Posts Tagged ‘Oregon writers’

Interview with Joseph Millar

Friday, February 27th, 2009

Joseph Millar’s poetry spoke to me the instant I opened his first collection, Overtime (Eastern Washington University Press, 2001), a book that spans across the great American landscape and touches upon everything from fathers and sons to the telephone lines. As Millar mentioned when we spoke, the poems in Overtime seem to possess the sense of “good faith” despite struggle. While the poems exist on the page as if they were happening in the moment, his recent collection, Fortune (EWU Press, 2007), expresses a deeply reflective voice, and demonstrates Millar’s connection to music and the musicality of his verse.

After living in the Bay Area in many years, then briefly in Oregon, Millar and his wife, the poet Dorianne Laux, currently reside in North Carolina. I caught up with Millar during the winter 2009 Pacific University MFA gathering in Seaside, Oregon. The first part of our interview is from a talk he gave with the poet Marvin Bell.



(JM): We all have to confront the blank page. In a poem – and I suppose stories and novels are like this too – it’s like a song. I was reading Dylan’s Chronicles the other day, and he says that writing a song is like entering a strange country. I thought that was profound. You’re not exactly sure what the language is or where anything is. You’re wandering a little bit. You’re looking around.

Maybe something’s pushing on you. Maybe you want to go north, or you know that it’s starting to be a poem about someone who’s left you, or someone who’s just been born. Maybe you don’t know what it’s about. So you write down something that’s happening right in front of you. Maybe it’s the rain on the grass. Then you can’t think of anything else, and you start to make a song out of it.

Chances are you’ve developed certain patterns and habits of conducting yourself in this strange land. The poem may tend to follow off in your way of doing things. If you’ve been at it long enough and have developed these habits, one of them may take over.

One of the things we should do in our poems is to “go there, beyond the woods.” And one of the ways to do that is to try to avoid these patterns of entry into the strange land. Lately I’ve been doing little rhymers, almost as a kind of joke. Some of us were writing together and I couldn’t think of anything. Marvin (Bell) likes to say, “Music always wins” – if there’s a competition between sense and sound, between the message of the words and the music of the words, the music wins every time. So one possibility is that you become childlike and start to goof around. Instead of telling a story, you sing a song.

Some part of this passes our understanding. We’re not going to completely understand it when we’re writing, and this needs to be OK with us. We don’t need to be that smart to be writers. It’s a different part of the human that makes both song and story. It’s not the same as the smart part that gets you to be the valedictorian. That’s good. In fact, a lot of times, the element that makes you a poet or a writer is the part that’s held out of the “A” group, the advanced group, the “in-crowd” of whatever world you’re in. The part of you that wasn’t the best looking, wasn’t the best athlete, didn’t have enough money. The part of you that was held out is the part that makes you able to hear the song inside yourself. The part that can play by itself a little bit, make up little songs, move the chairs around.

You’ve seen it happen in prose, poetry, fiction…the writing just lifts up off the page. The journey stops, freezes up, and the writing lifts up into song, sound and lyric.

It’s a huge thing when you sit down with your little self, you open the page and you say, “OK, look here, the rain on the grass….or whatever. It’s this huge, vast thing. We go there not in the spirit of confrontation but in the spirit of humility and the hope that something good happens. And we go there even if we’re afraid nothing good will happen and we’re tired. We just go there. That’s the way you get something. By going there, opening the page and making marks on it.

You’re trying to put a spell on yourself, to hypnotize yourself, to go under a little bit. You don’t want to be sitting there in the same frame of mind as if you were reading directions on how to put something together. It’s a different way of being, and a different way of thinking. You’re trying to lower your conscious restrictor. And some people are better at this, naturally. It’s a knack that can be practiced, and like most practice, it works best if you get a regularity or rhythm going with it. The unconscious relates to rhythm the same way a kids goes, ‘Oh, it’s 10 o’clock. Time for milk and cookies. Then we go out in the yard. Then we come in and lie down.’ For us, it’s like, ‘I’m going to open my notebook now. This is my chair. This is my light. Now I’m going to practice.’

After you’ve been doing this for a while, something takes over besides just your thinking. A lot of times, when you lower (the thinking) part of you down a bit, surprising things happen. Strange sounds come out. Strange cries arise from the back. That’s where you’re trying to get to. It’s something you learn by practicing.

(DJ): Your subjects are often deeply humanistic, of the earth, blue collar. The poems in Overtime especially feel like they have a lot of history to them.

(JM): Those poems go back to the 80s, and the experiences are even older than that. I didn’t have much time to really sit down and write poems every day, or work on them every day. Or I didn’t make the time. By ’97 I had a bunch of the poems already, but it took about four-years after that.

In Fortune, my chops are a little better, but another thing is that, a lot of the poems in the first book were written during an intense period of disorientation, single-fatherhood, craziness and big changes in my life. Mainly being suddenly single with an eight-year-old to raise and his big sister who was in high school, and all of us being in this weird place. I was exposed in a strange way, and the poems in Overtime came out of that. With Fortune, I had more time and my chops became a little better. I learned more technical stuff. It’s not covering as long a period of time. And my life wasn’t so (messed) up. That’s the difference in the two books.

I was less pleased with the poems in Fortune for a long time. Then I said, ‘Well, you know, they’re pretty good.’

(DJ): What was it you found less pleasing?

(JM): I felt like I was complaining a lot in that book. Here I have this great life and all I could do is piss and moan. I was thinking, ‘What’s up with that?’ And I’d talk with people about that, and they’d say, ‘Well, look Joe, you take what they’re giving you. Don’t worry about it. Maybe you’re pissing and moaning because you couldn’t do it before.’ I couldn’t afford to, sort of. Maybe that was it. It just seemed like the outlook was more bleak, stripped out and existential. The first book seemed like it had more good faith in it. More struggling good faith. Later I kind of forgave myself and thought, ‘That’s what I got. That’s the way it is.’

To some extent you take what they’re giving you, make poems out of it and try not to judge yourself. You can judge your technique in the poem and try to improve that. And you can judge the poem on whether it’s good or bad. But for the mode of expression, the thing that’s driving the poem…you know, we all have different parts and that’s it.

(DJ): In Overtime, there’s a deep tenderness between the characters in these poems – you and the father, you and the son. When you were living in this time, what was your process of getting things out. Were you stealing time? Or did you find yourself in the moment with something triggering you?

(JM): Both. I’d write at night. I’d write in the truck at work.

(DJ): You were working in a crew?

(JM): I was foreman by the time I quit. Sometimes I’d put my guys to work somewhere and park a mile and a half away, sit near the Bay and go back in an hour and a half to see how they were doing.

(DJ): Did people know you were writing?

(JM): No. I hid it from them. If they came up to my truck and I was writing I’d cover it up in a newspaper or something else.

(DJ): Why?

(JM): I didn’t want to hear anything about it. I didn’t want to give that part of myself away.

(DJ): It doesn’t really fit…

(JM): The blue collar, macho…you know, the whole deal. And then later my guys went and bought Overtime and were like, ‘Hey man you were writing those poems about us!’

(DJ): Who were you reading?

(JM): I was reading Merwin, Phil Levine. He’s a national treasure. He’s the one who gave permission to so many of us to write these poems. Of course I feel it’s a privilege to be able to write poems at all.

(DJ): As a younger man, when did you start going toward writing?

(JM): I wanted to be a novelist in college. I went to Penn State for a couple of years.

(DJ): When?

(JM): Back in ’63 and ’64. There were all these great novels about personal freedom. Novels like Henderson the Rain King, A Fan’s Notes, The Ginger Man. They were all about personal freedom. I could never…it’s such a different way of imagining things. I joke with fiction writers about it all the time because I love that.

I didn’t start writing poems until I graduated, came out west to California in ’67. Then I started writing poems. I knew I couldn’t write fiction. I couldn’t think of a plot. So I started writing personal impressions that turned into poems.

(DJ): Some writers either don’t want to or don’t know if they can access certain things. Do you feel that the narrator of a poem is always necessarily the writer?

(JM): It is for me. There’s a big part of me in all my poems. I don’t think that’s true for everyone. For me it is. All these things about the unstable “I” and the fractionalized first person…to me, I write poems because I’m alive and I like how it makes me feel to do it. Maybe I’ll change. Occasionally I’ll do a persona poem, or I’ve been writing these bestiary poems, but they all have some big part of me in them. I’m imbedded in the much maligned “I”.


Interview with Paulann Petersen

Friday, February 13th, 2009

Paulann Petersen’s work is deeply rooted in music and presence. Even her musings and reflections remain wrapped in the moment, which guides the reader through the navigable terrain of each poem. As the poet Vern Rutsala notes in the introduction to Kindle, Petersen’s latest collection:

“There are forces in our society which try very hard to put us in a fixed place…but the poet knows that the self is slippery and doesn’t fall easily into any particular slot saying, ‘Hey…you may be here but you’re also over there and maybe somewhere else entirely.’ Petersen says these things but also adds that the place you find yourself is often a transitional one on the way from here to there.”

Petersen is an extremely active member of Oregon’s literary community, a frequent workshop instructor, the recipient of the 2006 Literary Arts Stewart Holbrook Award for Outstanding Contributions to Oregon’s Literary Life, and a board member of Friends of William Stafford. She was kind enough to invite me to her home, where our conversation started off on the topic of another Oregon writer, Ray Carver.

(PP): There was an incredible resonance in Carver’s work, especially for anyone who’s experienced hard times in their life. He was almost improbably sympathetic and generous. Very few people who achieve the type of status and acclaim he received are as unpretentious and generous as he was, and IS in his stories. It’s really there. His profound sympathy for, as Grace Paley may have said, the little disturbances of man. Paley is superb too. “The Little Disturbances of Man” and “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” are short stories…she was an enormously influential writer for people just beginning as writers. Right during Ray’s time. She might still be, though I don’t know how many people are still reading her.

Ray always thought of himself of a poet, which is incredible when someone who is credited with having changed the landscape of fiction would consider himself primarily a poet. A lot of writers cross over into different genres of course. Ursula Le Guin is a great example.

(DJ): And you?

(PP): Just poetry. I’ve written a few prose pieces. Essays, stories.

(DJ): And what about your start?

(PP): I wrote poetry as a young girl. I was in high school in SE Portland won a prize of some kind. I didn’t even know how to pursue anything with it. We had no creative writing classes, and I came from a decidedly non-literary family. Very blue collar. I never thought of this before but there was not a single book of poetry in the house, and just a handful of books in general. I can remember exactly where they were on the bookshelf.

My parents weren’t ill-educated. My mom had done nurse’s training at St. Mary’s in San Francisco. She had a sound background in biology and science. My father wanted to go to college. He was in school for a year, then the Depression started and his family needed him.

They read, but it just wasn’t a family atmosphere where books or literature were a big part of our lives. I think I had some children’s books and nursery rhyme type things.

When I went to Pomona, I took my poems to my English professor, who referred me to someone else who was sort of the resident poet. I remember him saying in effect, ‘Oh, I don’t think so’ (laughter). Something about being ‘lovely images’ but not the cohesion of a poem. And I set it aside.

As a young adult in Klamath Falls, and by now I had young children, I started reading the Saturday Review, which had poems in every issue. I also stumbled onto Philip Larkin’s poetry and began to see that there was a wonderful world of contemporary poetry out there. I started to seek it out.

(DJ): Were you teaching by now?

(PP): No. I was essentially a house wife. We had very little money, not impoverished, but not much money. My husband at that time – we later divorced – was a high school English teacher. His salary was barely above the level where you qualify for food stamps. We didn’t have much extra money, and I spent my time doing things like baking all the bread, canning, cooking from scratch and the things you do to economize. We lived on an acre and a quarter that was surrounded by farmland. It was a busy life.

When my son was in second grade I went back to school and got my teaching degree. I drove back and forth to Southern Oregon University across the mountains. It was wonderful to be in school, even those infamous method courses and the things you take to be a teacher.

Lawson Inada (Oregon’s Poet Laureate) was on the faculty. I met with him to see if I could be in his creative writing class. We talked for a while. He said, “I can’t think of a better position for a writer to be in than to be driving up those mountains and down into the valley, doing that two times a day. All that time to think. That’s perfect! You come on in.”

It was wonderful being in his classes while I was finishing my degree. I wound up getting a Masters there, and Lawson paved the way for me to do a manuscript of poems as my thesis, which was quite unusual at Southern Oregon at the time.

(DJ): Coming from this place as a child without many books on the shelf, what bubbled up within you and to steer you toward wanting to write?

(PP): Through high school and college I was a good writer. I remember just knowing where transitions belonged, where new paragraphs should start, those sorts of things.

(DJ): From when you left school to when you went back, how were you finding time to write between raising family and living the rustic lifestyle?

(PP): I was stealing time, plus reading some wonderful contemporary poems in the Saturday Review. The Atlantic was another one. The county library was wonderful as well. That’s where I discovered Grace Paley. I was reading lots of contemporary poetry, plus following my own threads of language and imagery to learn to write.

(DJ): Where did those come from? Or maybe it’s the same now? What are those triggers for you?

(PP): Usually for me it’s a piece of language that floats in from somewhere. Sound…the sonic qualities of a poem is very important.

I believe a poem is a creature of sound…a creature of heartbeat and breath. If a poem doesn’t have that sound then it doesn’t resonate with me. There are lots of poets who work in very narrative, cerebral styles. I appreciate and recognize how fine their work is, but the poems and the poets I return to are the ones where, again and again, I find an almost phonic-type music.

So I follow bits of language that have sound forms I can hear and feel pushing from them and with them. Often I’ll just start writing. I call it riffing, as a musician might riff. I let the sounds carry me from one thing to another, just pushing and pushing and carrying onto the page. Later I’ll go back and see something that looks like the kernel of a poem, or maybe somewhere in there I’ll find a whole poem in the riff.

Very seldom do I have an idea for a poem, and then write it. Idea poems don’t turn out that well for me. People like to ask, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ That to me is more like, ‘writing a poem about…’ and then having a topic for a poem. That doesn’t work for me.

(DJ): So you follow the sound and music, and then the idea is there…

(PP): The idea emerges, or I can see what in that particular riff – which might be two, three or four pages – coheres.

(DJ): Is it script across the page? Are you already starting to build line breaks in?

(PP): Sometimes the line breaks are there. Once I take something out of the notebook, and start to put it on single sheets, I write long-hand a number of drafts before I ever put it on a word processor.

(DJ): Have you always worked this way?

(PP): Some French theorists have the notion that style is learned through the wrist. I’m not saying it applies to me, but I like the idea of it.

When my first full-length book came out, Confluence Press had me fill out a fairly lengthy questionnaire so they could use information in a press release. of their questions was – and I’m going to ask you this first: To which school of poetics do you belong?

(DJ): My school? I don’t know if it’s a school (laughter). Lots of tragic hero stuff. Human weirdness (laughter).

(PP): The first thing that popped into my mind was the school of Disembodied Poetics, from Naropa. I was trying to think about what schools of poetics there were. If could figure that out then maybe I could figure out where I was. Then I knew. I belonged to the school of Embodied Poetics, because I believe in poems of the body. And I don’t mean poems about the body, but poems that are embodied, almost as if they are part of your very flesh. Poems from the body.

(DJ): There’s a great sense of presence in your poems. The reader doesn’t get lost.

(PP): That’s important to me. We choose at some point what we’re going to do. I’ve been working on a few poems that are quite surreal. I like to work like that, and I can do it, but quite a while ago I made a conscious decision – and it was something I came to over a period of time, that if I was going to err in one direction or the other, I wanted to err in the direction of being accessible to people. I love the idea of a shared voice, an almost archetypal voice that could be coming from any of us.


Interview with Peter Sears, pt. 1

Friday, January 9th, 2009

As much as Peter Sears gets jazzed by his own work, he’s equally excited – if not more – by the prospects of helping writers at all levels find the line or turn the phrase they’re shooting for. Born in New York, Sears has taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Reed College, Bard College, and is on the faculty of Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program. In addition, he has led countless independent and affiliated workshops. His work has been widely published and has appeared in The Atlantic, Zyzzyva, Northwest Review, Rolling Stone, Southern Poetry Review, Mother Jones, Antioch Review, Poetry Northwest, Mademoiselle, Poetry Now, Iowa Review, New Letters, and the New York Times. In 1999, Sears was awarded the Stewart H. Holbrook Award from Literary Arts, Inc. Today he remains an instrumental part to the writing community throughout Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Part 1 of our interview focuses on education, while Part 2 focuses on Peter’s writing, and will appear later in 2009.

(DJ): Did you have a class yesterday?

(PS): It’s a basic comp course at PCC (Portland Community College). Most of the kids are 18, 19. There are some vets in there. I asked one of the guys what he came out as. He said, “Spec 5.” So did I. The difference is he was in the infantry in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I basically went to southern Germany and Berlin. I mean, I lived like a king compared to this poor guy. He didn’t mind.

It’s a required course. About a third of the students are almost too good to be there. The ones at the bottom don’t know what a sentence is. They try, but cognitively they can’t get ahold of it, or they never got it. They’ve never done any writing, they didn’t get proper grammar in high school, they don’t read, or they didn’t read. So now they’re semi-illiterate. They’re nice, they’re quite bright, they work hard, but it’s hard for them. If they get a C they’re going to be lucky. It’s not their fault. They didn’t have it in school. That’s the range. Then there’s a bunch in the middle who are sort of OK.

(DJ): No creative writing?

(PS): No. The first assignment I used a Ray Carver poem, “The Car”. Each student reads a line. They write their own ‘car’, ‘house’, or something, whatever it is. The actual writing assignment is to transpose the creative start to an essay. Essentially, make full sentences out of each of these phrases. A good fifth of the class flunked. They couldn’t do it. I let them make that up, but we had to get further into it. I’ve spent more time than the class really allows for getting into grammar, sentence structure and things like that.

(DJ): Does it frustrate you?

(PS): I like to teach. This is the real world. It’s not like graduate students. One guy tells me about sales meetings he has to go to. One guy can’t make it because his kid’s sick….

(DJ): So teaching comp vs. teaching poetry…

(PS): I was in teaching a lot longer than I was in writing, professionally speaking. In the last few years I’ve realized that teaching is a lot harder than writing is. It’s a lot more important. It just isn’t credited in our society. I wanted to get back in it in the real way. Not just doing creative writing classes. They’re fun, but they’re kind of specialized. They’re not the real world.

I did a residency out in Fossil and Condon (small towns in north-central Oregon). That was the breakthrough for me. I mean, Fossil has 450 people in it, and the population is going down. There are 28 students in the entire high school. It’s really out there. I was trying to get someone out at both schools, but then I took it. The kids only go four-days a week because there aren’t enough students to warrant otherwise – they get enough instruction time. That kept me sane. I’d drive back here on Friday mornings.

I went out there with the understanding, or I told the school, that I needed two things. The teacher would be in the room with me to keep control of the kids. Secondly, the students wouldn’t be graded. Not only that, but if they didn’t want to do something they didn’t have to. It would be my challenge to keep it interesting. The kids were astounded. They were the children of ranchers. These people were serious, they didn’t mess around. One bad year and they were out of business. And it was a challenge, but because of that openness, it made the teaching much more interesting.

(DJ): When was this?

(PS): Two years ago. I was only six-months off chemo. It turned out, being in a dry climate was just what I needed. I’d go for a walk in the afternoon. I couldn’t go in the evening because they had cougars.

(DJ): Cougars?

(PS): Someone said, ‘Do not go for a walk at dusk around here.’ I didn’t see one. They told me it was true.

(DJ): Any poems from this period?

(PS): A few. One about wind turbines. It’s OK but not great. I’d like to get the cougars in some.

(DJ): And the kids liked the class?

(PS): I had them do poetry, personal essay prose, short story writing and playwriting. We did four pieces in four weeks. Then we did a show for the students at both schools. People were like, “You’re not going to get these people to come to some show.” Their teacher told me to give her a list of students that I wanted to read, and she’d work on the families. First she told the students, gave them a certificate and made a big deal out of it. Of course none of them wanted to do it. Peer pressure. They weren’t going to stand up and read in front of a bunch of people.

So she calls the parents up and tells them, “You know, Mr. Sears wants Johnny to be in this show, but that’s not why I’m calling.” And so on. The parents would cut in and say things like, “What’s this about some show?’ The teacher was great. She’d say, ‘Well, Johnny doesn’t want to do it, and Mr. Sears isn’t going to force students to participate. And the parents are like, “We’ll get Johnny to do it.”

Soon the show becomes the thing to do. Suddenly kids who hadn’t written jack come up to me and say they want to be in it. I tell them they didn’t write anything and they say, “Yeah, but I didn’t know there was going to be a show.” Stuff like that.

The show was monumental. All the families were going screwy, chanting and hollering. The guy who owned the theater never sold so much popcorn in his life. It went right to Fishtrap (the funder) and their board, then it went right to the community foundation, then right to the NEA. This is exactly the type of thing they like.

(DJ): When you create something like that, don’t you think it creates the desire to continue when you’re gone?

(PS): God yeah. The grant is still going on. It’s in its last year now. It was a big event, but it came along because of the teacher. The committee didn’t know what to do but the teacher was great. Just one of those things where it hits.

Teaching out there was as rewarding and meaningful as any teaching I’ve done. I’ve taught at a lot of places. And when I came back I wanted to do a comp class. And I’d like to do more. Working with teachers through Community of Writers is also very important to me. I like to stay engaged. Plus from a practical standpoint, it’s reliable.

Remember, I’m 71. To be working at my age in any field is really a great benefit. People my age do some consulting work, things like that, but they’re kind of pushed off to the side. So I feel very fortunate. I also think it helps my writing a lot. My writing’s gotten better.

(DJ): I was going to ask…

(PS): It really has.

(DJ): If you were cloistered away, not working…I can’t imagine that being your day.

(PS): No, I couldn’t do it. I like to be out there. I like the contrast. It’s healthy. If I was around my house all the time, just me and the cat and the washing machine, I’d go nuts. I’m lucky to be teaching and I’d like to do more of it.


Interview with Robin Cody, Pt 1

Friday, November 21st, 2008

Robin Cody is a native Oregonian who understands the geography of people and place. Along with dozens of published articles, he’s written a guide book (Umbrella Guide to Bicycling the Oregon Coast, Umbrella Books, 1990), a Columbia River travel narrative (Voyage of a Summer Sun, Alfred A. Knopf Incorporated, 1995) and the novel Ricochet River (Alfred A. Knopf Incorporated, 1992), set in the fictional Oregon town of Calamus. In 2005, Ooligan Press released a revised version of the novel to help get the book in the hands of more teachers and young adult readers. Part-one of our interview focuses on Cody’s approach to writing, revising and giving new life to his work. Part-two of our interview will appear early in 2009.

(DJ): Ricochet River was quite a process…

(RC): I’d been teaching English at the American School in Paris where you could teach the hotshot sophomores Sometimes a Great Notion and King Lear, then take them to Stratford on Avon during the year. Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird. I could pick the books I wanted to teach. When you read those books, after a while you figure out that the narrators don’t get it. Take a character like Wade (narrator in Ricochet River). It’s pretty obvious that he’s not the brightest guy in the book. Lorna has figured out this place. Jesse isn’t school smart, but he has that instinctual brilliance.

I wrote Ricochet River a number of times. I couldn’t get it published. It wasn’t good enough. I had to go back and write it again and think about why I liked Kesey’s book, and go back and read it again and figure out how he did that. Or the idea of Huck Finn going down the river. He’s reporting to us as if he’s with a dumb runaway slave. We get it as readers, but Huck’s not interpreting. He’s not preaching. He’s not doing that stuff. And that’s the kind of narrator I liked. That was the key to getting it published.

(DJ): So it hinged on the narrator?

(RC): On the narrator and some other stuff. I needed some more Indian lore, coyotes, those kinds of things. I didn’t have that stuff in the first version. But I wrote this thing over 17-years of teaching, coaching baseball, sending a manuscript out, getting rejected. And when you get a manuscript rejected widely, you lose your confidence and suddenly you’re not any good as a writer for a while. You have to wait for it to bubble back up. Say, “Well, I’ll try it again.” No one had written this story related to the life cycle of the salmon, and the Oregonness of it. At least I didn’t think it had been written yet.

Another clue to the breakthrough narrator was One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest. The story’s told through Chief Broom, who’s really in a fog. He doesn’t get it. We have to interpret it, which draws us into the story.

(DJ): Seventeen years is a long time.

(RC): Cyclically. It happened in cycles. I liked my life as a teacher. I never thought of myself as a writer (in Paris). I’d gone to school at Yale, so I knew what it was like not to be the brightest guy, surrounded by really smart people.

(DJ): Were you there when Bush was there?

(RC): I was the captain of the baseball team when he was a freshman. In those years freshman weren’t allowed on the varsity team. And this kid from the freshman team would come into the varsity dugout and put his arm around the coach. It had to be explained to me that he was the son to the ambassador of whatever Bush Sr. was doing then…the son of a famous guy and a legacy at Yale. So the coach had coached his dad. But it was the whole deal we’d see later, the schmoozing, glad handing (laughter).

Going from there to Paris, it was the first time I was surrounded by really creative, free thinking people. That helped a lot.

(DJ): What about the revised version?

(RC): That was a marketing decision. I hadn’t written Ricochet River for teens at all. Eventually it ran its course in general sales. But English teachers were picking it up and doing great with it, except there’s this sex scene that gets it blocked by Christian school boards. Another scene that takes place at the Dalles, four people and two beds, drinking and that sort of stuff. All the time I was bumping up with censorship. In the revised version, I made it less explicit. There’s really very little difference.

(DJ): What was that like revising something you’d written so long ago? All writers get to that point where we know we can make things better. How was it going back to it?

(RC): I made it better. I made the sentences better. It’s surprising, because once a book is in print, you read parts of it at Powell’s, book fairs, something like that, but you never go back and read it all the way through. And I found lots of ways it could be improved, mostly by subtraction. Sort of, “That sentence doesn’t have to be there. It just slows the story down.”

It’s all at the sentence level. It’s not content at all, except for that scene at the Dalles and the sex scene. The Christians call it literary pornography (laughs).

(DJ): Does that make you a literary pornographer?

(RC): Yeah (laughs). They even have a website against the book. I’m convinced the new version is better writing.

(DJ): I saw someone comparing it to Catcher in the Rye, which has also found its way on the banned books list. Does it hurt you that there’s outcry against it? Does it make you laugh?

(RC): It’s just a fact of life. The book had no future of sales. It was being kept out of the hands of kids. So no, the alternative was that it was out of print. It was my idea to do it.

(DJ): You approached Ooligan or they approached you?

(RC): I approached them. The book was out of print for no fault of its own. It had had steady sales, and suddenly I’m getting calls from teachers because they can’t replace it, those who were able to teach it. So I said, “Let’s do a school version that really won’t have to change that much.”

With Ooligan being a teaching press at Portland State, I had six graduate students in the editing class go through and underline the things that caught their eye from the first version. I told them what we were going to make less explicit. Otherwise, I wanted them to suggest things, point out where it didn’t make sense, what stopped it. Of course they went overboard with their underlining (laughter). But, one out of three things they caught…for example, for my generation, when people talked about “that U2 incident,” that referred to the spy plane shot down over Russia. To younger readers, it’s a rock band. It made no sense to them. They didn’t know U2 was a downed surveillance plane. I didn’t hesitate to change it. I’m always changing things anyway. When you’re a writer, you try to spin older stuff off to different audiences. I’m used to thinking of everything that I’ve already done as not finished. That it can be better.

(DJ): What about your new collection.

(RC): The Oregonness of It. Which is a phrase that came from an actual meeting with an editor in New York at Knoff, about Ricochet River. We’re high above the bleeding cabs of New York, 23rd story of some building and he’s got piles of manuscripts around, looking every bit like a caricature of the rumpled and mussed editor. So I asked how he it was that he picked this manuscript out of the pile. And he didn’t talk about the story. He talked first about the “Oregonness of it.”

I’ve written some about that, about what makes us different as a culture out here. How we’re different from American literature. Really it’s an argument about how we’ve developed in three phases, from the woodsman and river taming phase, the dam builders, the loggers and all those heroes, through Ken Kesey and to a new phase that I think makes some sense.

(DJ): What do you think the new phase is?

(RC): Nature as teacher. Taking our cues from nature. How to live in balance with nature. If we can do it out here in the greenest corner of the richest nation on earth. Or if we can’t live in balance with the salmon and the woods, I don’t think it can be done anywhere. If we can, then we’re a model for the rest of the world. It’s not stated directly in our literature. It’s stated slantingly that we’re different. Nature’s alive. As in Kesey, nature’s a character in the good stuff we write.

All my stuff, even as a non-fiction writer, is told slantingly. It comes out of someone else’s mouth. I don’t want to preach it. Then there’s one whole section just about the jobs I’ve had. Bus driving, baseball umpiring. Refereeing, or lighter stuff like “Deaf Basketball.” That’s an example—it was twice as long when I first wrote it for Northwest Magazine. Then I sold it to somebody else and cut down on it. I read it at Fishtrap this summer, and one of their rules at open mic is you get four-minutes. So I chopped it down and it was better, punchier. It’s that process of having to do it over and over, getting better through subtraction.

(DJ): What happens to the old stuff that doesn’t make it?

(RC): I have an electronic trail of what had been. Before computers I kept hard copies of what had changed. Sometimes you have reason to go back and say, “How’d I write that the first time. Maybe it needs a little more here.”

(DJ): There are these parts throughout Ricochet River where, through the narrative, you seem to be revealing something about writing itself. There’s the scene just after the suicide squeeze where we have Wade in the barbershop. He says, “I guess sometimes, at least at the barbershop, reality has to adjust to the story.” Do you get to that point between the truth and the story where, as a writer, you have to honor both?

(RC): I think the story can often drive to the heart of the truth better than the facts do. This is not just me. This is Ken Kesey, where Hank in Sometimes a Great Notion, you know, he plays the dumb logger, but he comes up with this stuff. He says, “Well, maybe it didn’t happen, but it’s the truth. And maybe some things that did happen are not the truth.” I just love that kind of thinking. I can give it to Wade by saying, “I guess…” because he’s just poking at things. If I said it as the author I would just say it right out. But it’s not me. It’s Wade. He’s not that smart of a guy. He doesn’t know the answer. That’s what interests me. That’s what, I think, made Wade better as a narrator. In those first versions of the book that got rejected, he was as bright as Lorna. He was sort of spouting. He gets the racism of the town, for example. It’s not nearly as interesting as having Wade trying to figure things out. Before he used to get it. He understood it. It’s more interesting when you don’t understand it and you’re just trying to figure things out. It was a conscious change, and I couldn’t have done it on the first draft.

Two poems by MEHope

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

MEHope lives in Klamath County, OR, with a husband, two teens, five cats, two dogs and a short list of contrary attitudes. She is MFA free and supports Obama for President.

Rock Chuck

Squeezed between rock and earth and root
marmots, (five months of fat
padding our bones) seep
into sleep like old secrets.

We dream of sun and shoot and bud
dream the hawk over other hills
dream eagles after geese; rolled in
each others armpits, noses cozy with fur.

Mole and vole and squirrel scoot
our periphery, using what heat we waste.
Their haste to bring winter’s end
doesn’t disturb; there’s four more

months to snooze. I roll into my neighbor,
scratch an ear, still in dream;
I will wake in spring a smaller shadow.

Near Wasco

Three paint horses
in the stubble field

disappear around
the canyon’s curve

new snow can’t mute
the crow’s call

the sky here holds
twice as many stars

as are seen through
the pines

so many, they seem to drown you.

The Party at Ralph's, by Jack Lorts

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

Jack Lorts is a retired educator, living in small town eastern Oregon, and a poet publishing in little mags as well as a recent chapbook, The Daughter Poems & Others, by Pudding House Press.

The party at Ralph’s
was the party at Ralph’s
(he was in Europe, Bora Bora
or some such on a Fullbright).
Everyone from the Project was there.
Bobbi, who was house-sitting for Ralph,
said     What the hell

Come on over     If Ralph were here
he’d ask you
(he’s in Tibet or Tahiti
on a Guggenheim or some such).

A barrel of cheap wine was passed
cold pizza
and the usual solutions
to the world’s problems.
Vince, Herb and I
    watched the game on TV.

The party at Ralph’s
was the party at Ralph’s.
Thanks, Ralph,
wherever you are!

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