David Oliveira Visits Santa Barbara

Return of the Laureate

David Oliveira

The Santa Barbara poetry community is thrilled to announce the visit of much-loved and respected poet David Oliveira. He will read from his first full-length book, A Little Travel Story (Harbor Mountain Press, January 2008), on Saturday, February 23, at 7 p.m. at SBCC’s Fe Bland Auditorium. David was one of Santa Barbara’s greatest poetry movers and shakers until 2002, when he moved to Phnom Penh, where he is now a professor of English at Pannasastra University of Cambodia.

Before his departure, Oliveira was the founder of the Santa Barbara Poetry Series, now in its 10th year; editor and cofounding publisher with Cynthia Anderson of Mille Grazie Press, which published a number of Santa Barbara poets; and one of the founding editors, along with Glenna Luschei, of SOLO, an award-winning journal of poetry. He also was named as Santa Barbara’s first Poet Laureate for the millennium celebrations.

Oliveira and I exchanged some emails before he left Cambodia for New York, where he appeared at the Associated Writing Programs conference. There, he participated on a panel discussing the importance and influences of the work of the poet Edward Field, one of the many major poets Oliveira featured in the Santa Barbara Poetry Series. Oliveira’s aim was to create a venue where area poets could read on an equal basis with “big-named folks, to regain a sense of community, of toiling together and sharing the wonder of what we do.” That wonder and camaraderie has persisted in our poetry community, in great part due to Oliveira’s efforts.

His previously published works are In the Presence of Snakes (Brandenburg Press, 2000), and A Near Country: Poems of Loss (Solo Press, 1999), co-authored with Glenna Luschei and Jackson Wheeler. He has appeared in numerous anthologies, journals, and magazines, and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Though Oliveira describes himself as shy, hearing him read has always been an immense pleasure for me; his words are strong, contemplative, and brave, pulsing with intensity. Below is an excerpt from one of his long poems, “Under the Mekong Sky.” In the section titled “An old man from the village,” he imagines the story a grandfather might tell about the river:

Each person who listens is reminded

of their own big trouble,

which they now toss into the current

to send to the far-away sea.

Soon the river is twisting in agitation.

One voice bumps into a second

and experiences a revelation.

A third joins in to state the rule

which a fourth counters

with limited powers of persuasion,

prompting a fifth to request a committee

to study the matter further.

The arguments which ensue

become a chorus, wide and long,

which the people, empty of troubles,

hear as harmony and mistake

for the beautiful speech of water.

Later in the same poem in a section titled “Even night is never completely dark,” he writes:

All schemes inherently fall apart

for lack of precision.

Perhaps explanation is only possible

in the language of shimmer and current,

said to be difficult to learn.

Order is arbitrary, in any case,

why else would nothing make sense?

One thing that does make sense to Oliveira is his “fortuitous” opportunity to study with poet Philip Levine at California State University Fresno, an experience he says is responsible for his “love of poetry to this day.” Levine is the featured poet for the March Poetry Conference sponsored by the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. More on that matter next month. For now, let’s all give a huge welcome to Oliveira on Saturday.

MARCH POETRY: On Wednesday, March 12, from 4-5 p.m. at UCSB’s Old Little Theatre, College of Creative Studies, Mac Test will read from his new collection, Under Weigh, a semi-finalist for the 2006 Ontario Prize. These poems are primarily about his experiences on the high seas as a mate and medic aboard fishing vessels in the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean. For information, contact John Wilson at johnwilson@sbcglobal.net. Stay tuned for breaking news on April Poetry Month.

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