S itting in the loft of Café Trieste in downtown San Jose, I had the opportunity to become acquainted with Sally Ashton, our county’s newest appointee to the post of poet laureate. Since it has only been a few months, she is still working out what all this will look like during her two-year tenure. Not sure about the details, Sally is sure that she wants to make the most of our multi-cultural heritage that permeates the fifteen cities and nearly two million people that make up Santa Clara County.
While still quite the prestigious honor, the poet laureate of Santa Clara County has distinctly different duties from its royal courtly beginnings. The poet laureate’s focus is to elevate poetry in awareness of Santa Clara County residents and to help celebrate the literary arts. The poet laureate also serves as an advocate for poetry, literature and the arts and leads a community project that makes poetry more accessible to the public. This awareness of and accessibility to poetry contributes to Santa Clara County’s literary legacy.
Sally believes that she is well suited to be sensitive to a broad variety of communities. She comes from modest beginnings - being one of four children in an agrarian family, originally from Oregon. Her parents had the means to attend college, but due to post-war times, they, like many others of their generation, had to forego higher education and, as Sally said, “just get busy.” Her family was able to move to Santa Clara County when she was five years old. Both her parents worked – Mom in real estate and Dad as an employee for Lockheed.
Though her family prized education, she would not describe her upbringing as one that was heavily enriched by literature. With almost a whisper, Sally let it be known that she didn’t read as much as she would have liked, but she always had afondness for writing. She wrote her first poem while in grade school.Some years later Sally met and married Frank Ashton, a local wine maker and businessman. They have three children whom Sally describes as “the joy of my life and my three best poems.”
Ms. Ashton recounts that her passion for poetry was stoked as she began “following the energy.” She started out taking classes at West Valley College and then transferred to San Jose State University where she is now a faculty member. What started out as a path toward creating non-fiction “pretty quickly circled around to poetry. As soon as I realized there was such a thing as an MFA degree, that was exactly what I wanted to get.” Sally went on to get that Master of Fine Arts degree from Bennington. She persevered, taking the number of classes that would allow for the pursuit of dreams, while still allowing her to be available to her family.
Now an editor of DMQ, an online literary journal, Sally has the distinct privilege of being exposed to the voice of national and international poets who compose in various genres of poetry. These are the poets who inspire her. Rather than any one particular poet, it is a brand of poetry: those of the post-modern generation who use words like a designer uses fabric. They are manipulating words to bring forth many shades of meaning while continuing to ask the question, “Can you depend on [language]; can it really mean anything?”
And though Sally is impressed with the current breadth of poetry, she made it a point to mention the voices that call to her from the past. Like her, many of these women poets started out composing their works of art amid their domestic duties: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth B. Browning, and even Virginia Wolfe (though not a poet, she produced works that also empowered women). Though these women were never acknowledged and certainly never published during their day, “they persevered in a very private manner that has become significant.”
Here’s what Sally had to say about the significance of poetry in our day and time, and particularly in our culture of Santa Clara County: “Poetry all seems very apt, particularly in the contemporary moment, in our area because it’s brief. And there is such a movement in all forms of communication towards brevity with twitter… text messages… Of course not all poems are going to be 140 characters…nor would we want them to be. …They are accessible like a little moment in time. It’s a distilled moment… you can pick it up with your cup of coffee and read a poem or two and enter a reflective or an energized place.
Poetry, when it’s working at its best, distills a moment and takes you there, and it can be all the many different kinds of moments. You can find that of course in a novel or short story, you enter a different world for a longer period… A poem is working hard to employ symbol and resonance of an image… [It] makes a difference since you have so fewer words to create your world and make an impact.”
In her brief tenure as Poet Laureate, how does Sally Ashton plan to make an impact? With nearly two million people in Santa Clara County, Ashton is aware of the enormity of the task and so she makes the most of opportunities like this and other natural channels of publicity to get her message out to the people. Poets are known to write about the life and times in which they live. One opportunity Sally hopes will allow for the most impact is to partner with the tech community of Silicon Valley. Much of the technology in our Valley is just a different form of art and expression. What better connection than for our poet laureate to connect with our tech community and allow the art that is technology to inform the art of poetry.
Unlike the poet laureates of old who were commissioned to write for the pleasure of the royals, Sally has been asked “to contribute to the literary legacy of Santa Clara County. I think as poet laureate… at this point I am just trying to reconnect folks with the idea that there is cultural value in the art form, that there really is a reason to value it, so when the conversation comes up, the response isn’t, ‘I don’t get poetry.’ That’s kind of the majority response. Well, I’d rather people kind of get it.”