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Oakdale Teacher Named Poet Laureate
Gillian Wegener, an English teacher at Oakdale Junior High School, was recently named as the City of Modestos Poet Laureate. - photo by Dawn M. Henley/The Leader

Poetry is a passion for Gillian Wegener; she said it is a big part of who she is.

Because of her commitment to the art, the Oakdale Junior High School teacher was recently named Poet Laureate in Modesto. Wegener has taught English for 22 years at OJHS, where she began her teaching career.

Wegener applied for the Poet Laureate position in February and was recommended for appointment by Modesto’s Culture Commission Committee in early April. Her appointment was approved by the Modesto City Council in June. The Culture Commission is made up of visual artists, poets, and people who are interested in the arts in the area.

“The main purpose of a poet laureate is to write poems for official occasions,” Wegener explained. “I’m really honored to be able to serve my community this way. I really want to be an advocate for the literary arts for our entire county.”

She said that her main job as poet laureate will be when the city needs a poem written for a certain occasion, they’ll ask her. She hasn’t had an official assignment yet but she expects one soon, which will include writing a poem for the re-opening of the McHenry mansion, and possibly one for the downtown Modesto arch dedication.

At OJHS, Wegener has coordinated and edited the school’s poetry anthology for 15 years. In her English classes, she reported that she reads and discusses a couple of poems per week. She uses the discussion to illustrate a poetic point or a poetic device the students need to understand.

She noted that her objective is not to have her students love poetry, although that is a bonus, but to have them feel comfortable with it and not be intimidated by it. Wegener said that in junior high, many students write poetry, often secretly. She wants to encourage them to develop and continue writing it because it’s a good way for them to express themselves. She shared that she began writing poetry herself in junior high.

Wegener’s poems have been widely published. Her most recent book of poetry was published in 2008 by Sixteen Rivers Press called “The Opposite of Clairvoyance.” The 96-page volume contains about 45 of Wegener’s works. She’s also regularly published in journals and literary reviews.

“I pretty much always have poems out for submission, so I just wait to see what happens,” she said.

Most of her poems are free verse, they don’t rhyme or follow a specific format, Wegener stated. She added that she only writes formal poetry on occasion. She writes about what catches her attention – anything from conversations to observations.

Wegener is very involved with poetry in Stanislaus County and helped edit an anthology of Modesto area poetry last year.

“I’ve been part of local poetry groups for a while… Probably about 15 years,” she said.

Additionally, Wegener organizes and hosts a monthly poetry reading series at the Barkin’ Dog Grill in downtown Modesto where she brings in poets from the Bay Area, Sacramento, and northern California. She also participates herself as an “open mic” reader at the events.

She added that she would like to improve the area’s reputation and bring attention to the wider Central California community, so that people will begin to see that there is a lot going on in the area and that there is culture.

Wegener’s poetry reading events at the Barkin’ Dog Grill are free and are held the second Tuesday of every month at 6 p.m.