The El Segundo Scene selected Anne Sikking as its own poet laureate in early 2021 and published Anne’s original poetry about El Segundo in its pages over the course of one year. As she exits her post, Anne shares with us some of her personal history and creative process.
Interview by Maureen Kingsley
Those who have picked up and read The El Segundo Scene during the past year know the name Anne Sikking, as she was selected as the publication’s own poet laureate for 12 months, from February 2021 to March 2022. In her role as poet laureate for The Scene, Anne contributed original, educational, imagery-rich verse every month for one year. Each poem was themed on El Segundo’s geography, history, and place in the world and based on the timeless elements of earth, fire, water, and air. Together, the verses make up a complete work, “The El Segundo Quartet,” to be enjoyed individually or as one multi-part whole, read in any order. (See image below.)
April is National Poetry Month and marks the end of Anne’s tenure as poet laureate. The Scene sat down with her to learn more about her background, her long and varied career, her process for creating “The El Segundo Quartet,” and her thoughts on the importance of poetry to contemporary society.
Here, Anne answers our questions in her own words. We are grateful for her contributions of her time and talent these past 12 months.
The El Segundo Scene (TESS): Anne, please describe your background and history as a writer and poet.
Anne Sikking (AS): My first published work was as a teenage poet in 1972. Jamaican thinker Wildorf E. Goodison-Orr was building an anthology in Kingston and came across a piece of my writing in a little church publication. He contacted me in the midwestern United States, where I was living at the time, and included my poem in Messenger of Love.
Since then my numerous cookbooks, three novels, and some works of informative nonfiction—including Co-Ops With a Difference and Organizing Your Finances—have been published. The most recent is Incredible Edible: Seeds to Solutions with Pam Warhurst CBE, where I worked alongside people to help tell their stories. I really liked the challenge of writing their stories while retaining their authentic voices.
TESS: Please describe for readers your connection to El Segundo.
AS: I have a long connection, though not a particularly personal one. My parents attended El Segundo High School. My mother, born in 1933; her parents; and her mother’s parents all lived in El Segundo. My father lived in the old Surfridge neighborhood by the ocean that was dismantled as LAX airport expanded in the 1950s and 1960s. My daughter and her family currently live in El Segundo.
TESS: What was your process for creating “The El Segundo Quartet”? Did you deliberately map it all out in advance of sitting down to write the verses, or was your approach more spontaneous?
AS: The structure of The Scene was helpful: one-half of a page each issue for 12 months. I also knew The Scene’s readership was diverse and varied, with a broad audience ranging from young children to seniors. I wanted to come up with something with rhythm and rhyme for both older people and younger people to enjoy.
I thought about [19th-century American poet] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and, in that spirit, I contrived narrative that I hoped would be meaningful. I envisioned a chest of 12 drawers and asked myself what I would put into each drawer and how I would label each one. I knew in each drawer I wanted to fit something relevant to El Segundo folks in terms of the city’s history and geography—that, after all, is the job of a poet laureate, to celebrate people, places, and events. I asked myself: What will people from El Segundo respond to that is about this town in particular and not anywhere else? What is specific to this place?
My mother used to say that El Segundo has three immutable boundaries: ocean, airport, and refinery. In other words, air, water, fire—and then of course there is the land itself. I decided to write three months of verse within each of these four elemental themes, and to address the past, the present, and the future. Once I had a direction and structure, I knew where I was headed. Coincidentally, it also meant that the poem in its entirety could be read either across or down—one poem each from Water, Air, Earth, and Fire, or all the Water poems, all the Air poems, all the Earth poems, and all the Fire poems at once.
TESS: I know you met some interesting people from around Los Angeles and beyond as a result of your time as poet laureate for us. Can you tell us about some of these folks and what you learned from them?
AS: For EARTH Part 1 of the Quartet, I was greatly helped by Kenneth Campbell, scholar and academic associate of the La Brea Tarpits in Los Angeles. I thank him for taking on this poet and using science to guide her way.
During the research for AIR Part 1, I read an article by great conservationist Rich Stallcup, where he wrote of a Californian prehistoric dawn. I tried to make contact with him but was too late, as he died in 2012. I was, however, fortunate to meet his colleague, Melissa Pitkin, from the former Point Reyes Bird Observatory, now Point Blue Conservation, headquartered in Petaluma, California. Melissa then put me in touch with Moe Flannery and Christine García at the California Academy of Sciences. Such are the wonders of the Internet and the willingness of these three women to answer my questions!
Tim Quady, CEO of Blue Rhino Studio in Minnesota, which makes exhibits for museums worldwide, spoke with me personally as well.
A lot of academic heft went into those prehistoric verses, which I loved.
TESS: You were born in Southern California, spent part of your childhood in the Midwest, raised a family and ran businesses in the UK and Spain. You have traveled throughout Europe and beyond, and now you live in Scotland. How does your experience living in and visiting so many different places inform your writing and poetry?
AS: Mine has been an itinerant life leading to a varied career. In general I don’t think travel is a prerequisite to being a poet. Emily Dickinson, for example, barely left her house. Poetry is about curiosity about oneself, others, and the world. Having said that, when you travel a lot, and live in different places, you always put yourself in the position of being an outsider looking in. I think this has benefited me as a writer.
TESS: April is National Poetry Month here in the USA. What is it about poetry that you believe makes it an important and relevant art form in contemporary times?
AS: Poetry sits somewhere between music and literature and can be extraordinarily powerful in the same way. Poetry offers an opportunity to guide and steer people back to that part of themselves that has been shut down and sidelined. I often say that human beings are PIES, having four bodies: Physical, Intellectual, Emotional, and Spiritual. Poetry feeds the Spiritual and Emotional bodies through which people may be transformed. I know this partly because poetry has transformed my own life, and it’s also afforded me the opportunity to be read, heard, and appreciated. Its relevance is due to how it can help to complete people as they access themselves, others, nature, and their own hearts, and feel life’s energy.
TESS: Who are some poets (contemporary or otherwise) that inspire you?
AS: Welsh poet Dylan Thomas—I love how he invents words as he does in “Fern Hill.” TS Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Longfellow, Bob Dylan are all wonderful American voices. (Despite Eliot’s being claimed as British, he was American born and raised!) Canadians Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen are relatively modern poets who inspire. Glasgow poets Hamish MacDonald, Michael Mullen, and Gordon Powrie, all finalists in this year’s Scottish Poetry Slam 2022, are right up to date with their work on current issues. For me great poetry is all about range and originality.
TESS: Can you share some of your other careers and interests, including your recent appointment as one of the 100 most influential women of York, UK?
AS: It is wonderful to be counted as one of the 100 most influential women in York, UK 1918 - 2018. The recognition is for pioneering work in the provision of a menu consisting entirely of plant-based food, wholly free from gluten, nuts, palm oil, and refined sugar, at El Piano restaurant, which I owned and operated in York, and for the restaurant’s integrated employment policy, which allowed for hiring people who often have difficulty in finding and keeping work, due to such challenges as illiteracy, cognitive disabilities, mental health issues, previous incarceration, and single parenthood, to name a few. Our twenty-years-plus in business showed that a successful commercial establishment can be powered by a social engine.
Throughout my career I have held various stints in the food industry from slaughtering chickens (!) to running vegan restaurants. I also enjoyed some years working with the European Commission running various transnational projects in medicine, telematics, and employment, especially for excluded groups. This wide and varied work history of course also feeds into my work as a poet.
I would like to end with appreciation to The Scene for promoting the concept of a poet laureateship. I hope that their confidence in me for the past year has led, in part, to the creation of a new post as you welcome Hope Anita Smith as El Segundo’s first, city-wide poet laureate. I have so enjoyed thinking about the town each month, and working to celebrate the people and the place, which I hope readers may have enjoyed. I am more than grateful. Thank you all.