Oregon poets

Kim Stafford’s great energy swap

"We're back to where poetry has escaped the book. It’s not in the zoo of the library where it's looking out through the bars of its cage."

After a recent conversation with Kim Stafford, Oregon’s ninth poet laureate, an idea coalesced for me, that the great energy swap—the invisible exchange between sentient creatures that either fuels or depletes us—is really our most valuable currency. At least for me, this phenomenon has come more clearly into focus this past year when interactions have been fewer and somehow more deliberate.

I met Kim online via Zoom, and we enjoyed a serpentining conversation that covered his most recent book, QR Codes, the writing life, writing programs, editing and publishing, and the place of poetry in culture. Stafford is affable and authentic, even over a screen; his presence and amplitude filled the energy tank for days to follow. 

Singer Come from Afar – his most recent poetry collection, comprised of five sections and a masterful afterword – serves as a lighted pathway for weary travelers. A panoramic and compassionate inquiry into what it means to be human this exact second, the book is an account of a writer’s mighty vision and the execution of that vision, as offered by the poet himself. “Poetry is our native language,” Stafford told me. “It’s not some esoteric departure. Justified prose in books is a departure. To speak with pauses—that’s lines of poetry, where the pause is as important as the words. That’s how poetry works, and that’s how human interaction works. My mission is to restore poetry to its rightful place as our common language.”

Kim Stafford in his natural element Photo: Kendrick Moholt

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Photo Shoot: Six Oregon Poets

Photographer K.B. Dixon focuses on National Poetry Month with portraits of half a dozen leading Oregon writers


TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


April marks the 25th Anniversary of National Poetry Month, which was launched in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets. It has become one of the largest literary celebrations in the world.

The portraits here of Oregon poets are previously unpublished images from a series I did in 2019 that focused on Oregon writers in general—the unusually gifted people who make up this state’s diverse and dynamic literary culture.   

My hope back then was to call attention to the uniquely rewarding work of these talented people and, as always, to produce a good photograph. I have the same hope today. 

KIM STAFFORD

Oregon’s ninth Poet Laureate, 2018-20; founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College. His newest collection of poems, Singer Come From Afar, will be released April 27, 2021.

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‘Lilies’ Rising

How poet Joni Renee Whitworth transformed the pandemic experience into an award-winning experimental short film

“Of course, lesbians have dreamt of this for years: sleeping in late, reading to each other, fretting over the cat, cooking, stretching, listening to jazz in silks. No parties to attend.” Those are the first words in Lilies, an experimental short film written by poet Joni Renee Whitworth, who wanted it to communicate their passion for finding ecstasy in the midst of tragedy—even during a pandemic.

“I know a lot of people felt like joy and pleasure were not allowed last year, and they would feel kind of guilty or try to hide when something was going well,” Whitworth says. “And I’m so disheartened by that response. We can’t build a society where joy and pleasure are not allowed. Because the hard stuff will always be there, and last year was harder than most—harder than any I’ve known.”

“Lilies” in the field: Collaborators Hannah Piper Burns (left) and Joni Renee Whitworth.

Created in collaboration with Hannah Piper Burns, Lilies is a nine-minute kaleidoscope of sounds and images that coalesce into a rush of hope and anguish. It invokes Whitworth’s experience as a queer artist surviving the pandemic, while offering a sweeping meditation on post-COVID life (Whitworth’s characterization of the “choreographed veering” required to avoid other humans is one of many potent observations about current social protocols).

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‘It’s not my poetry that matters, it’s poetry that matters’

Conversation and coffee with Oregon Book Awards finalist José Angel Araguz. Plus, McMinnville's festival of recycled art.

Here are two ways to know a poet:

One is to read the work, which in the case of José Angel Araguz, offers an astonishingly intimate window into his journals – not “poetry notebooks,” per se, but the Moleskines where he writes his personal diary by hand. Here, one gets a sense of his concerns and perspectives, his feel for language, etc. After completing a volume, he’ll put it aside, and only a year or two later when he returns does the poetry start to take shape.

The other is to meet for coffee.

I did both. As I drained an Americano at Starbucks, Araguz apologized a couple of times for the “tangential” nature of his thoughts, which over the course of an hour twisted and turned through anecdotes, opinions, and recollections. Interviews like this can be tough, though this one soon morphs into the kind that isn’t – an absorbing conversation with a clear takeaway, which is this: This gentle-spoken, 36-year-old first-generation American from Corpus Christi, Texas, is as passionate an advocate for poetry as you’re likely to meet.

Yamhill County poet José Angel Araguz: an advocate for poetry.

Araguz was among those up for an award Monday at the Oregon Book Awards, held in the Gerding Theater at the Armory in Portland. His collection Until We Are Level Again, published in 2018 by Mongrel Empire Press, was nominated for the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry by Oregon Literary Arts. Like much of his work, it’s a memoirish collection inspired by the years he spent growing up poor, and particularly, by a father who died in prison when Araguz was only seven.

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‘Writing poems gave me the chance to know myself’

Oregon poet Lynn Otto, who will participate in McMinnville's Terroir Creative Writing Festival, talks about what people seek in reading and writing poetry

This weekend marks the 10th annual Terroir Creative Writing Festival, which for the first time in the event’s history has sold out. Organizers hit the legal capacity for their venue in McMinnville weeks ago and started a waiting list. Fortunately, we reached out to a couple of the poets who are giving workshops this weekend and today offer the first of those interviews below. On Wednesday, look for a conversation with Alice Derry.

Lynn Otto earned her MFA from Portland State University and serves on the board of the Oregon Poetry Association. Prior to our email exchange, I read her first collection, Real Daughter, published this year by Unicorn Press. In more than 60 poems, Otto shifts gracefully and sometimes mysteriously from writing as a daughter who is bearing witness to her parents’ advance in years to her capacity as a mother. Even here, the perspective is not always clear. In one poem, Makeup (The Mother, the Daughter and the Other Daughter Speak), she appears to be writing as her daughter. The cover features artwork, Knit Process V, by Carol MacDonald.

"I read somewhere that most poets are people who, for some reason or other, have not been able to speak in any other way," says Lynn Otto. "I wonder whether more people are writing poems because they feel unheard."

“I read somewhere that most poets are people who, for some reason or other, have not been able to speak in any other way,” says Lynn Otto. “I wonder whether more people are writing poems because they feel unheard.”

Publication was originally set for last October after the book won the North Carolina publisher’s 2017 First Book Award, but flooding in that state delayed the book until January. Otto said she met Unicorn editor Andrew Saulters at the recent Association of Writers & Writing Programs book fair in Portland and learned more about the delay. “Unicorn Press hand-makes their books,” she explained. “The pages are hand-folded, punctured with an awl, and sewn, and the signatures [sections of pages] are hand-glued into each cover. After that, each book is trimmed. The hardcovers take even longer.” All that for a print run of 501 copies.

Otto has presided over poetry workshops before in Yamhill County, and this weekend she’ll work with a lucky few at the Terroir Festival. At the top of our interview, I asked for her thoughts about the poetry world.

I suppose it’s a bit silly to inquire about “the state of poetry,” as that’s so subjective, but let’s start by throwing the door open for you to call attention to any issues, trends, problems, etc. you see. Basically, what’s on your mind?

Otto: I’m not a cultural analyst or part of an academic community that might be discussing such things, so my take on “the state of poetry” is indeed subjective. There’s certainly no lack of it. You can read poetry all day without even cracking a book, thanks to websites such as the Poetry Foundation and scads of online journals. New titles are printed all the time, especially by indie presses.

What I suspect, though, is that there are more people writing poetry than reading it. I see so-called poems posted on Facebook and Instagram, for example, that are little more than emotional outbursts broken into short lines. Writing is a great way to process emotion, but, because most readers don’t read poems in order to find out what it’s like to sit in the therapist’s chair, writers need to offer something more satisfying if they’re going to make their work public.

You’re giving a workshop at Terroir called “Moving Your Reader to Move Your Reader.” Could you elaborate?

One of my aims is to help writers think about how their choices affect where readers find themselves as they read — where the poem takes them in place and time, and in relationship to the poem’s speaker and subject. As a reader, I don’t want to be put in the therapist’s chair. It’s not a place that allows me to be moved by the poem.

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