Carl Adamshick, a poet in Portland, won the prestigous Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets for his first book, Curses and Wishes, which was published earlier this year. His poems are spare, quietly intense, and quite moving, perhaps in part because they lack bombast. In a way his work resembles Raymond Carver’s – simple and very effective.
Listen as Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Peterson 'covers' Adamshick's poem “Work Dream” here.
John W. Marshall of Open Books interviewed Adamshick over email.
I love that in your mercifully spare acknowledgments to Curses and Wishes you include: “For the books: Charles Seluzicki.” Thank you, Carl, from all of us in the trade for acknowledging a bookseller! What books did he put in your hands? How did they influence your writing and your reading? What (any genre) are you reading now? Charlie has a way of putting whatever book I ask for in my hands. He's a master. I've come to call him the sage of the page. Reading influences writing just like writing influences writing. You just get enthralled with a book, or a sentence and it makes you think and you like that sensitive, expansive thinking. Then you want to sing with the singers. As for genres, I don't think in terms of schools, groups, camps or movements. It makes no difference. I try not to define anything. In the end, those definitions are limiting. They limit the experience of knowing that individuals have let something come forth from their deep need to express what it is to live, and that they do that for you, for us.
The desire to sing with the singers is lovely way to put it. I know Charlie, besides being an antiquarian bookseller of the first order, has published books and broadsides, among them chapbooks of the Yugoslavian Serb poet Vasko Popa and and the beloved Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. I feel like there's something of the Eastern European tone in your work. Are there singers you find yourself standing closer to in the great literary choir? Yes. I do love listening to things in translation and I do have a special love for Polish poets, the war and post-war generation, the new poets, the generation of 1968, but also earlier . . . Norwid and Staff . . . Gombrowicz, although not a poet, is one of my great loves.
It seems like there's a liveliness in, and an increased visibility to, the poetry out of Portland these days, with you winning the Walt Whitman, Matthew and Michael Dickman bursting upon the national scene, as well as Zach Schomburg's somewhat underground popularity and the attention to the books being published by Octopus Books. Is there a sense in the Portland poetry communities that a spotlight is sweeping around there? Do you feel that, or is that the view from another area code? Portland writers respect and encourage one another. We have a lot of great writers doing a lot of great things. You'll see people and they'll have good news. You'll talk about work and it is lively. It all seems to be about the words on the page. That vie
w of being nation-wide, that idea that we are being watched, I don't really get that. I go to the cafe two blocks from my apartment and I see Zach. I ask him what he's reading and what he likes about it. When I say goodbye, he reminds me to put pen to paper and write another poem.
Congratualtions on winning the Walt Whitman Award. Curses and Wishes is fine book and certainly worthy of that recognition. What special and/or odd experiences (that you're willing to share) has that brought your way? Well. . . having a book in the world is wild. It has a life of its own. I used to check my email once a week and my inbox would be empty. Now I check it daily! I get fan mail, that's just crazy.
I can certainly understand you getting fan mail. I find myself continually re-visiting your exquisite poem “Harvard, Illinois.” It's such a sweet, sad, lovely evocation of small, rural town life. Where did you come by your understanding of that social and geographic landscape? I understood the town to be poor and wanted to illustrate that with an image. The poem was actually prompted by a conversation with Charlie. He was saying everyone should write a novel about the town they grew up in. I liked that idea. I wanted to read those books and write one myself. A few days later I realized I wasn't a novelist, so I did what I do. I think of Harvard, Illinois as a novel of my home town.
I just went to the website for Harvard, Illinois. It’s kind of charming. They tout Milk Day and a “city-wide siren system” that I imagine is for tornado warnings. Was that your real hometown or a metaphoric one? Harvard is where I grew up. My family moved there when I started third grade and I moved when I was twenty. I went back for a reunion; everyone was still around. It has its charms. One of those being the storms. I have fond memories of the electricity going out, and our family waking separately, lighting candles, and joining in the living room to play cards, waiting for the lightning and heavy rain to quiet. We had a gas stove. Often we would make popcorn.
You said that Zach Schomburg reminds you to put pen to paper and write a poem. Is that your process? Do you rework your material much, or are the poems fairly clearly in focus when you begin? Yes! My process is pen to paper, and poems are worked and reworked for months.
The poems that spring from that extensive reworking read with an effortlessness. As proof, let’s close the interview by reprinting “Harvard, Illinois.” This poem is so richly atmospheric and though short, it packs a whallop.
When someone moved to town,
we went mad wondering what caused it.
A whole family
come to settle in the green house
two doors down from the end.
The grain elevator
blocking the sun from three on.
If he was going to work the fields
or on cars. If her hair
was the only toy the children had.
John Marshall, along with Christine Deavel, co-owns and operates Open Books:A Poem Emporium, the fifteen-year-old poetry-only bookstore in Seattle. He publishes poetry under the name J.W. Marshall because the late, lamented Seattle Post Intelligencer had, as its book editor, a John Marshall whom this John Marshall was not. He won the 2007 Field Poetry Prize, and his first book, Meaning a Cloud, was published in 2008 by Oberlin College Press. He has poetry in recent issues of Seattle Review and Talisman, and forthcoming in Raven Chronicles.