Paul J. Willis, former poet laureate of Santa Barbara, has titled his latest book of poetry “Little Rhymes for Lowly Plants” (White Violet Press, $14).
They are represented in the first of four sections in the collection. The second one has poems dealing with spiritual/biblical topics; the third has sonnets; and the fourth is about miscellaneous subjects.
“I describe the book as a collection of botanical, biblical, somewhat cynical, and otherwise grossly sentimental verse in rhyme and in meter,” said Dr. Willis with a chuckle during an interview from his home near Westmont College, where he has been a professor of English for more than 30 years.
He will be reading from his 77-page, softcover book at 7 p.m. April 17 at Chaucer’s Books, 3321 State St. Joining him will be the new Santa Barbara Poet Laureate Laure-Anne Bosselaar, reading from her book of poetry, “These Many Rooms.”
In the section on “Lowly Plants,” each one has its botanical name and the location where Dr. Willis observed it.
The first is a four-stanza poem about the “Common Goldenstar” that grows in Santa Barbara.
“I couldn’t resist writing about it,” said Dr. Willis. “The first stanza reads:
“Such neat petals, little lillies,
but in this case amaryllis,
flowers that rhyme in February
with the name of Paul J. Willis.”
There are other poems about local plants, but most are about foliage he saw during two sabbaticals when he was artist-in-residence at North Cascade National Park in Washington state — the first was for four months in the fall of 2014, and the second was six weeks in the spring of 2015.
“I did a lot of hiking across the park,” said Dr. Willis, who was born in Fullerton and grew up in Corvallis, Ore., earned a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies at Wheaton College in Illinois and his master’s and Ph.D. in English at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash.
“I wrote my dissertation on —Forest and Shakespeare: Setting as Character.’ My wife and I were deeply involved with the Sierra Club when I was in grad school,” he said. “We have always loved the Northern Cascades.”
His new book is dedicated to wife Sharon Willis, a nurse practitioner at Westside Neighborhood Clinic in Santa Barbara. The couple are parents of Jon Willis, who works for Microsoft in the Seattle area, and Hanna Cullen, who lives in Aliso Viejo and is about to have twins, the first grandchildren for Paul and Sharon.
Dr. Willis said he was inspired to write his poems during hikes late in the day.
“I called them hike-ku,” he said.
Favorites include the “Menzies’ Larkspur,” which are “Bluest blue”: “Autumn Ginkgo” with “Little leaves like ochre moths”; and “Here and There” about sycamores in Los Padres National Forest.
In the spiritual section, Dr. Willis writes “For Nicholas, on Your Baptism,” about the son of his colleagues’ John Blondell and Vicky Finlayson, and the death of the 9-year-old-daughter of another colleague in “Epitaph for a Child.”
Almost at the end of the book in the Miscellaneous section, Dr. Willis’ whimsical humor comes through in the three-stanza poem “Upon Attempting a Half-Marathon with My Daughter, on My Sixtieth Birthday.”
“That was a marathon from UCSB to West Beach. I’m a bit of a runner, and I actually finished, but I thought a lot of people would identify with the onslaught of old age,” said Dr. Willis, who is 63.
This is his eighth book of poetry. Others are “Deer at Twilight: Poems from the North Cascades,” “Getting to Gardisky Lake,” “Say This Prayer into the Past,” “Rosing from the Dead,” “Visiting Home,” “In a Fine Frenzy” and “How to Get There.”
“I usually write in free verse, but I think it’s a good idea to keep my hand in more traditional poetry like rhyme and meter. In this book, every poem is in meter, and the third section is all sonnets,” said Dr. Willis.