If ever there were a patron saint of poetry, Paulann Petersen would be the woman for the job. A remarkable poet, an inviting and invigorating teacher and a uniquely generous supporter of poets, Paulann Petersen is the kind of person who simultaneously puts you completely at ease while your spine becomes electric with admiration. I'm honored to share Paulann Petersen's wisdom with you here. I hope that each and every one of you will have the opportunity to hold her poems in your hands, to hear her resonant delivery of those poems and to spend at least a day learning with her.
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What brought you to poetry? When did you start writing and why?
Poetry brought me to poetry. I'd written verse as a child. I'd tried a few imagistic poems in high school, and won a prize for Portland high school poets (from Northwest Review or maybe Portland Review). But--as much as I'd read since the moment I'd learned how to read--I'd read very little contemporary poetry until I was a young adult, a housewife with small children living in Klamath Falls. Then I began to discover the poems published weekly in the Saturday Review. Poems in The New Yorker. I was smitten. I began to haunt the poetry shelf (yes, one shelf) at the Klamath County Library. I was in love with what I found there.
J.D. Salinger says to decide what you most want to read and then write it. At that point, I don't think I'd encountered this bit of wisdom from him. But I had found some of the poetry that was spinning out of the poets of the day, of the moment--so fresh its ink was barely dry. I guess the desire to be a writer was there, inside me, waiting. A strong desire. I'd found what took my breath away, what I most wanted to read, to hear. And I began to write it.
It was a late start, a fairly solitary start. But I stole time from the Five-Acres-and-Independence life style I was following. I began, in earnest, to write poems. I wrote for the love of the words and their music. I wrote for escape. I wrote for exhilaration. I wrote for the giddy focus that writing poetry gave me.
Even so, for a number of years, writing was catch-as-catch-can for me. And it still gets that way when I allow other responsibilities to take precedence.
Is there a typical process, or writing ritual, by which your poems take shape?
I don't have a daily writing practice. I tend to write in spurts. For me, poems usually begin with a bit of language. Then I begin to riff, letting the language take me wherever it will. I let sound take over, if I can. I figure meaning will catch up soon enough.
You are the greatest champion of poetry I know and an awe-inspiring community builder. What is your philosophy about cultivating community and how this has made an impact on your life--and your writing?
These are very kind and generous words. And I thank you for them.
We have an extraordinary community of readers and writers in our area. And I like to support and contribute to it whenever I can. I believe in inclusiveness. I believe in open doors. I believe in a wide, wide embrace. Poetry is often criticized as being elitist. And that, to me, is about as wrong-headed as you can get. There are, certainly, writers and readers of poetry who are elitists. But that has very little to do with the nature of poetry itself.
I gave a basic poetry writing workshop at Central Library recently called "Anyone's Domain." In the description of the workshop, I said, "Poetry is not the domain of just a few. It's as natural and accessible as heartbeat and breath. Writing poetry requires nothing more than a love of words and a willingness to let your pen move across a page, following language wherever it takes you."
Poetry is the domain of each and every one of us. It's ours to read, ours to write.
This sense of, insistence on inclusiveness has had an impact on my writing. I'd like--without sacrificing music or mystery or quirkiness or risk--for my poems to be as accessible as they can be. I'd like as many people as possible to read one of my poems and feel welcome reading it. I don't expect my poems to be accessible to all readers, but I don't want them to be inhospitable. That's a matter of tone, and I want an inclusive tone.
What do you believe about revising poems?
I do not believe in what I call "the myth of divine delivery," that idea that poems are delivered to us by the muse and must remain exactly in the form in which they landed on the page.
Yes, yes, true, true: a few poems do arrive in virtually finished form. Maybe the slightest bit of fine-tuning, and they're done. But that, for most of us, is a rare occurrence. When it does happen, the poet should get down on her knees and give thanks.
For most of us, revision is a wonderful and large part of the process. A gritty, delicious part of the process. Just think about the word itself: revision. It means to see again. We have the opportunity to practice second sight! What a boon.
How has teaching influenced your relationship with poetry over the years?
Teaching teaches me--continually, constantly, repeatedly--about poetry's depth and breadth, its huge and buoying embrace.
What poetry are you reading these days and what about it delights you?
This is another of teaching's gifts: I'm reading widely, browsing here and there and there to find poems I want to bring into my workshops, to use as springboards. So I rediscover poets I love. Neruda. Garcia Lorca. I find poems by people I don't know well enough. Eavan Boland. Linda Pastan.
You serve on the board of Friends of William Stafford and have been organizing the annual January Stafford Birthday Events for many years now. What does this work mean to you and why do you do it?
To celebrate William Stafford's work is to celebrate a whole world-view. His life and his poems were/are seamless. Every word he wrote, every action he took, bore witness to his profound spirituality, to his belief in the non-violent resolution of conflict.
Would you be willing to share a poem of yours here with readers and tell us a bit about your experience conceiving, writing and polishing it?
I was in Turkey with my husband. We were staying in a tiny pine cabin in Adrasan, on the Mediterranean Sea. I'd been reading Rumi. We'd just come from Antalya, where the museum houses all the treasures from Perge. The dress of the famous marble Aphrodite of Perge (she of the multitude of breasts) is adorned with honeybees carved in relief. When I stood staring at this fabulous statue, I was at first surprised to see that bees decorated her gown. And then I realized how apt that was. I remembered reading in a natural history magazine, years before, that the world as we know it would not exist without water and pollen. And the bees, the bees, helping to move that pollen from blossom to blossom. How essential. How beautifully necessary. I began writing the poem that follows. And as it moved itself onto the page, I could feel that it was assuming a life as an ars poetica.
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.
How would you recommend that writers new to poetry might step into this way of perceiving and writing?
Read poetry. Read and read and read. One poet will lead you to another and another and another. Keep a journal. Let anything and everything into it. Some of what finds its way into that journal will begin to shape itself, with a certain amount of help from you, into poems. Browse through books such as Sage's Writing the Life Poetic. You can find wonderful ideas to help launch you towards poems.
How has poetry changed your life?
For the better. For nothing but the better.
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Paulann Petersen's books of poetry are The Wild Awake (Confluence Press), Blood-Silk (Quiet Lion Press), and A Bride of Narrow Escape (Cloudbank Books), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. A fourth collection, Kindle, is just out from Mountains and Rivers Press. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and the recipient of the 2006 Holbrook Award from Oregon Literary Arts, she serves on the board of Friends of William Stafford, organizing the annual January Stafford Birthday Events.
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Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writer's Digest Books, March 2009) and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. She writes four monthly columns about the craft and business of writing and serves as poetry editor for VoiceCatcher. Co-curator of a reading series at Barnes & Noble, Sage teaches the online class Poetry for the People. She has won first prize in the Ghost Road Press poetry contest and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.