Poet Laureate Paulann Petersen: Writing Your Understory


Paulann Petersen

Paulann Petersen


This week I was double-blessed. On Saturday, I participated in two writing workshops led by Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Paulann Petersen, (the latter being a mixed-ages affair in which my nine-year-old daughter was also able to join in). Two days later, I had the pleasure of attending Paulann’s deeply sensual reading from her new book, Understory, (to be officially released on April 29th) at the Powell’s Books in Portland.

As an Oregon librarian who’s invited Petersen to lead a number of workshops for our community over the many years I have known her, I’ve had the rich privilege of witnessing firsthand the effect of Petersen’s gentle guidance on emerging poets.

Now I’d like to share some of that luscious experience with you.

What follows then is a small taste of one of the “springboard” exercises Petersen uses with her workshop participants. I invite you to use this as an opportunity to play with language and memory yourself, Paulann Petersen-style. Enjoy!




magine yourself seated at a table with others from your community who share your passion for what evocative words and phrases can express. And then, wandering about the room as she gives her gentle directions, imagine the poet laureate herself, rich voice humming as she floats from writer to writer, witnessing your creative progress and edging you still further on…


Now, the exercise:

1.) To begin, think of a month of the year that resonates deeply with you. (A time of the year when you are particularly attuned to an abundance of strong sensual details.) Write that month down.

2.) If your month was a color, what color would it be? Write down the name of that color and picture it. Feel it.

3.) If your month was a musical instrument, what musical instrument?

4.) And if your month was a tree? Write the variety of tree.

5.) If your month was a body of water, what body of water would it choose to be? (Be as specific as you can. Which lake, stream, puddle? Where is it located?)

6.) Now your month gets to be a piece of music. Can you hear it? Write the name of that piece of music down.

7.) Now take a deep intake of breath and smell the scent that your month brings to you. Is it orange spice? Vanilla? Gasoline? (Note that our sense of smell is the sense that is most intimately related to memory.)

8.) Now, imagining that month, that tree, that body of water, that instrument, that music, that color, that scent…put yourself in a particular location where as much of these elements can be experienced. Write down three things that you see.

9.) Write down three sounds that reach your ears from that spot.

10.) Quickly now! Generate a list of common concrete nouns, the first ten or a dozen that come to you (think of words like, window, shadow, twin, moon…). From that list, choose three of those words that most speak to you.

11.) Finally, think of one person in particular. Someone very well known to you. Put them in your location, in that month, with that tree…

12.) Now write! Give yourself fifteen to twenty minutes max. Write whatever comes to you, whatever flows, concentrating on bringing in as much specific sensory details as possible.

13.) Share this exercise with a friend and the poems that flow from it. Celebrate them!




Paulann Petersen will be reading at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, to kick off her new book.

From Powell’s website:

Understory2As with a forest’s understory — the level of vegetation growing under its canopy — these poems bear the shadows of a darker realm. Informed by myth and archetype, Paulann Petersen‘s work grows close to the earth, frequently delving into the chthonic. Occasioned by a wide geography and characterized by a large embrace, Petersen’s work celebrates both the singular and the quotidian, both the sidereal and the earth-bound — including poems for her furrier grandfather, for a revered poet’s first spoken word, for Hinduism’s sensuality, for a star-map painted on deer hide. Here a reader encounters a voice steeped in the music of the English language, a voice intent on the musical possibilities of poetry’s open and nonce forms. In these pages, a reader finds a voice indebted to the power of metaphor — the capacity of metaphor to transform both language itself and the way we humans see this world. Understory (Lost Horse Press) is the sixth full-length collection of poems from Petersen, Oregon’s sixth poet laureate.


As this is National Poetry Month, we are taking this opportunity to highlight past articles featuring poets we admire:

PaulannProfile dorianne-laxu-profile-pic-cu11 dawn-thompson-front-e1336613791150  
 Paulann Petersen Dorianne Laux Dawn Thompson  





Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.

Leave a Comment