Interview: Paulann Petersen

Paulann Petersen, Oregon Poet Laureate“Being a writer was a bit of a struggle for me during the earlier Klamath years. Then, in 1986, I was awarded a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. And that 1986-87 academic year changed a great deal in my life.” — Paulann Petersen, 11/10/21


Who is Paulann Petersen?

Paulann Petersen is a poet and educator. She served from 2010 – 2014 as Oregon’s sixth Poet Laureate. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Paulann’s published collections include, The Wild Awake (2002), Blood-Silk (2004), A Bride of Narrow Escape (2006) Kindle (2008), The Voluptuary (2010), Understory (2013), and One Small Sun (2019). In addition to her full-length books, she has five chapbooks: Under the Sign of a Neon Wolf, The Animal Bride, Fabrication, The Hermaphrodite Flower, and Shimmer & Drone, as well as three collaborations: Dark River of Stars; Alfred Edleman: Urban Compositions; and Timeless Flow. Paulann also enjoyed a successful career teaching English literature and composition (and introducing poetry) to secondary school students in the Oregon communities of Klamath Falls and West Linn. 


The Interview… 

J: Where are you from originally… where’d you grow up and what was it like growing up?

P: I’m originally from the same place where I now live: Portland Oregon. I was born in Southeast Portland, in the Richmond grade school neighborhood, 36 blocks east of the Willamette River: a very blue-collar, working class part of the city. Everyone I knew at Richmond was from a working class family. One schoolmate lived in an apartment above his father’s small shoe repair shop on Division Street, a couple of blocks from our house. One of my best friends in 8th grade was Barbara Corno. Her father and uncle owned Corno Brothers Produce, a well-known Portland Italian market. Having a father who was co-owner of a market seemed high class to me, the same with another grade school friend whose father had a  small dry cleaning shop.

My father was a sheet metal mechanic who had learned his trade in the Portland ship yards during WWII. My mother was a registered nurse who did special-duty nursing in Portland hospitals. (Special-duty nurses were assigned—often in shifts around the clock—to patients emerging from serious surgery. This was before ICU units.)

Although I never perceived our family as poor, in retrospect I realize we had to be extremely careful with money. Very, very seldom did we go on trips. During my growing-up, I recall going only a couple of times to see my father’s parents in San Francisco. When my father had vacation time, he used it to work on our 1914 Craftsman home, which he remodeled, room by room. We didn’t eat at restaurants. We ate modestly at home. Mostly hamburger dishes, as I recall. One year (when I was perhaps ten or eleven) must have been a particularly tough year for us financially: that year I cleaned tables in the cafeteria to earn my lunch money. Although no one else I knew was earning lunch money that way, I don’t recall feeling any stigma, as—wearing a hair net!—I soaped and rinsed and dried those long tables lined up in rows across the cafeteria’s floor. Was I clueless? Did I simply not realize how déclassé that job was? Perhaps. But I think my comfort came from my parents’ humility, their lack of pretensions. My comfort came from the fact that virtually every other student at Richmond came from a modest family.

When I graduated from 8th grade, I went to Franklin High School, a large public school. There, too, the student body consisted of teenagers who came from modest backgrounds. During my four years there, I got to know many of my co-students. I never thought about the ramifications of this at the time, but later I realized that only two people I knew had parents who were professionals. The father of a fairly good friend was a doctor. The father of a boy I knew slightly was a lawyer. My best friend’s father was a mechanic in a nearby gas station.

My maternal grandparents lived in NE Portland, 4630 NE 17th Avenue. I adored Nana and Archie, and I very often got to spend weekends with them. My grandfather Archie was a furrier who had a small fur shop on Sandy Boulevard. The Alaska Fur Shop. Nana worked there with him. I was their only grandchild. I’ve written many poems about them, about the fur shop, about the ambivalent feelings I had toward those animal pelts that my grandparents fashioned into coats and stoles for their well-to-do customers.

Academically, I did well in grade school (K – 8) and at Franklin High School. At that time, Portland Public Schools were some of the best in the nation. I loved school. Teachers were good to me. I learned to read early and well, and did well in all the classes I took. Science didn’t interest me, but I was a strong math and English and French student. I got one B in high school, in an art seminar. But that’s a story onto itself. I was a class officer, a student body officer.

I had a Black boyfriend in high school my junior and senior years—although we couldn’t have been called boyfriend and girlfriend in any usual sense, because our parents were dead set against us being together. In Portland, in the late 50’s, interracial dating was not acceptable. And that’s another story, one that’s had an indelible effect on me.

What was growing up like for me? I was privileged. I was protected. I was loved.

I lived with my parents in a cozy, comfortable house. I had my own bedroom.

I had a quiet place to study, to earn the good grades and high test scores that would get me

the scholarships I needed to go to college.

Yes, I had disappointments and radicalizing experiences.

But I never doubted my parents’ and grandparents’ love and support.

I was one lucky kid.

J: Based on your description, I have to agree with your closing comment… you were one lucky kid. And my next question could lead so many possible directions. But one thing kind of stood out to me, and that was that you had no interest in science, which focuses on the natural world. You lived in the natural paradise known as the Pacific Northwest. You were an outstanding student with an inquisitive mind. And I’ve felt your love of nature in your poetry. So was it the scientific method you had no interest in, or was it more a matter of not connecting the notions of science and nature at that point in time? Have your feelings about science and nature evolved over time?

P: I did well in school, in all subjects, really. Whatever science I had in elementary school (K-8) was interesting. In high school, we were all required to take an introductory science class our freshman (or sophomore?) year. I earned an A in that class, but my only vivid memory of it is the work we did dissecting a frog. I did not find that appealing. The smell of the formaldehyde, my exacto blade cutting into that frog’s muscles. Was I squeamish? I think so. I still am, to an extent. Whatever the reason, I had no desire to continue taking courses in the science department. And when I saw what my friends were studying in their science courses (memorizing chemistry tables, memorizing the laws of physics), I was doubly convinced. I loved the work I was doing in English, in art, in French, in history, in math. At that point in my life, science seemed dry and soul-less to me.

Later I became an autodidact in science. I lived in Klamath Falls for 31 years, right under the Pacific flyway. I had loved birds all my life, and in the Klamath Basin, I got to see herons and egrets and cranes. The farmhouse where I lived was frequented by meadowlarks and killdeer and grosbeaks. I read books about birds. I delved into natural history. Books such as David Rains Wallace’s The Klamath Knot became central to my life. When, as an older adult, I went back to school to get a teaching degree, I took a college course in botany. I loved every moment of that course!

So… I would say that I’ve loved nature (gardening, birds, trees) for as long as I can remember. But I came to appreciate science later in my life. And if I had understood more about the content of courses in the natural sciences, I think I would have appreciated science in high school.

J: I completely understand being put off by frog dissection when you were young. Frankly, I’m still put off by it. But I love seeing frogs out in the world. And toads, too. And I love cool words, like autodidact. And I like bird watching. Which brings me back to your journey south to the migratory flyways of the Klamath area. Was it difficult to adjust to living in Klamath Falls after growing up in Portland? 

P: Living in Klamath Falls. On one hand, that meant being on the eastern edge of the Cascades, being on the western edge of high plateau country. Being near huge bird refuges. Being directly under the Pacific Flyway.

On the other hand, it meant being on the losing side of political campaign after political campaign. I was part of a very small liberal minority who lived in Klamath County. When McGovern ran for President, I was fairly new to the workings of Klamath politics. A good friend to Zon Gerbert, the Klamath County Democratic Chair, I worked side by side with her throughout the fall campaign. First step: we needed to rent a place for the Democratic Party’s Campaign Headquarters. There were many vacant small stores on Klamath Falls’ Main Street. Zon picked out a good one and inquired. The owner was excited and grateful about renting the store, even for only a few months. Until he learned that Zon was representing the Democratic Party. Poof. The empty store was suddenly no longer available to rent. We went through three or four other empty Main Street stores, with exactly the same results. As soon as the owner found out we were Democrats looking for a headquarters, the deal dissolved. Finally, we tried an abandoned Main Street gas station whose owner was distant enough that he didn’t care what the Klamathites thought about him renting to Democrats.  That’s where we established Democratic Campaign Headquarters. Cramped. Grimey. Permeated with the smell of engine oil. Two old gas pumps out front. An uphill endeavor? Of course. But we were used to those. And we had a decided pleasure at having established our headquarters on the main street of such a Republican town.

Calling Klamath Falls politically conservative was, in many ways, an understatement. Reactionary might be more precise. But I had a handful of writer-friends. John Daniel, for one. And John is a treasured friend today. I had friends who were musicians and visual artists. I had friends who were passionate about conserving the environment. But we were a small portion of Klamath’s population. A small portion, indeed.

J: I think it’s interesting… perhaps a bit telling… that you just wrote ten times as many words describing the challenges of life in Klamath Falls as you did the benefits. And to be honest, I’m not surprised. I’m glad you were able to find refuge… like the birds nearby… in a small pool of close friends. Were you able to write poetry through those Klamath days, or did your political struggles sap all your creative energy? And, either way I guess, how did that experience feel?

P: I did write poems, but only in snatches of time I “stole” from weekends and summer vacations. I was a public high school teacher, which is a very demanding job. And we had two young children. We had an old farm house (on an acre and a quarter) 8 miles south of Klamath Falls. We grew a huge vegetable garden, raised chickens and rabbits. I baked all our bread, I canned and froze food. We heated our house with a big wood stove, so we made many wood-gathering trips into the forests nearby. We were politically involved. We had a busy, full life.

My husband Dave Petersen (we were married for almost 20 years) resented my love of writing, my desire to spend time working on poems. To be fair, he hadn’t married a writer. Although I’d written some poems earlier in my life, I wasn’t truly a writer when we fell in love and got married. My certainty of being a writer (or wanting to be a writer) didn’t come to me until I was in my late twenties. So I think he saw me as evolving into someone else, someone he hadn’t chosen. I think he saw my love of writing as a force that kept me from being fully devoted to our quasi-back-to-the-land lifestyle.

I did write poems during those Klamath years. I did have a handful of poet friends. I did get some poems published. But my poet-self seemed to be struggling to assert herself against the wife-self that Dave wanted. Being a writer was a bit of a struggle for me during the earlier Klamath years.

Then, in 1986, I was awarded a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. And that 1986-87 academic year changed a great deal in my life.

J: That’s a poignant snapshot of a life in transition. And though it would be interesting to visit your classroom or while away some time at your Klamath farm, I’m anxious to hear more about your Stegner Fellowship and the new path it put before you. How did it come about? Was it a shock moving from Klamath Falls High School to Stanford University? Did you feel more free to explore, or were you, at least initially, held captive by older ideas?

P: That academic year at Stanford was heady. Ken Fields, Denise Levertov, and W.S. DiPiero taught the poetry (MFA and Stegner) workshops that year. Adreinne Rich let me sit in on her poetics class. I sat in on the (MFA and Stegner) fiction workshops, taught by Gilbert Sorrentino, Grace Paley, and Nancy Packer.

In many ways, I tried to lead a double life. Every other weekend, I drove back to Klamath Falls to be with my husband and son (my daughter was in college by that point).

In retrospect, our marriage was over before the Stegner Fellowship. But the Fellowship created the crisis to end it. Within a year after the Stegner Fellowship ended, my husband and I separated.

Did I feel more free to explore at Stanford? Of course! My seminars and workshops were inspiring. The readings I attended were exhilarating. The Stanford library was a splendid resource. A Stegner Fellowship is a reasonably prestigious award. Receiving one, I felt as if the world had recognized me—the Klamath Falls public high school teacher—as a writer.

J: That all sounds pretty intense… quite an emotional mix of events. I think most people encounter several massively challenging moments over the course of a lifetime. And since I turn 70 next month I’ve had plenty of opportunities to experience my own challenges and witness those of others. I find it interesting how differently people navigate those moments. I guess, knowing you as a poet, I’m wondering if you are able to work with the emotion as it flows through you or if that comes later.

P: Sometimes I can “work with the emotion as it flows through me.” But most often I wait for experience to take hold in my body, to perhaps emerge later as metaphor.

J: That makes perfect sense. So, once your time at Stanford came to an end, what did you do? Return to secondary teaching or move on to something different?

P: I returned to secondary teaching. I taught high school in Klamath Falls for another three years, and then moved to Portland. I taught at West Linn High School until I retired early (in the spring of 1999).

J: It seems clear that receiving the fellowship was life-changing for you, because, as you said, “the world had recognized me as a writer.” Before that you had written poems only in “snatches of stolen time”. How did the changes manifest once you returned home to Klamath? Did the way you approach teaching change? I’m guessing you taught English, but I shouldn’t assume that. How did your approach to writing change? Were you determined to be successful from a literary career-type standpoint, or were you simply happy to have more time to write?

P: The fellowship was life-changing, but the changes weren’t immediate. They evolved over time. I did spend more time writing, but—until I retired—I still felt I needed to find patches of open time to write. And that open time was scarce. I did teach English. Freshman Honors, AP English (seniors), Junior General (classes that no one else wanted to teach, mostly junior boys who wanted to be anywhere else but in a school classroom), and Creative Writing. My approach to teaching didn’t change as much as it blossomed. Writing became more and more central to my life. No longer did I feel compelled to tamp it down, to mute my passion for it.

I never saw myself as someone who would have a literary career. As I understand it, few writers can support themselves with what they write. Especially poets. Even the internationally famous poets teach in prestigious universities or colleges. But perhaps that’s not what you mean by “literary career.”

J: I guess I don’t really consider making enough money to live on, just from your writing, to have that much to do with a literary career. As you say, almost all writers, especially poets, do something other than just write poetry. Wallace Stevens was an insurance exec. T.S. Eliot worked various jobs… teacher, banker, publisher. And, as you also say, so many poets teach at some university… which I think is because that’s where literary poetry calls home. In terms of a career, from my perspective, you’ve definitely had, and continue to have, a successful literary career. You’ve even served as Poet Laureate for an entire state, which enabled you to travel widely and introduce poetry to a significant number of people. You’re recognized as a serious poet who has made an important literary contribution to our broader community. In addition to your collections, you’ve had poems published in countless journals across the country. Compared to your average, everyday person trying to write poetry, that’s a really, really successful career as a poet. 

So what I was trying to ask is, after you attended Stanford, were you at least somewhat more driven to achieve that type of literary success? Or, did you fall back into a process of mostly writing poems because writing poems was something you enjoyed doing, or were doing instinctively, without really thinking too much about finding success beyond your own experience. How much of an impact did Stanford have on your view of what you wished to experience within the world of poetry? 

P: I did feel more confident about looking for a publisher for my first book of poems. The Stegner Fellowship was a credible credential!

J: It was indeed. And you clearly took full advantage of it by building a lasting legacy both as an American poet and, especially, as an Oregon poet. So now I guess I would like to wrap up this interview with a question on behalf of all the aspiring poets out there in the world who will never achieve that type of success. Some of them, no doubt, would do anything they could to open a door like that, but the truth of it is that such an opportunity will never avail itself to them. And on the other end of the spectrum, many young poets don’t even know such doors even exist, and they simply write poetry because they can’t seem to not write poetry. What advice would you offer to all these students of the art at which you have grown to be so accomplished?

P: In truth, I feel like a beginner each time I put pen to paper. A most fortunate beginner. I get to enter the process anew, enter into as a re-newing being. We write to create ourselves, to discover—moment to moment—who we are, who we are becoming. The process exhilarates. The process informs my life. In-forms. The process tells me what I need to know. And as it tells me, it gives form to my life.

Yes, I send poems out to editors. Yes, I get lots of rejections. Yes, having my poems rejected stings. Yes, I’ve had to search for presses to publish my books. But the competitive world of publication is separate from, must be separate from, the world of making the poems.

My advice to other poets? Write your poems.

These additional thoughts on writing poetry have been excerpted from a talk Paulann presented during her service as Oregon Poet Laureate:

Poetry. The word is simple, extraordinarily clear. It comes from the Greek. It means something that is created. The word poem means a made thing.

A poet is a maker, one who creates something that did not, in that form, exist before.The house of poetry, the house of all writing, is a house of making, a house of creation, a house of inclusion, not exclusion. A house with room enough for countless stories, poems and essays, countless voices.

Yes: once our writings are made, and if we decide to revise them and send them out into the world, yes they will assume a worldly life of their own. Yes, some will be published, most won’t. Some will win praise, most won’t. A very few will be read again and again, most won’t. But there will always be room for their making. The written thing’s own making. The made thing’s making.

I am an aspiring writer. I aspire to write poems. Aspire: it means to favor, to desire, to breathe upon. Aspire, breathe. For me, this making of poems is as fundamental as breath, fundamental as that life-continuing exhalation from the body. This thing we do, this making, in which  competition does not need to find a home. 

I say to you, I say to myself, to us: we must tell our stories, we must speak the music we hear, feed our ears, our souls. We must write, write, write.