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Poet Q&A: Newport’s Carla Perry on writing, nature, and living on the road

This year’s Soapstone Bread and Roses Award recipient discusses hosting successful reading series and life on the Oregon Coast.

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West out of New York City without a road map
past subway stations
and elevated trains
west into cornfields, fireflies
heat lightning
university lessons
marriage, driving lessons
then south
to the strip mines of coal-laden Kansas
adulteries continuing
in ground fog, tornadoes
black walnut orchards
over to Missouri
following the guilty spouse’s
employment dollars
into poverty, into stagnation
into unbearable muggy heat
into hopelessness
then giving it all up
abandoning the givens
the guarantees, the oaths
the future
once again heading west
without a road map
and no idea of destination all the way west
to Oregon

— From Road Map by Carla Perry

“We just sort of go with the flow when we’re that young,” Carla Perry said over the phone one cloudy afternoon as she told me about leaving Manhattan and heading to Iowa at the age of 17. Despite the distance, I could detect the clear and vibrant smile in her voice. It was definitely a culture shock, Perry said, as she went from knowing the city and all its subway routes — knowing Manhattan as well as she knew anything — to a new life in the rural Midwest. She had never seen food growing, she told me, until arriving in Iowa, where she could reach up and pick an apple right from the tree.

Carla Perry recently received the Soapstone Bread and Roses Award for her work sustaining Oregon’s writing culture. Photo courtesy: Soapstone

A prominent writer, poet, and founder of the Nye Beach Writers’ Series and Writers on the Edge, Perry is this year’s recipient of the Soapstone Bread and Roses Award. The award, established by Soapstone to recognize influential women whose works have impacted and sustained Oregon’s writing culture, includes $1000 and a bouquet of roses presented to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8. The Newport writer also has received the Stewart Holbrook Literary Legacy Award in 2002 from Literary Arts for her outstanding contributions to Oregon’s literary community and the Oregon Governor’s Arts Award in 2003 for the longevity of her writers’ series.

Perry left Manhattan to attend the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, graduating in 1970, where she intended to become a high-school-level poetry teacher before relocating to Kansas with her then-husband. 

“In Kansas, we basically lived off the land,” she said. “We lived on 80 acres — wild mushrooms, wild onions, persimmons — all these different foods that I never heard of were growing and we could live off them.” Perry learned a whole different way of surviving, she explained, and was heavily affected when drought made it difficult to grow food. In 1974, she left Kansas for Portland, which she called a livable, lovely, and small city at that time, where the climate was much milder than in Iowa City. There was no rush hour, she laughed, just a “rush minute.”

“We’d heard that water fell free from the sky in Oregon, so we drove to Portland, found a place to rent, and then went about looking for work.”

Perry says “Writers on the Edge” is a name conjuring up both desperation and breakthrough. Photo by: Grayland

After nearly two decades in the city, Perry left Portland for the Oregon Coast, where she founded Wild Dog Magazine and Talus & Scree Literary Journal, along with organizing regular reading events that featured writers from across the country. During 14 years as volunteer executive director of Writers on the Edge, Perry hosted 354 writers at 160 events, ensuring that beginning writers would always have both an audience and the chance to read alongside famous writers. The nonprofit organization, founded in 2002, oversaw the Nye Beach Writers’ Series and its funding, allowing for the implementation of programs including in-school and after-school youth workshops, adult workshops, and special events programming. The phrase “Writers on the Edge” implies desperate writers about to dive off the edge of the coast cliffs, she explained, saying that it also implies writers on the edge of a major breakthrough.

Along with her extensive career as a publisher and series producer, Perry is the author of multiple books including a book of poems and illustrations, No Questions Asked, No Answers Given (1971); a book of poetry, photos, and line drawings, Laughing Like Dogs (1996); and a book of poems and photos, Wanderlust (2014). Her autobiographical novel, Riva Beside Me: New York City 1963 to 1966, was transformed into a stage play that debuted in 2016 at the Newport Performing Arts Center. In 2018, Perry sold her publishing house, Dancing Moon Press, which she started in 1996, and retired at age 70. Since then, she has focused on her own creative work, she said, continuing to write stories, essays, poems, articles, and many letters to the city about livability issues.

Perry with her dog, Zeke. Photo by: Sara Heimlich

“A lot of my creative work comes through visualization,” she said. “When I’m writing stories, I allow my imagination to go into a sort of dream state and follow a tangent until this one doesn’t work, then backtrack, and go in a different direction.”

To Perry, nature permeates everything. The fog permeates the poetry she has written. The rain and the damp become part of everything she creates — and she she never takes it for granted.

“It is so nurturing to the soul in this troubled time,” Perry said. “Yes, we have our problems on the coast, and so there are strifes… but the location is ideal for me. It is a quieter, slower, less formalized life. Every time I go down to the beach I am inspired and awed at the beauty.”

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What inspired you to begin writing?

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Bob Dylan was my inspiration. I grew up in Manhattan — a noisy, chaotic place — but I was a shy, silent child who channeled my need to express myself into the written word. I attended the High School of Music and Art until my senior year, then was transferred to the High School of Art and Design by my parents. Both schools required regular academic courses as well as extensive art training. I was invited to attend a creative writing class where my teacher, Daisy Alden, brought in guest poets. One of those memorable guests was Anaïs Nin. The experience encouraged my attempts at writing, and my education continued outside of school due to my boyfriend, who lived in Greenwich Village, the exact neighborhood where Bob Dylan (and so many others who became legendary singer/songwriters/poets/artists) hung out. Dylan’s lyrics were poetry to me and I was inspired by this exposure to write more — and to write like it mattered. 

Can you elaborate a little bit about how Nye Beach Writers’ Series and Writers on the Edge came about?

Shortly after moving to Yachats from a cabin in Swisshome on the Siuslaw River, I was asked if I could type. When I said I could, I was asked to be the minutes-taker for the next Friends of the Yachats Commons meeting, and was asked if I had any ideas about an event or a program I’d like the town to produce in the following year. I suggested a year-round, monthly literary series. They suggested I write up a brief proposal, which they funded, and the Yachats Writers’ Series began. My idea was to nourish not only the artistic development of individual writers, but to cultivate a writing community as well, because I missed my writer friends living in Portland.

I invited a friend, an acquaintance, and a stranger to read their work at the premiere event. The turnout was exceptional, attracting an audience that filled the room. The three featured authors were exceptional performance poets. Afterward, the three writers and I settled in for the night at my house, where we stayed up late talking. We knew something big had just started. We could feel it — the excitement was palpable. The Writers’ Series did become a big deal, attracting famous writers paired with the not-so-famous. And it provided an opportunity for local writers to participate in an open mic with a substantial audience. All this in a tiny town of 400 residents. 

Soon, I was asked by the director of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts if I would consider moving the venue to the Newport Performing Arts Center. That made sense to me because I was already living in Newport. I changed the name to the Nye Beach Writers’ Series to reflect the new location and continued as a volunteer director.

How did your camper van travels in the early 1990s affect both your writing and your general outlook on life? What was it like to be living what is now called “van life” in a time before its mainstream popularization?

My writing did change as I traveled and needed to produce prose, as opposed to poetry or the technical writing I’d been doing at Intel as a freelancer. I had a good editor next to me in the (literal) driver’s seat, who was an exacting teacher about the written word. No plot or story arc is needed in poetry. No character development. Storytelling is a whole different approach to communication and the road trip provided the time and space to practice.

The road trip also made it impossible for me to return to a sedate life in Portland. By that time, my son was in high school and living with his father, so I took advantage of not having any home base and continued my travels with just my trusty dog. I spent the next few years with friends and family in Oregon and California, helping them with deaths, moves, and projects, while continuing with my own writing as my full-time job. After another four years, I realized that although I loved living in the van and being so free, I needed to settle down somewhere. It was as if my “real” life wouldn’t start again until I did. I came across an ad for a tiny cabin in a forest along the Siuslaw River and moved in, but it was too lonely after a year and a half — and too dark and damp in the forest. I had no one to talk with except when I filled up the van with gas, or went to the library in Florence, the nearest town with a grocery store. 

Now, I’m getting ready to do it again. I love that life and I’ve missed it terribly because it afforded a way of traveling and an open-ended amount of time. I plan to visit a lot of the writers who I met through the writers series. They are always so welcoming, because they had such a great time here — what a treat to be able to stay with them. Though, while the different geologies of the land formations, cities, and lifestyles you see when traveling are incredible … the Pacific Northwest is really the best.

Why did you choose to go to school for writing?

I was a silent child who did not do well in academics, and so college seemed out of the question. But I had a teacher who believed I could write. She suggested I apply to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and wrote a letter of recommendation. I was accepted as a freshman with a major in Creative Writing/Poetry, and minors in Mandarin Chinese, which I had been studying for two years at Columbia University and China Institute at the insistence of my mother, and in printmaking.

I went to Iowa to get out of Manhattan and away from my family. I’d never heard of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but since they accepted me, I went. I didn’t even know which direction I was flying when I left the New York airport. I thought by studying writing, I’d have a chance of passing most of my courses.

You once said that your goal with the Nye Beach Writers’ Series was to “present the best writers, no matter what format … people who have something to talk about and the language skills to permeate and caress our hardened skulls … after all, we’re competing with television, jammies, and comfortable couches.” Looking back, do you think you were able to achieve that?

Yes. I was able to achieve those lofty aims. I often went to other cities where writers were reading their work to “audition” them for their ability to perform well. It takes more than just excellent writing skills to enrapture an audience and keep them coming back, month after month, especially when they aren’t familiar with the names of the featured authors. I had people tell me they attended each month because they knew whoever I had chosen would be exciting to meet and learn from. I felt it was important to honor the writers by always providing a stipend ($25 when we started out), plus lodging for the entire weekend, not just one night. And for years afterward, I received letters from high school students who had participated in the open mic, telling me how their experience at the Writers’ Series changed how they saw themselves and expressed themselves, and how it had encouraged them to carry on the tradition. Many featured writers took the time to write to me afterward saying it was the best experience they’d ever had when reading at a public event. They felt nurtured and cared for and appreciated. 

It is difficult to get people to leave their cozy homes at night to attend a poetry reading, but we often had standing-room-only audiences. I was able to become friends with many of the writers I most wanted to meet just by inviting them and scheduling a date for them to show up. Alas, I was never able to entice Bob Dylan to come to the Oregon Coast.

Can you tell me about your first book of poems and illustrations, No Questions Asked, No Answers Given, published in 1971?

As a student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I was required to write and hand in several poems at every class, which were reproduced for others to evaluate and comment on. After four years, I had plenty of material to collect into a book, and since my husband was working at a print shop that served as the “underground” press in Iowa City, I was given the opportunity to print some of my poetry. Iowa City was a hotbed of literary experimentation in those days, and somehow I was invited to submit work to national publications, which was quite thrilling. I knew most of the undergraduate writers, some of the grad students, plus the local activists and independent bookstore owners, so sliding into my own first published book of poems and illustrations was a bit too easy.

When you were taking submissions for Dancing Moon Press, what type of works were you looking to publish? What caught your eye?

There are three main things that I look for: surprise in the topic, a high quality of writing, and the risk-taking that the author is doing. These, for me, are what make a successful work.

Do you have any advice for young writers today?

Young writers need to write a lot; they need the practice. They need honest feedback from other writers through peer groups and workshop education. Become friends with a strident editor. My advice is also to use as few words as possible to get your meaning across. Remove the word “that” just about everywhere it appears. Learn to write dialogue that sounds like people actually talk. When settling in to write, put yourself in the scene and pay attention to your senses. What is the temperature? The ambient sounds? The scents and smells? Describe all that in detail for yourself, then begin to write. Read A Writer’s Coach by Jack Hart and Between The Lines by Jessica Morrell.

By becoming an editor of other people’s works as part of the publishing process, I had to learn a great deal. I read a lot of books on writing and teaching others how to become better writers. The more writing you do, the better you get. You need to release so many words and mundane thoughts to become a better writer. 

When I interviewed Ken Kesey about Sometimes a Great Notion, for example, he said it was his favorite book he’d written because it broke new ground in writing. Once you get into the pattern of the book, you understand who is speaking and there’s an evolution. The whole book is a continuation, and it amused him. Plowing new ground is the most exciting thing. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, on the other hand, he said was just an average book to him. If you study this to some degree, you learn technique.

Amy Leona Havin is a writer, choreographer, and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based multi-media dance company The Holding Project. Her works can be read in Humana Obscura, San Diego Poetry Annual, The Dust Magazine, The Chronicle, Mountain Bluebird Magazine, and others, and she has been shortlisted for the Bridport International Writing Competition Prize in Poetry. Havin’s artistic process is rooted in classical and somatic movement practices, non-fiction writing, and honoring the landscape of the natural world.

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks a huge bunch, Amy Leona! You made me sound like a heck of a lot of fun. It’s been a wild ride and I appreciate everyone who got me here. Good job distilling all that history.

  2. Re interview with Carla, a super job. Carla is not only an excellent writer, she’s a real human being, and that fact is made quite clear in the interview. I know since, in my former life, I practiced law and “interviews” was my life. Double hurrahs – one for Carla and one for Amy

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