Alameda Bookshelf: Mary Rudge, Alameda’s poet laureate

Alameda Bookshelf: Mary Rudge, Alameda’s poet laureate

Kristen Hanlon

Alameda's poet laureate, Mary Rudge. Photo by Kristen Hanlon.

On a recent warm April afternoon, I found Mary Rudge at Alameda’s Multicultural Community Center. She likes to spend most weekday afternoons there, writing, checking her e-mail, and helping facilitate events such as the annual Alameda Student Poetry Contest. Rudge is the City of Alameda’s first-ever poet laureate, a title she’s held since 2002, and has lived in Alameda for over 50 years. She has published numerous books and chapbooks and spoken internationally at schools, cultural centers, libraries, poetry groups, and peace events; she also raised seven children. On May 11, Rudge will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Berkeley Poetry Festival. Currently, Rudge is working on updating a book she published a decade ago, Jack London’s Neighborhood: a Pleasure Walker’s and Reader’s Guide to History and Inspiration in Alameda.

You were an art teacher for many years, and since retirement you’ve remained active, spreading the word about poetry. One of your endeavors has been the Alameda Student Poetry Contest, which is open to all students in Alameda from grades three to 12.
Zoe Holder was the co-chair with me this year, and we had so many wonderful poems come in from students all over Alameda. Our theme this year was “My Culture,” which we chose in hope that young people would be in dialogue with their family members about aspects of their culture. The poems that came in were very moving, and the judges were impressed by the variety and quality of the work.

What was your experience of poetry as a child?
I wasn’t exposed to poetry as a child. I grew up on the outskirts of a town in Oklahoma, we had an outdoor toilet, and we were what you might call “culturally deprived.” I went to a very small school, but I was a good student and skipped grades. Sometimes as a second grader the teacher would call on me to explain things to the fourth graders!

At some point I just picked up my pencil and began writing in rhyme, and I don’t really know where that came from (laughs). I had a teacher say to my parents, “Mary would do better if she wasn’t scribbling in the margins of books while I’m talking” and my father was very upset by that, he told me to stop it. But I kept on with it.

You’ve lived in West Alameda since the late 1950s. What are some of the changes you’ve seen?
When we came here, this park (Woodstock Park) was totally undeveloped and the children had no place to play. There was nothing but cement here. So I led a group effort that involved citywide backing to develop this park, and community came together to make it happen. Every time I look out the window I can say, “I helped do that.” It’s a good thing.

Fifty years ago, nobody locked their doors. All the kids ran in and out, playing in each other’s yards, dogs weren’t on leashes, and we had bonfires on the beach. No condos then, and fewer people.

You are working on updating your book Jack London’s Neighborhood. Tell me a bit about that.
Lots of people in literature and other arts have called Alameda home. The book allows people to do self-guided walking tours around the Island to see the houses these people lived in, and will have some photographs of houses and other places of historical importance. The book is being expanded from its original edition to add more stops to the tour.

This whole field (motions toward Woodstock Park) was farmed by Jack London’s stepfather for two years. So Jack London lived in Alameda from age 5 to age 7. There was a mansion there where the owner of the property lived, and the people who worked the land lived in little cottages. When the property owner died, the land was divided and sold. Part of the property was bought by a foundry that made tiles. As an adult, London came back to buy tiles for his house up in Sonoma. The sister-in-law of Robert Louis Stevenson lived here, so Stevenson and his wife would visit here. The poet Robert Duncan lived on Pearl Street for a while as a child. The comedian Phyllis Diller lived in the Navy projects before moving to the East End, and got her start on local radio. Hank Saroyan, who won Emmys for the "Muppet Babies" TV series is from here. His father, who owned a store on Park Street, was the brother of the writer William Saroyan. Jim Morrison of the Doors lived on Alameda Avenue and went to Alameda High for a couple of years.

When I first came to Alameda, I met people who were in their 80s and they knew a lot of the old history, and told me some great stories, but unfortunately at that time I had all these little kids to take care of so I didn’t write those stories down. So this book is a kind of document of what I do know, and what I’ve learned about Alameda in the time I’ve lived here. It’s a snapshot of our history.

EXTRA: Watch Mary Rudge read her poetry on YouTube: