‘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 threw the floor open for any thoughts she had about the poetry world — trends, problems, etc.

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 what Otto calls 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?

Otto: 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.

I find that reading poems closely, reading with the questions, “How is it made? How does it work?” helps me write. Formally studying poetry, studying writing, has, of course, helped me recognize the strategies poets use. A lot of people want to write poems but haven’t had much help in reading poems with any sort of appreciation for how they’re put together. When I teach a class at the Chehalem Cultural Center, or give a conference writing workshop, it’s always partly a reading workshop.

Obviously, those who sign up for a workshop have an interest in poetry, but do you have a sense of what their exposure has been? I suppose this may hinge to some extent on their age, but I’m curious about younger people. Do you have a sense of where they’ve been getting their poetry?

That’s hard to answer. Most of my workshop participants are older. Certainly young people seem to be the primary readers of the Instapoets online. No doubt they hear music lyrics. Some are introduced to the craft by teachers, while some have teachers who avoid the genre or skate over it. Some find their way to poetry of protest, spoken word, poetry slams. Some become poetry converts when they learn a poem for the Poetry Out Loud competition. I’m guessing a greater percentage of 12- to 20-year-olds are into poetry today than were a decade or two ago.

When you can name the tools in your garage and know what can be made with them, you’re more likely to use them, and use them well. It’s the same with poetic tools. And I think people who practice using those tools and work hard to craft good poems have more fun and satisfaction than the people who just want to get their feelings out there on Facebook.

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

What’s interesting is that, regardless of what it is they find inexpressible or what they want people to hear, their instinct is to write poetry. Not an essay, not a letter to the editor, but a poem. Why is that?

A few reasons. There is silence on the page, and a poem doesn’t fill it up like an essay would. Instead, it makes brief forays into it. Also, a poem can say something without coming right out and saying it, so one can hide a bit. That wouldn’t work so well in, say, a letter to the editor. And maybe such people have difficulty speaking because words are just not enough. They need other poetic tools as well.

Let’s talk about your work. How did Real Daughter come about?

I began writing the poems during my MFA studies at Portland State University. Eighteen of the poems, or versions of them, were in my master’s thesis, completed in spring of 2013, and the remaining poems were written since then — a few even during the time between the manuscript’s acceptance and publication.

During those years, I was losing people I loved. My relationship with one of my kids was very broken; my mother was dying of ALS (I was helping care for her); and the leaders of the church made it clear that women who had things to say were not welcome, so I left, losing some friends and a support network.

But I discovered that writing poems offered some relief, even while writing about the hard things. I could focus on the language, the space, the rhythm. If I could shut up my inner critic — and I usually could by telling myself I was just practicing — I found writing poems so absorbing that I would lose track of time. And in the process, my voice — my self — began coming through. I discovered how I felt and what I thought. Maybe that sounds strange, but I must have learned to ignore what was in my head and heart — maybe it’s how girls were socialized in my particular world — and writing poems gave me the chance to know myself as a whole person again.

As the poems piled up, I noticed a few themes I seemed to be obsessed with, and the book took shape around those.

It’s a mesmerizing approach to autobiographical terrain. One of your poems, Reading Wendell Berry to My Parents in the Hospital, That Distant Land Comes Close (wow, what a scene!) had me wondering how you came to poetry. Did your parents read it themselves, or read it to you as a child?

I’m glad you liked Reading Wendell Berry. It is indeed autobiographical, though not all the poems are. For example, I don’t know anyone who makes ships in bottles, as in Dry Dock, but that poem is in this book because it speaks to the way we can get used to things, even being stuck, and that’s relevant for the themes of the book. Otter is another poem that isn’t factual, but it carries some truth about how the relationship of a child and a parent impacts the child’s perceptions and self-trust.

My early poems were nursery rhymes, along with the hymns and psalms we sang in church — their language and rhythms have lodged in me somewhere. I have always loved books, but didn’t really encounter books of poems until my mother acquired a few when I was in junior high. I remember finding them intriguing and exhilarating, and I tried writing a few of my own (which my dad liked and said I should send to Reader’s Digest, which I did. Apparently, neither of us noticed that Reader’s Digest doesn’t print poems. They sent me two little yellow rejection slips.).

I didn’t write poems again until I was in my forties. That’s when I heard Garrison Keillor read poems on Writer’s Almanac, and I started noticing how poems worked. One day when my husband was away on a research trip, I wrote one — a little fantasy about getting rid of the TV in his absence. I had such a good time that I kept at it. I joined a critique group, where I learned a ton, including how much I still wanted to learn. I eventually applied to the MFA in Creative Writing program at Portland State University.

Your bio in the back of the book says you live in Oregon. One image in the collection, “mud-bloated cattle among the fattened crows discussing the landscape,” had me wondering if you grew up in the country.

I grew up in Washington on four acres between Tacoma and Puyallup, and my grandparents were dairy farmers nearby. I then lived for many years in the Midwest. But I moved to Oregon nearly 17 years ago, and have lived here ever since, aside from academic year 2015-16 at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina.

What’s your role with the Oregon Poetry Association? What are you focusing on?

I’m the treasurer, bookkeeper, and grant writer of the Oregon Poetry Association. OPA aims to connect people interested in poetry, to nurture poets, and to promote poetry in Oregon. My role is to make sure we do it without going into the red. I’m a big fan of spreadsheets, and numbers are a nice break from the words that fill my working and writing hours.

Primus St. John

Primus St. John

Is there any particular poem or poet whose work you’d like to call attention to, work that deserves a bigger audience?

Oregon poets I’m rereading lately are Michele Glazer and Primus St. John, and I’m enjoying a recent collection by Amy Miller, The Trouble with New England Girls. A past poet that I hope Oregonians know about is Hazel Hall, who wrote many poems in the 1920s as she watched the streets of Portland from the window of her room, a sort of West Coast Emily Dickinson, though Hall’s confinement was due to illness. She’s well worth reading, and there’s a nice collection of her work edited by John Witte and published by Oregon State University Press.

Hazel Hall

Hazel Hall

Your website says that you enjoy “collaborative” art like plays, music, film, etc. What’s the last play or film you saw that took your breath away?

I loved Into the Spider-Verse, the texture of it, the way they used the screen as a comic book page. I’m not really into superhero movies, but it was so cool. And hey, it ended in a great collaboration! All the spider-people working together! Then, I know it’s not the most interesting part of a movie when the credits roll and the list of names just goes on and on, but I actually find it kind of thrilling: The creativity and skills of so many people have gone into making this new thing!

Writing poems, in contrast, is rather solitary. Though I see myself more as a member of a vast choir than as a solo performer. I don’t think I could write without the work of other poets in my ears, and my poems are better because of the careful critiques of first readers. Real Daughter, of course, consists of more than my poems: the cover art by Carol MacDonald, the back-cover blurbs, the interior design, the construction of the book, even the paper. Many minds, many hands, many skills. And a lot of practice!

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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