The Beginning of a New Project

Hello all,

I’d like to introduce you to Mastersounds: A History of Jazz in the Pacific Northwest, one of Ooligan’s newest projects  This started as an in-house idea that developed into a full pitch during the winter and was acquired by the press in the beginning of spring.

The overall goal for this project is to create a narrative work that covers the history (people, places, and events) that shaped the jazz community in the Pacific Northwest. Along with this in depth history, the book will explore questions of sound, community, and lifestyle to better convey what makes the jazz scene in this area unique and why musicians are drawn to it.

The author, Lynn Darroch, is an expert of jazz in the area and is very excited to be working with Ooligan on this project. He is currently going strong with his research and is conducting interviews with major figures of the area to get a personal account of the community.

This week, the team is is going to continue to gather some preliminary information for the project such as the type of grants and awards that are out there for this type of book. They’ll also work on developing a plan to create a crowdfunding campaign and a web application that will hold a bunch of extra videos and music that cannot be added into a book format.

Until next time!

Welcome to Summer

Hello, everybody!

Welcome to summer term! As of July 1, 2014 The Wax Bullet War has been out for three months and we’re still going strong. Last term, we booked a lot of events for Sean throughout the summer with some going into the fall. Now, we are working hard to keep our momentum in order to make these events as successful as possible for Sean and withstand the temptation to spend the summer days reading in the sun.

Coming up, we have two readings: the first is at Last Word Books in Olympia on July 3, 2014, and on the heels of that is one being hosted by the South San Francisco Public Library on July 7, 2014. We’ve been spending our time researching and contacting the media outlets and veteran’s organizations in those cities. It’s a lot of work reaching out to all of these busy people, but as our publicity advisor instructed us last term: be assertive and professional, but above all, be bold! It hasn’t steered us wrong yet.

We Went to Willamette Writers Conference 2013

The Willamette Writers Conference is prime for networking. Most guests are authors seeking agents, publishers, and advice. As a publisher, Ooligan Press came on Friday seeking writers (and potentially agents representing Northwest writers). Last year, we met Karelia Stetz-Waters when she pitched her coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of Ballot Measure 9, the most violent anti-gay political campaign of the 1990s. We fell in love with the manuscript and went through a developmental edit with the author, signing the contract for the book this summer. Did we meet anyone special at WWC 2013? We’ll see. We heard some promising pitches and have to review the manuscripts.

The Friday lunch speaker was Jennifer Lauck, a journalist and nonfiction writer transitioning to novelist. “I have written and published four memoirs. I have written and not published four novels,” as she put it. Her method of “getting it done” when it comes to drafts is to put a sticky note on her computer with the page number she ended on yesterday. She doesn’t allow herself to move away until she writes ten more pages. Then she scratches the old number out and writes that updated amount on the sticky note.

Many writers struggle with beginnings and endings. “Get to the ending so you know what went wrong,” Lauck said. “Write through the confusion. You can’t know the beginning until you get to the end.” To memoirists she advised, “Where in your life did you, on your own steam, make a difference. That’s your heroic moment. That’s your ending.”

The other Ooligan students and I had the luck of sitting at the lunch table with a type of writer that is very valuable to us: a reviewer! We met Cindy Hudson of Mother Daughter Book Club. Since we are a publisher of young adult literature, we’re hoping she will be interested in a couple of our recent and upcoming books. I recommend checking out the thoughtful reviews on her website. If you’re a writer or publisher of books that would appeal to both mothers and daughters, get in touch.

William Hertling
I had the opportunity to attend a few of the conference classes offered on Friday. The highlight for someone in publishing like me was “Every Trick in the Book for Optimizing Your Presence and Sales on Amazon” with William Hertling. I admired his outline, shown below for the launch month of a book. He has some great advice for keeping on track and improving the buzz about a book. It’s good guidance for both authors and book marketers. You can see all the slides from his presentation here.

Launch Month

We’re looking forward to Willamette Writers Conference 2014!

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.

Lucia Misch Guest Poet Post: “Contingencies”

Every Thursday since January, 2013, Ooligan Press has invited 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 Lucia Misch, a poet from Vancouver, BC.

This is the final installment of the Guest Poet Post series, and we think it’s a great note to end on. Please enjoy Lucia’s post, and thank you for reading the series!


The poem I submitted to Alive at the Center was inspired by a contingency speech written in 1969 by William Sapphire. Entitled “In Event Of Moon Disaster,” it was the address Nixon would have given the nation if the Apollo 11 astronauts had become stranded on the moon, facing certain death inside their hermetic suits. When I stumbled across the transcript, I was floored by the poignancy of what its existence implied. It had been written for a specific eventuality, and though the events that would have called upon itnever occurred, it remained, an artifact of an alternate history in which two human bodies have been lying on the face of our moon for the last fifty years. Reading it turned Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin into Schrödinger’s cats, alive and dead, triumphant and tragic, all at once.

In Event of Moon Disaster

But, as well as being a good reason to bring up the only thing I know about quantum theory, the speech was something more. It was a provision made for an uncertain future. And what could be more familiar? Almost every life includes such contingencies, Plan Bs half sketched out and kept as insurance against Plan A’s going sideways. But for writers—and perhaps particularly poets—the possibility of having to implement the back-up plan looms large. We’re asked over and over by family, friends, teachers, colleagues, and sometimes ourselves, what we’ll do if writing doesn’t “work out,” usually followed by something about how competitive the field is. Whether we’ll embrace writing as a primary pursuit, or develop ancillary skills, is anyone’s guess.

In January of 2010, I found myself on a necessary hiatus from the spell drinking I’d been using to compensate for the privileged problem of being twenty and uncertain in another low-ceilinged Vancouver winter. I quickly discovered that, without the hours spent being either vivaciously merry or crushingly hungover, I had quite a bit of spare time on my hands. So, on a whim, though I didn’t even own a bicycle, I began to volunteer at a bike repair co-op. At the time, it had never occurred to me that I could be capable of anything other than cerebral, creative pursuits like writing poetry, but soon I was smitten by bearing systems, leverage, the smell of grease and WD40, the new abilities and intuitions that, once mastered, could make these simple machines sing. I interned at the co-op that summer, and have worked as a mechanic for the past three years. When I’m asked what I do, I usually say that I write and fix bikes, or that I fix bikes and write. The response is often, “How good that you have a trade, you’ll always be able to work.”

And it is good. I have an enthusiastic love for mechanics, one that busts open new approaches, perceptions, and patterns of thought, making me a better writer and a more able person. As such, I don’t see being a mechanic as a Plan B, or a safety net. It is, like writing, an integral part of how I identify and value myself. It sometimes feels like there’s a mythology around creative endeavors, which dictates that poets, painters, dancers, and what have you, can only be real artists if we abandon other interests. Or, at very least, consistently integrate all our fascinations into artistic output. It feels like we are asked to choose one course and stick to it, told that to live an amalgam of interests makes our art impure. Though there is an undeniable romance, maybe even an admirable nobility, in a life dedicated to creativity, I think it’s a narrow and unfortunate view to insist upon. A friend of mine, who teaches introductory English at a community college, who is an arts organizer, and one of the best poets I know, recently told me that he’s glad not to rely entirely on his writing, as that keeps him from encountering situations where he may have to compromise between how he wants to make his art and his ability to pay rent. He is, of course, fortunate to have a job that he enjoys, one that leaves enough time and energy to write, and I love the idea that diversifying allows him to feel that his poetry can have more integrity rather than less.

Sapphire, as he wrote, must have been aware that his words could well become an iconic piece of writing in human history: what we said when our grand ambitions proved too bold. Conversely, there was the possibility of his speech being unused and forgotten. As it turned out, neither was the case. Though never read to the nation, it resurfaced, decades later, in a new context that lent it fresh impact. I find that comforting. I don’t like to think that I, or my teacher friend, or the painters, writers, musicians, and photographers who have been my coworkers at bike shops, are standing at forks in divergent roads.

Lucia Misch grew up at an astronomical observatory near San Jose, California. She began writing and performing at fifteen, moved to Canada three years later, and has since toured and lead spoken word workshops across North America. She placed second at the 2011 Canadian Individual Poetry Slam, was a member of the 2010/11 Vancouver Slam Team, a two-time South Bay Youth Slam champion, and the winner of the 2010 Vancouver Labour Slam. She can fix your bicycle, make you a mean leek and potato soup, or let you borrow her staple gun, all for the small price of a story about dinosaurs. She believes in the Oxford Comma and currently lives in Vancouver.

Lucia’s poem, “In Event of Moon Disaster” is featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Vancouver editionBoth books are currently available from your favorite local bookshop or online retailer.

Susan Parr Guest Poet Post: “Flight from Fancy”

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 Susan Parr, a poet from Seattle, WA. Please enjoy her post!

The Flight from Fancy

That secret shake and cloak—the pen-name (or ‘anon’)—reads at first (briefly) like an evasion, but in the end is accepted as simple cache, as sphinx-in-a-clamshell, as one life’s sweat and sediment canistered. The life becomes mere cautionary pinpoint. But a tenth of one percent of its person still turns out; there’s this itchy prominent “I” in the pseudonymous sign-off. It lends legitimacy to what is probably a protective evasion.

But this hiding ‘I’ has an inverse: not in the individual, but in society: not in cover, but creation, in sheer fantasy. I don’t mean the genre, but the mental skill—the fat hamburgers of the practicing illumist, the slippery lost weekends, the dial-up connivances, in all of which we slay nine-and-ninety-nine hundredths of ourselves for the deliverance from reality. Whole societies can nearly die by some epidermic nicety or other. It is the de-nonymization of everyone’s perception; it is a kind of social sawtimber—not a protective cache and canister, but a polite mental clearcut. It’s denial’s scene and set engine.


2. The Department of Fancy, or, We Cannot Continue this Post Without a Look at Coleridge’s Thoughts on Imagination

Quick re-cap: Coleridge famously detangled the stems “fancy” and “imagination” in his 1817 Biographia Literaria. Energetically concerned about their misconstrual, he clarified, though not without some obscurity along the way, that ‘imagination’ rightfully named is an “esemplastic power” that creates by a repetition in the mind of the eternal “I Am” (BL, Chapter XIII). It is the reenactment of the creativity inherent in the oppositional forces behind transcendental reality. From the balancing of oppositional forces, the imagination finds energy to create a new, unified—well, a new unified art chunk, if you will:

The poet described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other…he diffuses a tone of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. This power…reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities… (BL, Chapter XIV)

But I think it’s safe to say that we don’t typically worry much about oppositions when we “imagine”—in fact what we more typically do is what he calls “fancy.”

This fancy is like a memory game liberated from physical boundaries, using fixed images to create unreal entities. For example, imagining the person you’re calling as the phone rings. Fancy works with what’s unreal and detached or associative: it is “indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space…equally with the ordinary memory the fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association” (BL, Chapter XIII).

Back to that word esemplastic, which sounds a little like a Fimo clay version of empathic. Coleridge explains that it comes from the Greek for to shape into one. Though I think it can be said that empathy does shape after observation, this esemplastic power might operate at a “higher” octave of empathy. Since the “law of association” fixes fancy’s mode, do its parameters limit empathy to the bounds of personal memory? We fancy ourselves in someone’s place, but can the fixations of fancy limit resolution, so that we merely decorate with our projections—like this dude, bedeviled by wind chimes:

Windchimes Imagination Video

Click the image to watch the video on YouTube


3. Anthropoelgy?

It would be smart and updated to study Coleridge’s ideas in an empirical way, with the aid of MRIs and prone poets, and a quick check reveals that, OK, studies have been done, and Coleridge was right—about fancy, at least. The science seems to be teasing out that what we call imagination, disconnected from physical limits, relates to memory (see here as well). Moreover, the process works in reverse: fancying ourselves, to continue with Coleridge’s term, can stimulate memory. It’s clear this faculty is central to human interactions, planning, creativity, and on—this fancy is powerful stuff. But Coleridge insists on more.

Few would confess, “Oh, Colridgean imagination, I use it all the time.” I mean, what is he talking about? He seems to require us to imagine each concept in turn, holding the entity as long as possible until a personal example presents itself. We want a muscle-memory for both skills, not just one. But that understanding already involves memory, and certain pit-falls lie here should the hapless reader mistakenly use fancy to try and model the two terms. To avoid this, one almost wants to avoid imagining the abstractions altogether, even avoid thinking of them. We still need to intuit the way forward, or else bring it down to dirt level, twigs, ants, sap, a plastic cap, a wasp wing—here, in the world of poetic mythology, might we find Imagination?

Turn to the obscure, but worthwhile: the 1962 book, C.M. Bowra’s Primitive Song, has been praised as a rich compendium of indigenous poetry. Bowra’s material is the word-arts of a number of cultures living separate from twentieth century civilization, including Selk’nam/Owano, Inuit, San, Yamana, Vedda, Mbuti, and others. Binary like Coleridge’s system,the survey contrasts two terms, modern imagination and primitive imagination. Briefly, it works out something like this: modern imagination operates when a person forms a mental image without reference to the senses or world. That image may exist, in some other time or place (memory), but the original is at the moment of imagining “not present to the senses.” This sounds a lot like fancy, the faculty imaged in the fMRI scans.

In contrast, Bowra says, “primitive imagination does nothing of this kind. It is resolutely and rigorously concerned not with what is absent in time or place but with what is believed to be present but invisible.” This kind of imagination deals in visions. It connects to the supernatural; it intercepts important forms of entities that dwell in mythologies particular to a culture. It works to lend these entities a “household” familiarity, partly in order to remove barriers to calling upon them in matters of daily predicament. It’s the mental technique that gives authority to supplication. In other words, it helps people.

Such methods are commonly written off as superstition; moreover, the larger contrast between modern/primitive is commonly written of as romanticization of the indigenous. But here it’s a creative process, not a way of life under discussion; I think we can suspend the terminology as inherently fanciful. Meanwhile, consider the empiricism underlying the art form. Bowra painstakingly points out throughout this book that the practitioner of primitive imagination had an exceptionally detailed understanding of the local environment. They knew calendrical bud-phases, and cloud organization; they might pinpoint time of day by combining shadow angles, bird activity, waypoints spot-lit in the sun/shade forests. Against that highly specific field, the song-maker detected messages aiding survival. Without that field, the imaginative radar lost resolution.

Seeking help with all this, I tried some simple diagrams—but I fear that fancy destroyed my perception.


Figure 1

Figure 1: Bowra’s Primitive Imagination.

(Does this exist?) If thought follows the curved tracks, then the four inner circles represent the hidden-but-real emerging in those thoughts from an inner store of mythic narratives, sensory skill, and local natural science (pharmacology, hunting, foraging, agriculture, etc.)—and from a place indicating the connectedness of all of these. Seasons, moon cycles, along with some sense of an eclipse calendar emerges.


Figure 2

Figure 2: Bowra’s modern imagination.

Similar but less specific than Coleridge’s concept of fancy. If thought follows the curved tracks, then the twelve circle tracks represent thought that is detached from time and space emerging from an infinite source. The overlap in thinking (overlap of the circles) represents the proliferation of forms resulting from associations. This associative material is often specific to a cultural mindframe, even as the imaginative creations are excised from time and space, suggesting that modern imagination’s sense of liberation is an illusion.


Figure 3

Figure 3: Coleridge’s Fancy.

 (We’re pretty sure this exists, and has been mapped via fMRI.) Similar to modern imagination, but here thoughts are tracks spanning left-right and top-bottom quadrants, suggesting memory of the past transformed into prediction for the future. Nonetheless the thoughts are linearly boundless and come from a center of infinite associative possibilities. But liberation is an illusion, because symmetry—and memory?—controls direction. (Note, in the Lottery spot, how the wind-chime hater loves symmetry). As memories are added, fancy’s possibilities grow. Fancies themselves become memories. Old fancies can be revised, referenced, and re-fancied.


Figure 4

Figure 4: Coleridge’s Imagination.

 “It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate…yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and unify.” Unless I’m misinterpreting, this yin and yang figure captures the idea quite well. No need for a new diagram? I might only add that Coleridge references art, and so the process “struggles” to unify. Therefore some wobble in this figure might add accuracy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Two systems, clearly indicating a common form of imagination linked to memory. Two systems, rather divergent on Imagination, but one hinting that empiricism might play a role. To truly imagine, if one must reconcile opposites, one’s thinking must include both empiricism and intution.

This leaves us with the question: do we fancy Imagination? Or does our fancying it, hide it?


4. Oysters

When The Seattle Times reported that by 2038, ocean waters off the Washington coast are projected to become so acidic that shelled creatures important to the marine food chain will begin to dissolve—why didn’t the city stop?

Did anyone else who read this imagine an eighty-year-old in 2091 (today, the two-year-old), standing back from the surf and watching the ocean like a dying relative, imagining the old lost ocean life, the food for god’s sake: the Chinook, the Coho, the Sockeye salmon, the crabs, the oysters, all the shellfish, along with the sea butterflies and other pteropods, by then existing only in, what, remnant pockets? What would that eighty-year-old think of the poetry of say, 2011? Will she or he bother to read it at all? Does this person’s car run on carbon pulled from the air, but require by financial contract that it be driven mind-numbing miles five days a week? Does this person eat AquAdvantage Salmon, genetically modified with eel genes and reared in artificial pools near a slowly drying Panamanian river locked up by multiple dams and almost devoid of aquatic life—fish that is nevertheless packaged and sold as de facto Atlantic salmon? If so, who then becomes the Government, and who the Department of Imagination?

I mean, who did those wind chimes chime for, buddy?


5. The Flight from Fancy

Coleridge tells us that any era pushes toward a correction: “It is not, I own, easy to conceive of a more opposite translation of the Greek phantasia and the Latin imaginatio, but it is equally true that in all societies there exists an instinct of growth, a certain collective, unconscious good sense working progressively to desynonymize those words originally of the same meaning…” (BL, Chapter IV).

It’s not something we often think to do: calm the spin of time-and-space-detached material, switch to the more perceptive mode, uncover the hidden in the real, better picture our predicaments. To help ourselves: begin at the pinpoint and, with caution, un-shellac until we find the end of the simple evasions.

It might require the re-learning the local natural environment in great detail. Start with the orchestrations of sound, progress to the colors of things…later, take up the whole system of Imagination as that central mythic material (see diagram one), and claim a household familiarity with its hidden powers. At last, the desynonymizing of the skills fancy and the skills imaginative gains speed. We reach toward a more radically palpable new pattern for thought—and some new brain cells form, too, probably a good thing.


6. Search and Rescue: A Few of Imagination’s Pen Names

The Turbulent Presence. Barbara Guest, Forces of Imagination

“…Imagination the changeling can sting you with its fictive barbs. Coleridge wrote Biographia Literaria in his youth when he was trembling with imaginative power…Imagination lives with the visionary. When you touch its glass there is a ring. The French have a phrase clair-obscure which translates as obscure light and means the mysterious side of thought…It is also the “absent flower” of Mallarme. A turbulent presence. And we must acknowledge this turbulent presence because it is there to save the poem from a disobedient disregard of its own nature.”

Betokening the Invisible. Wallace Stevens, Journals.

“In the cathedral, I felt one presence; on the highway, I felt another. Two different deities presented themselves, and though I have only cloudy visions of either, yet I now feel the distinction between them. The priest in me worshipped one god at the shrine, the poet, another god, at another shrine. The priest worshipped mercy and love, the poet, beauty and might. As I sat dreaming with the congregation, I felt how the glittering altar worked on my senses, stimulating and consoling them, and as I went tramping through the fields and woods, I beheld every blade of grass revealing, or rather, betokening, the invisible.”

The Choice. David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College commencement address.

“The capital-T truth is about life before death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time…”

Full version of David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Address.


 Turning it over to that collective good sense now, and wishing it good speed.

Susan Parr was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico and grew up in Florida, central Illinois, West Virginia and Ohio. She was educated at Barnard College, and studied at Leningrad State University during the summer of 1988. In 2005 Susan left her job as a self-taught graphic designer and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington. In 2009, her first collection of poems, Pacific Shooter (Pleiades Press), won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize. Concurrently, she began to gradually lose some sense of hearing.

The poem “Receding Universe Rag,” which appears in this anthology, can be seen as an attempt to construct the hidden puzzle-piece flow of fate. Seen through an X-ray telescope, or plotted chronologically on a chart, failure might have a lovely form. Her barcode poem, “Bootlegs,” appeared graphically at several Seattle galleries as a part of NEPO 5, the 2011 Seattle arts installation. “Receding Universe Rag” 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.

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.

Sandy Shreve Guest Poet Post

 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 Sandy Shreve, a poet from Vancouver, B.C. Please enjoy her post!

 Where Poems Begin

“Crows” began with a chance encounter on my way home from work one overcast February afternoon in 1998.  An older man walking ahead of me slowed to a saunter as I approached, as if waiting for me to catch up to him.  When I did, he peered at me from under his nondescript cap (beige, like his baggy trousers and jacket) and pointed to a couple of vacant lots beside us, asking if I’d noticed there were more crows around than usual.  “Not really,” I confessed, looking at what seemed a rather normal number pecking at the ground.  Then he told me how hundreds upon hundreds had arrived earlier that day, covering the field, the trees, the street—and then took off, darkening the sky.  “I think they came for my neighbour,” he said, nodding at an old house across the way.  “She died last night.”

Flock of Crows, image by Sandy Shreve

A flock of crows, photograph by Sandy Shreve

We walked along for awhile as he talked about his neighbour, how he’d known her for decades, that she’d been a kind and generous woman.  How she’d been ill for some time, which perhaps explained the overgrown garden, the collapsing fence.  Then he told me that when we die, crows come to escort our souls to heaven; how he hoped, when the time came, they’d show him the way, too.  A few paces later, he turned off the path and I continued on my way.  But the man and his words stayed with me.

That night, I sat down to write.  Eventually I came up with what I felt was a perfectly good anecdotal poem that conveyed the tender care the man had expressed for his neighbour, the comfort he’d found in the crows’ visitation.  The images, the details, the story all seemed to work—and yet, I was deeply disappointed.  Something was missing—but what?

My third book, Belonging, had been published the previous year and I was still finding my way into new work.  Belonging was family-centred; the poems were mostly in the narrative and anecdotal veins and had been well-received.  I’d been aware for some time, though, that much as I was perfectly happy with the whole collection, my favorite poems were the ones that suggested rather than elaborated a particular event or story; the ones that relied more on metaphor than description.  As I thought about this, it clicked.  The poem I wanted to write was to be found, not in that afternoon’s encounter per se, but in whatever it seemed to represent for me.  The poem I wanted to write had to begin at the end of the anecdote I held in my hand.

Single crow, photograph by Sandy Shreve

Single crow, photograph by Sandy Shreve

I’ve long been fond of crows.  Growing up in New Brunswick, I’d often wake to their boisterous heckling  across the Tantramar Marsh.  Others were annoyed by the “noise” but I heard the possibilities for a new day in those voices.  Yet I’d never written about them; at most, crows made a passing appearance in a few of my poems.  While I knew about and admired their intelligence, I’d never read up on what they might stand for in world cultures or religions.  Given what the man I’d met earlier in the day had said, I realized I needed to look into this, so I turned to one of my favourite reference books—Barbara G. Walker’s The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (Harper and Rowe, 1988)—and read every crow entry.  From Walker I learned, among other things, that to the Roman ear the crow’s call sounded like their word for tomorrow—and so, to them, this bird was “a symbol of the future.”

With Walker’s information, my own enchantment with crows, their generally bad reputation (as messy, as loud, as bullies and thieves), and one man’s comment about crows and our souls all at the back of my mind, I picked up my pen and began again…

(A few years ago I combined some of my poetry and photographs to make video-poems.  You can listen to “Crows” on my YouTube page.)

Sandy Shreve, "Crows" Video

Click the image to watch the video

Sandy Shreve’s most recent poetry collections are Suddenly, So Much (Exile Editions, 2005) and a chapbook, Level Crossing (Alfred Gustav Press, 2012). Her other books include the anthology In Fine Form—The Canadian Book of Form Poetry (Polestar, 2005), co-edited with Kate Braid. For more information, visit her website at:

Sandy’s poem, “Crows,” is featured 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

*Credit for the photograph of Sandy Shreve that accompanies this blog post goes to photographer Heather Rhodes.

Lex Runciman Guest Poet Post: The Idea of “In My Alternate Life”

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 Lex Runciman, a poet from Portland, OR. Please enjoy his post!

The Idea of “In My Alternate Life”

You’re stuck in traffic – what do you do?

You could get angry or just curious (Flat tire? Accident? Road rage?). Maybe you start thinking about alternate routes and the consequences of being late.

Second example: you’re watching a sunny beach on television. Outside, a cold rain falls. At that point, you might fondly recall the warm felicities of a western Oregon August. Or, sweltering in August, you might register astonished disbelief at the recollection of a cold January.

What unites these examples is the ability to think outside the present moment. Memory in one direction, imagination in the other.  This is what lets us forecast consequences and make choices. With imagination comes the ability to fantasize.


It seems likely that, at some point, almost every child looked at someone else’s parents and wondered, “Why wasn’t I born into that family?” The question might have expressed a wish; it might have expressed relief. Either way recognizes the seeming arbitrariness of fate.

And if you knew, as I have always known, that you were adopted just days after your birth, that arbitrariness of fate would register more pointedly. I have known such questions of fate for as long as I can remember anything at all. They have transformed from questions to speculative habits of mind. Thus, I hear the poem title “In My Alternate Life” as a familiar, repeated, long-held gambit.

My work at Linfield keeps me pretty busy, and the driving time from McMinnville to Portland often makes attending Portland events difficult, particularly in the evening. When I’m invited, or when I see advertised, a reading or play or concert I know I won’t be able to attend, I often think to myself, In my alternate life, I’ll be there.


“In My Alternate Life” leads off a collection titled Starting from Anywhere. It was T.S. Eliot who used the phrase “starting from anywhere” in his poem “Little Gidding.” But that phrase, when I first read it there, carried an immediate sense of apt connection: I have known for a long time that I could have, almost literally, started from anywhere – been adopted by anyone.

As for the particulars of the poem itself, they make a catalog of wishes, some broadly outlined, others more particular, all of them fulfilled. Mark Rothko’s painting, “Untitled, 1949”

is owned by the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. A large painting, for it to hang in a kitchen would be, first, simply shocking; it would also dwarf any kitchen I’ve ever known. But wouldn’t it be something to have such a painting as routine as your morning coffee?

What about that “tea room in Abergavenny?” There is such a place: Abergavenny is in Wales. The town’s name itself is a pleasure to say. And I have been there, twice, for a few hours each time. In my alternate life, I give up nothing to have the pleasure of living there: I know the town well enough to find this particular tea shop, where, inexplicably, my favorite Rothko painting hangs. Whenever I wish, I sit in that shop, sip tea, munch a scone, peruse The Guardian, and glance up at the Rothko. As the poem continues, alternatives multiply. The poem’s speaker inhabits the multiple worlds cosmologists and quantum physicists suggest.


Even Walt Whitman understood that any poem composed as a list must figure out a way to end. In this poem’s list of fantasies, the particulars give way to ever-larger concepts, like boredom. And who might you like to talk with—there’s a question. As a Pacific Northwesterner, I like the idea of being able to command a starry night sky any time I’d choose; such command implies a control over clouds. It might also let me learn some constellations.

The jumps the poem makes near the end tend to slow things down. The last two lines each make a simple sentence about something large. Their content cannot be rushed, further slowing the poem’s momentum. Ultimately such repetition of pauses solves the technical difficulty of how to end: slow, slower, slower yet, stop.

If the poem succeeds, then whatever height it has tried to scale, it has reached the top.

Born and raised in Portland, Lex Runciman has lived most of his life in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Along the way, he worked as a warehouseman, shipping-receiving clerk, and a stacker in a box mill. Holder of graduate degrees from the writing programs at the University of Montana and the University of Utah, he taught for eleven years at Oregon State University and is now Professor of English at Linfield College, where he has received the Edith Green Award in teaching.  He was adopted at birth.  His fifth book of poems, One Hour That Morning & Other Poems is forthcoming in 2014 from Salmon Poetry (Ireland).  He is also the author of Luck (1981), The Admirations (1989) which won the Oregon Book Award, Out of Town (2004), and Starting from Anywhere (2009).   His work has been featured on Verse Daily, and individual poems have received the Kenneth O. Hanson Award and the Silcox Prize.  He and Deborah Berry Runciman have been married forty-one years.

Lex’s poem ““In My Alternate Life”” 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.