Paulann Petersen Guest Poet Post: “Dedication”

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 Paulann Petersen, Oregon’s current Poet Laureate, who resides in Portland. Please enjoy her post and her 2013 Valentine, which follows.


“There isn’t really such a room with a connection to this struggling poet—is there?”
This is the opening sentence of a letter dated 23 March, 1993, a letter I’d just received from Bill Stafford, that struggling poet extraordinaire. He was asking about my classroom at West Linn High School.
I was in the spring of my second year at West Linn, a markedly crowded high school facility. The first year I taught there, my classroom was an AV cart I pushed to a different place each period, using other teachers’ rooms during their prep times. The second year, I got a classroom of my own, and the privilege of naming it. The West Linn English Department had a Jane Austen Room, a William Shakespeare Room, a Robert Frost Room, and a number of other rooms named—by the teachers who occupied them—for major literary figures.
It was my turn. What writer did I want to honor? I was a teacher who wrote, a writer who taught. What better writer/teacher/luminary than Bill? What better star than the one shining close to home, in Lake Oswego, just a few miles north of West Linn? So, the brass plaque above the door leading into my newly acquired classroom said THE WILLIAM STAFFORD ROOM.
By that spring of 1993, I’d had several months to settle in. On one wall, I’d put a number of Bill’s poems and photographs of him. But he wasn’t the only person feted in that room. On other walls, I’d posted my students’ poems, and dozens of photographs they’d taken. I put up student paintings and drawings I’d purchased. And big posters of Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Bob Marley, Tina Turner, and Miles Davis.  And programs from West Linn theatrical productions.
Then more posters of Janis Joplin, Thelonius Monk, Gracie Slick, John Lee Hooker, Dexter Gordon, and Judith Jamison. The room buzzed with color and pizzazz. I’d painted a wild sunburst on the wall, surrounding the clock. Thai kites flew up and around the florescent lights.
I wanted to celebrate this showcase of creative personalities, so I wrote to Bill asking if he’d be willing to preside at a dedication party. In my letter to him, I briefly described the room, naming some of the others honored there, wondering if he’d be put off by such an eclectic, unconventional bunch.
He wasn’t. He agreed to come.

William Stafford and Paulann Petersen,
photograph by Mike Markee

The late April dedication day was stormy and raw. I filled the room with bouquets of lilacs from home. The department teachers pitched in to provide cookies and punch. An hour before Bill was due, the power went out. As soon as my last class left, I scrambled—pushing the refreshment table up near the room’s only outside window, hoping that its bit of natural light would be enough for Bill to read the few poems he’d said he’d read, enough to spotlight him. But why did I bother to worry? The power came back on shortly after Bill arrived.
People gathered in the room—teachers and students, a few with requests. Anne, our Fulbright Exchange teacher from Australia, asked him to read “Fifteen,” a poem she’d taught for years Down-Under. She was astonished that this world-famous poet had come to visit. A National Book Award winner, a former U.S. Poet Laureate was right there in the American public high school where she’d been assigned. She couldn’t quite believe it. Neither could the rest of us. We were gathered to dedicate a room named for a poet and peace activist who was extraordinarily dedicated to our community of readers and writers and teachers. We had come to honor him. By being there—in his easy, unassuming way—Bill was honoring us.
Bill read the poems people requested. He talked with our students, our teachers. He signed books, even putting his signature below “Fifteen” where it appeared in the text book Anne had brought with her. The afternoon grew late. Bill took his leave.
That day I’d brought a pot of Star-Gazer lilies to school, a gift for him to take home to Dorothy, a small way of saying thanks. Standing in my classroom doorway, under the WILLIAM STAFFORD ROOM plaque, I watched him walk away—down the long hall, toward the outside door. He had the pot of lilies in his right arm, tucked up against his ribs. With each step, those pale blooms bobbed from side to side.
That was April. He died in August.
Later, after the memorial gathering for Bill at Lewis & Clark, Kim Stafford and I exchanged a few words about the dedication of that classroom at West Linn High. I told Kim I was still a little amazed that his father would take the time and trouble to be there that late April afternoon. Amazed at his unpretentiousness. Grateful for his generosity to other teachers.
“Oh,” Kim said, “That’s just like Daddy! He was such a small-town guy.”
Paulann's Valentine

Paulann’s Valentine, 2013

Oregon’s sixth Poet Laureate, Paulann Petersen, has published five full-length books of poetry, most recently The Voluptuary (Lost Horse Press). Her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Poetry, The New Republic, and Prairie Schooner, among others. 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 January Stafford Birthday Events.
Paulann’s poems “Appetite” and “Bloodline” will be featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Portland edition. Both books will be available April 1, 2013.

John Wesley Horton Guest Poet Post: “Children Are Dumb to Say How Hot the Day Is”

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. For our first guest poet post, we are pleased to feature John Wesley Horton, from Seattle, WA.
Please enjoy his post!

Children Are Dumb to Say How Hot the Day Is*

It was rumored that Miss Hill, my high school poetry teacher, had once dated the guitar player for Janis Joplin’s band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. To an Indiana teenager like myself she seemed like the quintessential former hippy. Raven hair graying at her temples denoted a sexual maturity first felt in the 1960’s. Eyeglasses on the tip of her nose portrayed intellectual rigor with just a hint of condescension. The idea that she’d diagrammed revolution in a Haight-Ashbury squat with Janis Joplin kept me up for hours planning an academic future full of rebellion.
That’s why I was so disappointed when Miss Hill told me Allen Ginsberg wasn’t a poet. What? Who didn’t consider Ginsberg a poet? He’d written Howl, that incendiary masterpiece that blew a hole in ironclad 1950s conformity. Right? Right, but as far as the state of Indiana was concerned, Ginsberg was not a poet.
Soon thereafter I read for the first time “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. Even though the poem was fifty years my senior and Yeats was an Irishman who’d been dead for fifty years I gleaned from the following lines what it would mean to be an adult in postmodern America:

            The best lack all conviction, while the worst

            Are full of passionate intensity.

Those lines felt as punk rock as the music I was listening to at the time. As ridiculous as it may sound to say so, I felt I knew William Butler Yeats. It must sound so much more extravagant to say he knew me too. And yet, I felt he did. Through the apocalyptic images of this poem I felt for the first time that I could relate to a writer on a psychic level.
As my consciousness expanded my grades flagged. Who had time for a public institution full of Soviet-style arbiters of literary taste when you contained a universe in your mind? Why do homework when you could spend hours communing with the dead via poetry? The dead make so much more sense than the living. Not only do they outnumber us seventeen to one, they’ve also had millennia to hone their thoughts. Anyhow, what living person could relate to a burgeoning teenage mystic trapped in Reagan-era suburbia?
If you want to be a poet today you must be put you in your place. Find a century-old anthology of poems. I discovered a copy of The Best American Magazine Verse of 1919 when I was an MFA in poetry candidate at the University of Washington. Of the more than 100 names in the table of contents, you could argue one or two of them—William Carlos Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay—will still be read in 2119. Of the 98 plus others at least one, Edwin Arlington Robinson, was considered to be a poet by the Indiana Board of Public Education, circa 1987.
Robinson’s “The Valley of the Shadow” reads like a prototype for Ginsberg’s Howl, not to mention Ginsberg’s favorite song, Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Had I discovered this poem as a teenager I surely would have recognized Robinson’s post-Great War America as an earlier manifestation of the post-Vietnam America in which I’d grown up. I didn’t know what post-traumatic stress disorder was, but I knew my parents’ veteran friends. One guy, whom they called The Falcon, lost his wife and children but he kept an album full of photos from the war like a personal Bible. Whenever he showed up at our house my parents sent me to my room. He probably would’ve felt the following lines from Robinson’s poem:

There were lives that were as dark as are the fears and intuitions

Of a child who knows himself and is alone with what he knows

One day Miss Hill summoned me to her desk. She was worried by my disengagement in class. She was especially worried because she knew, she said, that I was sensitive. Sensitive? I was sensitive? I felt disenchanted, yet full of wonder, a feeling too complicated for me to put into words in my own head, let alone communicate to the person who’d triggered such complex feelings. I stood there, as dumb as a teenager who’d found his parent’s stash of Valium.
Whenever someone asks me why I write poetry I think of that moment. I write poetry for every overwhelming moment full of feelings that are too difficult to put into words. I write poetry to give that dumb teenager a voice.

John Wesley Horton


*Title taken from Robert Graves’ “The Cool Web”

Many people know him as Johnny Horton, but for the past year he has been using John Wesley Horton as a pen name to avoid Google confusion with 1950’s rockabilly singer Johnny Horton (and because it sounds so much like the Bob Dylan record John Wesley Harding). John co-directs the University of Washington’s summer creative writing program in Rome, Italy. One decade ago, John set foot in Rome for the first time and it felt like a homecoming. Four years later, his father, who had (in John’s words) “been adopted by one of the WASPiest families in Chicago, Illinois,” admitted his biological mother was Italian.

John’s poem “In Other News” will be featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Seattle edition. Both books will be available April 1, 2013.