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Meet Paulann Petersen, Oregon's Poet Laureate

OPB | Jan. 15, 2013 7 a.m.

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Kate Ostergren

“A poem is a creature of sound. It is meant to be heard,” says Oregon’s poet laureate Paulann Petersen. “A poem doesn’t have its full life until it is given voice… This is the oral tradition.”

Petersen, a native Oregonian who grew up in southeast Portland, is the sixth person to hold the post of Oregon’s poet laureate since 1923. She describes the role as an honor and a privilege.

The post of poet laureate has a long history. The U.S. government appointed the first federal poet laureate in 1937, though individual states instituted the position much earlier, with California being the first in 1915. Oregon named the state’s first laureate 90 years ago, although the post only became official in 1989. The individual duties of a state poet laureate can vary, but most often laureates are asked to promote reading, writing and appreciation of the poetic arts through activities such as leading poetry workshops, performing readings and visiting schools.

“What a privilege to be able to go to virtually every corner of Oregon and act as an ambassador for poetry,” says Petersen. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Petersen discovered a love for the written word early on and wrote poetry as a young girl. But without encouragement, she ended up setting it aside for a time. It wasn’t until later, as a young housewife and mother, that Petersen rediscovered the world of contemporary poetry through the Saturday Review. Petersen went on to further her literary education at Southern Oregon University and began to write poetry in earnest.

Petersen takes her role as laureate seriously and conducts frequent workshops and readings. On February 3rd, she’ll be leading a workshop at the Sellwood-Moreland Library entitled “Downstream: Writing with the Current.” She’ll follow that with March appearances at Wood Middle School in Wilsonville, Willamette University, Robert Farrell High School in Salem and the Oregon Poetry Association at the Medford Public Library.

In addition, one of Petersen’s poems will be on display at Kaiser Permanente’s new Medical Center in Hillsboro. The center is creating 9 x 9 foot panels with poetry and natural images to hang next to their main elevators. Petersen was one of seven poets selected from 93 entries. The center is expected to open in August 2013.

To learn more about Paulann Petersen, watch our profile on Oregon Art Beat.

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