Oregon poet laureate will speak at SOU

As poet laureate of Oregon, Paulann Petersen's goal is to remind people that poetry is anyone's domain.

It's the ideal position for any longtime poet to spread awareness and ignite excitement, she says.

"I get to be an ambassador for poetry and for all creative arts, really," she says.

"Poetry is not for the elite. It's inclusive and there's a reason we turn to it in times of crisis and rely on it to convey the inexpressible."

In April 2010, Gov. Ted Kulongoski named Petersen the poet laureate of Oregon. It's an 87-year-old honor in Oregon that only became official in 1989. The poet laureate serves a two-year term, giving readings and workshops at libraries, schools, and museums. It has an annual budget of $10,000.

A poet laureate is especially important in a chaotic world full of distractions, like the one we live in today. "There has never been an age without a wellspring of inspiration, and we are no exception," says Petersen, the state's sixth poet laureate.

A poem can be about anything, no matter how pragmatic our time seems to be, she says. And though creative types since Michelangelo and Dante have bemoaned the many demands of life that take time from work, people can always be committed to art — people can make time, she says.

Despite the convenience of laptops and iPads, Petersen still drafts her poetry in longhand, stating there is a "visual element of watching ink hit paper; the physicality of handwriting is beautiful."

Inspired by poetry early on, Petersen says it wasn't until she began reading contemporary poets that she realized how much she wanted to write. All in all, she recalls, "it was poetry that brought me to poetry."

Inspiration can sprout from fellow writers, classic or contemporary. Some of her favorites include Louise Glück, Lucille Clifton, Li-Young Lee, and Walt Whitman — to whom she dedicated her newest book, "The Voluptuary."

"Every time I read a great poem, I am grateful," says Petersen, adding that a great poem is a vehicle for transformation.

Petersen enrolled at Southern Oregon University in 1976 to get a teaching degree. She lived with her family in a farmhouse outside Klamath Falls and took creative writing courses with SOU instructor Lawson Inada, who became a mentor — and who eventually would hand his poet laureate crown to her.

Time for reflection is important for poets, and Inada called her commute through the mountains from Klamath Falls to Ashland "the perfect gig for a writer."

In one of her other books, "A Bride of Narrow Escape," Petersen included Inada in her dedication.

Looking at the life of a poet, Petersen explains, "The world of writing is very hospitable." Though many believe a master's in fine art is required to succeed in the literary world, poetry is welcoming to late comers — you don't have to start at a young age like you do with athletics. "Poetry can bloom later in life," she says.

Petersen will speak at the Friends of the Hannon Library's annual membership reception at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 12, at the library at SOU.

She will talk about the life of Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, whose work greatly moved her after she traveled in Turkey with her husband. "He took Turkish poetry out of traditional verse and started using free verse. He is simply an icon in Turkey," she said.

She also will read from "The Voluptuary" and discuss Whitman's "wonderfully wise and ecstatic embrace for the world."

What is Petersen's advice for young writers?

"Write, write, write and read as deeply and widely as you can," she says.

Hannah Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at hannahisis3@gmail.com.

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