Sunday, October 27, 2013

Discovery's wonder from a local poet


Marianne Werner is a retired Butte College English instructor who writes that "I have always felt more at ease sitting under a tree (or in one) than sitting in a chair made from a tree. In nature is a world far more perfect than we humans seem able to sustain, and I am continually awed by the ingenuity of its adaptation and its beauty." Long a poet, when she took up photography she realized words and images could combine in a "thematic closeness."

Her work is on vibrant display in "Simple Images: Nature Poems and Photographs" ($16 in softcover, self-published, available from or from Lyon Books in downtown Chico). The twenty poems and associated images (some taken from locations in Chico, some from Oregon, Costa Rica, Honduras, Ireland) weave together the story of a poet's delight and even astonishment at the natural world.

In "Concert of Plants," the writer is in Mexico, at the Charco del Ingenio Botanical Gardens, where "The Plasmath Lute shivers sounds, / eerily beautiful. ..." Electrodes are connected to cacti, where "plant signals translate into music, / simple chords seeping throughout / their joined familial roots. // I don't believe this, / but I see it happening."

In "Wild Lupine," "Against the mottled snow / and green hills of Lassen, / an enormous purple shawl / of wild lupine smothers // the hillside. The switchback / trail turns us through / acres of lavender--lighter, / darker, lighter blossoms // until we are in the center / of such an explosion / that we are wordless."

"In midwinter," the poet writes in "Flight," "I hear sounds / from above, sounds of wild / geese pulsing and honking / in patterns of flight. // ... I watch, incredulous, / not at their instincts pulling / toward a particular / destination--rather, / their spacing, exact // in its precision of distance, / wing tip to wing tip. ..."

Somewhere else, a heart flower opens, "its surface posed / like dappled silk-- // while I watch and marvel." Everywhere there is something to cause wonder. In "Sanctuary," "Thousands, thousands of pure / white snow geese have arrived / on this bright November day, / feather cuddling each other, / idling so far across dark lagoons / that I could walk shore to shore / upon their soft curved backs."

The images evoke wonder as well, portraits of a world the poet longs to embrace, and does.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Verbal variety from guest author


Sometimes verbs "don't get no respect," especially when it comes to headlines. These days, writes Bay Area author and critic Constance Hale, verbs are ousted from headlines in favor of search-optimized nouns, but that can lead to some interpretive problems. Take the story of spud farmers wanting to catch the ear of a hamburger giant. The Associated Press headline: "McDonald's Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers."

Hale grew up speaking "proper" English at home in Oahu but used Hawaiian creole with friends at school. Maybe that stoked her passion for language; her obsession with verbs is on display in "Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing" ($16.95 in paperback from W.W. Norton; also in Amazon Kindle format).

The book is a salted-peanut delight for language lovers, dipping "into the highbrow and the lowbrow, the sacred and the profane, the eloquent and the cheesy. We'll unpack one aspect of verbs at a time, keeping things simple. We won't forget the fun."

Each chapter has four sections; the Vex part tackles language confusion and history (sometimes it's a history of confusion); Hex is there to "shatter myths and debunk shibboleths, and set you free to write with new confidence and zest." Speaking of zest, the Smash sections examine a plethora of bad examples (I scoured the index for my name--not there! Whew! I'm safe until the next edition). And Smooch? This section is for "writing that is so good you'll want to kiss its creator. These passages feature juicy words, sentences that rock, and subjects that startle." (You can find more at

Chapters contain little think-piece asides and carry the reader from verb dynamics and tenses to moods, participles and "odd uses." Meaty appendices consider Chomsky, dictionaries, irregular verbs, and more.

Log on is a phrasal verb and "when we're done, we log off." We don't logon, though we may be logging on. And once you've logged on, you may read some smoochable words from Toni Morrison: "Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. Heavy sunflowers weeping over fences; ... ears of corn letting their auburn hair wind down their stalks."

Lyon Books in downtown Chico is hosting a presentation and signing with Constance Hale tomorrow night at 7:00 p.m.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The business side of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.


Sierra Nevada's first brew date was November 15, 1980. Almost a quarter century and uncounted bottles of Pale Ale later, Ken Grossman, president and owner of the company, contemplated retirement. Then he read a book by "Gary Erickson, the founder of Clif Bar and Company, that chronicled his struggle with the direction of his company at a similar point in his life. His story was similar to mine, with a troubled partnership and the near sale of his company to a major industry player. He changed his mind at the absolute last minute and walked away from signing over his company and had since rededicated himself to it."

With Sierra Nevada, Grossman writes, "we built one of the best breweries in the world." Now, as he rededicated his energies, he learned the importance of a sales team, made plans to build a second operation in North Carolina, and nurtured the next generation of craft brewers. In an odd way, a Clif Bar saved the vision.

Grossman tells the story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in "Beyond The Pale" ($24.95 in hardcover from Wiley and in Amazon Kindle format). It's a business memoir, with a color photograph section included, recounting the growth of a company that by 2010 was producing 800,000 barrels and running out of room. There were financial and personal challenges, including the tragic loss of the company's first employee, Steve Harrison. His death, Grossman writes, "was the worst thing the brewery has ever been through."

But the focus of the book is on how the business navigated the ups and downs of the craft beer revolution and how Grossman, an avowed beer purist, became a beer scientist, "shunning pasteurization" and instead focusing on "the yeast and the cleanliness of your plant." As far as the hops are concerned, "we have the one of the most sophisticated gas chromatographs available for aroma analysis." He discusses management style as well, and the use of alternative energy.

It's wisdom to tap into.

Grossman will be signing copies at Sierra Nevada's "Single, Fresh, Wet and Wild Harvest Festival" this Saturday from 1:00 - 6:00 (visit for ticket information) and Lyon Books in Chico will hold a free signing event on Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 7:00 p.m.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Activist poet Brenda Hillman returns to Chico


A fiery life force runs through everything in Brenda Hillman's latest book of poetry. "Seasonal Works With Letters On Fire" ($22.95 in hardcover from Wesleyan University Press; also available in Amazon Kindle e-book format), nominated for a National Book Award, concludes a series of volumes exploring earth, air, water and, now, fire.

Perhaps it's the poet's responsibility to discover that life-fire, to give voice to it, or even to create it in the interplay of the physical "stuff" of words and letters and the meanings they evoke. Hers is not a humanist but an animist vision; yet humans can make a difference: "words are living." Hillman's book is dedicated in part "To women awake in the world / To people moaning at gas pumps, to the students / To protesting corporate violence ... To Love & the unsayable / To the fire in everything."

Most of her short poems end in a dash, as if there is unfinished business. Her work requires surrender to an artistic playfulness. In "Some Kinds Of Reading In Childhood," the poem ends: "The world has created a sickness / but the sickness is being / reversed ... Consonants / can be reasoned with, but vowels / start fires--now! breathing / twice: Now! Here come / the bandit occupiers: / silence & meaning--"

The poet attests all is not well. "When i read the word drone," Hillman writes in "The Body Politic Loses Her Hair," "my hair falls out in solidarity with old words. Stingless singless honey bees [Apis mellifera] or the music drones on & on, but now (at the top of Google), unmanned, where the 'un' in the 'unmanned' looks like little pinchers, the 'u' & the 'n' like the fingers on a throttle when one of our soldiers bombs a target's wedding while his family members are eating potatoes with tamarind, cardamom, onion, / & the target's family falls."

In "I Heard Flame-Folder Spring Bring Red," the poet observes "Women / in Kandahar make $2 a month; our people / tweet & sleep through the wars, / our soggy purses lie open, the eyes / of the dollar bills stare up from the / floor--"

Hillman will be speaking at Chico's 1078 Gallery, 820 Broadway, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., sponsored by the Butte College Literary Committee. The event is free; donations welcome.