The moon is wet nurse
to roses. She suckles
each soft-mouthed poppy.
Blame her for menses.
Rail at her for the craving
to binge and purge.
Please her when you choose
to delay the day for planting,
biding your time
until night has fattened
her silver torso. Praise her
when the fleck of seed
poked down into damp dark
takes hold and swells.
Any girl-child is always her offspring.
Upbraid her for your daughter’s
sass and door-slams,
that hot hurry to be what most
differs from you.
Long ago, the moon decided
on a pathway against the route
stars take. No one else
would dare to walk
the black sky backward.
~Paulann Petersen, The Voluptuary, Lost Horse Press, 2010
Paulann Petersen was a high school teacher holding student readings at my library when I first met her. Now as poet laureate for the state of Oregon, Petersen’s impact on the poetic lives of others has become far-reaching, an opportunity she clearly does not take lightly.
I asked my lovely friend to talk with me about what it means to live a poetic life, and how one can do get even better at living in gratitude, to the betterment of not just ourselves but our communities.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: You write and speak about writing as transformation, as a means to “create ourselves.” Is there one poem in particular that in the process of writing it you became changed?
Paulann Petersen: Every poem—in the process of its creation—changes me. Writing the following poem revealed to me the nature of art. Art is the food for others that feeds its creator, too.
Become that high priest,
the bee. Drone your way
from one fragrant
temple to another, nosing
into each altar. Drink
and while you’re there,
let some of the sacred
cling to your limbs.
Wherever you go
leave a small trail
of its golden crumbs.
In your wake
the world unfolds
its rapture, the fruit
of its blooming.
Rooms in your house
fill with that sweetness
your body both
makes and eats.
~from A Bride of Narrow Escape, Cloudbank Books, 2006
The wonder isn’t that lightning
strikes where it does, but that it doesn’t
strike everywhere. Specifically me.
It isn’t the frequency of car crashes,
but their infrequency. Traffic flicks along
in its speed and perplexity, each move,
each surge a potential disaster.
The heart beats out its strange
litany of the enormously possible,
never excluding disease and stricture.
Why does my blood run so easy and warm?
This is the wonder: me approaching
the traffic light just turned yellow,
my foot pressing my trust down
into the brake, the car in agreement
coming steady steady to a stop.
~Paulann PetersenPrairie Schooner, Volume 73, No. 2
A Bride of Narrow Escape, Cloudbank Books, 2005
Deanna Phoenix Selene: How would you describe in a sentence the theme of your most autobiographical collection, A Bride of Narrow Escape?
Paulann Petersen: I’m grateful to be widely and wildly awake, grateful to be alive in this marvelous life.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What advice do you have to all those who wish to connect youth with poetry? How can poetry remain current to the new generations coming up?
Paulann Petersen: As the Writers’ Workshop teacher at West Linn HS, I tried to both encourage students to write their own poetry and to introduce them to the work of fine poets. We did not spend a great deal of time explicating and analyzing the poets we read. I tried to point out effective strategies those poets were using, and to suggest the possibilities of students following suit. But I wanted that experience to be one of poetry appreciation, not poetry academics.
Paulann Petersen: I gave students lots of springboards to generate new writing from them. I emphasized risk-taking and serendipity. I looked for ways for student work to be published, to be heard. The readings at the end of each term, the ones held at the West Linn Library, were astonishingly successful. SRO. And virtually all the students in the Writers’ Workshop classes, even those who were very shy, gave readings. Marvelous! The gracious hospitality you extended to those students and their families and friends played a substantial role in the success of those readings, Deanna.
Poetry is alive and well in our schools right now. The National Poetry Out Loud competition is evidence of that. The slam competitions are evidence of that.
Given arms, the sun
would choose to grow many.
Having many narrow arms,
the sun would—at each limb’s end—
flare into a palm and fingers,
into the curves made for reaching.
Extremities of flame, of shine.
Hands that carry enough
heat and light to give away.
Be that sun. One small sun.
~Paulann Petersen, “When Meeting the other,” Kindle, Mountains and Rivers Press, 2008
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Connection and accessibility are common themes for you. If writing is a balancing act between the personal and universal, do you feel that deeply accessing one’s inner life naturally leads to greater empathy and resonance with others? Can personal writing be inclusive? When is it not? Pitfalls to avoid?
I think you may be asking about writing that communicates with only its creator. The writer knows what she or he is saying, but others don’t.
Each writer needs to decide how accessible her or his work will be. Some people write for only themselves. Their work is private, not intended for other readers or listeners. That’s fine. But if a writer’s work is intended for other readers, then that writer has to be aware of the choices necessary to make that work accessible to others. And the writer has to decide on the degree of accessibility she or he desires.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Poems of yours are now being enjoyed within Portland’s Tri-met public transportation system as part of their Poetry in Motion program. What has this been like to see your words up there as a part of people’s everyday lives? What are some other ways we can make poetry more a larger part of our daily interactions?
In Eugene, a large downtown parking garage has installed large posters of poems (each behind a plexiglass sheet) on each landing of the two stairwells at the west and east ends of the parking structure.
Many people in Portland, many people in Oregon, have put up poetry posts outside their houses, a place to post poems for passersby. I have one in the parking strip in front of my Sellwood house. I have broadsides of poems on the walls of virtually every wall inside my house.
People have been known to slip copies of favorite poems randomly into library books on the shelves, knowing that eventually someone will check those books out and discover treasures hidden there. There are as many ways to make poems a part of our daily lives as there are good poems. And that number is considerable.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: In poems like, “Replenish,” one hears the moisture of Oregon reflected in your aesthetic sensibility. How much has environment played a role in your writing? What have you learned from nature?
Paulann Petersen: Being an Oregonian, having spent my life in Oregon, has had a profound effect on my writing. Oregon is mountains, ocean, high desert, rain forest. It’s the hotsprings in Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge, the Church of Elvis in downtown Portland, pelicans on Klamath Lake, herons in Oaks Bottom on the Willamette. Oregon is abundance, a variety vast and gorgeous. It teaches me inclusiveness and gratitude. Oregon encourages a wide embrace.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: How can we begin to become more awake in our senses, as artists and human beings, parents, lovers?
Come, Love, and rest
your sleep in me.
Let our two sleeps
slip back and forth between
our selves in a tide
the night’s deep wave.
I will hurt nothing in you
as you eddy and surge,
as we swell, drift,
first into, then out of our
Only by the faint taste
of morning’s salt on our skin
will we know how far
we have been.
justice will take us millions of intricate moves.”
These are the words of William Stafford, from a poem of his called “Thinking for Berky.” Bill Stafford was well aware of “the million intricate moves” required for justice. He practiced those moves his whole life—in the time he served in the Civilian Public Service camps as a conscientious objector, a “CO,” during WWII; in the poems he wrote daily; in his bearing witness—moment to moment—as a husband, a father, a teacher, a spokesman.
William Stafford. Poet, visionary. For all his life, Bill acted on his belief in the non-violent resolution of conflict. He bore witness to that belief with every move, with every word, in each of the thousands of poems he wrote. He bore witness, in his very presence, to human equality—as he expressed it, the necessity “to meet each person as a separate, luminous being.”
One of the lessons, the messages, one of the gifts emanating from Bill’s poems is a reminder of the advantage of attentiveness. Attention to little things. Many of his poems begin—were obviously occasioned by—Bill noticing something, usually something small, then inviting that something onto the page, then following—gladly following—the trail made by that something. What a marvelous example for us all.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: You’ve said that “all art is obsession.” How is society served when its members become passionate about their work? Is there room enough for all of us to be creative?
Paulann Petersen: There are achingly empty spaces, spaces waiting for us to fill them with our creativity.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: How does being a woman and a mother inform your writing? Do you feel you are more deeply drawn to certain themes or aspects of nature–the moon, for instance? Is there such a thing as a distinctly feminine voice?
Paulann Petersen: Most poets have some poems that could be attributed to either a male or female creator. And there are male poets who write persona poems in the voices of females, and vice versa. But I can’t imagine someone, anyone, reading a fair number of my poems and assuming they were written by a man. I don’t know if mine is a “distinctly feminine voice,” but it seems to me to have female DNA coded in its blood.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: And finally, a question from my eight-year-old daughter, Faith, who participated in a community poetry workshop you led last month: “Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?”
Paulann Petersen: Hello, dear Faith. I remember you well, and I recall listening to you read aloud, to those other people at your table, what you’d just written at that CCC workshop this May. They were very impressed, and so was I. Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote? My guess is that your first poem was remarkable.
I don’t know if it was the first poem I ever wrote, but I do recall vividly writing a poem when I was ten. It was an assignment for school, and I took it seriously. I took all school assignments seriously. So that day after school (no, I hadn’t developed my capacities for procrastination yet), I carried pencil, paper, and a kitchen chair out into our backyard and sat down to write. The reasoning that led me out there? That’s a complete mystery to me now. My teacher hadn’t said to go outside and write a nature poem. But that’s what I did. Somewhere I’d gotten the notion that poets took themselves out into nature when they intended to write a poem. Our backyard was at hand. I used it.
I also remember clearly the first two lines of that poem. “Oh look up yonder and over the hill,/ For there stands the first spring daffodil.” Pretty unremarkable, except for the partial rhyme. And far-fetched. From our backyard there were no hills in sight. Maybe a daffodil or two, but no hills. That’s all I remember of that poem, but I recall vividly how my teacher reacted to it. She thought I’d copied it. Over and over she said to me, “Don’t lie to me, Paulann. Tell me where you copied it.”
I don’t remember how the whole problem worked itself out. Maybe my mother vouched for me. Maybe my teacher tired of trying to twist a confession out of me. Regardless, I think she never came to believe that I’d written that poem.
I invited Paulann’s daughter, Edie Lungreen, a writer herself, to share a few words on what it was like bring raised by a woman who is so devoted to encouraging writing and a love of poetry in others. Here is what she shared:
“I feel fortunate that all my parents (by biology and marriage) are people who value creativity and ideas. Growing up, I was surrounded by books, not only many of the literature classics, but also nonfiction books—ancient religions, history, art, and philosophy. Mom took me to the library often, and she rarely made a distinction between books for children and books for adults. Whether by example or encouragement, she was always there to further my efforts in whatever I was interested in—art, music, or writing. In particular, I have benefited from her teaching me how to objectively review and edit my writing for more polished and powerful results.
Mom’s passion for writing is only exceeded by her generosity in sharing that passion. Like the tide that lifts all boats, her readiness to spread her enthusiasm to others allows all of us—family, friends, and students—to express our creativity to its fullest.”
Paulann Petersen is Oregon’s sixth and current Poet Laureate.
Paulann Petersen is a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University whose poems have appeared in many publications including Poetry, The New Republic, Prairie Schooner, and Wilderness Magazine. She has four chapbooks–Under the Sign of a Neon Wolf, The Animal Bride, Fabrication, and The Hermaphrodite Flower. Her first full-length collection of poems, The Wild Awake, was published by Confluence Press in 2002. A second, Blood-Silk, poems about Turkey, was published by Quiet Lion Press of Portland in 2004. A Bride of Narrow Escape was published by Cloudbank Books as part of its Northwest Poetry Series in 2006. Kindle was published by Mountains and Rivers Press in 2008. Her latest book, The Voluptuary, was recently published by Lost Horse Press.
Her work has been selected for the web site Poetry Daily and for Poetry in Motion, which puts poems on buses and light rail cars in the Portland metropolitan area. The recipient of Oregon Literary Arts’ 2006 Holbrook Award, Paulann has taught a number of poetry workshops for colleges, libraries, and writers’ conferences, including Fishtrap, Oregon Writers’ Workshop in Portland (Northwest College of Art, Portland Art Museum), Mountain Writers Series, Oregon State Poetry Association, The Creative Arts Community at Menucha, Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College, and the Lifelong Learning Institute at Chemeketa Community College. She serves on the board for Friends of William Stafford, organizing the annual January William Stafford Birthday Events.
Visit Paulann’s website at: Paulann.net
About the Artist:
“My painting process is additive & subtractive, similar to geologic rhythm.
Using sketches inspired by nature, thin paint layers are applied using trowels and handmade tools.
Painting is then wet sanded revealing subtle texture & color patterns.”
Visit Mike’s artist website: Mike Baggetta Studio