Bill Yake arrived in Olympia from his native Spokane in November 1977. He watched the vast, sweeping horizons of Eastern Washington disappear behind the mountains, forests and clouds of Western Washington. Yake’s Olympia welcoming committee was a steady procession of storms that dumped more than 10 inches of rain on him in a span of two weeks.
But he didn’t despair. Instead, he embraced the change in landscape and incorporated it into his poetry. Plus, he knew he would find fellow poets with whom to share his work and sharpen his skills.
Yake shared this first impression of Olympia with poets and poetry lovers who gathered at Traditions Fair Trade Cafe in downtown Olympia on Wednesday night to launch the 25-year anniversary of the Olympia Poetry Network. The poets did what poets do when they get together — they read poetry.
By the end of the night, my head was swimming with metaphors, memories and narratives that captured the power of love, the grief of loss, the bow of grace and the struggle with mortality. Some 40 poems filled the air, many written and recited by award-winning poets whose works haves been published, purchased and praised to a depth far deeper than what one might think a city this size would, or could, produce.
The nonprofit poetry network of some 60 members meets each month and sponsors workshops, a readers series and open microphone sessions. It has a reputation as one of the best poetry venues in the Pacific Northwest. “I’ve been in Oregon for 10 years and I’m still looking for a local Olympia Poetry Network,” remarked former OPN board member Marjorie Power. She mentioned four things that make OPN special: The featured poets are compensated. The poets who read vary in style. The open microphone is fun and kept under control. Traditions Cafe as a gathering place for poets is a warm and grounded, cozy and cheerful place.
Several Olympia poets who have left this world were recognized with reverence Wednesday night. There was Paul Gillie, whom I remember before his death in 2001 as a fierce proponent of open government. He worked for the state Public Disclosure Committee as a research director in the era before computers. He was a lifelong Democrat, community activist and poet — he was a featured reader at Olympia Poetry Network meetings in 1991 and 1992. The Gillie family remains a benefactor, helping fund poetry workshops hosted by the network.
Also remembered was Craig Oare, 66, an Olympia poet who died in 2014, taking with him a reputation as the Lawrence Ferlinghetti of Olympia poetry. “For 12 years, Craig and I loved walking together from the West Side to Traditions to Olympia Poetry Network gatherings,” recalled his sister, Bonnie Jones. Jones read a tongue-in-cheek poem Oare wrote about the Olympia Poetry Network and followed with one of her own dedicated to OPN.
The visage of Robert Sund hovered in the room, and a poem of his was read by OPB board member Suzanne Simons. Born in Olympia in 1929, Sund studied with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke and gained much acclaim of his own as a poet, painter and calligrapher, Sund in his later years lived a solitary life on the Skagit River estuary, and wrote about it. He died in 2001.
One of the highlights of Wednesday night was meeting 91-year-old Jeanne Lohmann, the much revered matriarch of OPN. I listened to her poem, “Invocation,” which concludes with these two beautiful sentences:
And I would be remiss not to mention the presence of Lucia Perillo, the award-winning poet and fiction writer whose 2010 book of poetry, “Inseminating the Elephant” was a Pulitzer Prize-winning finalist and Washington State Book Award winner. Her work has racked up 25 awards over the past 25 years.
She sat next to me in a highly mechanized wheelchair, thrust upon her by multiple sclerosis. She pushed a button and rose like an ethereal goddess of poetry, rose until her voice met the microphone, rose to read “Skin,” capturing the evocative images of a youthful sexual encounter interrupted:
I left the gathering of poets motivated to dust off some of my own poetry, much of it written in my early adulthood more than 40 years ago. I’ll dig out a poem or two off and bring then to an open mic night of the Olympia Poetry Network. I’ll let them fly and watch where they may go.