Backlist to the Future: Killing George Washington

Lets starts with a bit of honesty; I don’t usually read poetry. In fact, I’ll go ahead and admit I don’t care for it. I’m a fan of books beginning to end. Intro, climax, resolution, ending. Character development and intricately described settings are what make me flip from page to page, and I have never found poems to leave me feeling satisfied. I respect it as an art form, and a beautiful way for the poet to express themselves, but for some reason it’s just not for me. History on the other hand, now that’s something I get behind. I am a big time history buff, and love to devour knowledge about how the past has shaped the world we live in today. I am also a west coast kid, fittingly born in the shadow of St. Louis’s Gateway Arch, the literal gateway to the west. Raised in the Arizona desert and self-implanted into the heart of the Pacific Northwest, the west coast is, and always has been, home. It’s unlikely that will ever change.

All things considered, when I picked up a copy of Killing George Washington I really had no idea what to anticipate. Was I about to read a collection of poems that I would have to struggle to take meaning out of, wondering all the time if I was interpreting them totally wrong? Or was I about to delve into yet another historical epic of the kind I love so dearly? A collection of poems geared towards historical storytelling was something I had never come across before, and I wasn’t sure if I should settle in for an enjoyable read right up my alley, or run for the hills as if being chased by the ambiguous ghost of Robert Frost. To my relief and joy, I was very pleasantly surprised.

The short introductory biographies on each of the five showcased characters serves to provide wonderfully developed backdrops for the poems. You learn who these people were and how, in one way or another, they helped shape the west as we live in it today. Some are seen as heroes, others hardly remembered at all, but Paris is so eloquently able to show that, like all of us, the characters were people with flaws and histories mixed with both the good and the bad. To be sure, the text does not drone on like so many history books we were force fed through school, the true historical stories are broken up by countless poems of beauty and brutality, and here is where Paris takes her artistic license. Was the Indian fighter Lewis Wetzel an American hero and champion of expansion, or a prejudiced murderer who under modern day laws would be executed for genocide? Paris’ poetry begs the question that perhaps he can be both. Does the famous story of Lewis and Clark and The Oregon Trail paint a fair picture of the two hallowed adventurers, or does the story of York prove that the path to the west was paved with blood, sweat, and tears? Through artistic contemplation, you will be forced to draw your own conclusion.

I will not pretend that reading this book has opened my heart to the previously unseen beauties of poetry. The truth is, poetry is still very near the bottom of what I’ll choose to read. However, Killing George Washington has opened my eyes to the potential poetry has, and shown me that I am only cheating myself by writing poems off at a glance just because I probably will not like them. Because after all, the truth is often buried under layers of what we think we know.

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!

Poetlandia

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.