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Book Talk Extra: Local poets discuss the Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference

As writers know, summer and fall are the prime seasons for writing conferences, and there are certainly many from which to choose. Recently, the Squaw Valley Workshop was held in Squaw Valley, the Sacramento Poetry Center held its annual poetry conference a few months ago and American River College held its second annual SummerWords.

Each conference offers attendees the opportunity to study with poets and writers that may be familiar or not, to meet new people and reconnect with attendees from past conferences, to listen to readings and lectures and to get away from the daily interferences that can sometimes inhibit creativity.

One of the conferences that draws attendees and teachers from the Sacramento region and beyond is the Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference in Cedarville, Calif., located in the northeast section of California, about a six-hour drive from Sacramento if travelling on Interstate 5 or Interstate 80.

One of the attractive features about this conference is the location and that drive. It’s recommended to carpool, and some advise stopping midway for some sightseeing. The drive up Interstate 5 will take you through Redding and a possible stop to visit the Sundial Bridge, while following Interstate 80 might take you through Reno, Nev., and across the Black Rock Desert. Choose one route up and a different route back as some people in past years have done.

Consider a detour to visit Burney Falls or take an extra day or two and swing by Mount Shasta and the caverns. If antique shopping interests you, you’ll find plenty of shops along either route. Museums, tiny libraries and all sorts of wonderful people and places can be found on the way to, and in, Surprise Valley.

This conference is relatively young as it enters its sixth year. Barbara March and Ray March are the conference’s founders, and hold positions as executive director and chairman of the board, respectively. Both are well-known in Sacramento, as they have read and presented at the Sacramento Poetry Center on several occasions.

So what draws people to a town that even one of the first instructors, Julia Connor, had never heard of, and keeps her and fellow instructor William O’Daly returning? Connor and O’Daly spoke about their genuine love for this conference.

When asked about the location, Connor, who has been part of the faculty since the conference’s inception, said, “I had never been to that corner of California before, so the first time I went it blew my mind.”

Connor spoke about the fact that it’s a real town with a “gorgeous setting,” as opposed to some conferences that are more institutionalized that may be held in convention centers, for example, and can often be more impersonal, especially with large groups of attendees.

“The Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference is primarily an initiative in the arts,” Connor said, rather than primarily a business.

Workshops are limited to between six and 10 participants, and Connor says each person is “invited to ask questions about your work, (the instructor’s) work and writing in general. You can have in-depth conversations with people.”

Other features she mentioned include the afternoon lectures and discussions. Two years ago she presented a lecture about the Black Mountain School and its importance. In 2009, the lecture’s title was “A Plea for Vision and a New Romanticism in Poetry.”

If the afternoon is for lectures and discussions, that’s because the morning has been set aside for workshops, and evenings are spent at campfires or other special events.

“I think it’s an opportunity to see a part of California history and a way of life that is vanishing. I also think that it’s a chance to have discussions in the course of your time there about other pertinent issues to writing, ecological issues, community, they’re all there and can be shared with other participants,” Connor said.

Another Sacramento favorite and previous faculty, O’Daly echoes much of what Connor said about the location, the directors and the overall experience.

In an email, O’Daly wrote about what the conference means to him.

“For me, the Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference represents a convergence of the elements that inspire any gathering of poets and writers – learning, sharing, challenging the self, and expanding one’s literary and personal horizons. The conference takes place in one of the most beautiful and fascinating landscapes in California. Surprise Valley is in the northeastern corner of the state, between the Warner Mountains and the Hayes Mountains, and those close but remarkably different ranges are separated by a high-desert playa – the bottom of an enormous lake that dried up in pre-historic times. I’d wanted to visit the region since my earliest backpacking days but hadn’t made it up there until I taught at my first SVWC in 2009. I love teaching there, for the non-competitive spirit as well as the mutual interest and support. It’s not a large conference, so the workshop sizes are just right and are well suited to the emerging and the experienced writer; people get to know one another and many stay in touch. The conference is also known for a high rate of returnees. The sponsor, Modoc Forum, and in particular the forum’s leaders, Ray and Barbara March, are warm, wonderful people who know what they’re doing and set the tone for what I describe.”

This year, the conference will feature Connor and fellow Sacramento favorite, Judy Halebsky, as the poetry instructors. Leading the fiction workshop will be Christopher Coake, while creative nonfiction will be taught by Michelle Herman, who is also the event’s keynote speaker.

Applications are due by August 1, and spaces are still available in each workshop. More information, including photos and staff biographies, is available at the conference website.

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