poetry writing

Poet Alice Derry: Speaking out against barbarism

Derry, who will lead a workshop on writing political poetry at the Terroir Writing Festival, says the personal is the way to approach bearing witness

Aspiring poets who struggle either with writing or getting published should take heart from the example of Alice Derry. She doesn’t consider herself a natural; a teacher even once “shut down” her work in school, she said. But she discovered early on that poetry provided her with “necessary oxygen,” and she made it her life’s work.

On Saturday, Derry will lead a workshop at the sold-out Terroir Creative Writing Festival in McMinnville on “Writing the Political Poem.” Many of her poems are political in nature, with topics that range from the psychic scars left by Nazi Germany to the Sandy Hook school shooting. Derry’s approach, according to the workshop notes, is to “begin with the personal and vulnerable, and then reach out, drawing honest and authentic parallels.”

Alice Derry says she “came to poetry consciously mostly through desire and not through an inherent love of language.” She adds, “My first book of poems involved a 10-year process of reading, writing, revising, revising, revising.”

Alice Derry says she “came to poetry consciously, mostly through desire, and not through an inherent love of language.” She adds, “My first book of poems involved a 10-year process of reading, writing, revising, revising, revising.”

Derry’s “personal and vulnerable” approach is evident in her work, which includes six poetry collections, the most recent of which is Hunger, published in 2018 by Tillamook-based MoonPath Press. Prior to corresponding with her this spring, I sat down with Hunger and then later with an earlier collection, Strangers to Their Courage. This book, according to her website, was “distilled from more than thirty years of experiences with the Germans and their language” and explores the meaning of “her investment in a population compromised and reviled” by 20th-century fascism and the Holocaust. Poems in this collection are based in large part on conversations with relatives who lived in Germany during World War II. The book was a finalist for the 2002 Washington Book Award.

Derry is an Oregon native raised in Montana and Washington, where she taught writing and German at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Wash., for 30 years before retiring. Her work has appeared Southern Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Portland Review, The Seattle Review, Hubbub, Crab Creek Review, and Raven Chronicles. She also can lay claim to having had Raymond Carver say this about her first manuscript, Stages of Twilight: “I felt she was writing about real things, things that counted. Her poems seemed honest in their conception and execution — they made a claim on my interest right away. I would even say they made a claim on my heart.”

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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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