Alameda’s Poet Laureates Are People Poetic Partners

Alameda names not one but two poet laureates, thinking two bards just may be better than one.


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Photo by Dave Strauss

Alameda has come to be known as a city that stands apart, and not just because it’s an island. For instance, when it came time to select a new poet laureate after Julia Park Tracey’s appointment ended, the city’s Poet Laureate Selection Committee had a difficult time deciding between the top two candidates, Cathy Dana and Gene Kahane, so it named them both. 

“Appointing both Mr. Kahane and Ms. Dana brings a wonderful breadth of experience and passion for the written word,” library director and Poet Laureate Selection Committee staff member Jane Chisaki said in a statement for the city of Alameda in July.

The new poet laureates are equally thrilled about the partnership, one that Kahane calls a “couplet.”

“Though unusual, I’m overjoyed at sharing the poet laureate title with Cathy Dana,” Kahane said. “We’ve met several times, love poetry, are both teachers, have ambitious plans to help foster a love of language, and both bike a lot around town.”

Dana agreed that sharing the post is unusual but exciting. “I love sharing the post with Gene,” she said. “I think two heads are better than one, and we can spark each other, build with each other. We each have organizations that we are a part of, and that gives us resources to create events and programs; together we can reach out even further than we already do.”

Dana’s relationship with poetry has been strong since her mother read to her from Dr. Seuss as a child, but it was in 2003 that she met Mary Rudge, Alameda’s first poet laureate, and the Alameda Island Poets. Dana is president of the organization.

“When I met Mary Rudge, she was having a poetry contest, and the theme was Alameda. I was excited, because I had poems about the Alameda beach. Those poems are now in the Alameda-themed poem anthology.”

Dana moved to Alameda in 1985 and married Alameda-born Jim Gordon in 1987. Their son, Max, attended school at the Alameda Community Learning Center, where Dana signed on to teach creative writing to sixth-graders. Today, she continues to teach that class, as well as a creative writing class for high schoolers. Dana initiated ACLC’s poet laureate program and the Mighty Pens teen poetry group. Her first poetry book, My Dad Believed in Love, was published in 2015 by Sugartown Publishing.

“I see the creative spirit in each of us as sometimes shy, a bit delicate, and vulnerable to criticism. It is so important to nurture it, so I see myself as a guardian of the creative spirit, and my mission is to bring the joy, the beauty, the wisdom, the spirit of inquiry of poetry to Alamedans of all ages, all walks of life.” 

Dana would like to see a poet laureate program at every high school and would like to bring poetry reading, appreciation, and writing to Mastick and other senior centers. 

“I really like to partner, so I’d love to partner with merchants, hospitals, Meals on Wheels, the library, maybe even the fire department or police department. I want to work with Gene to create events that are fun and engaging. I’m open to any ideas people have and how to implement them. I’m thinking about a Poet Laureate Summit, a Poetry Picnic, a Poetry Crawl. I’m open!”

While Kahane wrote poems as a child, the first one he remembers is from his freshman year of college. At the end of his first semester, he wrote a poem of lamentation after breaking up with his high school girlfriend. His RA, whom he describes as a gruff, non-poetry type of guy, asked to read it and then asked for a copy. Since that first “published poem,” Kahane’s poetry writing has become central to his creativity.

“I’m inspired by things I see—people, trees, birds, kids, pretty much everything—and surprise myself often with the direction and tone my poems take.”

An East Bay native, Kahane is married with two kids. He has lived in Alameda for 20 years. His 30 years of teaching experience have included positions at Haight Elementary School, Wood Middle School, and currently, Encinal High School.

In addition to writing verse for various occasions from commemorating events to honoring colleagues and students, he is also a drama director and actor, having performed at the defunct Alameda Civic Light Opera and directed with the Altarena Playhouse and Alameda Children’s Musical Theater. And some Alamedans may have seen him selling books at Books Inc.

Kahane describes Alameda as odd, quirky, and lovely, with a creative and passionate mix of people. “I love seeing the kids in school, the customers in the bookstore, people at the beach, on their bikes, flying kites, riding waves, playing ball, loving the Warriors, and hanging out on Webster and Park.”

As poet laureate, Kahane said he pledges to not only speak beauty and truth, but also to encourage others to do the same. He sees poetry as both “a sword and a feather” and hopes to increase its accessibility throughout the Island.

“My vision as poet laureate is to make poetry big and vital and fun and powerful for everyone, meaning writing poems and tying them to trees, drawing them on sidewalks, meeting in parks and bars and coffee shops and writing with others, sharing, laughing, discovering.”

 

Both poet laureates wrote inaugural poems, which will each be published at the end of this story on AlamedaMagazine.com.

 

Street Stripes

By Gene Kahane

 

In New York a woman welcomes the world—

Dressed in gray robes,

She holds a lamp, a book, and below her feet,

The words of Emma Lazarus—a Jewish poet like me.

In St. Louis,

On the shores of the Mississippi—

Huck and Jim’s river—

Rises a simple staggering arc,

That serves as portal to the Great Frontier.

If you place your ear on the steel,

And strike it with your fist,

She will echo—yonder, yonder, yonder.

Across the bay from where we live,

Is the grand orange span—

Cabled, connective, foggy pretty—

It closes our magic circle,

And glows for all who cross the Pacific.

And what then for us,

And this odd little rock we call home?

What speaks for us,

What slogan or symbol,

Works on Webster, Grand, Park and Ratto?

Neither span nor statue,

But a shield—

The fierce frame imagined by every kid,

Who held a garbage can lid and a stick,

In defense of the Kingdom.

Our escutcheon has been softened, somewhat,

By child stripes.

They say to all, we are all,

Colorful, equal, parallel,

And tells the story of union and inclusion,

Welcoming everyone into every school,

And lots of shops,

Across Alameda.

Yet posters and buttons are not enough—

Our time demands boldness,

Courage, a flagrancy to battle the darkness,

And so,

With grinning seriousness,

I challenge us to not paint the town red,

But Rainbow our streets instead:

 

Island drive must needs be purple,

Or maybe even mauve,

To honor all the colors,

That grew out of the grove.

Shoreline runs along the water,

So of course the perfect hue,

Is the color of my late mom’s eyes,

Friendly cornflower blue.

For Otis I say let’s go green,

Splash the paint from curb to curb,

Then fingerpaint the driveways,

Draw some pictures,

Write mad words!

Make Central Ave. bright yellow,

Heck add some glitter too,

Hold nothing back you artists,

For this is your town too.

Let’s orange Lincoln,

Top to bottom,

And if you’re expecting a clever rhyme,

Hey, I’m new as Poet Laureate,

Check back later, give me time!

Buena Vista shall be dark red,

It’s the color of our blood,

Which by the way’s the exact same,

No matter your neighborhood.

 

And our motto,

Our new poem of Hope,

For those who crossed a bridge or tunneled here,

To settle in 94501 or 2?

The great grandchild of E Pluribus Unum,

Three words in defense of fear,

Our Golden Rule,

Everyone Belongs Here.

As Rabbi Kushner once said,

The great work begins,

So grab a brush and bucket,

Don your smock and broken shoes,

And meet me on the streets my friends,

I’ll be the guy banging roller trays,

Dancing on the drop cloth,

Singing couplets into the island air.

 

 

 

 

Birth of a Bridge

By Cathy Dana

 

“Dare to reach out your hand into the darkness to pull another hand into the light.”

—Norman B. Rice

 

If I were a painter …

I’d paint a bridge

that dared the sky to listen

so deeply

with such tenderness,

such mystical compassion

that all who crossed the bridge

felt instantly healed and whole,

swept into eternal sunset bliss,

their life missions becoming

to unreservedly, wholeheartedly welcome

every other being

in the universe.

 

I have always loved bridges—

Seeing them, crossing them, looking out from them.

When a certain sentence about the Park St. Bridge

caught me, pulled me in,

I had to know more.

So I put on my Sherlock cap, made a bee-line for the library,

and found myself knee-deep in microfilm.

There it was: Alameda Times-Star, evening of Oct. 4, 1935.

The news blazed across the front page,

bold and bright, bringing new light, new hope,

each letter tall, each word glittering, daring me to read on,

promising a story of epic proportions.

In 1935 Alameda was as draped in the darkness of the Great Depression

as any city, and yet—

here it was—the new deal, the real deal,

the deal everyone was waiting for.

From the depths of the Depression,

where tomorrow was not a given

and the clouds of pessimism blocked the daylight of hope

The headlines read, “Alameda Dedicates New Bridge—

Gala Events for Opening of Big Span.”

And in one fell swoop, the Park St. Bridge struck a chord

in the hearts and souls of the residents of Alameda.

It was more than concrete and steel

coming together to unite Alameda;

our community spoke with one voice

that shouted from rooftops:

there is hope, and the possibility of a better tomorrow.

With a crescendo, our bridge proved

that building communities with bridges and not walls

could unite and not divide.

Still, the line that had caught me was this:

“Symbolic Wedding Rites Will Unite Couple at Span Opening.”

I had to blink twice. A wedding on the bridge? 

 

The Times-Star promises: A new day is dawning.

After two years of waiting,

the new bridge will connect Oakland and Alameda.

Everyone is invited to Alameda’s party, 2:30pm

till 2:30am—“the most gigantic celebration in its history.”

As pennants, banners, flags, colored lights bedeck Park St. and 29thAve.;

marathon runners from Oakland bear good wishes to Alameda;

stunt planes make thrilling aerial maneuvers;

boats race and yachts from every East Bay city form

the “Night-in-Venice” regatta; aquatic stars

swim and dive in the estuary; a mammoth two-city parade

seven thousand strong crosses the bridge;

guests dine and dance in the Alameda Hotel ball-room for $1.25;

others join the 14-piece orchestra for a street dance on Park Street

and midnight vaudeville stage show in the New Alameda Theatre.

 

At 2:30’s opening dedication, from either side of the bridge

two figures approach each other.

Mayor McCracken strides out from Oakland

Mayor Roebke strides out from Alameda.

They arrive in the exact center

where the two arms of the bascule bridge meet;

clasp hands connecting city to city; sister cities.

Speeches abound, dedications are made.

Then, amidst cheers and applause,

Miss Edith Bird of Alameda and Mr. Edward Drotleff of Oakland

exchange wedding vows there on the very center of the bridge.

Their nuptial kiss graces the front page of the Oakland Trib,

and they become poster children for the true meaning

of community: come unity,

reminding us to reach out across the waters,

across whatever lines we think we see; that

human beings alone can self-reflect

can choose understanding, compassion, respect;

we are not just an island alone and apart

we can open our minds and the doors to our heart.

When you stand on the bridge of your final goodbye

what truly matters as your time draws nigh?

You may have needs that are different than mine

Yet if we look deeper, can we align?

We drink the same water, breathe the same air

We are here on the same earth, can we not share?

We find out that together is when we are strong

We reach out to embrace; know that we all belong.

The bridge can inspire us: “Reach out in the dark,

bring forth your magnificent, most brilliant spark.

When you pull someone’s hand into the light

Your heart becomes larger, your spark ever bright.”

Sanctuary city yet to this day

Alameda, shining, still lights the way.

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