Waverley Writers

When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was an active participant in Waverley Writers, which met monthly for spirited and well-attended poetry readings in Palo Alto, California. The group began in 1981, and celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2015. I was also on Waverley’s steering committee (board of directors) for many years, helping to plan featured readers, workshops, readings, and other events, plus its publication, Fresh Hot Bread (it was always great fun at readings to hear that “fresh hot bread” would be available at the break).

Over its long history, the group featured dozens of world-class poets writing in English, no doubt thanks to Waverley’s close proximity to Stanford University and Berkeley. These readers included Brenda Hillman, Al Young, Robert Sward, W. S. Di Piero, Frances Mayes, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Kim Addonizio, Eavan Boland, Lesley Dauer, James Cagney, Morton Marcus, Galway Kinnell, Francisco X. Alarcón, Molly Fisk, Kay Ryan, Ellery Akers, Dana Gioia, Ken Waldman, Maureen Eppstein, Maude Meehan, Yusef Komunyakaa, Bill Minor, Sharon Doubiago, Jack Foley, and Lola Haskins, among others, and it was a pleasure for me to meet most of these poets. Some of these poets also provided workshops, usually on the day after their Friday-night reading, which I was sometimes able to attend.

Other poets in the organization included Elizabeth Biller Chapman, Judith Bishop, Jim Lyle, Jim Standish, Jennifer Swanton Brown, Mary-Marcia Casoly, Dave Berry, Renato Rosaldo, Lara Gularte, Eve Sutton, Gail Clark, Palmer Pinney, Sharon Olson, Steve Arntson, Kevin Arnold, J. P. Dancing Bear, Janice Dabney, Len Anderson, Tom Digby, Liz Henry, Anatole Lubovich, Terry Adams, Muriel Karr, Charlotte Muse, Meredith Ittner, Jean Chacona, April Eiler, Kathy Abelson, Len Walker, Esther Kamkar, Mel Koronelos, Amy MacLennan, Jeanne Watson, Auriel Yost, Robert Perry, Angela Howe-Decker, Ellaraine Lockie, Bob Evans, Joel Katz, C. J. Sage, Jackie Marderosian, and the heart of the group, Richard Maxwell, among many other fine poets whom it was my honour to know.

In celebration of its 25th anniversary, the group published Waverley Writers: Celebrating 25 Years, 1981–2005 (Palo Alto, California: Waverley Writers, 2007). My contributions to this anthology included twelve haiku, and an essay, “If Waverley Had a Website, What Might It Look Like?” This essay was a three-page excerpt of a detailed plan for a website that never happened. The group decided not to have a website at all, as a way to keep its existence more private and word-of-mouth, and perhaps a bit more mystical (see a report about the 25th anniversary anthology launch reading and Waverley’s legendary lack of a website in the Palo Alto Weekly; see also Jennifer Swanton Brown’s blog posting). + + +

Waverley Writers has been by far the best grass-roots poetry reading series I’ve been a part of, or had the privilege to attend. The quality of readers just from within its own ranks outstrips most reading series I’ve known—perhaps all series—and this isn’t even counting the many world-class featured poets it also welcomed (readings were always free, too, and readers typically received no honourarium). Waverley also had a spirit to it, of expecting the best from each participant, and yet it was run as a group endeavor, not the private domain of just one or two leaders.

Something I especially appreciated about Waverley Writers was its dogged stance of “No Disclaimers.” This meant that each poem had to stand alone on its own terms. If a poet got up at the open mic and started explaining his or her poem, he or she was practically booed down, and wouldn’t get to read the poem at all. Our battle cry was “Just read the damn poem.” Some people even had T-shirts made with that battle cry or “No Disclaimers” plastered over them. This stance made us all push our poems so that they never needed explaining, polishing them so they shined on their own, or had their own legs and didn’t need the crutches of explanation. This is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received about poetry readings, and it’s one of many things for which Waverley Writers has made me grateful. I haven’t been able to attend a Waverley reading since the autumn of 2002, and I miss it.

—24 November 2014, Sammamish, Washington

Postscript: During the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, 2021, and 2022, Ive been able to attend Waverley Writers again, on Zoom, with many of the old-timers, and a few new faces. The vibe is different, but its been nice to reconnect, and I know I’d still enjoy reading in person if that ever becomes possible.