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The journey from Napa Valley journalist to poet: Michael Waterson's world of words

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The list of journalists who turn to writing books is long — some even become novelists — but those who turn from the labor of turning news into readable copy to the mysterious world of poetry is not quite so long.

When Michael Waterson, long-time editor of the American Canyon Eagle, retired from that job in 2014, however, it was just another step in a multi-faceted career leading to the publication in October of his first book of poetry, "Cosmology of Heaven & Hell" from The Poetry Box publishers based in Portland, Oregon.

"I've always been fascinated with words," Waterson said as he talked about the road he's followed to becoming a published poet. The poems, he added, represent "my humble efforts from the last 30 years." 

Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the longtime California resident studied creative writing at San Francisco State University and earned an MFA from Mills College. And in the best tradition of writers earning a living, his various jobs have included stints as a firefighter, San Francisco taxi driver and working in tasting rooms in Napa Valley wineries.

Locally, Waterson is also well-known as a singer, songwriter and seanachie (storyteller) with Kith & Kin, the popular band that performs traditional Irish music.

After leaving journalism, Waterson wrote short plays, which have been performed around the country, including "Dining In" and "Absolution," which were part of the Upstage Napa Valley's 2021 Playwright Festival. 

As poetry became a focus, his works appeared in online and print journals, including The Bookends Review, Cold Mountain Review and Plainsongs, The Paragon Press, and Cathexis Northwest Press. He has also served Napa Valley poet laureate.

Valuable to his growth as a poet, he said, was working with a poetry coach, dispelling the notion poems spring full-grown from a poet's head. However pithy a poem may be, Waterson noted, it's the product of intense work, refining and rewriting to reach a moment of precision.

According to George Searles, editor of Glimpse Poetry Magazine, Waterson's poems "embody an ethereal California sensibility but are always grounded in the hardscrabble reality of his native Pittsburgh, achieving a highly effective synthesis of complimentary vibes. Good stuff here!"

Letting his poems speak directly, Waterson shared two poems from his new collection:

Colloquy with Death

I was chatting with Death the other day,

shooting the breeze in a whatever-happened-

to-what’s-his-name conversation,

when, out of nowhere, he startled me with a confession:

Bursting into tears, he wailed he feels worthless,

wracked by self-loathing.

I was taken aback. I didn’t think we were close

enough for that kind of sharing. Awkward.

Ever agile, I played the puffer:

You are the tortilla, I said, of the whole enchilada,

the arrow shot through love’s heart.

But I don’t think he bought my bonhomie.

As my proffered garlands wilted, seized by unease,

I broke things off with a wave,

a crack at a smile, all the best, etcetera,

and walked briskly away, feeling hollow eyes

following me, wondering what in the world to do

with this frightening new intimacy.

Of course the beauty of poetry is to illuminate what is grand as well as what is simple. Here is Waterson on baseball:

Baseball on the Radio

Long before desire benched the boy

I was and took the field, we escaped

baking in our old brick oven

those summer nights when Pops

ran a cord to the porch window,

so we could sit listening to katydid shrieks

compete with buzzing ballpark fans peppered

by vendors’ hawking cold beer and peanuts,

as fireflies signaled heater, deuce.

The Zenith glowed like the tip of Pop’s cigar

as the commentator fungoed lapidary stats between

plug-of-chew yarns, green as the outfield;

like the one about Casey Stengel —

booed at the plate in Brooklyn, Casey doffed

his cap, releasing a bird that flew

over the stunned silent crowd;

or the time he thought it too dark to play,

and signaled the bullpen with a lantern.

Those spells kept us rapt in the windup,

the pitch, the crack of horsehide on ash,

the majestic arc pictured in the words

of a waking dream, poetry flying

like Casey’s dove, timeless as a summer night,

on waves of amplitude

out to diamond stars,

modulated memories crackling

with static, fading in and out.

Kevin Prufer, professor of English at the University of Houston writes, “Whether he is considering family history or American history, baseball, the underside of a pickup truck, Elvis, global catastrophe, providence, or the afterlife, Michael Waterson is a poet whose work is easy to enjoy. Here are poems offering plainspoken pleasures, clear as if told to us by a good friend. But they reward rereading, because these pleasures are also complex — musically adept, highly intelligent, and lit throughout by thoughtfulness and attention.”

What's ahead? 

With the publication of "Cosmology of Heaven & Hell," Waterson will be reading at events around the Bay Area, including a reading at the White Barn in St. Helena on Oct. 9 and the upcoming inaugural Writers' Salon at the Jessel Gallery in Napa on Saturday, Oct. 15, from 5 to 7 p.m. 

Waterson said he also has been accepted into the San Francisco Playground Writers Pool, a playwright incubator and theater community hub.

Clearly there will be more words in many forms to come from Waterson, welcome news for the writing community of the valley. 

"Cosmology of Heaven & Hell" can be pre-ordered at thepoetrybox.com/bookstore/cosmology-heaven-hell.

Daniel Seddiqui completed a yearlong journey through every major city handcrafting pieces of America, symbolizing freedom of expression, progress, and opportunity. Seddiqui sprayed graffiti in New York City, wrote poetry in Washington D.C., rolled cigars in Tampa, constructed model cars in Detroit, shaped surfboards in San Diego, and poured latte art in Seattle to prove that America is an incubator of ideas that shapes our culture of community and pride. Seddiqui wanted to find unity behind our creativity and innovation and with every experience, found significance in generating things in common with fellow Americans and to understand how yesterday's ideas influences today's ways of life. Daniel has made 70 pieces of America, displaying the legacies of every part of the nation and hopes people will value the art that is America.

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