about the past, present, and future of Delta Literature. Although literary luminaries from Jack London to Joan Didion have written about life in the delta, and their stories speak to significant topics in American history, scholars say the full range of narratives about this vital region awaits systematic collection, presentation and interpretation. There’s a lot of work to do.

During his overview of Delta Literature, Robert Benedetti, University of the Pacific professor emeritus of political science, commented that the “subtle beauty of the delta and a quiet appreciation by poets is needed,” if the delta’s rich cultural history and natural resources are to be saved from further neglect and degradation.

He also pointed to research into the literature of the delta by Gregg Camfield, professor of literature at the University of California, Merced. Canfield noted in his research that narratives shape human action and “we try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.” His survey of delta literature is online at:

Paula Sheil, founder and executive director of Tuleburg Press & THE WRITE PLACE in Stockton, as well as a poet and accomplished sailor, read “Out the Gate,” her poem captures the delta breeze blowing gently past farms and levees, picking up speed and spilling out to the bay, meeting the gush of ocean “like big dreams in a torrent.” She refers to the delta as the “anti-San Francisco,” suggesting the delta is the flip side of hip, slick and cool, a counter weight or cultural anchor to the excesses of its famous neighbor.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a land of stunning open spaces fed by five major rivers. A maze of creeks and sloughs spreading finger-like through some of California’s most important habitat, especially for Chinook salmon and Greater Sandhill Cranes. It’s a bird watcher’s feast for the eyes and a fisherman’s delight. It’s also home to immigrants and dreamers who prefer the delta’s cloistered backwaters to brash and garish city life.


Photo Courtesy: Friends of the River

In reality, Sheil said, “It’s the people who make the delta.” Adding that she tells her students that through the delta they’re connected to world, meaning by following the waterway to the ocean they have access to every distant land. But, she said, “Stockton youth don’t have access to the water. Some children who live in Stockton have never seen the delta.”

The City of Stockton is located on the San Joaquin River on the eastern edge of the delta, but freeways, development, train tracks, barriers of all types prevent exploration. “We live on the San Joaquin River and there isn’t even a place to put a kayak in the water.” Sheil said.

Tama Brisbane, Stockton poet laureate and executive director of Stockton’s “With Our Words,” a national movement to combat illiteracy, isolation, alienation, and silence by bringing new voices from the margins to the core of society through literary and performing arts. She noted that young Stockton poets who’ve traveled to poetry and performance art festivals around the country often have trouble explaining where they come from, have a gap in their understanding of place, of the delta that makes the territory from which they come unique.

“Stockton is a city that doesn’t own itself,” Brisbane said. “Stockton needs to hustle to get its identity back.”

Stories matter. They make us who we are. Camfield said in his survey of delta literature that “human beings selectively interpret their lives by way of narrative arcs, by how these narratives shape human action. We try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.”

With a delta novel in progress, the discussion about the literary past and future of the region was creatively stimulating and encouraging. But, a newcomer to Stockton, I also saw how quickly the city is transforming, wiping out the connection to the past.

In downtown Stockton old buildings with ornate architectural details are rotting, while next door new structures of steel and glass are under construction. Preserving what’s beautiful and meaningful from the past, while nurturing a proud new generation, is a task delta artists, poets and writers are embracing. It’s an exciting time in the delta and I look forward to contributing to the effort with a few good words of my own.

About these photos – Before the panel discussion, I had time to wander in downtown Stockton for a few photo grabs. I’m planning some mosaic projects and was delighted to stumble on some interesting examples in the lobby of Stockton’s old Elk’s Lodge on Sutter Street.


Planting Palms and Poetry – W.S. Merwin Forest Honors

Merwin and Palms PBS

In reverence, poet W.S. Merwin began planting trees nearly 40 years ago on land surrounding his home in Maui. He created and cultivated an 18-acre palm tree botanical garden, that has become one of the largest and most important collections of palms in the world.

The collection includes more than 2,740 individual palm trees, representing more than 480 taxonomic species and more than 125 unique genera, and featuring nearly 900 different horticultural varieties, the Merwin Palms and the land on which they live have been called Hawaii’s Walden Pond.

The plantation has become The Merwin Conservancy, which preserves the palm collection and the land from future development. The conservancy allows for scientific and botanical study of the palm species.

Merwin’s home on the property has been preserved as a place where art and nature intersect.  Many of the most famous poems and literary works authored by Merwin were written there. The Poet’s Home is now offered to poets, artists and authors as a retreat center.

Appointed United States Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress in 2010, William Stanley Merwin has a career that has spanned six decades. A poet, translator, gardener and environmental activist, he is one of the most widely read and honored poets in America.

Awards include the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the Bollingen Prize, the Tanning Prize, the Lilly Prize and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. His Migration: New and Selected Poems won the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry and Present Company, which closely followed it, earned him the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress.

Now, in recognition of his botanical accomplishments, Merwin will be among 13 distinguished honorees at the 2015 Arbor Day Award ceremony on April 25 in Lincoln Nebraska.

Arbor Day is an annual observance that celebrates the role of trees in our lives and promotes tree planting and care. As a formal holiday, it was first observed in 1872, but tree planting festivals are as old as civilization.

Merwin will receive the Good Steward Award recognizing the value of the botanical garden he created. The Arbor Day Foundation said the impact of Merwin’s work reflects the values of wilderness, the stillness of nature, and our personal connection to the natural world.

Merwin Rain in Trees Cover


W.S. Merwin, 1993


On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

what for

not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit

is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands

in the earth for the first time

with the sun already

going down

and the water

touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead

and the clouds passing

one by one

over its leaves

Merwin Conservancy

Text © 1988 by W.S. Merwin. Reproduced by permission of Georges Borchardt Inc. for the author. All rights reserved.

Information on the Arbor Day awards are online at

The work of the Merwin Conservancy is online at

Ripening Persimmons

Yi Gao — artist and storyteller

Gently squeeze to see

if fruit yields using a firmly

placed thumb. Astringent

types are yielding when ripe.

Non-astringent varieties

go either way, but note

size and color of each exotic

piece. Place in brown paper

bag with an off-gassing banana,

crumple or nestle together

in a deeply rounded bowl

for a couple of days and long

nights, nesting, entwined. Eat

strawberries while you wait,

sip champagne, embrace, slip

 into our luscious sweetness

♦    Kate Campbell

Note: Scientists in California and Japan have discovered how to sex persimmon trees. Male trees code for a very small piece of RNA that acts as “molecular scissors,” cutting down gene expression to create a female tree. But, the experts say RNA scissors can be “fickle,” and this may help explain why “dioecious” plants that are genetically one sex can also function as another.

Baryshnikov’s Feet

Baryshnikov feet

Earth’s mass is 6.580 sextillion tons
and we cling to it like lint, endlessly
revolving. But some, they pull away,
unravel for an instant from this
spinning orb and lift with muscled
feet and thickened toes, defying mass
Mikhail rises for us, slides, sweeps,
soars, knobby toes extended en plein air.
Arched feet settle in fifth position. Slide
to second. Plié, Relevé, again

Peddling Poetry — A Time-Honored Tradition

Restored peddlers wagon, Ohio

Beyond the flow of mainstream media, where mega-best-sellers barge by creating big wakes, there are quiet bays where writers row in welcoming waters, where a tide of readers wade in and tug their turquoise and yellow books to shore. I’ve been hanging out in these quiet inlets, splashing in the tide pools of poetic arts, collecting.

I’ve gathered prickly urchins and violet anemones, shells that play madrigals and rondos. I’ve taken them home and treasured each one. Many of these collected “chapbooks” include the poems of friends or writers I’ve heard read their stories at literary events. Some are the work of acquaintances on social media and others passed along by poets.
These slender volumes created by working artists follow a centuries old tradition made popular by “chapmen,” peddlers of sometimes dubious character who tramped the byways of 17th century small-town Europe offering housewares and hardware and the occasional booklet to rural residents. These pamphlets included political and religious tracts, folk tales — and often poetry.

Peddler in modern China

Although the Industrial Revolution brought better printing presses and the chapbook fell out of favor, the publishing method never completely died out. The appeal of inexpensive booklets easily distributed was not lost on thrifty residents of rural towns or on avant garde artists seeking attention for their work — the American Beat poets of the 1950s and 60s published frequently in chapbooks, for example.

American poet Allen Ginsberg’s ground-breaking work “Howl and Other Poems” was originally published this way by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Books, as were works by Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, William Carlos Williams and Gregory Corso. Today a first edition chapbook of “Howl” sells for about $600, but back in the day probably cost less than a dollar. There’s a lively trade in collectible chapbooks these days and many independent booksellers maintain a special section. Not true for chain book stores, however.

But, chapbooks remain one of the world’s most widely-accepted forms of publishing poetry. Given the centuries-old tradition of bringing pots and pans, as well as prose and poetry, to customers worldwide, these minimalist, low-cost volumes don’t carry the modern stigma of vanity attached to longer, self-published works. Heck, every American poet from Whitman to Frost initially published this way.

Right now there are a number of chapbooks on my bedside table that I turn to when I settle down for a quick read before sleep. I’ll highlight them in coming weeks. The author’s aren’t household names like J.K. Rowling, John Grisham or James Patterson. Instead, the books are small, personal and beautifully made by real people with something to say. Here’s an example:

Grand Slam, poet Alan Kleiman’s premiere collection features many of his most popular works, offers deceptively light verse that pops with charm and catches the reader off-guard with unexpected insights. He finds poetic occasion in life’s ordinary events: Sardines, a barn reflected, feta dip, sliver removers, wanting girls, slow dancing and kisses.

Kiss me a hundred times
and then a thousand
and then more that that
and then even more
and you will begin
to touch
the spot where
I want to kiss you more.
 “It’s a pleasure to praise Alan Kleiman’s brave and strange poetry, with its various

strands of innocent yearning and worldly resignation. ‘The Emperor’s clothes don’t fit anymore,’ Kleiman has found. The result is a whole new wardrobe, this time, without excuses” — Jeff Nunokawa, Princeton University.

Kleiman, who often works under the pen name Ace Mulvihil, lives in New York City and is as an attorney. His poetry has appeared in publications around the world. Grand Slam is available online from Amazon.

Today I join the ranks of chapmen, rattling my wagon from town to town, calling to housewives: “Hot poems. Hot Poems. One a penny, two a dime. Hot Poems!”