PICTURED: Video still from the “Dear America” project. Photo submitted

by Elizabeth Braun

Black Lives Matter was not the theme Marsha de la O had originally picked for the Ventura County Poetry Project (VCPP), the poetry group she leads, to write about.

The group, whose members meet three times a year to do public readings of their own original poetry, usually follows general themes such as climate change or motherhood. This year, the topic was to be the separation of migrant children and parents at the border.

But in late spring, as Black voices cried out in pain around the world following the death of George Floyd, de la O knew they had to contribute. “We knew we wanted to elevate the stories of people of color,” she says.

From this impulse sprang the Dear America Project, in which VCPP asked diverse poets and writers of color in Ventura County and the surrounding area “to respond to our current historical moment in whatever way they chose,” de la O stated in an email to the VCReporter. 

The first initiative, entitled “Dear America: We Can’t Turn a Blind Eye,” kicked off in July. As a mostly-white group of poets, VCPP members had to reach out to writers outside of their usual circles. The assignment proposed was simple: Write a poem about the current moment and take a video of yourself reciting it. Choose any approach you like, no limits on length. They wanted to grant writers complete freedom to tell their own stories.

The project was met with enormous enthusiasm from Black and Latinx poets and authors in and around Ventura County, who had experienced racism and were eager for a chance to share their struggles. VCPP shared videos of their poetry readings online. 

“There was a whole push to claim ownership over experience in writing,” de la O says.

One contributor, Sandra Hunter, described sharing her experience as “very, very raw,” but added that she feels that “the more of us that speak out, the better [off] we’ll be” in confronting racism.

Sandra Hunter. Photo submitted

Hunter, who teaches English at Moorpark College, added that, “This is a thing that many of us encounter on a daily basis, but we don’t talk about it.” She hopes that sharing her experience will bring more awareness, adding that  “people who might never see that this is an issue, might see that this is something to speak up for.”

VCPP typically meets in person, either at the Elizabeth Topping Room at the E.P. Foster Library in Downtown Ventura or at Art City, the outdoor stonework studio and gallery on Ventura’s Westside. Going online as a result of the pandemic, however, has really boosted the group’s popularity, and the messages its members are trying to spread. De la O estimates that the “Dear America” poets’ videos have garnered over 7,000 views since their release in September.

The virtual environment has been beneficial to some writers as well.

Raquel Baker, a professor at California State University, Channel Islands, teaches English but has seldom written poetry. Performing online eased her discomforts, particularly as a Black woman in traditionally white spaces.

“The online environment really opened me up to spaces I wouldn’t have been open to before, for sure,” she says, adding that the effect of each writer speaking from their own personal space lent itself well to the project.

Raquel Baker. Photo submitted

“I just think it’s so cool, the breadth of people that were able to come together because of this medium,” Baker says. “Folks that I’ve never worked with, never seen, but when you put our words together, coming from all these different directions. It’s just so lovely. It has this multi-voiced register that allows people of color to talk, that’s coming from so many spaces and directions.”

De la O’s husband, Phil Taggart, who in addition to running VCPP teaches television and production at El Camino High School, emphasized the importance of interracial and intergenerational voices coming out through poetry. Part of his classes at El Camino involve bringing in senior immigrants to tell their stories. 

“Because we’re kind of a culture that is segregated, [young people] don’t even get a chance to talk to these people unless they’re in their family,” Taggart says. “These are stories that the youth need to know because people are living them nowadays.”

Taggart and de la O plan to expand on that concept in their next installment of this series, titled “Dear America: Telling the World We Lived.” This will feature senior poets writing about the challenges they’ve experienced throughout their lives, such as racism, body image issues or sexism. De la O describes these as “experiences from history that would be history for young people, but that older people carry as memory.”

For more on the Dear America Project and to view the video series, visit vcpoetryproject.org/black-lives-matter-poetry-reading-playlist/.