Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our forthcoming anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature Leah Stenson, a poet from Portland, OR who also worked as an editor for the collection. Please enjoy her post!
Portland is getting good coverage in the media these days. It’s a city that works—replete with good public transportation, farmers’ markets, socially conscious citizens and a thriving literary community. In fact, there are numerous literary communities in Portland and the poetry community is just one of them…and it is thriving!
When I first came to Portland in 1993, with the exception of Café Lena, there was hardly an open mic poetry venue to be found. Now there are so many poetry readings and open mics that one is hard-pressed to choose which ones to attend. I host the Studio Series Poetry Reading and Open Mic on the second Sunday of every month at Stonehenge Studios in SW Portland and many people attend the reading religiously. Sometimes I joke that I’m hosting a poetry church. We have regulars; we have new-found converts; we have hard-core poets and beginners; we have poetry devotees who are content to sit and listen; and we have the faithful who step up to the open mic week after week. In other words, we have diversity, the spice of life and the ingredient that makes a poetry reading exciting.
The poetry community in Portland, or “Poetlandia” as I’ve taken to calling it, is rich in diversity as well. There are lyric poets and narrative poets, word poets and slam poets, performance poets, and we even have some poets who have coined a name for their particular kind of poetry—Inflectionism. The great thing about the Portland poetry community is that these different kinds of poets come together in community. Once a year, in January, poets join together to participate in poetry readings that celebrate the life and poetry of William Stafford, formerly Poet Laureate of Oregon and Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, who was also a conscientious objector in World War II and a beloved teacher at Lewis and Clark College. Thanks to Paulann Petersen, the current Poet Laureate of Oregon, who organized the first Stafford reading back in 1998, Portland poets have a reason to come together in the coldest, darkest time of the year. This January there were over twenty-six Stafford readings in the Portland metropolitan area alone. Poets from various poetry “sects” communed and created community as they gathered in Stafford’s name. I believe that this act of celebrating a mentor, not only a fine poet but a fine man of integrity, has elevated the creative consciousness of Portland’s poetry community. Ripples of that consciousness have spread to other parts of Oregon as well as other cities in the United States, in addition to a number of countries abroad that have taken to hosting commemorative Stafford events.
Portland also is home to the VoiceCatcher (VC) anthology which showcases women’s poetry, prose, and visual art. The idea of a women’s cultural collection isn’t remarkable, but VC is remarkable in its support of women creatives. The editors work patiently with writers to suggest ways in which a piece might be improved. Frequently, writers are encouraged to resubmit that piece after reworking it. This kind of nurturing and hand-holding is hard to find in the competitive world of poetry publication.
And now we have Alive at the Center, an anthology that showcases poets of the Portland metro area as well as those of Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., extending the sense of literary community we have here in Portland to the wider Pacific Northwest. Somehow, it just seems so Poetlandia-ish that such a project should originate here. The idea of a student-run university press is a novel idea, and Ooligan Press’ initiative to take on a project that would not only create a greater sense of community in Portland but extend that community to two other cities in a similar geographic area—one in another country, no less—is visionary. Moreover, there was a real need, in my opinion at least, for a poetry anthology featuring Pacific Northwest poetry that branched out beyond the natural world—which understandably dazzles poets fortunate enough dwell in this Pacific Northwest paradise—to focus on a more urban, edgy experience.
When I heard that Pacific Poetry Project was going to have an urban orientation, I was delighted, and I was honored to have a say in deciding whose work was chosen. For that, I owe a debt of gratitude to John Sibley Williams.
Over the years, Portland has provided many venues for many new poetic voices. In publishing Alive at the Center,Portland has invited poets from two Pacific Northwest sister cities to join the party. I feel very much alive at the center of Portland and its thriving poetic demimonde, Poetlandia.
Leah Stenson earned an MA in English Literature in 1971, and went on to do editorial work for the Soka Gakkai, serve as Managing Director of the Oregon Peace Institute for three years, actively support various nonprofit organizations, and publish multiple chapbooks, Leah has co-authored an English textbook as well as articles and book reviews, some of which have appeared in The Oregonian, The World Tribune, and School Library Journal. Her poetry has appeared in Oregon Literary Review, Northwest Women’s Journal, and Verseweavers, among others.
Leah’s poem “Night Train” is featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Portland edition. Both books are currently available from your favorite local bookshop or online retailer. Click here to hear Leah read “Night Train” and perform other poems! Or use the video below.