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21st Century Poetry 

Bend hosts Oregon Poetry Association Conference


Logically, poetry should be the literary form of the 21st century. It's short, concise, and for a shallow reading, only requires a snap second attention span. Sounds an awful lot like Twitter (a-hem, Millennials, you should love it). Yet despite its digestibility, the form is still clouded by a shadow of elitism and snobbery, dating back to early court poetry for the monarchical elite.

In conjunction with the start of national poetry month (what do you mean you didn't know that April, the cruelest month, was national poetry month?), this weekend will mark the annual Oregon Poetry Association Conference, featuring some of the state's most prestigious visiting and local poets including Katie Eberhart, Anita Sullivan, Jarold Ramsey, Dave Harvey and John Martin.

The Oregon Poetry Association is the state's largest literary organization, and has been in existence since Eisenhower's presidency. The group has endured through four long-raining poet laureates of the state (Ethel Romig Fuller, 1957-1965; William Stafford, 1975-1990; Lawson Fusao Inada, 2006-2010; and Paulann Petersen, 2010-present). Ellen Waterston, poet, author, founder of the Nature of Words and the Writing Ranch, and the keynote speaker at the conference, explained that this year is a big one for poetry in Oregon as the nominations for the new poet laureate wrapped at the end of February.

"This year is the William Stafford centennial. All across the state there's been a big celebration and it's a lot of poetry," said Waterston. "The other big deal is the state has been receiving nominations for the next poet laureate, and Paulann Petersen has set the bar high. She made it her business to travel the state and encourage poetry and really was a public figure."

The conference offers unique opportunities for writers and lovers of poetry alike to coalesce during readings and workshops under this year's theme, "humor," an adjective not always directly associated with poetry.

"My talk is called, 'That's Not Funny,'" said Waterston, smiling contrarily. "I'll talk about how some poems that are really funny on the surface that have a subtext that is not very funny. Also, that the hardest thing to accomplish or do well is humor, whether it's standup or on the page. I'll talk about some issues that aren't so funny, like keeping poetry important. Not just the poet, but the ability to write that well and be that concise and care about language that much."

Keeping poetry relevant is a challenge that the OPA conference seeks to overcome.

"It's a chance for poets to see who is publishing, and what shape is publishing taking now," said Waterston. "All the shifting sands in the literary world generally apply to poets as well."

Those shifting sands are also being addressed locally by OSU-Cascades low residency creative writing masters program.

"We teach our students to stay in touch with changes in the publishing world," said Emily Carr, program director of low residency MFA in creative writing at Oregon State University-Cascades.

"You have to be entrepreneurial and as creative about publishing as you are about writing."

Carr said that conferences like the OPA gathering ultimately expose a larger audience to poetry and that can be important for the success of the art.

"The bottom line is the more people that talk and care about poetry in whatever shape that takes is good for poetry, it's good for literature, it's good for us as a species," she said. "The more that poetry becomes something that is accessible to the general public and that is not seen as something that's difficult or esoteric or peculiar. That's the stereotype about poetry, and conferences like this and organizations like The Nature of Words and the Deschutes Public Library do really good work to dispel that myth."

Oregon Poetry Association Spring Conference

Fri.-Sun. April 11-13

The Double Tree, 300 NW Franklin Ave.


Speaking of Oregon Poetry Association, Ellen Waterston


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