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Interview with Paulann Petersen

Poet Paulann Petersen is a fixture on the Pacific Northwest literary scene. The author of several books and chapbooks, she serves both as teacher and mentor to many in our region. This interview was conducted in mid-March 2007.

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Powell's Chris Faatz: Paulann, your latest book, A Bride of Narrow Escape, is a lovely, moving meditation on death, relationships, and the search for meaning in the mundane. What meaning does this book have for you?

Paulann Petersen: Of my full-length books, A Bride of Narrow Escape is the most autobiographical. It contains poems about my parents, about my mother's long struggle with Alzheimer's, my father's terminal cancer. Because they're more narrative, these poems are more open and public. But — ironically — they're closer to the bone because they do deal openly with such private matters.

There are poems here about my first love, a black boyfriend in high school. And having a black boyfriend in the late '50s in Portland was decidedly unacceptable.

There are poems about my grandparents, the time I spent with them in my grandfather's fur shop, the Alaska Fur Shop on Sandy Boulevard in the Hollywood District of Northeast Portland — a place my child-eyes saw as haunted by animal ghosts.

I've written "about" these things before, but in a much more oblique, deeply lyrical way. The poems in A Bride of Narrow Escape are less opaque. They take risks different from the risks I took in The Wild Awake. At first I thought I might feel a little uncomfortable about reading these poems in public. Not so. The poems do assume a life of their own on the page. Giving voice to them is giving voice to both myself and something now outside of myself.

Faatz: Your relationship with the late William Stafford is well known, and, indeed, his work finds echoes in your own. In what ways has Stafford influenced you? What other poets and writers have influenced you over the years?

Petersen: I'd like to think that every good poem I've ever read or heard has moved me enough to be an influence on my life. What is a poem if not something to break open that "frozen sea within us"?

Louise Gluck, Lisel Mueller, Lucille Clifton, and Li-Young Lee have had a sustained and marked influence on me. Rumi and Whitman — ecstatics from two disparate places and eras of our world — have been solaces and wellsprings. I turn to them again and again.

But I know virtually nothing about the everyday lives of these poets I just mentioned.

I do know a little about Bill Stafford's life — from having known him personally, from reading his poems and prose, from being around his remarkable family. Bill Stafford influences me in how I choose to live, in the person I attempt to be.

His life and work were seamless. His everyday life and the poems he wrote at the beginning of each day were inseparable. His life was a poem grounded in attentiveness, wit, satire, compassion, and reverence. A life "courteous — but not tame." He sees uncharted writing as delicious, publication as incidental. For him, pacifism is essential, hierarchy is questionable, wavering is advantageous. Pride? Treacherous. Absolute answers? Suspicious.

If I measure myself and my work against Bill Stafford, I fall painfully short. But that's the kind of hierarchy he'd question anyway. He tells us that "justice will take us millions of intricate moves." I think that living a better life does, too. He inspires me to make each little move of my life as thoughtfully, as compassionately as I can.

Faatz: Your books have all been beautifully produced by small presses. Would you speak to that experience as over/against what you think your experience might be with a national publisher, such as Random House or Norton? Do you get more attention? How much of a role did you play in your books' designs?

Petersen: If there's a rule of thumb about being published by small presses, I suppose it might be "more personal attention, less exposure." My small press editors have listened carefully to my wishes. With five of my six books, I was allowed to pick the covers. When book designers were involved, those designers turned out to be talented and tasteful. None of my editors have been pushy about revising poems or sequencing them.

I can only surmise from the experiences of friends what it would be like to be published by a national or a larger poetry press (such as Copper Canyon or Graywolf). Those presses have connections that make it much easier to get a book of poems reviewed or to set up readings. As a matter of course, they enter their titles for contests and awards. They use major distributors.

When a poet is published by a small press, she often needs to do most of the work to get that book out into the world. I keep a box of my books in the trunk of my car. I give readings whenever I can. Two of my books don't have a distributor now. A few years ago, that would have been an obit notice for a book of poems. But Powell's has been very good to me and my publishers by offering my books for sale both in the stores and on-line. Internet sales have changed the publishing scene dramatically.

Small press books reach readers one at a time, traveling hand to hand. It's been a pleasant surprise to have chapbooks sell out, to have a full-length book go into a second printing.

Faatz: As you've noted in the past, we share a love of Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. And, indeed, your second book is influenced mightily by your own experiences in Turkey. Could you speak to that influence? And, what's your take on Nazim?

Petersen: That book, Blood Silk, is a collection of poems about and for Turkey, a love song to Turkey and its people. My husband and I have made six long trips to Turkey. He speaks enough Turkish so we can travel where tourists don't usually go. We now have dear friends there.

When anyone says the words "poetry" and "Turkey, " the next word has to be "Nazim." Turkey's great modern poet, Nazim Hikmet and his work brought Turkish poetry out of formal Ottoman confines into 20th-century lyricism. A voice for social justice, he spent years in Turkish prisons for his leftist and socialist ideals. Who says that poetry doesn't do anything? Nazim Hikmet received one 28-year prison sentence for inciting military cadets to revolt. The cadets were being stirred by reading one of his long poems!

Faatz: What books have you read in the last year or so that you'd like to recommend to others?

Petersen: I read a remarkable non-fiction book recently: Ellen Meloy's Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild. Her topic is Southwestern bighorn sheep. Her embrace encompasses nothing less than human imagination and the natural world. She's a marvelously talented, beautifully insane, poetic natural-history writer. A voice both ecstatic and exact.

I've read dozens and dozens of books of poetry lately, many of them by Oregon poets. Oregon is teeming with good poets. Lucky us! If readers want a place to begin reading Oregon poets, they might start with the finalists for the 2006 Oregon Book Award in Poetry. Dorianne Laux's Facts about the Moon won the award. It's a knockout. Vern Rutsala, Floyd Skloot, Matt Yurdana, David Axelrod and I are the other poets on the finalists' list. These books represent a wide range of styles, a good Oregon sampler. I feel very fortunate to have a book in such fine company.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. A Bride of Narrow Escape Used Trade Paper $8.50
  2. The Wild Awake: A Reading from the... Used Trade Paper $5.95

  3. Eating Stone: Imagination and the...
    New Trade Paper $16.00
  4. Facts about the Moon: Poems New Trade Paper $15.95



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