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November 21, 2023 / 4:24 PM

Remembering Sojourner Kinkaid Rolle

Like so many local people, we are mourning the loss of Sojourner Kinkaid Rolle. Here at the Museum, she was a powerful friend of books, poetry, and nature, our memories together stretching back through her many decades in Santa Barbara.

Radiant portrait of a woman exuding kindness and confidence

Portrait of Sojourner by Stacey J. Byers

Back in 1985, Museum Librarian Terri Sheridan was originally working at the Eastside Library when she met Kinkaid Rolle:

"Tall, striking, and dressed in beautifully colored blouse and skirt, she stopped at the reference desk to chat. I don’t remember the conversation. I remember the woman and the generous encounter that would repeat itself over and over again during the next couple of years. We would talk about poems and poets, literature, communities close and far, just whatever was on our minds. . . I grew to consider her a friend. And then I left the Eastside Library and came to the Museum. Our paths crossed infrequently, but when they did, we would always check in on each other.”

In 2016, Sheridan was excited and honored by a new opportunity to spend more time with Kinkaid Rolle. As the Museum approached its 100-year anniversary of establishment, Museum President & CEO Luke Swetland asked Kinkaid Rolle—then Santa Barbara’s Poet Laureate—if she would consider writing a centennial poem to celebrate the milestone. Intrigued, she revealed that she had been contemplating a way to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the City’s Poet Laureate program. The parallel ideas grew together into a year-long Poets-in-Residence program at the Museum.

Five smiling poets in a green and gleaming oak woodland

With the Museum’s poets in residence, 2016. Photo by Stacey J. Byers

As Swetland describes in the preface to the program’s culminating anthology,*

“Each Laureate would have a two-month ‘season of residency’ at the Museum. During this time, they would come and go just like a staff member (we gave them each a badge), and the Laureate in residence would have a desk in our Library so that visitors could stop and chat with them when they were on campus. During their season, each Laureate would write poetry inspired by the magnificent natural settings of the Museum and Sea Center, they would organize a reading and poetry writing workshop, and they would invite other local poets to participate as well. In short, we encouraged each of them to make their season their own. And that is exactly what happened. Poetry appeared as part of many of our offerings at the Museum and the Sea Center and our visitors loved it.”

“I was often asked throughout the year: how does poetry fit with a museum of natural history? My answer was always the same. To my mind, scientific inquiry and artistic practices both spring from the same deep human need to observe the world around us and to make meaning out of it.”

Introspective black and white photograph portrait of a poet

Portrait of Sojourner by Stacey J. Byers

In addition to Sojourner’s centennial poem, “Moving Forward, Looking Back / Commencing the New Centennial,” the anthology of poetry in residence at the Museum includes her poems “Rock,” “River Tree,” and “Nojoqui.” Each one is brimming with natural wonders and textures, both those we ritually see and celebrate, and those revealed by a poet’s piercing eye. In this brief passage from the centennial poem she invites us to see ourselves in a context both familiar and vast, cosmic:

Tide pools draw us into the ebb and flow
the spawn and scatter
“Come, come, wade into the shallow places”
Paths where a million feet have trod
pebbles pitched from place to place
What are we to do but pay attention?
Go inside a rock—listen
It is not a silent concert.
Sparks fly forth like comets
blasting across the tapestry of night.
A landscape of ceaseless beauty
where elders revel in their memories
and the young gorge on a bounty of wonder—
wandering from habitat to gallery
from diorama to panorama.

Smiling poet at the center of a library scene with people and books

Signing the centennial anthology at a poet’s reception in the Museum Library, 2018.

We are grateful for the time she spent with us and the words and thoughts she left behind in our books and hearts. Terri Sheridan puts it simply: “She made lives better. She made my life better. I considered Sojourner a life-mentor all these years (unknown to her, to be sure). She was spiritually generous to community. Generous to other writers. Generous to children. Generous to anyone that crossed into her circle.”

Read more about Sojourner Kinkaid Rolle’s iconic presence in the local community in her memorial by Jordan Killebrew, published by the Santa Barbara Independent.

*Moving Forward, Looking Back: Poems Celebrating Nature by Sojourner Kinkaid Rolle, David Starkey, Perie Longo, Paul J. Willis, and Chryss Yost. Published in a limited edition by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in 2018, some copies are available in the Museum Store and of course in the Museum Library (reopening from renovations in 2024).

Top photo: Kinkaid Rolle in the 2017 Santa Barbara Solstice Parade. Photo by Owen Duncan

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