Benicia’s Newest Poet Laureate

Benicia’s sixth Poet Laureate, Johanna Ely, wrote her first poems in elementary school, inspired by the children’s book Hailstones and Halibut Bones. “I was just enchanted by that book, and wrote my first poem in 4th grade about the color green. Then I wrote about my dog, and other little stories after that.” She continued to spin her poetic yarns through high school, and while earning a B.A. in English from UC Berkeley.

But when she got married and had her son, her writing took an extended hiatus. She eventually went back to get her teaching credential and taught elementary school in Pittsburg for 25 years. It wasn’t until she retired in 2013 that she got back to writing. Now, she says, she writes every day.

Poetry Groups at Benicia Library

Although a resident of Benicia for the past 30 years, it wasn’t until recent years that she became an active member of the Benicia First Tuesday Poetry Group. Since then, her work has been published in two anthologies, Across the Genres and A Word for All Seasons, and she has published a small book of poetry titled, Transformation. This year she was selected as the sixth Benicia Poet Laureate, an honor bestowed by the Benicia Public Library.

Johanna is passionate about bringing more poetry into the schools, and urges people not to be afraid of poetry.  Among many activities, she is organizing an open house for the First Tuesday Poetry Group on November 29 at the Library. This September, she helped launch the First Sunday Poetry Series at Rosanna’s on First Street, featuring visiting poets and open mic readings.

Love Poetry Contest

She’s also the chairperson of the Love Poetry Contest co-hosted by the Benicia Public Library, held at the Benicia Historical Museum. Anyone is welcome to submit up to three unpublished love poems. “Getting to read so many beautiful love poems is a wonderful part of my job,” she says.

Combining Poetry with Art

The First Tuesday poets have partnered with the Benicia Plein Air Gallery to practice ekphrastic poetry, in a form that reflects and expands on works of art created by many of our local painters. This year, the group is bringing the national Poetry Out Loud program into the schools, and will continue the Joel Fallon Scholarship program for youth to pursue their love of poetry.

Johanna’s poem entitled Writing Poetry is Not Like Gardening, says so much about her work. Here it is in part:  “I don’t want to plant tiny seeds that fall out of shiny packets showing pretty pictures of daisies … I want to discover the prickly burr that sticks to my sock … Let me pull from my body what is untamed and unsettled, fling bright, bold words across the page, wildflowers for the taking.”

For upcoming poetry events, please see