It was kind of a poem, TNB’s Rich Ferguson cursing about ten times in a row, rattling off “Fucks!” in spoken-word, submachine-gun fashion while at CSU Bakersfield. He knew he wasn’t going to get to cuss at the family-friendly Russo’s Books. So he had to let go.

None of us get to cuss much at Russo’s. And that’s OK. I get it. Bakersfield is a conservative city 110-miles north of Hollywood. The local Barnes & Noble and the now-dead Borders Books are the same way. Rich still wowed a crowd of CSU Bakersfield poets and guests, mashing together a few of his ditties into a twenty-minute performance as his body swayed beneath shadows cast by his dirty straw hat.

The week before, poet Michael Medrano of Fresno wowed the same class while at Russo’s with selections from his 2009 book “Born in the Cavity of Sunsets” (Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press). Michael rode into town on the Amtrak. It’s a nice ride from Fresno. I’ve taken the route. It swings through Central Valley farmland and cuts through little towns like Hanford and Wasco, places where gangs are out of control and mom-and-pop restaurants are still as tasty as ever.

When he stepped off the train he pulled along a black bag filled with his books, notes, an unpublished manuscript for “When You Left to Burn at Sea,” and some pages from a young adult fiction novel.

I pointed at him and we hugged like brothers.

After a Thai food lunch we grabbed some coffee in the sweltering heat and headed to class at the CSUB OLLI Program poetry course I was teaching. He took the reigns and taught about community. In fact, all weekend we spoke about working together, how poetry scenes in towns and across the nation are dead without writers and poets linking arms and digging in.

I was careful to mostly teach from Medrano’s book as well as Bakersfield poet Gary Hill’s works (including “From a Savage City”) and T.Z. Hernandez book, “Skin Tax.” All three poets, I believe, are part of a poetry brotherhood that needs to further help connect the Central Valley to itself, to Hollywood-L.A. (that would be Rich Ferguson and others I know) and even to Colorado. In fact, T.Z. Hernandez is a Central Valley writer now living in Boulder, Colorado. I’m really looking forward to an Oct. 12 gig at Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Cafe with both Medrano and Hernandez. Hernandez mentioned calling it the “Vagos Locos Tour: Poetry, Stories y Mas.” Fitting for a bunch of crazy wandering Latino poets from California’s Central Valley.

After our gig at Russo’s we all ended up at an old mortuary converted into a mansion home with two basements and enough Chinese artifacts to fill all the secret tunnels supposedly beneath Bakersfield. Poets Philip Derouchie and Terry Telford showed up as I was whipping up some salsa and drinking too much Moscato. Derouchie brought beer. So did Medrano.

Poet-literary writer Jane Hawley was there talking up a storm, telling stories about the house. Melinda Carroll, who is the quietest poet on the planet, hung out (actually a tie with Veronica Madrigal, who brought some carne asada and helped me make some rather forgetful Spanish rice. Medrano later said, “Maybe it’s the mortuary that took your rice mojo”). Poet Sofia Reyes had to be talked into showing up.

I cooked the carne asada and talked poetry under the stars with Medrano. “An epic night of Central Valley poets connecting between cities,” I said. It was about then I dropped a tortilla, picked up and flung over the fence into an alley.

“Looks like a spaceship!” a voice from the darkness said.

Soon enough, everyone was eating, even my terrible rice, and talked it up about mortuary ghosts, including one in the house of a cat named Blackbeard. Don’t believe me? There’s even a painting of the cat hanging in a dark room above a bed. Another animal from the mansion dropped dead of a heart attack just days after our shindig. “Cardiac arrest,” Hawley said. “The trainer tried animal CPR.” Apparently you do that for show dogs named Rudy. You rip their little doggy chests open if you have to. But as I mentioned, the little guy didn’t make it. His owner was in Berlin.

(Photo: Dolls found in mortuary mansion closet)

Maybe there was forewarning at our party, because in the middle of dinner, Hawley, whose gramps owns the mortuary mansion, suddenly ran in an odd sort of gait, away from the rest of the poets and launched herself into the pool fully clothed. I can’t think of any other reason than she was possessed by either Blackbeard the cat, who may have wanted her or Rudy dead, or the spirit of poetry infusing her with vibrant energy for a symbolic journey of renewal.

When she emerged there was a june bug in her hair and she screamed.

The next day I got Medrano to the train station barely five minutes before the Amtrak was scheduled to leave. I watched as he ran and boarded one of the big silver passenger cars.

I think I might have worked off an entire cup of coffee in that lone jog,” he later said, grateful he came to Bakersfield and broke bread with a host of tireless poets.

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NICK BELARDES is illustrator of NYT Best-Selling Novel by Jonathan Evison West of Here (2011), author of Random Obsessions (2009), Lords (2005), and the first literary Twitter novel: Small Places (2010). An author, poet, and screenwriter for Hectic Films, Belardes turned TV/online journalist overnight after blogging his way to success. His articles and essays have appeared on the homepage of CNN.com and other news sites across America. You can find Nick on Facebook and Twitter.

63 responses to “Poet in the Mortuary Pool”

  1. Michael Lee says:

    Made me feel like I was there. Bravo!

  2. Jane says:

    Possession by a dead cat? Now that’s an idea I can get behind!

    So great that you write about our small, but burgeoning community of poets and writers here in Bakersfield. Both Medrano and Ferguson were inspiring to see perform and be taught by. They both spoke about not apolgizing for yourself and I think that’s something I especially took to heart about the whole poetry experience–to be honest about your experiences/feelings/opinions with the community, your family, and fellow writers.

    Many beautiful poems came out of that class (and the party itself…I’ve been writing some about it) and I’m glad to see that it will live on at the meeting at Jerry’s Pizza this weekend. Hopefully that will be worth writing about too!

    Oh. And thanks for the carne asada. It was delicious.

    • Jane: wouldn’t it be cool if we had a poetry night at Jerry’s Pizza? And if people actually paid to attend? I know, dreaming. But we have to dream, right?

      Medrano and Ferguson are both awesome and inspiring. I agree.

      You’ve been writing about the party too? What about, the flying spaceship tortilla?

      • Jane says:

        Why not? If we don’t try, it’ll never happen. Maybe we could get them to do it on a weeknight or something? I don’t know, but it would be so awesome. Just heard about a Sex, Drugs, and Rock N’ Roll themed literary event. Maybe something like that could get the crowds out! Hmmm… I still want to do something at a truck stop someday.

        That reminds me of Medrano’s story about Drive-By Poetry. If we filmed it, I’m sure some crazy Bakersfield thing would happen that could make the video go viral.

        I didn’t know about the flying spaceship tortilla until I read your post! I must have been too drunk or talking too much about ghosts and housecats at the time… Mostly I’m writing about the people who were there. You, definitely–so watch out! Also how much history is in that house, how I could write an entire collection of poems about the old mortuary.

        • I agree: Sex, Drugs, and Rock Nā€™ Roll event sounds perfect. I also want to do one with Reno Romero: “Taking The Top Off Vegas: Stories Of the Neon City.” And I want to do a book event for Greg Olear. Then we have one for the Drunken Angel memoir writer. And those wacky “Lords Ghost Tours” and “Kerouac Beat Walks.” Damn. That’s a lot!

          Also, I just got our class at CSUB booked through November (don’t know the actual classroom yet).

          Medrano’s Drive-By poetry story is cool. I have a camera. We can film anything. And I can do voice overs now, so that’s cool too. Going viral in Bakersfield is hard. Matt would promote on home page of Bakotopia and I have the home page of Kern Radio nailed down. It’s the word of mouth to the university, college and high schools that’s hard.

          Crap, I better watch out. Sure am glad I didn’t talk about you going topless on the diving board. Oops! J/k. I think that was Blackbeard I saw with the hairy chest.

        • Jane says:

          Jerk šŸ˜‰

          Thanks for getting Random Writers affiliated with CSUB. Hopefully we’ll get some fresh blood in the fall to join us! I really do hope we can do some of those events. Someday.

          Oh. And thanks for not talking about my going topless on the diving board. That deserves its OWN post.

        • Yeah, we need to flier the University and the college. But not each other. I look bad in clear plastic tape.

  3. Jane says:

    And before the event I think I would do something similar to The Fight Club Rules, but they would be for The Poetry Club and it would brief the audience on how to be a good poetry audience…plus some fun stuff too šŸ˜‰ It would be all in good fun–just to educate audiences on how to respect performers.

    • No kidding. Bakersfield is so behind the times in literary and poetry scene support etiquette. It really is like a horror film at times, trying to fight invisible monsters. With all the events I mentioned, I really don’t think the support is there for all of them. Bakersfield events are too top heavy in favor of cancer relays and soccer mom drunk tank social hours. It’s a new cultural low for the middle classes.

      • Jane says:

        Perhaps this is a bitchy thing to say, but I’m tried of cancer relays. Yeah. It’s important. I admit it. But it’s quite possibly the only event outside of sports that mobilizes a significant group of people in town. Is it because it’s a popular philanthropic topic? I know a lot of people are affected by cancer, but doesn’t it seem odd how it has become a social rallying point? Like a reason to get together and have a good time? I don’t know. I just remember that being a big part of my childhood and I always wondered why so many people would get involved in that, but not other things. Soccer mom drunk tank social hours. Ha.

        I agree with Bakersfield being behind the times as far as etiquette goes, but I feel like the only way to fix that is to educate. Sometimes people just need to be told how to be a good audience—and maybe that can be done in a funny, entertaining way. I’m thinking up ideas for the next performance…

        • Exactly, why are cancer relays a social rallying point? But then, I’m tainted (personal reasons). I don’t know about educating audiences unless we drug them and beat them some how. Is that too crude of a method?

  4. I’m so glad that you chided us into taking the class, Nick! Ha! It’s been a learning and growing experience and it’s not over yet. The poetry spirit is definitely taking us somewhere! This is just the beginning for some of us, but we will be adding layers onto this lit scene that will become a rich, firm surface to plant our feet and from which to sow our poetry seeds. Jerry’s Pizza tomorrow at 2! Impromptu reading at…4? (We should have sufficient beer in us by then.) šŸ˜‰

    • A reading? Where? On the tabletops? Sounds cool. Maybe Jerry himself will join us.

    • Jane says:

      Terry: You are such a great organizer. Thanks for throwing out a meeting time and place for us! It’s nice to have an informal venue like that. Just a good literary time. And I like that it’s at such an interesting place. I’ve been writing about Wall St. Alley in a nonfiction piece I’m working on that’s about the oppossing murals. The “bar scene” one is actually painted on Jerry’s and is unfinished. Maybe someone stopped for a beer and never got back to work?

  5. Man, I wish I could have been there to watch Rich Ferguson. For all of this, really. But you described it so vividly, it was kind of like I was there anyhow. Thank you.

    Creepy-cool dolls. They were just waiting patiently in the closet for someone to appreciate them enough to snap a picture, weren’t they?

    The June bug in my hair would have made me scream too. I hate their scratchy little legs and slow zombie crawling style. (:

    • Rich was a passing glimmer in this piece, so I’m surprised you said I captured him vividly. I could have written a few paragraphs about him but wanted to get people to click on the link I provided to see how Phillip and Terry captured his performance…

      Oh man, I would have better described the bug if I had your words to steal!

  6. Matildakay says:

    The poetry class was very inspiring I’m glad for the opportunity to be inspired by great poets like Mike Medrano and Rich Ferguson as well as you Nick! Both poetry events were a blast! Rich’s performance was amazing as always! Looking forward to writing some more poetry…

  7. Phillip Derouchie says:

    Nick, you forgot to mention the peeping tomcat that witnessed our debauchery from the brownstone apartment next door. He or she stared down at us for at least an hour before finally calling it a night. (Someone should write a poem about that night told from that cat’s point of view.) Also, many thanks for linking my reviews here at this great site. I appreciate that very much!

    • Wait! Hahaha. I never saw that cat. What kind? Man, I was too much in the groove of not cooking my hiney on that grill to notice the cat. No worries on the links. I want people outside of our fair city to see what you’re doing. Your words, Terry’s photos–they matter. They matter to the people of Bakersfield, and they matter to a wider scene out in the nationsphere of poets, writers, and discombobulated novelists. Just got to keep getting your stuff out there. Push it! Throw it, any way you can!

    • Jane says:

      I’m so glad there were so many people there to remember everything. I had forgotten about the cat! So there’s a mystery about that night I’ve been dying to solve. Does anyone smoke little cigars? I found a pack with a lighter the next morning in the back yard and couldn’t remember if anyone was smoking. Or did someone come party after the party? Hmmm…

  8. Justin says:

    Sorry I missed it šŸ™

  9. Hey Brother:

    Had such a great time with you and the Bakersfield poets. And rattling off all those “Fucks!” was quite cathartic, I must say. Keep up the great work.

    • Thanks Rich. I think it was cathartic for all of us. Please, rattle them off daily. We all had a great time. We missed you at the mortuary mansion party. Maybe next time we’ll invade an active one.

  10. Matildakay says:

    Nick: I enjoyed and was inspired by both Michael and Rich. They both gave so much to the class and in their performances. That was the first time I had heard Michael read his poetry and i gleaned a lot from his reading of his work especially since we had read his work in class. I always love seeing/hearing Rich perform. His poems have inspired me over the years and every time I hear Rich perform I am always surprised by how much I am affected.

    • We’re super lucky, Matildakay. I know people at TNB who’ve never even met Rich, let alone heard him perform. And you and I we’ve heard him perform how many times? A lot. We’re lucky.

  11. Nicole Biggs says:

    I was a last minute add, but I enjoyed the heck out of your OLLI class. I’m so glad I got to go and participate. I immensely enjoyed listening to Rich Ferguson. Wow! What a performer! Can’t wait to hear more about your party antics from Jane. šŸ™‚

  12. Veronica says:

    It’s been a great experience, and I’m proud to be a part of a wonderful group who I know are more than willing to help me develop.

    Thank you Michael and Rich, for sharing your talent with us, for being so encouraging, for offering inspirational words of wisdom, and for being so positive! I often struggle with self-confidence, so it was a wonderful feeling being acknowledged as a poet by two extremely talented poets.

    I can feel I’m growing already, and like I mentioned to Terry last night, I feel I have shared more of myself in the recent poetry I’ve written with a new group of friends, than I have shared with people I’ve known for a very long time. So thank YOU Nick, for having this class, for also being so encouraging, for giving me the opportunity to express myself and develop what I hope will be a long-lasting friendship with some very talented people.

    • I don’t know if Michael and Rich are reading these comments. But it’s good to thank those cats. And it’s good to grow. Keep writing and you’ll keep growing and improving with each poem/story.

  13. Veronica says:

    P.S. I also brought the beans. I wouldn’t be a true Mexican, if I let you eat beans from a can. :-/

  14. Elizabeth says:

    Bravo! It’s official: This is definitely how poetry should be shared. Eyeball hair accessories mandatory.

  15. Sofa says:

    Thanks to everyone who dared to bare a part of their soul this Summer through the OLLI class experience. I didn’t get to see the Rich Ferguson reading, but I was captivated by poet Terry Telford’s poem regarding her front row encounter of this shaman-like poet!

    Michael Medrano’s visit was so encouraging to me! The classroom exercises made me realize the well of words inside my head and heart is full, and Michael’s reading was unforgettable. I admit I was reluctant to attend the mortuary pool after party, but then I had to be practically kicked out, as I was reminded of my self-imposed curfew. Sitting outside with my fellow poets, under the stars ,feet dangling in the pool , hearing stories of possessed cats and emergency baptisms, I tore myself away, only to miss Jane’s fully dressed leap into the pool! I think I would have joined her had I stayed, june bugs be damned!

    • Whoah. Now that would have been wild–Sofia diving headlong into imaginary Corona waters. Would have loved to see that. But then, Terry had her camera. You might have had second thoughts… ha!

      Michael Medrano is rad. He’s a great guy, inspiring Latino poet, and fun-loving dude who truly gets what community is all about.

  16. Sofia says:

    Nick, if you became a hair accessory then who would teach the rag-tag writers of Bakerspatch? By the way, I have a confession to make, remember when you tripped over “something” in the dark and almost went flying with a platter full of uncooked meat? Umm…those were my flip-flops I had left on the grass. Terry almost ratted me out! But dude how did you NOT fall?! That was an amazing save! Even a awesome eyeball hair accessory can’t do that!

  17. J.M. Blaine says:

    CPR on Showdogs
    named Rudy

    poetry, sir.

    maybe I was
    the brownstone

    • J.M.: You’re always the brownstone man. There’s a great story about Blackbeard the cat and how it’s called the suicide cat because its owner, who lived in the brownstone years ago, blew his brains out. A litter of kittens remained, with one of them going to the mortuary mansion to live on in infamy.

  18. Michael Medrano says:

    Nick, once again thank you for putting on such a fine event; this was easily one of my favorite reading experiences. And of course, Jane for the stories and that mortuary of a home, I will never forget. Looking forward to hearing more from the Bako Poets & Writers–Abrazos! Michael

    • Hey Michael. Yeah, we were plotting and planning, talking again about a poet train from Bakersfield to Frisco, picking up Fresno poets along the way, wreaking havoc on the train, and then in Oakland and San Francisco at some poor bookstore. Good times…

      How was your recent event in Frisco?

      • Michael Medrano says:

        Great poetry times in SF! This Bako/Fresno poet train you mentioned, sounds fun! Count me in!

        • Oh yes, the poet train. Maybe we could read at the bookstore you read at? Or the Green Apple I think it’s called where I read once. Books, Inc. is cool too… I’m taking suggestions.

  19. Gloria says:

    What a fun night, Nick. Wish I’d been there; I haven’t had proper carne asada in years.

    Those dolls are super creepy.

  20. Erika Rae says:

    Those dolls you found are evidence of haunting. There is nothing spookier than dolls in the closet. We had this doll growing up – her name was Gretel – whom I would lie in bed filled with sheer terror over. My sisters took great joy in moving her to unexpected places when I wasn’t looking.

    • I swear one of the dolls came downstairs for some carne asada and skinny dipping. Not 100-percent sure though. Could have been a cat or a chair. Damn wine.

      Your sisters are meanyheads (hahahaha).

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