Poet Profile: Don Colburn
Veteran journalist Don Colburn enjoyed a stellar career, first at the Washington Post and, later, at The Oregonian, before turning his penchant for words toward poetry. Now semi-retired and living in Portland, this award-winning writer (whose accolades include being a Pulitzer Prize finalist), is a fan of William Stafford and enjoys writing poems that are easy to grasp--exactly the kind of poet we love here at YDP!
Why not? OK, too flip, too easy. I like these lines from a poem called “Question Time” by Meena Alexander: “We have poetry/so we do not die of history.” But on a less philosophical level, if you mean why write poetry, in my case it’s another way to try to get the world right through language. Another means of truthtelling, a complement to the journalism by which I made my living. It’s no coincidence that the title of my first chapbook was Another Way to Begin.
How did you come to be a poet?
I came to poetry late – and almost by accident. I had a mid-career fellowship at Stanford University, on sabbatical from my job as a newspaper reporter. We were encouraged to try “something impossible” in addition to our planned study project. An undergraduate class called “Reading and Writing Poems,” taught by W.S. Di Piero, became my “impossibility,” and it changed my life. Of course it was years before I dared call myself a poet.
Do you have favorite poets or poems?
Many. A few of them, in no particular order: Seamus Heaney, Stephen Dunn, William Stafford, Linda Pastan, James Wright. Keats (his letters too), Bishop, Szymborska, Frost. My friends Ed Romond and Oz Hopkins Koglin. Poems: “Ode to a Nightingale” (Keats); “Directive” (Frost); “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (Eliot); “Those Winter Sundays” (Robert Hayden); “Ask Me” (Stafford).
What's the most interesting "poetry pilgrimage" you've ever made?
On a trip to Scotland and the Hebrides Islands, I took a boat from Iona to the little uninhabited island of Staffa and explored Fingal’s Cave, a huge cavern of basalt pillars, hollowed out by the sea. Keats went there in 1818 and, in a letter to his brother, wrote: “For solemnity and grandeur, it far surpasses the finest Cathedral.” More recently, I had a tour of the William Stafford Archives at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, with archivist Paul Merchant as our guide. I got to hold and examine the original handwritten draft of Stafford’s poem “Traveling Through the Dark.”
Is there some consistent trademark or characteristic that you've discovered in your poetry?
I’m partial toward poems that come across, without mystifying or seeming to try too hard. I’m trying not to say the word “accessible,” but there it is. After I gave a reading recently, my favorite comment came from an older man who told me that he enjoyed the reading even though he didn’t really like poetry and showed up only because his wife had – my word, not his – dragged him there. He said, a little sheepishly, that he “got” my poems. Yes! I’m OK, as they say, with clarity, especially if it happens to be accurate. All bad poems are inaccurate, William Carlos Williams once said. I think many of my poems start with or arrive at some sort of “going against” – a twist or re-vision of whatever came before. I’d be happy if some of my poems showed, in Keats’s phrase, “a feeling for light and shade.”
Anything else you'd like to share--advice, anecdotes, forthcoming adventure, etc?
I’m in the midst of trying to write a series of short poems in the voice of a young woman named Brenda whose sad, uplifting story I reported in the newspaper (here’s the link: http://bit.ly/Kh49D) – and the voices of those around her. This is a new form for me: monologues, 14-liners but not formal sonnets, imagined on the basis of actual fact. I’m learning as I go. Which reminds me of a comment by the writer James Galvin: “If I knew how to write a poem, I wouldn’t.”
In the great scheme of things, where does poetry fit in?
I could flip that around and ask how the scheme of things fits into poetry. I think that’s our job as poets. Poetry is not a hobby, an exhibit or an exercise. It’s a heightened awareness of words and the world. Our lives fit into it, not the other way around.
Describe your writing routine and/or process.
Irregular. Unlike many poets (notably William Stafford) I don’t have a set time or place, a disciplined writing routine. I keep a little notebook with me most of the time. Poems often start as jotted notes or disparate lines. My first drafts are messy and shapeless. Revision, at the computer or scribbled on the page, is where the real writing happens, and especially revision by ear.
What's the most absurd thing you've ever written a poem about?
Hmmm. I guess you could start with my poem about listening to Joan Rivers on the radio tell a joke about 9-11. There are lots of absurd occasions for poems, if not absurd subjects – though I hope they lead to something that isn’t merely absurd. I’ve written poems about not seeing a moose, about ordering a nonfat mocha, about the word “launch,” about Bill Buckner botching a ground ball in the 1986 World Series.
When/where are you most inspired?
Anywhere the truth lies – which sounds like an awful pun. Anywhere people are doing their best at something difficult, some hard part of living – which includes, yes, dying. Or in places of great natural beauty, such as twilight in the mountains. Listening to music – or silence. In a theater or a ballpark. Hearing people talk out of great emotion when they don’t know what they’re expected to say. Watching a dancer or an athlete move. Coming upon language that seems simultaneously familiar and fresh.
Which classic poet would you most like to meet, and why?
John Keats or Emily Dickinson. Better yet, what if the three of us met for lunch! I’m sure they would surprise me, starting with their voices. Maybe each would recite a favorite poem. I would never again read their poems without hearing those voices.
Many thanks to Don for his time in sharing information about himself and his work. Several of Don's poems are featured in the YDP archives, and you can learn more about him at www.doncolburn.net.