Fall is a slow painter, taking weeks to overlay the maples’ green with gold, to turn the dwarf euonymus scarlet leaf by leaf, to daub each sweet gum’s crown an intricate mottle of crimson, ochre, dun, and bronze. Fall never finishes a piece, every morning paints over the work of the day before — deepening hues here, lightening others there. Fire works fast — turns out a whole landscape overnight. But do not say there is no beauty in its palette of ash, soot, rust, char. — Excerpt from Landscape of Fire by Eleanor Berry
Earlier this month on International Women’s Day, Soapstone presented writer and poet-activist Eleanor Berry with its Bread and Roses Award. The grassroots organization was founded in 1992 to support women writers and provide them with access to writing residencies on the Oregon Coast. Soapstone continues to honor the work of Oregon women writers with the Bread and Roses Award. This honor, previously received by Oregon poets including Barbara LaMorticella, Leanne Grabel, Maureen Michelson, and Carla Perry, acknowledges writers who have influenced the region through their work and uplifted others through their community efforts. With her mission to “make poetry a part of the community,” Berry has done just that.
Berry, an only child who loved to read, began writing before the age of 10, she told me over email. She was inspired to imitate what she read and create her own stories, which were valued by her parents and encouraged by her early teachers. Long drawn to “how poetry activates and employs all aspects of language: sound, rhythm, visual form, connotation, and etymology,” Berry said poetry continues as her written form of choice due to its sensuous and cerebral nature. Her recent collection about losing her home to the devastating 2020 Beachie Creek Fire, Works of Wildfire, won the 2022 Grayson Books Chapbook Award.
“As an undergraduate, it took me a long time to focus on literature and linguistics, as I was also very interested in environmental science,” Berry said. “As a graduate student, the focus of my studies was 17th-century English poetry, 20th-century American poetry, stylistics, and prosody.”
From 2000-2008, Berry acted as coordinator of the Second Sunday Poetry Series in Stayton. Her involvement with the series began when an artist friend, Paul Toews, opened the Art Gone Wild gallery. Motivated by a desire to have poets and poetry close to home, Berry said, she was pleased to take on the role.
“He asked me to arrange a poetry reading for the grand opening, so I invited a few fellow poets to read with me and we had a wonderful time. Afterward, Paul proposed doing more poetry readings in the gallery, and we agreed to try a monthly series. Since the opening happened to have been on a second Sunday, and because ‘Stayton Second Sunday Series’ is memorably alliterative, we settled on that for a name.”
In addition to her numerous projects in the mid-Willamette Valley, Berry has been a champion for poets across the state and nation, serving 10 years on the board of the Oregon Poetry Association, where she helped expand conferences from Portland and the northern Willamette Valley to Bend, Medford, Newport, Pendleton, Roseburg, Eugene, and Salem. She also served 10 years on the board of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies and four years as chair of that group’s Barbara Stevens Poetry Book Manuscript Competition, which she now co-chairs with Texas poet Terry Jude Miller.
Serving on those boards has helped her learn the importance of “giving others room to take initiative,” she said, “and a chance to get invested in ideas — of helping prepare others to replace me and of allowing time for changes to happen.”
“Though I often fail at these things, at least I understand their importance,” she added. As part of the National Federation’s annual manuscript competition, she’s had the opportunity to read hundreds of book-length poetry manuscripts, “which has enlarged my sense of the possibilities for organizing and presenting poetic work. Working with the distinguished poets who have served as judges for the competition has similarly enlarged and complicated my sense of possible criteria for evaluating poetry collections, and working with the authors of the winning manuscripts has given me a chance to experience publishing poetry from the publisher’s side. I think that has helped me to cooperate better with those who publish my work.”
Berry’s comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Your recent collection, Works of Wildfire, won the 2022 Grayson Books Chapbook Award. Can you elaborate on the process of writing this book amid your personal experience with wildfire?
Berry: To put it facetiously, the best revenge is writing well. Seriously, after the fire, many people said they couldn’t imagine what it was like to lose one’s home to wildfire. Others who, like us, had lost their homes said that they had “no words” for the experience. I felt compelled both to articulate it and to make something of value from it. The meetings of The Peregrine Writers gave me a structure for regular writing, and the group’s critiques of my “fire poems” were both substantive and encouraging. Eventually, I began to sense I had not simply individual poems but a sequence, and the poets in the group encouraged me to compile it.
According to the Soapstone Bread and Roses Award press release, your doctoral dissertation from the University of Toronto was on lineation and syntax in the poetry of William Carlos Williams. Can you talk a little bit about the impact of his work on your writing?
Through the example of his poetry, Williams taught me how phrasing and the way sentences and smaller units are broken over lines can create various kinds of rhythm and guide readers’ apprehension of meaning. Studying his manuscripts (housed at SUNY Buffalo) legitimized my own preoccupation with how lines and line-groups are broken and how text is arranged on the page.
What led you to be part of The Peregrine Writers group and when did you join?
It was started in 1999 when poets Lois Rosen and Jane Bailey invited Salem-area poets to come to a meeting if they were interested in being part of a new poetry critique group. Ever since we’d moved to Oregon in 1994, I’d been missing the poetry critique group I’d been part of in Wisconsin, so I was eager for the opportunity. There are nine poets in the group; I’m one of three who have been part of it since it began.
Virginia was another one of the original members of The Peregrine Writers and also active in our state poetry association. We were both interested in having a local unit of OPA, and in (I think) 2010, Virginia and I invited poets we knew to come to a meeting if they were interested in being part of a group to share, discuss, and promote poetry in the community. Virginia and I enjoyed leading the group together, and when she died (of pancreatic cancer) in 2012, I almost let it end, but then resolved to continue it, as I thought she’d want me to do.
As an avid reader of Ezra Pound’s essays and poetry, what do you admire about the work? What most strikes you about his statement, “It is tremendously important that great poetry be written, it makes no jot of difference who writes it.”
While I do not admire his support of authoritarian leaders (including Mussolini) or his economic theory, I admire how seriously he takes the work of making poems, his extraordinary control of rhythm in his poetry, his sense of poets’ responsibility to preserve, refresh, and restore the languages they use, and his commitment to supporting fellow poets. The quoted statement is a salutary corrective to poets’ (and many others’) tendency to pursue individual achievement and recognition.
What advice can you offer emerging writers seeking to establish themselves in Oregon’s literary communities?
Read what other Oregon poets have written. Attend readings, and read your work in open mics. Take workshops and/or find writers you respect with whom to share work, whether in a critique group or one-on-one.