Two poets, not alike in style, read their works to a small but rapt audience at Cal Poly Tuesday. Nebraska poet Jim Reese and Cal Poly alumnus, poet and singer Ephraim Sommers were special guests for the Summer Literary Reading Series, directed by Cal Poly English professor Kevin Clark.
During his performance, Sommers played his acoustic guitar, recorded the music live and then looped it back as he sang or recited his poetry, which rested on his music stand.
Sommers is a San Luis Obispo County native who grew up in Atascadero and attended Cal Poly to study English and political science because he wanted to stay in the area with his funk rock band Siko. He said Cal Poly was very helpful by inviting his band to play during UU hour and giving him a job as a gardener. He ended up in San Diego to earn a master’s degree in creative writing and studied under the poet Ilya Kaminsky. He is also the managing editor of Flashpoint, an online music and literature journal.
Sommer’s new album, “Stones and Smoke,” is a collection of his solo work over the years. He said while he was in Siko, he didn’t have a chance to breathe and make his own music.
“It’s a lot of songs that are a lot more mellow, they are based around the acoustic, they’re based more around the vocals, as opposed to the instrumentation, which would be more of the Siko thing.”
He said he was very happy to be back in area, was loving the San Luis Obispo vibe and was flattered and surprised to be invited to the series.
Sommers said his poetry has evolved from narratives to lyrical, hopefully developing stronger images as he tries to mash music and poetry.
“I’m trying to mold music and poetry into one medium at one time,” he said.
Clark had Sommers as a student in his English classes. He said Sommers was a very quiet but very intense student, who primarily wrote persona poems — a poem that is written in the voice of somebody else.
“He wrote poems about people who were on the verge of madness and sometimes went over the line,” Clark said.
Clark said that Sommers’ poems as “ferocious” and “wonderful.” Clark has a theory that Sommers’ musical background with rock ’n’ roll correlates with his ability to explore the human psyche.
“Now he tells me he’s writing more lyric poetry, which is poetry that renders interior emotions without as much narrative as much story structure as he used to have,” Clark said.
Clark described the second poet, Reese, as a very different character from Sommers. He said Reese is a “Plains poet,” which refers to the Great Plains area between the Rockies and the Mississippi River.
Clark said traditional Plains poets write pastoral nature poems describing the richness and earthiness of the plains.
While Reese has these elements in some of his poems, Clark said, Reese also talks about some of the modern difficulties on the plains, such as the drug problems and prison life, but still infuses his writing with humor.
“(It’s) Midwestern humor in which people make dumb mistakes but there’s just a little more of an edge to it than that,” Clark said.
Reese is an associate professor of English at Mount Marty College in Yankton, S.D., a published author and poet as well as the editor-in-chief of the literary journal PADDLEFISH. His recent book, “ghost on 3rd,” was nominated by his publisher New York Quarterly Books for the Pulitzer Prize in Letters.
“Your grandma could nominate you for the Pulitizer Prize,” Reese said. “But if your press nominates you, they can only nominate two people, and that’s when it means something.”
He is also an artist-in-residence for the National Endowment for the Art’s interagency initiative with the Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Prisons, where he teaches inmates creative writing.
“There’s five of us in the nation, so we are trying to do the best we can,” Reese said. “We’re introducing creative writing and how it can be therapeutic and healing and also educational.”
He teaches inmates how to think outside the box and be more observant, and how it can help them think of themselves as more than just someone stuck in prison, he said.
“They have some very important things to tell everyone because they made some mistakes,” Reese said. “But in my class, I hope they come to terms with them and share that in the public,” Reese said.
Most of the prisoners he teaches, he said, are there for drug-related and white-collar crimes. He also goes to prisons such as San Quentin and Folsom. Reese said the Federal Prison Camp in Yankton he teaches at on a regular basis was the only federal prison that doesn’t have a barbed wire fence.
“I believe deeply in what I’m doing, and I believe deeply in education,” Reese said. “And that’s the only thing that’s going to save this country and the only thing that’s going to save the war on drugs, which is not saving anybody.”
Reese’s performance style was, unsurprisingly, very different from Sommers’. He had no guitar and the only singing he did was a few lines of Prince’s “Red Corvette” while reading his story about the first time he learned about sex. He spoke softly with his Nebraskan accent but kept the audience listening close for his jokes. He made the audience laugh with his wit and insight, even when the subject matter was serious.
“If you can grasp that humor and really strangle the seriousness, and make people laugh, that’s pretty cool,” Reese said.
One of the attendees was English department chair Kathryn Rummell. She had Sommers in class and felt a connection to Reese’s Midwestern poetry, because she is from Kentucky.
“I loved the song at the end, and I loved (Sommers’) cute little smile as he was singing,” she said. “And I thought Jim was hilarious, I thought he was absolutely fantastic.”