Leah Stenson Guest Poet Post: “Poetlandia”

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.

Stonehenge Studios Storefront

Stonehenge Studios Storefront

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 ReviewNorthwest 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.

John Sibley Williams Guest Poet Post: “Poetry as Conversation”

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 John Sibley Williams, a poet from Portland, OR who helped generate the idea for Alive at the Center in his time at Ooligan Press. Please enjoy his post!

Poetry as Conversation

What makes an experience or concept universally accessible? How can we use words, specifically poetry, to turn the personal into the shared?
Perhaps the most important task of all poets is reaching our audience, transcending ourselves, building a bridge between that coveted realm of personal passion and how it’s translated by readers. Simply detailing one’s own experience of the world is not enough. How we express ourselves is key, how we leap over the innate divide between people’s unique perspectives and spark resonance, all by carefully stringing words together into a meaning that simultaneously respects our own vision and speaks directly to the reader. The challenge of poetry is ensuring our words enter into a basic human conversation with those we wish to touch.
At heart, poetry is an intimate conversation between the writer and reader. Beyond that, it accepts the reader’s part in the process and encourages connections deeper than mere recognition, understanding, and response. As all poets approach what we write from our own unique, inimitable, and unpredictable vantage point—based on what we’ve witnessed and experienced and how we processed that stimuli—why not write with this in mind? The question is: how?
When we remain too focused on the internal, we may lose sight of the larger issues we wish to express. We may forget that the act of sharing our work involves placing ourselves in another’s hands. It’s a common stereotype that writers live in their own minds. Even if this is partially true, and, further, even if this aspect helps spark creation and genius, to remain focused solely on the internal without regard to possible reader interpretation may lead down an ego-based path where resonance is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Poetry should be seen as the shared expression of the internal.
One example of this can be found in overly linear poetry. Let’s pose the question: how tightly should a poet cling to the facts of a given experience? I have always argued that truth is more important than fact. The details within a piece of literature only matter as far as they nourish the dialogue they create. Facts must be supple and ready to bend like river water around a turn. The core truths of the experience or concept we wish to express must take precedence over the common desire to remain strictly faithful to the where, when, and who of what really happened.
However, leaning too far in the opposite direction can similarly detract from creating resonance. If we write wholly focused on readers, we may end up betraying our own passion and perspective. We must walk that line between dictating the reader’s experience and leaving them lost. Why not allow readers room to breathe and encounter the work on their own terms, from their own backgrounds, through their own eyes? Why not purposefully plant metaphorical white space within the meanings of what you write?
The concept of white space as it pertains to design and layout is well known. The eye requires breaks from the constant barrage of black ink that streams across the page. Book designers utilize white space to provide a safe haven for the reader, both physically and mentally. It is like the silence we seek after a long conversation. White space provides the mind with a physical representation of silence. The strained eye has taken in a stanza of poetry, rich in metaphor and concept, and delights in the brief absence of type before approaching the next image, refreshed.

Power of Words--Unknown Photographer

Unknown Photographer

But we can include metaphorical white space in the way we write also. This perspective on white space involves far more than the physical strategy—striking a healthy balance between black and white, text and vacancy. Words themselves require room to become. Images should remain wet cement. Concepts and emotions reside in the gray area of interpretation, the interplay of meaning and translation. In other words, the substance of poetry develops from achieving a delicate balance of text and not text, of stating what we mean without stating our intent, of white space not just around, but also within the words we use.
How does one write to create white space and conversation? Perhaps by recognizing that our writing is a journey we wish others to follow us on, while realizing where they end up will inevitably be based only partially on what we’ve said. It’s also based on the joy and the baggage they carry with them. We cannot dictate meaning. Each image we create can mean as many different things as there are different readers. We can only guide others down a path that leads to a place we cannot wholly predict.
One metaphor I like to use is that of a forest, a forest of meaning. If we leave no room for ambiguity, for the reader to interact with the text, then we’ve pretty much carved only one path for them to follow. We haven’t fully appreciated their active role in the conversation. We tell them what to get out of the poem, instead of showing them. Conversely, if we provide too much ambiguity, then we’ve left them to roam the full forest alone, without guidance, and meaning and resonance become difficult to achieve. To navigate this struggle, I’ve found that the poems that leap the divides of nations and generations tend to provide a few paths toward meaning, not too many, but also not so few that they hold our hands. They respect readers by using language that can touch them, universally, regardless of where they come from and what of the world they have known to be true. They stay true to the essential elements of experience, forgoing overly elaborate, or overly personal explanations and details that keep readers from having their own experience with the text.
Forest Path

Unknown Photographer

Poetry is rhetoric, like all other writings. As poets, we are inherently trying to persuade others to see things as we see them, but funneled through their own eyes. We cannot convince by simply saying, “Believe me, this is how it is.” We must show them things that lead them to believe it: essential things, shared things. We must give readers the tools from which to construct meaning from what we’ve written. We must leave breadcrumbs along the path. We must balance what we mean with what others might think we mean.
And when a poem is successful, it ends up generating a wholly new experience based on the conversation it’s sparked in the reader. Why not write with this universality in mind? Why not invite readers into our work, into our words, and ask them to stake their own claims (call it “planting a flag”) in the personal creation we wish to share?
John Sibley Williams is the author of six chapbooks and winner of the HEART Poetry Award. He has served as an acquisitions manager at Ooligan Press, both an agent and publicist, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing and MA in Book Publishing. A few previous publishing credits include: Inkwell, Bryant Literary Review, Cream City Review, The Chaffin Journal, The Evansville Review, RHINO, Rosebud, Ellipsis, Flint Hills Review, and various fiction and poetry anthologies.
John’s Poem “Icelandic Church” 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.