Sierra Nelson Guest Poet Post: “Bioluminescent Properties in Squid and Poetry”

Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature Sierra Nelson, a poet from Seattle, WA. Please enjoy her post!

Bioluminescent Properties in Squid and Poetry

Thinking about the name of this anthology, Alive at the Center, I started to wonder: how can we tell if a poem is alive—especially if it behaves differently from other poetic organisms we may be more used to observing? I’ll admit that my poem in this collection, “Not Towards a Real, Towards Another,” is probably one of these stranger species. Taxonomy isn’t everything, but it can be helpful. This poem doesn’t unfold via narrative, character, or one explored thought; it doesn’t use rhyme, meter, or syllabic count to form its exo- or endoskeleton. It does create a distinct visual silhouette on the page, though it’s a more abstract shape than traditional concrete poems. There are lyric images and attention to sound throughout, but neither seems the defining self-locomotion of the poem. If metaphors are at work, they are operating at a submerged level.

So, is this poem alive? Does it feel satisfying as a poem, and not just (the worst charge, to my mind) a “random” collection of words and pieces, without anything ultimately holding it together as an entity, with no heartbeat or brainwave, no energy absorbed or released?
I hope that is not the case—that it does feel alive and satisfying. I know I felt something compelling in it at its completion, and I’m happy to know some trusted readers and editors have responded similarly. (Enough to have it included in this anthology, and in such amazing company.)
And it’s also true that just because a poem expertly executes a traditional form or perhaps more neatly resembles a “poem” to our ear or eye—that’s not necessarily proof that it is alive either. It needs something more, to differentiate itself from a stuffed thing in a museum or an inert (if cunning) replica. We need to feel it move, breathe, make something in us respond, surprise us.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Poet Robert Frost, master of form, developed a theory of sentence sounds that speaks in part to what I’m struggling to articulate here. In a letter to John Bartlett (Feb. 22, 1914) he wrote:
To judge a poem or piece of prose you go the same way to work—apply the one test—greatest test. You listen for the sentence sounds. If you find some of those not bookish, caught fresh from the mouths of people, some of them striking, all of them definite and recognizable, so recognizable that with a little trouble you can place them and even name them, you know…
And in a later letter he adds, “…the tones of voice must be caught fresh and fresh from life. Poetry is a fresh look and a fresh listen. The actor’s gift is to execute the vocal image at the mouth. The writer’s is to implicate the vocal image in a sentence and fasten it printed to the page” (Letter to John Freeman, Nov. 5, 1925).
When writing “Not Towards a Real, Towards Another,” I took Frost’s idea of sentence sounds to heart and made an honest effort to catch “tones of voice…fresh from life.” The poem was written as I was finishing graduate school in Seattle and taking buses a lot—in the poem you’ll find fragments of overheard conversations from people on the bus, excerpts of half-finished letters to friends begun at bus-stops, phrases inspired by books I was reading at the time (insect behavior, philosophy), orphaned lines and notes from my notebook. I’d recently learned about madstones—a miraculous cure or a weighted madness in itself, found in an animal’s guts—and in that went. The song fragment You’re gonna lose a good thing was sung to me by a very drunk man in a cafe one night, biding time (he told me) until a certain boat from Alaska came in that he was sure would turn his luck around. His advice, and his sentence sounds, hit me hard.
There was a particular bleakness and urgency to that time in my life that I hope helps underscore all the disparate pieces and voices of this poem—what ended up in my notebook, what spoke to me from books and the observable world. It was a time of adventure and no adventure, of death and missing pieces. If the unspoken question in the poem is: “Am I / Are we all going to be OK?”—I’m not sure exactly what the answer is. But I think, in the end, the poem is hopeful. The bravery of the blossom beetles seems a vote of confidence anyway—at least that we might be OK enough to carry (or to be carried) on.
Bioluminescent Squid

Bioluminescent Squid

So where do the squid come in, you might ask? I’m a bit obsessed with cephalopods, and I recently learned about a phenomenon called “quorum sensing”—a system of stimulus and response in which individuals sense the presence of others like themselves, informing individual and collective behavior. For example, some social insects use quorum sensing to determine where to nest, and some species of bacteria use it to coordinate gene expression. One of the most awesome examples of this phenomenon is that the bacteria living inside certain kinds of squid, allowing them to create bioluminescence, operate via quorum sensing. Basically, these bacteria co-exist peacefully and boringly inside the squid, not doing much—except in certain circumstances when the bacteria sense the increased presence of one another, and literally start to glow! Scientists are still researching the how and why, but the squid must be able to encourage the bacteria to do this, working with the bacteria inside them to express and emote. Amazing!
quorum sensing diagram

Quorum Sensing

Whatever else is happening in a poem to make it alive, as a reader and writer of poetry, I think I’m really looking for the bioluminescence. What makes the words sense each other in such a way that they suddenly start to behave by glowing (a delight and a wonder, even on that word/phrase/line/microscopic level) while also expressing something (mysterious, stunning, patterned) for the larger organism: the poem? More research, of course, is still needed on all of this. But I hope for at least some of you, something in my poem is glimmering through to you in the dark. And I’m looking forward to encountering more of your creatures—writhing, shining, gleaming—in these waters.

Sierra Nelson has been writing, teaching, and performing in Seattle for more than fourteen years. Her books include lyrical choose-your-own-adventure I Take Back the Sponge Cake made in collaboration with visual artist Loren Erdrich (Rose Metal Press, 2012) and her poems have appeared in journals such as Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, and Tin House, among others. Nelson earned her MFA in Poetry from the University of Washington and is a MacDowell Colony fellow and 2011 Hackney National Literary Award winner for poetry. Nelson is also co-founder of the innovative literary performance art groups The Typing Explosion and the Vis-à-Vis Society.
Sierra’s poem “Not towards a real, towards another,” poem is featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Seattle edition. Both books are currently available from your favorite local bookshop or online retailer.

Frances McCue Guest Poet Post: An Interview with Esteemed Critic Dean Brown

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 Frances McCue, a poet from Seattle, WA. Please enjoy her post!

Guest Blog by Frances McCue: An Interview with Dean Brown

Today, I’d like to present an excerpt from an interview with the esteemed critic Dean Brown. As most of you know already, Dean Brown has been writing about poetry for almost twelve years and his work has appeared in many on line and print publications throughout the world. Many are touting him as the Harold Bloom of the new generation of critics.
FM: No one knows if you are actually a man or a woman. Care to tell us?
DB: Well, I don’t want to hide behind gender, but I do think that the mannish vibe of poetry in the Northwestern states has been something to undermine. If I’m a man, that feels sort of—well—more ironic for me to point that out. If I’m a woman, it’s a total power play. Since I hover between loving power and loving irony, I’d rather not say. I mean, who really cares?

Searching for Dean Brown

Searching for Dean Brown

FM: Few critics have written so much about the trends within American verse. Could you tell us about what trends you’ve seen here in the Northwest?
DB: Since my spiritual mother may be a big critic at Harvard, a poetry maven, I’ve learned to follow her lead. I isolate a few poets, look closely at their line breaks and the biographical material and then—voila!—I have a thesis. Here’s an example: David Wagoner. For years he wrote all of these “I’m lost in the woods,” poems and the line breaks would enhance the surprises. Like, you’re going to stumble around a log and be face to face with a bear. Okay, clearly, Wagoner is trying, over and over, to get out of the grim factory landscape of his boyhood. He’s substituting the forest as a kind of new romantic theater to explore, one where the dangers are, well, more organic.
FM: And who else, here in the Northwest do you look at?
DB: Of course, Hugo was said to be a creator of “instant Wordsworth,” and I know who said that but I’d rather not say. And I’d look at Heather McHugh, which I have extensively, even though she doesn’t really live in the Northwest much—she’s on the road a lot I think, and I look at—well, I guess they are all imports really. Except for Sherman Alexie. Ray Carver. You know.
FM: How has Northwest poetry moved beyond the Northwest School that was known in the 1950s, 60s and even the 70s?
DB: Like most poetry “schools,” it was started by the painters. The critics follow the painters and then they make some assumptions and then the poets jump up and down, shouting, “We’re here too! Look at us!”
FM: So the Northwest School—
DB: It was Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan with others elbowing in—William Cumming, Richard Gilkey… Those are the painters and they are sometimes called Northwest Mystics. Actually, as Tom Robbins has pointed out, they were a bunch of guys living mostly in the Skagit Valley and painting. Some of them liked Asian stuff, so Life Magazine called them Mystics. What a bunch of bullshit. So the poets—Theodore Roethke, who came here in 1947 or so, he arrived as a fully formed poet with poems about his father’s greenhouse and all that—he mostly ran around with rich people and not other poets—then there was David Wagoner, his student, who came in 1957 I think, and he started to write about this region—the trees, and green and mountains—and he taught students to appreciate that. Of course, you’d include Carolyn Kizer in that whole scene. Great poet who came from Spokane and married into an old logging aristocracy and Nelson Bentley and Ken Hanson whom no one ever talks about anymore, and maybe dip into Oregon and include William Stafford. They no more wrote only about landscape than the painters were painting mystical stuff. It was a glimpse of that and then the critics snapped it into a box and claimed a movement.
FM: What about now? How do you see American verse in the NW now?
DB: I’ve written extensively about his. You could look up my latest book: Northwest Poetry: What’s Going On? The premise is that no one knows what the hell is going on. I’m having trouble keeping track of all of this poetry coming out. You have slams, and those aren’t new anymore. I mean those are an institution, and then you have all these publishers—Wave, Copper Canyon, Poetry Northwest—and others like Tin House, Autumn House, Lost Horse—well I could go on and on. The center, you see, isn’t holding and all the nature poetry and the lost man in the big woods stuff is fading out. Things are more urban, more junked together sometimes, and there’s an incredible amount of verse constantly coming at you.
You turn, and there’s a broadside. You turn again and there’s a book, beautifully produced, and you think, “Who is this kid?” No longer the home of earnest sad sacks like Richard Hugo, the Northwest is kicking out poetry like some kind of mining shafts with conveyor belts. And some of it is earnest and sentimental and some of it is all edges and abstractions. {Sigh.}
FM: Anything else you can tell us about yourself? You’ve remained a mystery for so long.
 DB: More than anything, I’d like to ride a horse across the country. Some guy did that. I’d like to keep moving, without relying on the tedium of being in a place. I hate places. I just want to pass through them. I want to pass through them the way I pass through poems.

Frances McCue is a poet, essayist, reviewer and arts instigator. From 1996–2006, she was the founding director of Richard Hugo House in Seattle. In 2011, McCue became the first writer to win the Washington State Book Award for Poetry (The Bled) and place as a finalist for a second book (The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs) during the same year. The Bled also won the Grub Street National Book Prize. Her first poetry collection, The Stenographer’s Breakfast, won the Barnard New Women’s Poetry Prize.
Frances’s poem, “Kinship,” is featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Vancouver edition. Both books are currently available from your favorite local bookshop or online retailer.

Henry Hughes Guest Poet Post: “Water for Woe”

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 Henry Hughes, a poet from the Portland, OR area. Please enjoy his post!

Water for Woe

Poems, like all life on earth, came from water. Gilgamesh dives the Sumerian tides for a magic herb, Homer sings his “wine dark sea,” and the earliest Chinese writers filled the Shijing with drunken verses on the Yellow River. American poetry also emerges from Dickinson’s “sweet …swamp with its secrets” and from Whitman’s “world below the brine.” So when I find myself involuntarily pausing before organic pet salons, and bringing up the rear of every Portland protest, and especially whenever my depression gets such an upper hand that it requires a strong moral principle to stop me from pulling Sherpa hats off hipsters, then I know it’s high time to get to river or sea.

Willamette Falls in Oregon City, Photograph by Paul Gentry

Willamette Falls in Oregon City, Photograph by Paul Gentry

One dismal winter afternoon, I headed for Oregon City with my friend, Paul, a photographer and engraver who struggles with depression and drinking, the two forces often achieving a kind of reservoir-river dynamic that feeds a remarkable flow of fine work. Dangerous? Yes. But if you love and need art more than pristine health, what does it matter? “Who can part the water from the wine?” Rumi happily wrote before the Islamic prohibition.
Paul and I had a few drinks at the American Legion and talked to some of the men about the recession, the river, and the closing mills. One man, a recent veteran, told us “the world’s first paper mill was in Bagdad.” Another man shook his head and said, “If we could give up paper and oil we’d be all right.”
Blue Heron Paper Mill

Blue Heron Paper Mill, Photograph by Paul Gentry

Paul and I walked across the road, checked out the smelly steampunk circus of the Blue Heron Paper Mill scheduled for closure, took photos and notes, then drove down to the water. It was a drizzly, dark Friday. We cracked a couple beers and stared at the foamy river. Something large rolled on the surface, and we glimpsed a bright fin. Sturgeon? Or maybe the first spring salmon heading up to Willamette Falls—one of the most naturally stunning and grimly industrialized sites in America. “How do you feel?” I asked Paul. “Better,” he said. “Water, paper, beer, fish—it’s all connected.”

Some friends say I shouldn’t drink with Paul, that it’s not helping. But when I went to see him a few days later, he had printed a dozen superb photos from our outing. He also finished a meticulous wood engraving from which he pulled a print of a beautiful salmon churning through the water after a fly. “Next time we’ll make a few casts,” I said, and read him the draft of my poem, “Paper Mill.” We were happy with each other’s work. He lifted a bottle of cheap whisky off the shelf. “What you say?” he cocked his head. “Sure,” I smiled. “But let’s mix it with a little water.”
"Salmon Rising," Wood Engraving by Paul Gentry

“Salmon Rising,” Wood Engraving by Paul Gentry


Henry Hughes teaches literature and writing at Western Oregon University. He grew up on Long Island, New York, and he has lived in Oregon since 2002. His poems have appeared in Antioch Review, Carolina Quarterly, Shenandoah, Southern Humanities Review, Seattle Review and Poetry Northwest, and are represented in several anthologies including Long Journey: Contemporary Northwest Poets published by Oregon State University Press. His first collection, Men Holding Eggs, received the 2004 Oregon Book Award. His second book, Moist Meridian, was chosen by Robert Pinsky as a finalist for the 2011 Oregon Book Award. He is the editor of the Knopf Everyman Library anthologies, The Art of Angling: Poems about Fishing and Stories About Fishing, and his commentary on new poetry appears regularly in Harvard Review. Connect with Henry at his website.
His poem “Paper Mill,” which will appear in both the Alive at the Center anthology and the Portland edition, was part of the Shutter Lines project, a poem-photo collaboration with visual artist, Paul Gentry published by Cloudbank Books in the spring of 2012.
Both Alive at the Center volumes will be available April 1, 2013.

Kevin Craft Guest Poet Post: “A Year (And Twenty) in Seattle Letters”

 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 Kevin Craft, a poet from Seattle, WA. Please enjoy his post!

A Year (And Twenty) in Seattle Letters

Even before I moved to Seattle in the fall of 1993, I knew the first order of business for a writer newly arrived in the Northwest was to pay a visit to the great Elliott Bay Book Company store in Pioneer Square. Indie bookstores were still thriving in Seattle then, along with flannel shirts and grunge guitars, and everyone west of the Mississippi knew that Elliott Bay was among the biggest and best—not least for the torrential schedule of public readings they maintained, sometimes hosting three or four per day. Book groups and magazine staffs used it as a meeting space. Twenty years ago, as a central hub for literary community, Elliott Bay Books was the main game in town.
One of the first poets I saw there was Philip Levine. He was at the peak of popularity then, the buzz of his National Book Award for What Work Is still chasing him around, and the reading was well attended. At Elliott Bay Books, to get to the readings, one descended into an underworld of brickwork and bookshelves lining a spacious cellar room adjacent to a serviceable café. If the reading room was full, as it was that winter night, crowds would spill out into the café, squeezing into odd sightlines for a view of the stage.  As Levine peeled off poems from The Simple Truth (which went on to win the Pulitzer in 1994), I remember thinking that the grist in his thin voice was perfectly pitched to the basement gallery in which we were huddled. There we were, denizens of the old underground city, street level to the original Pioneer Square, listening intently as a new city rose up around us—a city of brick and breath and word.
This was before Richard Hugo House had opened its doors, or Northwest Bookfest, or Town Hall. Open Books (at a site further west on 45th) was not yet the sleek, warm, poetry-focused institution it is today. Seattle Arts & Lectures was still in its infancy, bringing a handful of prominent writers to town each year, with the Poetry Series and other expansions still a few years off. There was Castalia at the University of Washington and Red Sky Poetry Theatre on Capitol Hill. The highlight of the literary calendar for many poetry readers was the UW Roethke Reading each May (Galway Kinnell packed Kane Hall in May 1994), and Bumbershoot in September, which at that time still had a vibrant literary festival and book fair stitched into its jam-packed schedule. In retrospect, it seems like the end of an era. Very soon thereafter, Amazon came online. Indie bookstores struggled in its wake. Meanwhile, all the major institutions noted above began transforming Seattle into the busy writer’s town it is today.
Here’s a claim I hear oft-repeated: that poetry is irrelevant, losing ground in our noisy media culture—indeed, that poetry is dying. Looking back on this boom in Seattle literary culture, it certainly doesn’t seem so to me. Nor do I think Seattle is exceptional in this regard. Other cities have undergone similar expansion in the literary understory and canopy alike. I’d argue that poetry has never been more popular in the history of the planet, except maybe for the time when it was the only game, sitting around a hunter-gathered campfire or on the pebble beach of an Aegean island. And in the spaces we now inhabit, online, all writers can be their own editor, publisher and audience, all at once. The web has aided and abetted the proliferation of poetry, as it has with all the arts, for better and for worse.
On this last point, I am glad to live in a city where the physical nature of literary community, even literary ceremony, still means a lot. To judge by the calendar of events, we enjoy getting out, rubbing shoulders, hearing writers young and old hawk their wares. This past year alone, Seattle has witnessed a steady stream of exceptional events in a variety of venues, suggesting the irrepressible vitality (not to say promiscuity) of verse culture. Even as more reading series and festivals tumble out of our social networks and spill into the bars, cafés, and streets, it’s worth pausing to celebrate the energy and selfless devotion that goes into producing these public engagements.
For my money, the highlight of 2012 in poetry readings was Dean Young’s appearance in October at Seattle Arts & Lectures. It was the first reading he’d given in three years, the first since his heart replacement surgery, and the poignancy of his public reemergence hung in the air. As a speaker, Young was wry, casually profound, offhandedly insightful, just like his poems on the page, which—because of what he calls their “speed of association,” their surrealist quirks and turns—are as suited to the digital age as Levine’s poems were to the Reagan era. I felt his voice make a giant living room of Benaroya Hall, heard the audience (a full house) laugh and lean forward, as one. That moment in the after-reading interview when he thumped his chest with mock bravado and then, catching himself as the audience gasped, said, “Whoa, I guess I need to be more careful with that,” was pure arterial catharsis. With one beat, we all had our hearts replaced.
Up the hill, at Richard Hugo House (which welcomed new Executive Director Tree Swenson back to the Northwest in April 2012) the Literary Series continued to flourish, pairing writers with musicians and other performers to create and present new work around a specific theme. Begging no questions, local favorite and national hero Heather McHugh made a memorable appearance there in February to riff on the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” though she saved her best self for the public launch of her new philanthropic organization, Caregifted. At Caregifted, she devotes her prodigious energies to calling attention to those (mostly invisible in the public sphere) who spend their lives caring for others, and giving them a little creative time away for themselves. The opening event, at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in September, featured the duet of Robert Pinsky and jazz pianist Robert Hobgood, and demonstrated how poetry is first and foremost an instrument of compassion, that the fundamental generosity of the arts is the bedrock of true community.
Elsewhere, Castalia continues to hold its own, and has, by moving off-campus and into the Hugo House’s cabaret space, reinvented itself as one of the city’s liveliest events. Established by Nelson Bentley in 1970, it is one of the longest running reading series anywhere (though perhaps it’s time for them to branch out a bit and break with the now familiar formula of featuring a UW faculty member in every reading). Along with Cheap Wine & Poetry, Hugo House’s homegrown series, it is one of the biggest draws in town each month.
The Seattle Public Library often hosts civic-minded readings in the downtown center’s steep-seated auditorium. In March, they produced a very fine tribute to Chinese dissident poet and Nobel-prizewinner Lui Xiaobo. This bilingual reading took place simultaneously with readings around the globe, to build and publicize a community of solidarity with the imprisoned poet. Among the non-uses of poetry, nonviolent protest remains a potent subterranean force, witnessing (if not immediately rectifying) injustices, recording them into our cultural accounts. The Seattle reading was headlined by new Washington state Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken, whose debut reading at Open Books later that month for her second book, Plume, produced a chain reaction of its own among the crowd packed into that radiant room.
Several marathon-style readings stood out to mark our long northern summer days:  In June, over the course of twenty-four hours, day and night, Jack Straw celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with dozens of writers who’ve participated in their radio programs; and, in September, Richard Hugo House made the case for “change” with 100,000 other poets around the country, though—after five nonstop lively hours—one could be forgiven for thinking most of them reside in the Northwest.
In May, Poetry Northwest brought the Kate Tufts award-winning poet Katherine Larson to read at its “Big Bang” Science-Po Symposium (which took place in several locations, from Capitol Hill to the Everett Waterfront) mapping out another kind of literary community by exploring ways in which the languages of poetry and science overlap. And in December, at Hugo House again, between a book fair and a champagne toast, Copper Canyon Press marked its fortieth anniversary with a string of guests reading selections from its deep catalogue. The focus of this event was not so much the people involved in the press, but squarely (and roundly) on the act of reading itself. Warm and sociable, the occasion manifested not just end-of-year holiday spirit, but the physical extension and camaraderie of the page.

2013 looks just as busy and bright. We can look forward to the Wave Books Festival’s return in February, with a focus on Poetry & Film; Keats scholar and poet Stanley Plumly’s visit to Seattle Arts & Lectures in March; and newer monthly series like Breadline and Beacon Bards, plus the usual full calendar of April events, which continue to bloom and boom. Not to mention Elliott Bay Books, ticking away like Old Faithful, in its new location on Capitol Hill. Just twenty years ago, Jet City logophiles enjoyed a handful of venues and a casual stroll through the year. Now there are often three or four good events to choose from every night. Who says poetry is dead? Not Seattle.

Kevin Craft lives in Seattle and coordinates the Written Arts Program at Everett Community College.
His first book, Solar Prominence (2005), was selected by Vern Rutsala for the Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books. He has also edited and published five volumes of the anthology Mare Nostrum, an anthology of Mediterranean-inspired writing. His poems, reviews, and essays have appeared widely in such places as Poetry, AGNI, Verse, Ninth Letter, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, The Stranger, and West Branch. A Bread Loaf Scholar in 1996, he has been awarded fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Bogliasco Foundation (Italy), the Camargo Foundation (France), 4Culture, and Artist Trust.
Craft is the current Editor of Poetry Northwest, the region’s oldest literary magazine. He has also served as Director of the University of Washington’s Creative Writing in Rome Program since 2003.
Kevin’s poem “Vagrants & Accidentals” 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.