Ellen Girardeau Kempler, winner of Ireland’s Blackwater International Poetry Competition, is a poet with a mission

By LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

 

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“Place poet” Ellen Girardeau Kempler and her “self-esteem cave” where she surrounds herself with reminders of her achievements and happiest times

Three-time winner of Laguna Beach Library’s annual poetry prize, and more recently the winner of the prestigious Blackwater International Poetry Competition – based in West Cork, Ireland – Ellen Girardeau Kempler is a much-published Laguna poet with a mission. She wants to help people to “feel in [their] deep heart’s core” (a quote from William Butler Yeats, one of her favorite poets) a visceral connection to the immensity and mystery of our universe. 

“When we are open to the unexpected, both poetry and place can awaken us to the deep link between the personal and the universal,” she says. “If throughout your life you continue both physical and intellectual exploration, you are more likely to sense the magic around you.” 

Kempler’s trip to Chilean Patagonia in 2013, during which she caught sight of Andean condors flying free in the immense, glacier-carved landscape, was a transformative experience for her, bringing home the importance of being receptive to the power of the universe and reminding her how close California condors came to extinction in the eighties.

“We need to pay attention so that we will be alert to astonishment,” she says.

Kempler quotes Matsuo Basho, a Japanese poet considered the master of haiku, from his introduction to “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” to make her point. 

“Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one—when you have plunged deep enough…to see something hidden glimmering there.”

In this quote, Basho, who lived from 1644 – 1694, seems almost to have anticipated the ‘selfie’ obsession that consumes our society these days, with him admonishing us in advance of the perils of narcissism.

“We’re so caught up in branding ourselves, and seeking attention, that we don’t seem capable of living in the moment. It’s all about who will see us and what they will think of us based on the image we choose to project,” Kempler says. “Usually what’s in the background is ignored, but that’s where the condors fly and the whales spout and the unexpected happens.”

Also, Kempler notes, so much photo-shopping is done these days that the public is often suspicious that stunning natural photos – such as the Milky Way reflected on Lake Titicaca – are not real. “The only way to know the reality of nature is to become a personal witness to the phenomena that occur – and it isn’t always possible to predict their timing,” she says.

The value of wandering—and waiting

Kempler’s visit to Patagonia brought home to her to the realization that being willing to wander without expectations, at home and abroad, could greatly enrich her life. She recalls one of the most wonderful travel experiences that she has had by simply “putting [herself] in a place” without too many expectations. 

“In Reykjavik, our travel group took overnight shifts, hoping to see the Northern Lights, but that night there was nothing to be seen. The following night was so cold and windy, I gave up after a while and went inside the hotel. But eventually I went outside again.

“Suddenly the night sky changed, and bands of green began to circle and enclose us, interspersed with shimmering lights made up of transparent rainbow colors. It was an otherworldly feeling, as though we were literally seeing the wind.” 

Kempler says watchers reacted in almost primal ways, dancing and screaming at the sight. 

“It’s particularly important that people understand how connected we are to nature in these times of climate change. In recent years, I traveled to the Athabasca Glacier in Canada, and saw just how fast the ice is retreating,” she adds “The glacier has lost half its volume in the last 125 years.”

That’s one reason why Kempler built a website, Gold Boat Journeys, to inspire others to explore the written word and the wonders of the world in person, and to share her own life-changing experiences.

Not just a “place poet”

While Kempler is happy to be known as a “place poet,” she writes about a range of subjects. Birthday Wish, the poem that won the Blackwater International Poetry Contest against strong competition from poets all over the world, from Sri Lanka to Ireland, is a poignant reflection on her dying father’s last days. Although he, a theoretical physicist, could no longer understand complicated algorithms, he was able to read, on his e-reader, an illustrated biography of Marc Chagall, given to him by Kempler. The thought that her dad was still able to appreciate patterns and colors and abstract images in his last weeks has been a comfort to her.

 

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Besides travel, Kempler loves her terrier Arlo and hosting a Little Free Library

The Laguna poet will be flown to the West Cork Literary Festival, where she will read her poem and enjoy four nights free accommodation. She’s hoping not to have to drive – one of her most humbling experiences, she says, involved a solo trip to Ireland, a pink rental car and the challenges of driving on the left hand side of the road, especially around roundabouts. The toll collector told her not to worry to pay. She had suffered enough, he felt. She agreed.

Kempler says that writing poems, besides giving her pleasure, has helped during difficult times in her life. She has established her office as a “Self-esteem Cave,” noting that like most creative people, she often doubts herself and needs to remind herself of her achievements (which include being a finalist for the Tucson Festival of Books and Ireland’s Fish Poetry Prize, judged by Billy Collins). 

Here in the “cave,” she has hung her prize certificates and a map of the world, and her desk and shelves contain reminders of her journeys to Ireland, Iceland, Patagonia and other destinations, along with books by favorite poets including Yeats, Pablo Neruda, and Emily Dickinson.

Travel is great, but you don’t have to go far afield to experience the wonders of nature. Kempler recalls going for a walk on the beach in Laguna and being lucky enough to see a mother whale and baby gamboling in the ocean.

Armchair travel that engages the mind and the spirit

Visiting Kempler’s website is a journey in itself. Here the hyperlink-clicking visitor will find inspirational quotes, writing prompts, even a writing contest, along with stunning travel photos and an invitation to use her consulting services through her Gold Boat Journeys. She’s also a whiz at social media and for a while worked as a consultant for Expedia.

Kempler, who has in the past handled marketing communications for the Laguna Canyon Foundation and Laguna Art Museum, and her husband Roger, a lawyer, are the parents of two grown daughters, Alex and Holly, and a cuddly terrier named Arlo. Since moving to Laguna Beach in 1997, they’ve been active volunteers for a variety of nonprofits including the Laguna Playhouse, Pageant of the Masters, Friendship Shelter and Transitions Laguna. The Kemplers have also hosted plein-air artists from all over the world.

“My favorite thing about Laguna is that it is an island surrounded by wilderness – the greenbelt on three sides and the bluebelt on the other. I love listening to the city’s soundtrack from here where I live on Top of the World: birds chirping, owls hooting, coyotes howling, wind chimes dinging, kids skateboarding, the boys down the street practicing drums and piano, punctuated by echoes of fire trucks, seals barking and other noises from down below,” she says.

Besides writing, traveling and volunteering, Kempler enjoys an eclectic range of activities including picking berries and baking pies, taking pleasure in the books that come and go from her Little Free Library, and watching the occasional TV mystery and drama. 

In September, Ellen Girardeau Kempler, an Oregon native who loves “green places,” will head to Japan to enjoy its natural beauty, and she hopes, see snow monkeys – and who knows what else? She looks forward to finding out.

Visit Ellen Girardeau Kempler’s website at www.gold-boat.com. You never know what you might discover.

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