Skywriting: William Stafford’s Legacy

After our well-attended launch event at In Other Words, we’ve scheduled another event to celebrate We Belong in History on Feb. 12, this time at Broadway Books on NE Broadway. Kim Stafford and the poet Emily Kendal Frey will be there, as will some of the student poets from the collection. This of course has gotten us thinking about what makes a good book-related event and, with the William Stafford Centennial going on, there’s been no lack of choice.

Paulann Petersen and Dylan P.

Paulann Petersen and student poet Dylan P. at the We Belong in History launch.

Our previous event for We Belong in History was something of a family affair; it was intimate and cozy, with students and poets crowded together as they are in the best sort of seminars. This suits our role as a learning press, but it isn’t by any means the only way to run this kind of event. Unfortunately, the weather kept us away from the grand Stafford Centennial Celebration put on by Literary Arts, but late last year there was a smaller, quieter event that provided a useful contrast with our own plans. Saturday December 14, 2013, saw the release of Winterward, William Stafford’s creative doctoral dissertation, by Tavern Books. More than eighty Stafford fans settled into the pews of the Eliot Chapel at Portland’s First Unitarian Church to hear Kim Stafford, Paulann Petersen, and Stafford archivist Paul Merchant read some of William Stafford’s poems and tell stories about both the book and the poet, some of which will be published later in 2014 as part of Tavern Books’ Honest Pint subscription series.

Kim Stafford, Paul Merchant, and Paulann Petersen

Kim Stafford, Paul Merchant, and Paulann Petersen at the Winterward launch.

Perhaps it was the setting, but the atmosphere was subdued and respectful, although alert with interest. In spite of the opportunity to mingle afterwards, there was a clear division between the speakers, or performers, and the audience. It was like a university lecture, or perhaps a memorial service, a celebration of a poet’s legacy rather than a continuation of it—and both are necessary. We’re glad the Stafford Centennial has provided the opportunity for all kinds of celebrations of the poet and the teacher; we’re especially glad that we have been a part of it—that we, as students of publishing and poetry, belong in history, too.

Celebrating William Stafford

From the time of its inception about a year and a half ago, before we even had a title to accompany the project, We Belong in History was slated for release in January 2014, the centennial of the celebrated former Oregon Poet Laureate William Stafford’s birth. The project is the result of a 2012 entreaty from current Poet Laureate Paulann Petersen, who asked that Ooligan Press join others from Portland, others from all over Oregon, in celebrating the life of one of our greatest poetry legends. Ooligan Press answered the call, and it’s difficult to believe that the oft-mentioned date of the centennial is here at last.

As much as We Belong in History: Writing with William Stafford is a passion project—an effort steeped in the promise of young voices and the love that we here at Ooligan have for Stafford’s contributions to Oregon’s literary culture—it’s also something that we as publishing students need to market and sell. We Belong in History caters to several notoriously difficult sales demographics. If selling a poetry book is difficult in today’s publishing world, then selling a poetry book filled with young, unknown authors is near impossible. The book also features another selling point in the form of lesson plans for educators looking for effective ways to bring Stafford to the classroom, but the fact of the matter is, we’re looking at a very limited audience.

We Belong in History is different from many concurrent Ooligan projects because much of our success will depend upon the sales boost that timely conscientiousness will give us. Because the centennial of Stafford’s birth has inspired such widespread remembrance, the We Belong in History team is taking it upon ourselves to join into any celebration we can, encouraging people to consider our own specific brand of celebration as they carry out their own. This makes the entire year of 2014—especially the month of January—crucial to our marketing plan.

Our efforts on this front have been met with mixed success. Thus far we have attended two William Stafford events with wares in hand, though we have attempted to join in with a lot more. The problem with seeking entry with the intent to sell something is that most of the time, someone else is selling something too, and we can hardly crash other book launches with all of our sales guns blazing, so we have definitely been limited as to the number of events in which we can participate.

The first event we attended was a quiet community reading at the Milwaukie Ledding Library on January 11th which featured Paulann Petersen and several members of the city government. The second was Oregon Public Broadcasting’s public presentation of their radio show, Think Out Loud, which inspired an in-depth discussion of Stafford’s life and legacy. We can classify these efforts as a mixed success because, although we sold no more than ten books between them, events such as these contribute a great deal to spreading Ooligan’s name and our mission, and we never know who is going to come looking because something about our book or its message stuck with them. Stafford’s name is everywhere now, and Ooligan wants to be there right along with him.

Ooligan also conducted our own launch event on January 7th at In Other Words Feminist Community Center, contributing to the wealth of events with our own unique dialogue and attendance, and featuring readings from our enthusiastic young contributors. We will also be hosting a second release party on February 12th at Broadway Books. We are looking forward to attending more centennial events this month and throughout the year. For more information on William Stafford events in and around Portland, visit the 2014 Stafford Centennial Calendar at Friends of William Stafford.

“We Belong in History” launch

Portland’s typical gloomy weather did little to stop Ooligan Press’s lively launch party at In Other Words Feminist Community Center for its latest title, We Belong in History: Writing with William Stafford. An in-house passion project, We Belong in History combines a selection of Stafford’s best work with submissions from Oregon’s finest student writers, seeking to establish what Oregon poet laureate Paulann Petersen hailed as “the best of conversations.”

Petersen, who wrote the introduction to the book, was among the sixty or so people who attended the standing-room-only event. History’s project manager, Michael Berliner, served as the emcee and introduced Petersen, who spoke of how she came to be involved in the creation of the book. When she learned of Ooligan’s call for submissions for a Stafford-inspired poetry anthology, she contacted the local educators she knew to encourage their students to participate. Her grandson Dylan and his friend Noah were among the students selected for publication, and this bit of chance as well as the level of community involvement led Petersen to call We Belong in History “a family book.”

Four of the students whose work is featured also appeared at the event to read their poetry aloud. Dylan, Petersen’s grandson, read “The Whip of Ice,” which was inspired by Stafford’s personification of the elements. Noah then read his poem, “Spring,” which was inspired by Stafford’s poem “Fall Wind.” Another student, Colwyn, read his work, “Burden of the Spiders.”

Finally, the student poetry showcase closed with two readings from Anushka Nair, who had recently appeared on Oregon Art Beat to discuss her participation in the book. She thanked her family as well as Ooligan Press, and she touted Paulann Petersen as her “steady current” who encouraged her whenever she felt doubt. Later in the evening, she confessed that her life has been “turned upside down” since being published in We Belong in History—but in the best way. Poetry is an important part of her life, and as a Stafford fan, she was excited to be featured in the anthology; she said that Stafford’s “sense of belonging” and “empowering voice” are inspirations for her own work.

As someone who participated in the project toward the tail end of its production cycle, I felt a sense of accomplishment and pride as the event unfolded. This is my second book launch with Ooligan (The Ninth Day being the first), and I was so pleased by the number of unfamiliar faces I saw, not to mention the number of children and teenagers attending with their parents.

From the bottom of my heart, I would like to thank my project team and especially my project manager, Michael. I thank my colleagues in the graduate program as well as our professors, Abbey Gaterud and Per Henningsgaard, for their support and insight. I thank Paulann Petersen for her enthusiastic contributions to the book, and I am especially grateful to the educators who worked tirelessly to get their students involved. Last but not least, I would like to thank the students whose poetry I had the pleasure of reading during the production cycle. We worked together and wound up creating something beautiful. A family book, indeed.

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Roosevelt High School Students Present Anthology at Powell’s

It was the first time reading in public for many of the Roosevelt High School students who participated in the Where the Roses Smell the Best presentation at Powell’s on Hawthorne, July 11. This anthology of writing on the people, places and lifestyles of Portland is the first book produced by Unique Ink, the publishing house run by the students of the Publishing and Writing Center at RHS. Many of the students were nervous, but well-known writers who contributed to Where the Roses Smell the Best were there to support them, including Oregon Poet Laureate and former high school teacher Paulann Peterson. She read her poem “To Love Hard Enough” about the deaths of tent caterpillars that plagued the trees of Portland in her childhood.

Paulann Peterson

Paulann Peterson

“It’s an honor to have a poem in this anthology,” Peterson said of the students’ publication. “This Roosevelt High School endeavor is launching itself in Powell’s. Every writer in the world wants a reading at Powell’s.”
Renee Mitchell, a Pulitzer-nominated former journalist, read “Let Me Be Born” about leaving the safety of her job at the Oregonian to follow her heart. Mitchell reassured the uncertain students saying, “I think it’s important to let young people know that we still get nervous. It takes courage to be in front of people expressing your words. This is such an incredible opportunity we didn’t have as teenagers.”
Roosevelt student Miranda Mendoza read “Bus 75,” a vignette about a walk on Lombard Street. She described Renee Mitchell as an encouraging mentor who helped her to believe in her own talent. “I was one of the people who sat in the shadows and thought I wasn’t good enough,” said Mendoza. She gained confidence when she got feedback from Mitchell on a poem that will appear in the next book, coming out this summer.
Renee Mitchell

Renee Mitchell

In a symbiotic partnership between two student-run presses, the graduate students from Ooligan Press pass on their knowledge of publishing to the high school students of Unique Ink. In an earlier post, Ooligan blogger Rebekah Hunt described the rewarding experience:

[Ooligan founder] Dennis Stovall and the Ooligan students help them call for and sort through submissions, write acceptance and rejection letters, edit the submissions, design the interior and exterior layouts of the book, target their audience, market the book, organize events and readings, and anything else that may come up. I found that being involved with the process in a teaching capacity sharpened my own skills and understanding and gave me a new perspective on the publishing process.

At the Powell’s reading, Zachary Learned, recent RHS graduate and former Project Manager for Unique Ink, explained that he had learned important career survival skills in the process, including how to send business emails and use Excel, and had vastly improved his grammar. He plans to apply those lessons to his college experience when he majors in marketing and business at Portland State University.
Where the Roses Smell the Best is already selling briskly. The Heathman Hotel is going to put a copy of the book in every guest room to acquaint newcomers to Portland. That’s 150 copies in just one sale!

Zachary Learned

Zachary Learned

Please visit the RHS Writing and Publishing Center’s Facebook page to learn more about the project. You can purchase Where the Roses Smell the Best at many local bookstores including Powell’s, Annie Blooms, and Broadway Books. The final book reading will be at Annie Blooms on July 29th.

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.