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.