Cascadia Poetry Interview

March 13, 2012


Crystal Curry is writing a piece on the Cascadia Poetry Festival and had a few questions for me. I thought I’d get the whole thing online here so you can see some of the background of the fest and my own interests/motivations.

Paul — so I have access to the stuff on the SPLAB site, the schedule, etc. – so most of my questions have to do with the formation of the festival. You can answer any or all of them — whatever you have time for:
How did the idea come about? Do you feel that there is a poetry of “place” in the Northwest — if so, what kind of feel, tone, vibe, etc., do you get from it. Your base is Seattle — why did you feel you wanted to include Portland and Vancouver and other areas? Where do you see the festival going in the future? Do you think you will add other elements, like a bookfair or more readings? What do you think “Cascadia” means?


What great questions!

There is a poetry of place in the Northwest, but it is young and evolving. I have not been able to articulate what it is, besides the obvious “salmon poetry” or what Rexroth called the “bear shit on the trail” school of poetry. Obviously Gary Snyder is the quintessential Cascadia poet, and his foci: bioregionalism, sustainability, ecology, love of wilderness, Asian and Indigenous wisdom traditions over European ones are the most obvious influences on Cascadian poetry culture. But the tone I get from Seattle, more than Cascadia, is soft, safe, risk-adverse. This could describe the region’s dominant aesthetic, as the School of Quietude (Poe by way of Silliman) is the best school/method/ethos/aesthetic suited for the risk-averse nature of academic and bureaucratic institutions. Still, Snyder puts those of us in this corner of the world a little ahead of the game, connected to nature and open to the wilderness in ourselves. Snyder is also out of the Projective (Black Mountain) school and I believe the possibilities of that approach have barely been scratched and that the best work of this region will be an extension of that aesthetic/cosmology in some way. It has had quite an effect on Vancouver poets.

The way I see things evolving, a better model for a risk-taking Cascadian poet would be Robin Blaser. Also a projectivist, he did not share the same concerns as Snyder, but had a deeper intellectual gesture, and not at the expense of tremendous heart. I think Blaser better reflected the mind’s wilderness and his development and extension of the serial poem has no current equal anywhere, certainly not in Cascadia.

The proximity of wilderness to all parts of Cascadia tends to cow people, for some reason. A few poets are willing to go bushwhacking in the wild, but few of them have emerged with the same sense of adventure in the realm of the wild mind. A combination of Snyder and Blaser would be something to behold and my guess is that a woman will likely emerge as that poet in the future. Just a gut hunch.

I was led to a study of West Coast poetry through conversations with my friend Chuck Pirtle, who earned his M.A. at Naropa and his Ph.D. at Iowa. He suggested Robinson Jeffers, but Jeffers’ work left me wanting someone who loved the West Coast, but was connected to the exciting poetry developments on the West Coast, such as Serial form, bioregionalism, Asian and Indigenous wisdom traditions and other things I have mentioned above. Jeffers IS the first West Coast poet, but we’re young out here and it is exciting to be able to shape what is to come. Vancouver’s TISH and Kootenai School, Seattle’s Subtext and Red Sky Poetry Theater communities and Portland’s Reed College (Snyder, Whalen, Welch, Scalapino) have really given us a sense of what’s possible in this region and I get inspiration from much of these movements and schools.

The region is Cascadia and my discussions and correspondence with David McCloskey of the Cascadia Institute have helped me to understand some of the possibilities of this region. I was never a fan of borders and, like Snyder, prefer to honor the natural ones over the straight lines decided by generals and politicians. I also would like this conference to help publicize the notion of the similarities we share with Vancouver, Portland and elsewhere in Cascadia and contrast them with the lack of same with Washington, D.C., Ottawa, Toronto and New York. The political priorities of the East Coast tend to share the European preoccupation with competition/domination, an ethos (or lack of one) that threatens to take out the planet’s ecosystems. There is an openness to something more cooperative out here. Look at PCC, REI and other such organizations for proof.

Talks are underway with some of this year’s Canadian participants to stage the festival in Canada in 2013 and back in the U.S. in 2014. Those interested in being involved are welcome to inquire and be a part. My preferences are to focus on poetry innovation, as there are many festivals which cater to risk-adverse poetry.

We’ll have an unofficial book fair for this iteration of the fest, but yes, I could envision other elements. As I have done most of the planning with my wife Meredith and a few key volunteers, Trevor Carolan and Kim Goldberg (Canadians), Nico Vassilakis, Greg Bem, Brian McGuigan key among them, it is difficult to do much more with such little funding. Humanities Washington, Poets & Writers and the Elysian Brewing Company are the main ones that have stepped up so far, along with the Raven Chronicles, Menacing Hedge and the Seward Park Environmental and Audubon Center.

Cascadia comes from the first non-indigenous name for the mountains we know as the Cascade Range. Botanist David Douglas gets credit for that, but the notion that a lot of water tends to flow




around here gives you a sense of mountains in proximity to water, a key facet of our region. I also believe that the softness of the poetry culture here is a part of the general tolerance you can find here. Sure, there is a passive-aggression in Seattle and Portland to a lesser extent, but there is also a sense of sustainability, a love of wilderness and a desire to protect what’s left. I am continuing my own serial poem, which started with A Time Before Slaughter to examine the Pig War of San Juan Island and other uniquely Cascadia historical events. Why did the U.S. NOT fight the Pig War? We tend to jump at any chance we get to go to war, why did it not happen here? There’s something tolerant and wise here. Maybe it’s the energy of the mountains, volcanoes one should say, that enough humans are tapping into, who knows? If one can connect the power of the wilderness and find a similar power in one’s mind, then we may be on to something. I am interested in what’s at the place where those two energies meet.

Paul Nelson
2:49 – 3.13.12



  1. Rebecca Chamberlain

    I would like to suggest Gail Tremblay as someone who, like Snyder and Blasser, speaks for—and beyond–this time, place, and bioregion. Tremblay’s work is breathtaking, She writes in various styles that combine formal, intellectual elements of language and technique with a deeply rooted sense of embodied place, emotional texture, and transformative truth-telling. Her poems are cathartic, healing, and progressively revealing, as she combines intellectual and ecstatic poetic qualities. She has a considerable body of work, and she may have a new anthology in the works. I’d contact her about getting some of her most recent material, as she is one of the masters of our time. This “quietude” you speak of is what I like about the Northwest esthetic—poets doing their work without having to claim their rank. They savor life experience, and much of the drama and risk taking is internal, taking the reader to the edge of emotional cliffs and waterfalls in every kind of weather. Rather than being adverse to risk-taking, I think the gentleness is a quality of true humanness that can savor life without throwing anyone, or anything, out of the boat to make a point. The practice of the wild is a long journey, and demands poets who are strong and have light hearts. You can’t chase the wild, internally or externally. You have to witness it. You have to be there, and be fully awake.

    • Splabman

      Rebecca, thanks for this. To qualify the quietude remark, Ron Silliman picked it up from Edgar Allen Poe. Poe used it to describe the work that was published in the magazines of his day and tended to be risk-averse, conventional and quite frankly, boring. I subscribe to WCW’s notion: “No poetry of distinction without formal invention.” In the SoQ, there is no invention. It is mostly a nod to Victorian-era verse, though it is catching up to the Modern era. That puts it 100 years behind the times. I can usually tell such verse after a couple of lines.

      I have not seen Gail’s work and look forward to doing so.


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