City poet reflects on last two years, ponders next step
Ronna Leon’s tenure as poet laureate ended Saturday; successor to be announced this month
By Anjuli Peters
Special to The Herald
In a city that prides itself on being home to a wide variety of art and artists, Ronna Leon stood out the moment she assumed the title of poet laureate in 2010.
Though Benicia may be best known as a visual arts community, Leon immediately went to work promoting the written word. Everyone, she said, can appreciate poetry — and she was determined to prove it.
“I want poetry to be a part of the community dialogue,” Leon said Friday, the day before her last as poet laureate. The selection process for her successor is under way, and the new poet laureate is expected to be announced the second week of July.
“The idea that a common person wouldn’t enjoy a poem is just wrong — poetry should be available to anyone who’s curious.”
Leon made a splash early in her tenure when she and other poets set up “Poem Homes” around the city. The small red boxes contained random selections of verse to be taken freely and enjoyed — or as Leon put it, “Enjoy it, share it, or return it.”
She said the nine Poem Homes placed throughout the city successfully piqued residents’ imaginations, because they had little idea what they’d get each time they reached in to grab a poem.
“You could get a poem written by your next door neighbor, or a poem written by a famous poet,” Leon said. “This project is a fun way for the public to have access to poetry, and I’m proud to say that we’ve distributed over 750 poems around the city of Benicia.”
Perhaps more than anyone before her — laureate or otherwise — Leon did more outreach to the city’s youth in her two years at the head of the city’s poetry community, helping to make Benicia’s two high schools the only ones in Solano County to participate in Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation competition. And she was the driving force behind the acclaimed 2011 Benicia Public Library exhibit “I Read the News Today, Oh Boy!” that paired Bay Area poets with visual artists to create a work based on a news event.
A visual artist herself, Leon designed the cover of the most recent compilation of poems by the First Tuesday Poetry Group, titled “Sign of the Times,” which was released in April.
Leon, who with her husband Joe owns and operates Caterpillar Puppets, 2060 Casa Grande St., has also worked outside the city on high-profile projects, including the state Poets Laureate Project, for which she photographed more than 60 past and present poets laureate in California and created the project website.
“These people aren’t just poets, but citizen poets,” Leon said. “They are social activists who strongly believe in community service.”
After two years of her own community service, Leon’s term ended Saturday. “I am so grateful to the Benicia Public Library and Friends, as well as my library liaison Fran Martinez-Coyne, for their support,” she said, adding that her future plans include printmaking and assembling an anthology of her work.
She also will be announcing the new city poet laureate this month. An ideal poet laureate, she said, should “love poetry, and think that everyone should be reading it.
“Right now we have three very strong candidates, and I’m hoping the future poet laureate will have just as much fun as I did,” Leon said with a laugh.
“I’m hoping he/she surprises me. It takes a special kind of person to be appointed and take on the position.”
By Ronna Leon
When you first move to our town,
learning how to say its name
takes some effort.
On the telephone, when asked for the city,
operators often think you say Venezia,
imagining, I think, Italian vacations they dream of taking.
Newcomers favor calling the town Ben KNEE sha
but then notice that most native residents say Ben NISH sha.
So you ask your Spanish-speaking friends and they say
that’s plain wrong, it should be Beh KNEE thee-ah.
(Please don’t forget to lisp the “Thee.”)
The problem isn’t simplified when you find our town
was once called Francisca but got changed when it seemed too
close to San Francisco’s name, although back then
our town was about as important a city as any in the state.
Maybe our city should have held out
until San Francisco changed its name.
I was told that Robert Semple, who laid out our town
(when he wasn’t busy fixing teeth),
had promised he’d name the place after General Vallejo’s wife
(General Va YE ho’s wife, that is),
Doña Francesca Benicia Carillo de Vallejo.
Vallejo was already a city close by,
which clearly limited our choice,
although there is still Carillo as a future possibility
when all the versions of Benicia seem too much.
In the end, whichever pronunciation of our town name you favor,
you’ll soon just call it home.
Note: This poem is Ronna Leon’s last as Benicia poet laureate.