Work with homeless awakens Portola Valley mans inner poet

Some people dream all their lives of writing but never do it. For Gerard Sarnat, 64, writing wasn’t a life goal, but the muse came calling unexpectedly five years ago, unleashing “a flood of poetry” and launching him into a second career.

Gerard Sarnat

The Portola Valley resident, who received his medical degree from Stanford, retired as a physician in 1996 but kept busy as on the international board of the New Israel Fund and as a volunteer at the Urban Ministry, a homeless shelter in Palo Alto where he set up and staffed a medical clinic.

“I began writing poetry as a meditation on the extraordinary experiences I was having working with the homeless,” he says. Struck by the plight of his patients, he started to explore the theme of homelessness and found it struck a chord.

“It’s a very Jewish theme. In the larger sense, it refers to 6,000 years of the diaspora,” says Sarnat, whose great-great-grandfather was Jacob Ben Isaac Gesundheit, the high rabbi of Warsaw. “But it’s also metaphysical. In a sense, we’re all homeless. We’re born alone and we die alone.”

Sarnat didn’t think about publishing his work, however, until he sent a few poems to literary journals two years ago. The reaction surprised him.

“Over 60 journals and anthologies published my work during the first six months of 2008,” he says. He also entered and won national and international poetry competitions. His wife of 41 years, Lela, and his three children encouraged him.

Energized by these successes, last year he started editing literary journals, and soon a small press approached him about publishing a book of his poems.

The result is “Homeless Chronicles: From Abraham to Burning Man,” which begins with the Jewish immigrant experience (“Westward ho, peyas chinny-chin-chin”) and Sarnat’s own youth (“Sing your stories out loud as the nascent troubadour I am”) and travels through the stages of life to his present-day roles as husband, father, grandfather and poet (“My cranium is a nightingale heavy with young.”). The poems range from playful to irreverent to nostalgic.

Before the book came out, Sarnat wrote every day from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. Now his schedule includes readings and author interviews; in fact, he recently returned from readings in Haifa and Tel Aviv, and is about to start a series of events in Southern California (his next scheduled Northern California reading isn’t until February in Sausalito).

He says the response to his book has been “overwhelming and humbling.”

“People of my generation say it’s inspiring to see my second career coming forth so vitally at this age,” he says. “And I get the most positive reviews from young people. My kids tell their friends about it on Facebook.”

Lela and Gerard Sarnat

Although his book has been out for only three month, he’s  already working on a new cycle of 23 poems.

“I feel like I’m just beginning to understand what poetry is,” says Sarnat, whose influences include Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen. “I’m totally enthused about my next work. To have a new career where I’m continually growing is about as wonderful a thing as I can imagine.”

“Homeless Chronicles: From Abraham to Burning Man” by Gerard Sarnat (120 pages, Pessoa Press, $17.95)


Gerard Sarnat has his schedule of readings, poetry samples, and video and audio links at