Gillian Wegener was twice the recipient of the Dorothy Rosenberg Poetry Award (2006, 2007), and was honored as one of Stanislaus County’s Outstanding Women in 2015. She served as the City of Modesto’s Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2016.
In these troubled, chaotic, and tragic times, the power of poetry to mend wounds or express our deepest feelings is there to be tapped by all, though poetry is often left on dusty bookshelves in the daily swirl of things.
For former Modesto Poet Laureate and teacher Gillian Wegener, poetry is all around us every day, in little things or cataclysmic events, in good times and bad: “When things go really right in our lives – when a couple gets married, when people have babies, when there’s a celebration to be had – people want poetry for those moments,” she recently explained.
“They look for poetry to express the emotions of that moment. And the same is true when things have gone really, really wrong, such as 9/11 or after what happened at the Capitol on January 6th. And there have been many, many poems written about this pandemic era. Because people are so emotional about these issues, they look to poetry as a kind of filter, to explain and express those emotions.”
Born in Queens, New York, Ms. Wegener has lived in the Valley for the past thirty years. Currently serving as an Academic Coach to incoming teachers of Oakdale Joint Unified School Distric, she taught junior high students for more than twenty years, and still “misses the kids every day I loved teaching junior high kids – they are fantastic! I miss their goofiness and their spontaneity and their eagerness to learn.”
“But I like what I’m doing now, too. Being an academic coach means that I work with new teachers to kind of show them the ropes in our district. Being a new teacher is a tough, tough job. So, any support they may need, I’m there to give it. I also work on curriculum and help out on piloting and adoptions processes.”
While she first had hopes of becoming a Forest Ranger, Ms. Wegener “put that out of my head” when someone told her a lot of math came with that job. “I am not a math person!” she said, chuckling.
Inspired by her high school English teacher, Mr. Litchfield, she “decided to pursue a profession connected to reading and writing, both of which I loved. Mr. Litchfield was a real inspiration for me, and remains a huge influence on me. I think of him often when I’m teaching.”
“My dad liked to wander around and look at things and get into the history of places, and I think that close observation of place was a big influence on me as well. And my mom just keeping it all together was a huge influence.”
As for Ms. Wegener’s abiding passion for poetry – well, that took root at a very early age, with the gift of a book. “When I was probably eight or nine, my aunt Roberta gave me a book of poetry. It was a book for children, and it had poems by about everybody you could imagine in it. I read it all the way through, and I loved it. It had really cool illustrations, which I copied, and I memorized some of the poems. I think I loved the rhythm of things. Some of my earliest, earliest memories are of nursery rhymes. So the rhythm and the meter were sort of embedded in my head. By the time I was in junior high I was writing poetry all the time. I carried around notebooks of my poetry through high school. I didn’t write a lot in college, but I came back to poetry when I was a new teacher here.”
Eudora Welty once observed that “feelings are bound up in place and in art” and that is certainly true of Gillian Wegener’s beautiful poetry, evident in both of the books she has authored (The Opposite of Clairvoyance, Sixteen Rivers Press, 2008; This Sweet Haphazard, Sixteen Rivers Press, 2017).
“I write a lot about the Valley,” she noted. “About the landscapes, and the little details of things I see around town. A sign can maybe set off a poem. I don’t think my poetry is about anything too significant. I don’t set out to write about big themes. But in writing about the everyday moments in life, those themes come forward. That’s true probably for any poetry. Writing about the things we see around us – and somehow that becomes more universal. That’s something I really like about poetry.”
Although Ms. Wegener is not afraid to focus on moments of deeply personal pain, as she so poignantly does in a poem about her late father’s dementia titled “My Father Begins to Disappear,” a thread of warm, affectionate optimism and humor runs through much of her work.
She brings that heartfelt optimism and adds even a sense of joy to everything she does in the community, where she is recognized as one of its hardest-working volunteers and leaders.
For the past eight years, Ms. Wegener has led the Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center (MoSt) in its mission of bringing poetry into our community. “The poetry community has always been here,” she reflected. “But in 2009,Hanibal Yadegar, the owner of the Barkin’ Dog, talked me into running a poetry night. So, I invited all the local poets, and everybody came.
And suddenly, there was this place where people hung out together, and talked about poetry and listened to poets from across the region, and read their own poems, and a sense of community began to build. By 2013 there was definitely a sense of community and we were able to establish MoSt. Through that, we’ve been able to provide a bunch of poetry services for the community, including in schools and senior centers. We’ve accomplished a lot.”
From 2015 to early 2020, Ms. Wegener also volunteered at Juvenile Hall. “I worked with the girls on their creative writing projects – poetry, short stories, things that gave them a creative outlet. We were working with kids who were as young as eleven and as old as eighteen, and they definitely have a lot to say. I can’t say it was always fun work, because sometimes it was really painful to hear those stories. I definitely learned a lot from them, that there’s a lot of grace within them, a lot of love – even after everything they’ve experienced. So, it was a great pleasure to work with them.”
Ms. Wegener also serves on the Board of the Stanislaus County Commission for Women. “The Commission honors the work that women do in the community who are working so hard to make things better for everyone,” she noted. “It has been a pleasure to hear about the amazing work that both women and girls are doing out there. We just had two women run for Mayor, and I don’t know how often that’s happened in the past. Overall, I would say there are definitely more opportunities for women in the community than in the past.”
“I feel like our community is getting stronger and better all the time and I’m happy to be a part of that,” she said, thinking of the changes she’s seen in the Valley over the years.
“I’m not a very religious person,” she continued, “but I do believe that we are here on Earth to serve each other, to take care of one another. If I’m here to make things better for other people, I can do that in a bunch of ways. It’s hard work sometimes, but it’s worthy work, that makes things better for people.
Ms. Wegener knows and loves this Valley that she and her family have embraced, that she eloquently evokes in her poetry: “…no, it isn’t pretty, but we still live here and /tonight the moon will rise, almost full,/over this sweet haphazard of home.”