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Community Writ Large

Ventura County Poet Laureate Phil Taggart builds connections through rhyme and reason

By Mark Storer

Photo by Michael Moore

 

oetry flits at the edges of our society. It’s barely even admired anymore, while poets are viewed with skepticism, lumped into barrels with outsider geniuses like Poe, Whitman and Ginsburg and the others who found little acceptance during their lives. After all, there is so much to concern ourselves with, from unpopular politicians to the distant sounds of war drums beating, unstable markets. What can poetry possibly have to say about all of that?

Phil Taggart is quite clear-eyed in his response to such rhetoric. Poetry is salvation. It has meaning for everyone and it can unite and bind us because it destroys outsider status and creates community, the thing most needed and most absent from society. Indeed, Taggart believes it always has and that its time has always been coming again. 

“I’ve always written,” Taggart said. “I wrote television news and radio, and around the ’80’s I began to write poems and I’ve been doing it ever since.” Laid off from Time Warner before he could grab a decent retirement, Taggart said that working with students has breathed new life into him and reminded him of the value of creation.

Ventura County’s poet laureate does not have a radical edge. Quiet, soft-spoken with a frost-white goatee and moustache and enthusiastic about his newfound career teaching students at Ventura’s El Camino High School about the art of television production, Taggart is a one-man quiet revolution, bringing not just poetry and art back to life, but community and neighborhood, too.

The Ventura County Arts Council developed the poet laureate-ship in order to advance the very goals Taggart cares about: literacy, community, art and creativity. Its first inhabitant was Taggart’s friend and fellow poet Mary Kay Rummel, and Taggart succeeded her in December 2015. Married to Marsha de la O, who co-edits and created the semi-annual poetry magazine Askew with him, Taggart is finding ways to build and rebuild community from the ground up.

His latest collection of poetry, Rick Sings, is a collection of poems about the world as seen through his brother Rick, who suffers from schizophrenia. For Taggart, that relationship has fueled both his poetic fire and a different fire that touches on social issues and how our communities deal with them.

“For a while, we tried having Rick live with me, but that didn’t work out,” Taggart said. “I used to think that maybe he’ll get well, but that isn’t going to happen.” Taggart said that a social worker spoke frankly with him and told him that no, Rick wasn’t going to get better. “And he told me that I’m going to have to learn how to deal with it, how to deal with the realities of what happens. And part of this book is my way of dealing with it. I can put this in poems. I don’t need to editorialize, I just need to show it.”

Taggart said that he noticed immediately that when he read from Rick Sings to audiences, invariably someone would talk to him about a mentally ill friend, sibling or parent. “It’s an issue that we don’t talk about much. But we really don’t talk about anything much. We’ve lost that sense of community,” he said.

His relationship with his brother has also introduced him to the wider world of things like homelessness, with which Rick has struggled from time to time. “I’ll talk to friends or other people and they’ll say things like, ‘Well, some of them want to be homeless. Some of them are just out there.’ But my reply to that is, no — by saying that, we’re putting people on the outside of humanity, and they’re not on the outside. There’s something wrong and we have to figure out how to deal with it. We don’t see these people as human. You’ll look right past my brother because you’ll think he’s crazy. And he is crazy. We look past and through people and that’s not helping.”

So art and social justice morph together. By creating community, Taggart said, we build slowly a place to start talking to one another. Even his writing process creates a collaborative space. “I workshop my poems as I’m writing them,” he said. “I go through revisions and think about what I’m writing, but I sit with others and read aloud, share the work.” 

Taggart got started doing a poetry reading gathering at the former Cafe Voltaire in downtown Ventura in the early 1990s. “We had a lot of great performance poets around at the time and Cafe Voltaire was my venue and I started producing poetry readings at the Insomniac.” There’s been a weekly reading in Ventura ever since — and in some way, Taggart has been involved. Thursday nights at 7:30 p.m., you’ll find him and an assortment of other poets and audience members at E.P. Foster Library in Ventura.

“Poetry was meant to be read aloud,” Taggart said. “Shakespeare was a performance poet, and from that period it is an oral tradition. Reading aloud is the fire. When you go to a poetry reading, you’re getting something very honest, very real. The personal interaction and the truthfulness you get create real intimacy. And we don’t do that anymore. In poetry, you have to really listen to get it, and that honest expression is where community gets created.”

But community writ large has disappeared across the U.S. A sluggish economy and a lack of good jobs, along with high housing prices and technology are all culprits that stamp out a feeling of community. “The Internet is both a curse and a blessing,” Taggart said. “It doesn’t really support the creative types. There really is no poetry in bookstores anymore. There are no local people writing, no mid-level novelists.”

It’s also taken young people away from poetry readings. “In the ’90s, there was the Daily Grind [coffee shop] and Voltaire and Insomniac, but there is no common space for youth anymore, not one where everyone is comfortable,” Taggart said. “It’s not profitable to provide a place where kids can go to hang out and spend time together.”

Taggart was asked at one point to do a reading at the Ventura Art Walk. He declined. “People don’t come to that to hear poetry. So you’re not going to create connection with them. Poetry is so dense, working on so many different levels. It reaches into our heart,” Taggart said. “We read something and it’s all facts. But poetry touches our hearts. You cannot get that in a soundbite. Most often, we’re touching our own hearts, and if you’re doing that, the commonality that you have with others — birth, death, love, hate — a common existence, becomes essential. Poetry tries to touch that.”

The recent election having left a divided nation is an example of Taggart’s passions surfacing. “We used to be able to talk together, left or right, whatever we believed. One of our big problems is that we’re running away from our ability to talk. The more things that can touch us in our common feelings and our common being can repair that. Poetry has a very healing place in our culture,” Taggart said. 

Poets from the 1990s readings still reach out to Taggart on occasion and he loves hearing from them. “It meant something to them. It’s important to them and it creates community. It can’t help but do that. It’s sort of what I’m all about,” he said. 

To learn more about Phil Taggart and his poetry, visit http://philtaggart.com.

Taggart with brother Rick, a source of inspiration for the poet’s 2014 collection Rick Sings. Caring for his brother also fueled Taggart’s fire for social justice, for the mentally ill as well as others who have become marginalized in today’s society. “We’re putting people on the outside of humanity, and they’re not on the outside,” he says.

12-01-2016

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