Thursday, March 16, 2017

Seven reasons to remember Ina Coolbrith

1. She was a woman of firsts. Ina Coolbrith was California's first poet laureate; the nation's first state laureate;  the first woman in America to write a commencement ode for a university (University of California, 1871); Oakland's first public librarian; and one of the first white children to come into California over Beckwourth Pass in the Northern Sierras.

2. She walked to California from Illinois. At age 11 she came to California by covered wagon on the Overland Trail, a fact that inspired one reviewer to dub her a "bad ass."

3. She escaped polygamy. Although she was a niece of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, she wanted nothing to do with polygamy. At age 16, she told her teenage cousin Joseph F. Smith (later the sixth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints):
"Is it right for a girl of 15 or even 16 to marry a man of 50 or 60… I think I see myself, vowing to love and honor, some old driveling idiot of 60, to be taken into his harem and enjoy the pleasure of being his favorite Sultana for an hour, and then thrown aside, whil’st my Godly husband, is out Sparking another girl, in hopes of getting another victim to his despotic power. Pleasant prospect, I must say. This, Joe, this is of God, is it? No, never, never, never!"
4. She chose not to marry again after her husband tried to kill her. At 20, her jealous husband came after her with a six-shooter. She divorced him, changed her name, and moved to San Francisco. When her friend John Muir tried to play matchmaker, Ina sent Muir a poem to
Courtesy of University of the Pacific Library
stop his attempts:

"...The earth may quake, the heaven fall, 
The ocean fail, or (thought appalling) 
I may never wed at all! 
But this is certain—write it down— 
Or if you smile, or if you frown,
I do not want your Mr. Brown."

5. She flirted with the idea of same-sex marriage. Ina was a little bit in love with writer Charles Warren Stoddard, but eventually came to accept his preference for men. Once she did, she turned the tables and told him that a woman had taken a liking to her. "She is as fond of me, I verily believe, as you are of Fred." She then proposed a double wedding with she and Mrs. Flint, and Stoddard and his young pal Fred.

6. She mentored the young Jack London and Isadora Duncan as Oakland's public librarian.

London later told her, "No woman has so affected me to the extent you did. I was only a little lad. I knew absolutely nothing about you. Yet in all the years that have passed I have met no woman so
Courtesy of Oakland Public Library
noble as you." Isadora Duncan wrote in her memoir, "The librarian was a very wonderful and beautiful woman, a poetess of California, Ina Coolbrith. She encouraged my reading and I thought she always looked pleased when I asked for fine books."

7. Ina didn't let age deter her from pursuing her passions. At 78, she moved to New York to write poetry and to be near her protégée Carl Seyfforth, a young and handsome concert pianist. She wrote enough poetry to fill a final collection.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Voetica: Ina's spoken word

Ina Coolbrith’s first poems were spoken.

When she walked to California at eleven years old on the Overland Trail, Ina didn't yet know how to write but she could read. She found the work of Shakespeare and Lord Byron in her stepfather’s law library, and inspired, wrote poems of her own to recite to her dolls.

That wasn't the case later on. Even when she was a regular contributor to the Overland Monthly, Ina didn’t recite or perform her own poetry. It was standard practice for an orator to read a poet's work on auspicious occasions.

When the University of California asked Ina to recite the commencement ode she had written for a graduating class of five men in 1871, she declined. That year, the university had voted to admit female students, and the man who read her ode made a prediction:
"The university is now open to your sons and daughters alike, and soon the woman who writes the poem will herself read it, and then the wind from her rustling garments, as she comes on the stage, will brush away the insignificant insects who now people it."
Eventually Ina did read her own poetry during during public talks and lectures. In her eighties, she read a few of her poems on the radio, but the program was live and not recorded.

We don't have her voice, but we do have her words.

Listen to a selection of Ina's poetry at Voetica: Poetry Spoken.

Thanks to Jessica Bates for her sensitive coaching, Jim Helman for making me feel at ease in his recording studio, and most of all to David Juda, for your gift of Voetica.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Ina kicks rhymes

Poetry slams, mixed tapes, kicking rhymes, and Ina?

That's right. Ina Coolbrith is the first subject of Liam O'Donoghue's new podcast East Bay Yesterday. The 30-minute segment, "Oakland's first 'celebrity' librarian," is based on my book and a two-hour interview I did with O'Donoghue in Oakland.

"East Bay Yesterday is about history, but it's not stuck in the past," he says. He is so right. His language pops, and I love hearing him tell Ina's story.

Take a listen and then subscribe to the podcast. It's free! Each week O'Donoghue will share stories from Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, and other East Bay towns.

"Expect to hear about everything from soul food and blues clubs to redwoods and riots," he says. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Jack's Gold

Jack London climbed the stairs to the second floor of the Oakland Public Library with his mother's library card in hand. He barely weighed a thing, and his curly brown hair was as tussled as the first ten years of his life.

The boy wasn't sure what to expect from the librarian at the top of the stairs. Rules of the library stated that patrons must be at least fourteen to borrow books, and even then you were supposed to have an adult sponsor.

London found the printed catalog of books, and after scouring the titles he selected one and approached the librarian's desk. With eyes downcast he requested the book.

Luckily for London this librarian was no Chimera, no three-headed, fire-breathing monster with goat legs and a snake's tail. She was Ina Coolbrith, a published poet.


Coolbrith fetched the book on Pizarro from the closed stacks and brought it back to her desk.
She didn't rebuke him for being too young to check out books. She didn't scold him for having a library card or for coming in without his parents. She didn't lecture him about taking the borrowed book to Lake Merritt or on a tramp in the East Bay hills where the book could get ruined. Instead, she paid him a compliment.

Coolbrith must have seen something of herself in the boy. She had fallen in love with poetry at age eleven when she came to California in 1853. She read Shakespeare and Lord Byron on the Overland Trail from slim volumes taken from her stepfather's law library. She knew the thrill of reading books considered too advanced for children. Her first novel was The Red Revenge, which she read “surreptitiously and chiefly by moonlight.”

Coolbrith stamped the book about the conquistador and told London he had made a fine choice. He would remember the moment for the rest of his life, and told her so twenty years later:
"The old Oakland Library days! Do you know, you were the first one who ever complimented me on my choice of reading matter. Nobody at home bothered their heads over what I read. I was an eager, thirsty, hungry little kid — and one day, at the library, I drew out a volume on Pizzaro in Peru (I was ten years old). You got the book & stamped it for me. And as you handed it to me you praised me for reading books of that nature. Proud! If you only knew how proud your words made me."

The boy took the book home, and soon returned for more. Coolbrith recommended the complete collection of Tobias George Smollet, a Scottish poet and author of picaresque adventure novels. London asked for more and she brought him Horatio Alger and Washington Irving.

Her encouragement wasn't preferential. She didn't know that he would come to pen Call of the Wild or become the first author to earn a million dollars. She encouraged many children who came into the library, including Isadora Duncan and hundreds of less famous young patrons who would come to recognize Ina’s guidance.

For the rest of her life, Coolbrith received notes from strangers who thanked her for helping them at the Oakland Public Library. 

I will be speaking about Jack London and Ina Coolbrith at Jack London State Park on Saturday, August 25, from 2 to 4 pm and at the 2016 Jack London Society Symposium in Napa, CA, September 15-18.

Read the article in Sonoma Index-Tribune.

Photos of Jack London and Ina Coolbrith courtesy of the Oakland Public Library.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Quntessential California Recipe from the pen of Ina Coolbrith

In 1913, Grace Porter Hopkins asked Ina Coolbrith to contribute a recipe to The Economy Administration Cookbook.

Coolbrith replied, "All by cookbooks and hoarded recipes were cooked to ashes in our earthquake fire of 1906, and even their memory incinerated. One, only, remains—a whole meal! But I'll be generous and pass it along.
A Delicious Meal

Place: A nook under the trees; table, cloth, and dishes: a paper spread upon the grass, paper-napkins and pocketknife.


Old-fashioned, home-made salt rising bread; fresh butter; young green onions just pulled from the beds; water-cresses fresh from and washed in the brook. Eat with sauce of appetite acquired by long tramp in the fields. Drink: Vintage of Adam; cold, clear and sparkling from brook that grew the cresses.

Can recommend this after a memory of twenty years, as the most enjoyable meal ever eaten.

N.B. Good anywhere, but best in California."

This and more in Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California's First Poet Laureate.


Paintings by Edward Cucuel (1875-1954). Born in San Francisco, Cucuel attended the San Francisco Art Institute at age fourteen.

Source of letter: Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley


Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Tropical Paradise on San Francisco's Rincon Hill: A Visit with Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Warren Stoddard

As the Hispaniola sails across the stage at Berkeley Rep in Mary Zimmerman's Treasure Island, some theatergoers will know that author Robert Louis Stevenson lived in San Francisco and Oakland from 1879 to 1880.

What they may not know is that Stevenson credited his love of the South Seas to his visits and conversations with poet and travel writer Charles Warren Stoddard in Stoddard's curiosity-filled house on San Francisco's Rincon Hill.

When the two writers met, Stoddard had recently returned from a five-year ramble in Europe, was writing a weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle, and lived in a faded Gothic mansion on Rincon Hill, a formerly-wealthy neighborhood south of Market.

Rincon Hill's glory days had begun to slide when the city flattened the sand dune at Second and Harrison and the houses began their slow slip into the resulting slot. The wealthy homeowners moved to other quarters, and those looking for cheap rent moved in. Stoddard described his ten-dollar-a-month mansion in his book, The Footprints of the Padres: "Every winter the rains beat upon it and drove through and through it, and undermined it, and made a mush of the rock and soil about it. Portions of real estate deposited themselves, pudding fashion, in the yawning abyss below."

Enter Stevenson

Stevenson arrived in California in the summer of 1879. His sweetheart Fanny Osborne lived in Oakland, and had only recently divorced her husband. In December, Stevenson moved into a room on Bush Street.

He set out to sketch the city each morning, and one day discovered Rincon Hill, which he described as "the most San Francisco-ey part of San Francisco." On the first day he sketched, he saw "a youngish, good-looking fellow" watching him from a ground floor window. On the second day, the fellow nodded and Stevenson nodded back. On the third day, Stoddard invited Stevenson inside "with the impromptu cordiality of artists."

"There came to me a lean, lithe stranger," said Stoddard. "I knew him for a poet by his unshorn locks and his luminous eyes, the pallor of his face and his exquisitely sensitive hands."

Stevenson found Stoddard "lively and engaging," and was most impressed with the décor in Stoddard's parlor. "I sat presently in the midst of a museum of strange objects,—paddles and battle-clubs and baskets, rough-hewn stone images, ornaments of threaded shell, cocoanut bowls, snowy cocoanut plumes—evidences and examples of another earth, another climate, another race, and another (if ruder) culture."

Stevenson looked out the bay view window as Stoddard told stories of the tropics and showed his artifacts of adventure. Stoddard had traveled to Hawaii and Tahiti and written about his escapades for the Overland Monthly. He collected his tropical essays in South-Sea Idylls, a book that, according to Stoddard's biographer Roger Austen, characterized his coming out.

Stevenson married Fanny Osborne that spring, and the newlyweds took a three-week honeymoon in the Napa Valley. He was in California for less than a year, but it was a year that changed his life in significant ways, including the fact that he "first fell under the spell" of the islands in Stoddard's parlor on one of San Francisco's original Seven Hills.

Sources: Genteel Pagan: The Double Life of Charles Warren Stoddard, Roger Austen; Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California's First Poet Laureate, Aleta George; and More San Francisco Memoirs, 1852-1899, The Ripening Years, Malcolm E. Barker, ed.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Women in literature: "Ina Coolbrith" wins bronze IPPY award in biography

In the letter I received to announce that my book, Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California's First Poet Laureate, won a bronze medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY) in the biography category, the Jenkins Group noted how this year's medalists "reveal the importance of women in our industry, with a strong showing of female authors and publishers throughout the contest."

I would add that with so many female authors there is a greater tendency to highlight women as subjects, and that is equally as important. The tagline for the National Women's History Project is "writing women back into history," a directive that matches the spirit of my reason for writing a biography about Ina Coolbrith. Coolbrith lived an epic life and was California's most beloved poet for fifty years, and yet who today remembers her name or her story? More importantly, what young girl who is interested in literature knows that California's first poet laureate was a woman who first published at age fifteen?
Coolbrith in Mario Chiodo's sculpture, Champions for Humanity

A woman's point of view is important. Her experience is unique, and her stories are ones that I want to hear. When Ina Coolbrith accepted the laurel crown as California's first poet laureate in 1915 she accepted it on behalf of her "sister women." I'm thrilled to be a medalist along with my sister women for the 20th Annual IPPY Awards, in what the Jenkins Group is calling "The Year of the Woman."