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Laureate makes state his poetry classroom

Poet Peter Sears well versed in his work as teacher, activist


by: COURTESY OF OREGON ARTS COMMISSION - Peter Sears, 77, the new Oregon Poet Laureate, still loves to write poetry and talk about poetry. He moved to Oregon in 1974 and served as writer-in-residence at Reed College. He lives in Corvallis, but also keeps a home in Portland. Last week, Peter Sears was named Oregon Poet Laureate, a title he never really dreamed he would earn. Originally from New York, Sears was more interested in other things.

“I loved sports and hanging out and stuff like that,” Sears says. “I came into it (poetry) sort of willy-nilly, screwing around.”

It soon became clear that Sears had a talent for poetry, though. He has published three full-length collections of poetry: “Tour” (1987), “The Brink” (1999) and “Green Diver” (2009). A fourth collection of poems, “Small Talk” will be published this year.

Sears originally came to Oregon in 1974 as writer-in-residence at Reed College. He lives with his wife in Corvallis and they keep a home in Portland.

The Portland Tribune caught up with Sears, now 77, to talk about becoming Oregon Poet Laureate and the role of poetry in the world today. Sears was more than happy to talk, though there may have been a reason for that.

“It’s this coffee,” Sears says. “I’ve had too much coffee.”

Portland Tribune: How does it feel to be named Oregon Poet Laureate?

Peter Sears: Well, you never quite know what’s going to happen in the public — how the public is going to respond to something, whether they think you’re wonderful or they think you’re an idiot. You don’t know. Somebody nominated me, and they liked the nomination.

Tribune: How important is it culturally for Oregon to have a Poet Laureate?

Sears: It makes a poet available to an awful lot of people all over the place. They can say, “We want this guy to come out here.” Say you’re a painter, there’s no way to be invited out to a place. It would be quite a production. Poetry isn’t a big production. It’s easy to do. Somebody can say, “We’d like you to come out and give a reading and a workshop.” That’s simple.

Tribune: Talk about the

current state of poetry in our society.

Sears: With the new digital stuff, it’s out there quite a bit because it’s more portable. You just put a poem on a blog or a website and it’s pretty easy to do. It’s not exactly an industry in the sense of money and product and sales. It’s never mentioned in the New York Times Book Review really, because it’s not part of the business. But people like it, they buy it, they read it, they go to readings, they go to workshops.

Tribune: For some of our readers who haven’t had a chance to read your poetry, how would you describe it to them?

Sears: The important thing is that the language is accessible. The diction of poetry as an idea for people is off-putting. They think its fancy-pants and obscure. The value of modern poetry is it’s in the language of the people. That’s really what Chaucer did. I’m writing to the people. I’d also like to think it’s interesting because it’s condensed, it’s tight. It couldn’t be anything else. It couldn’t be a movie, it couldn’t be a short story. It makes sense as a poem. My poetry is what a lot of people call edgy. It has a barb to it. I’m willing to write and like to write about all kinds of hard things. I like poetry as confrontation. You’re sick, or you’re suffering, or you did something bad, and I write about it to try to grasp it, to try to live it, to try to embody it, to try to go on from it.

Tribune: You’ve had a prolific career. Is there a poem, or a collection of poems that you feel is the best work you’ve

done, or do you think the best is still yet to come?

Sears: That’s a good attitude to have: the best work is still yet to come. That’s very important for writing. I don’t have a favorite book, yet. But, one of my books called “The Brink” remains my personal favorite.

Tribune: You have been a teacher for a number of years. How has the world of academia affected your poetry?

Sears: Academia provides actual employment for poets, either temporary or long term. It also acts as a place that encourages some sort of conceptual, literary notion of poetry. In other words, it’s taken seriously. It may just be the student body taking courses, but it’s included. A student taking Modern American Poetry — for whatever reason — can be exposed to some pretty good work. They can carry that with them for the rest of their lives and it may be a model for them to express themselves.

Tribune: What are your work habits like?

Sears: You don’t write much when you’re involved with this Poet Laureate stuff. And you don’t write much when you’re doing a book, either. What I do is I get an idea of some sort. And I can kind of smell it. There’s something there in the language and the image. Like, the sunset looks like sauce. Now that’s not something you would write. But the notion of a sunset spreading in a sauce-like way, that can be something you can work with and you develop a poem off that. You start with a narrative idea. Like I have a lot of turkeys here (in Corvallis). These damn turkeys. The way they walk around, the way they fly, it gets in my head. Then there was a turkey that had a bum leg and the others just ignored it. Even though I can’t stand these turkeys because they wake me up at 5:30 in the morning, this one turkey that was really on its way out, he got to me, and I wrote about him. “What are you going to do? You can’t fly, for God’s sake.” That’s sort of the feeling about it. You’re driving yourself out of yourself. And the further you can get out, the more you’re connected to everything else.

We don’t have the money or the time for everything so we have to do it through the imagination.

Tribune: Talk about the pain and pleasure of writing poetry.

Sears: When I’m working on a poem, man, I don’t know what time it is. I love it. It’s hard. It’s very hard. It’s hard to make it good and what it needs to be. You get five or six lines and where do you go with it? What does it mean, what are you talking about? And you really have to find that out by writing. You can’t find that out conceptually. It’s not like playing chess. If the stuff you’re writing interests you, then you can be pretty sure you’re onto something. But, I wouldn’t recommend (writing poetry). It’s agonizing. It’s really not a lot of fun. I would rather like cooking, or gardening, or something like that, where you’re going to get good results most of the time if you know what you’re doing. It’s not like that with poetry. You throw a lot of stuff out.

Tribune: What do you hope to continue to accomplish as a poet?

Sears: The goals shift because of the demands of being a Poet Laureate and the responsibility. My regular goals are to write and to teach and to be a dad and a husband. But this (nomination) shifts that a little bit because it’s so major. It’s such an honor. There are a lot of good poets around. I know most of them and wish I had written their poems. It’s always a challenge of what you can bring to people out there. But really, I would imagine that I’ll keep doing a lot of the same things. I’m an activist, I’m a writer, I’m a teacher.