Supposedly, everyone is detached from everyone else by no more than six degrees of separation. If you live in Santa Barbara, though, you’re probably only one or two degrees from Perie Longo. The poet, teacher, therapist, and mentor was invested as the new Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara by the City Council during a ceremony on April 3. She has been active in the community for more than three decades, inspiring thousands of students through her work as a poet in the schools. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find teachers who fondly remember having had Longo as their own teacher when they were young.
In addition, Longo, who is the author of three books of poetry, has brought her work to many other community groups, doing poetry therapy with those in bereavement, with caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients, with psychiatric patients, and with cancer survivors. She taught speech and communication at Brooks Institute of Photography for more than a decade, has taught through both Adult Education and Antioch University, and is currently on the faculty of the Music and Arts Conservatory. Longo maintains a private practice as a therapist and for the last two years has been the head of the National Association for Poetry Therapy. She leads weeklong and weekend poetry workshops as part of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and the Santa Barbara Summer Poetry Workshop, and runs two biweekly poetry crafting groups. She has also given and organized numerous poetry readings, edited several anthologies, and mentored many Santa Barbara poets.
In other words, in keeping with her belief that “everyone is a poet and everyone has something to say,” Longo has touched as many people with the power of poetry in as many ways as one woman possibly could. She follows the much beloved Barry Spacks as Santa Barbara’s second poet laureate.
Spacks, who served a two-year term as the city’s first poet laureate, does not hold back praise when speaking of Longo. “Perie is just so great; she is the perfect person for the job,” he said. “She’s so grown up, and so funny, and so straightforward. I was sitting as a consultant to the committee choosing this year’s poet laureate, but I didn’t really have to say anything during the process because as we went around the table it was a unanimous vote.” Ginny Brush, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, which organized the poet laureate search, also sees the fit. “It’s a perfect role for Perie; she has been instilling the love of poetry through her own published works as well as in our schools and our community for decades,” Brush said.
Spacks, who teaches at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies and is the author of numerous books of poetry, has been plenty busy himself as poet laureate. He has written poems for special occasions on request, for events ranging from a clinic fundraiser to an official tree planting. He has also done a great deal to promote April as National Poetry Month, a tradition that has grown steadily under his influence, and he has helped start a series of readings for senior centers, as well as a monthly open mike reading.
As poet laureate, Spacks’s other official duties included writing a column for The Independent and acting as head judge for the recent Poetry Out Loud competition. During his laureateship, his wife, Kimberley Snow, set up the Santa Barbara poetry Web site sbpoetry.net on which many have come to rely (a capacity in which Snow will continue to support Longo). In addition, Snow and Spacks worked together on the Podcasting Poets Project, which recorded local poets reading their own poems and sold the CDs to raise money for National Poetry Month activities.
Spacks and Longo have been working together closely in the transition between their tenures. “Barry has done such a phenomenal job,” Longo said. “I’m honored to follow in his footsteps.” Both Spacks and Longo agree Santa Barbara is rich in poets and poetry. Spacks referred to the city as “Poetry Town,” and Longo concurred, “We are so fortunate in Santa Barbara to have such a talented pool of poets.” In fact, as poet laureate, Longo hopes to create an anthology of poems about Santa Barbara written by Santa Barbara poets.
Otherwise, she looks forward to doing more of what she has already been doing, and to reaching new audiences, particularly more high school students. “Kids don’t feel like they are being heard,” she said. “The community needs to get behind them. It may sound like a bold statement to say that poetry can contribute to addressing gang violence, but I believe that it can.” She added, “Poetry has become very popular now. It sometimes feels like the soul has gone out of things. Poetry fills that need.”