Poetry takes to the streets

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Street Roots, a local newspaper that focuses on issues of homelessness. The newspaper is celebrating it’s anniversary by releasing I Am Not A Poet, a poetry anthology that draws from poems published during the newspaper’s history. Physical copies of the anthology will be sold for $16, while the e-book will be sold on a pay-what-you-want basis.

Street Roots is published biweekly and features articles, art and poetry from local journalists and Portlanders experiencing homelessness. The newspaper is sold by vendors—homeless and low-income individuals—around the city. Vendors purchase copies of the newspaper for 25 cents and sell them for $1, retaining the profits.

The anthology was first conceived by a Portland State graduate, and numerous alumni helped to bring the anthology to publication. Alumni worked on nearly every aspect of the book, including editing, marketing and the design of the cover art.

Reading the poems first

Vinnie Kinsella, project manager for I Am Not A Poet, became involved with Street Roots nearly a year ago when he began volunteering as a copy editor for the newspaper. Kinsella said his favorite part of the paper has always been the poetry.

“Even before I was copy editing, when I was just buying and reading the paper, I would always skip to the poetry first,” Kinsella said.

Kinsella broached the subject of a poetry anthology with Street Roots executive director Israel Bayer and vendor coordinator Cole Merkel after only a few short months of volunteering: The two were ecstatic about the idea. Kinsella, who works as a publications consultant, offered to take the lead role.

Kinsella graduated from the Portland State book publishing program in 2006. Shortly thereafter, he became an adjunct professor at the university and began teaching courses in the program. As a publications consultant, Kinsella also helps independent presses and self-published authors to create books that rival traditional publications in content and appearance.

Kinsella said his experience as a student in the book publishing program had an enormous impact on his career, specifically the way in which the program demands that students become familiar with all aspects of publishing.

“You have to learn all the components of making a book,” Kinsella said. “You have to learn book marketing, book design, book editing.

“In an ideal situation, anyone graduating the program has the skill set to run a press.”

When Kinsella put out the call for volunteers to help with the anthology, he was overwhelmed by the response, particularly from alumni. Kinsella said he thought part of the reason for the alumni response was the intimate, community-focused nature of the publishing program, and that those connections have a way of spreading out into the Portland publishing community at large.

“Students who are coming out of the program are shaping the publishing industry locally, in many ways,”
Kinsella said. “I’d venture to say that there’s probably not a publishing company, or very few, that do not have some kind of connection or tie-in to the publishing program through one of the workers or the owners.”

Kinsella said the anthology is about celebrating and highlighting different perspectives, and that some of his favorite poems in the anthology deal with perspective.

One of Kinsella’s favorite poems in the anthology is “Gonna Be a Bear” by Carolyn Meade. In “Gonna Be a Bear” the poet playfully muses that if she were a bear, cultural taboos such as body hair and weight gain would be seen as attractive qualities.

“I’ve always been a fan of any type of writing that has a lighthearted approach to a serious topic and gives a different perspective on it,” Kinsella said.

Kinsella said working with Street Roots changed him personally. The change came gradually as he read more about issues facing individuals experiencing homelessness and those in poverty.

“That’s sort of my personal driving factor,” Kinsella said. “I would love to have other people who maybe aren’t avid readers of the paper, but who are avid readers of poetry, to be introduced to these things and be given a different perspective.”

Adventures in publishing

Mary Locke, editorial and marketing lead for I Am Not A Poet, was one of the alumni to reach out to Kinsella when he began recruiting for the anthology.

Locke is something of an anomaly among the alumni who worked on the anthology. She didn’t graduate from the publishing program. Locke got her publishing experience elsewhere; she published a book while still an undergraduate at PSU.

Locke’s book, Skint Portland, for the Frugal Vagabond, is a guidebook to Portland that focuses on utilitarianism over consumption. The book was published in 2011.

“Having that experience and then seeing another call for a similar project—bringing a book to fruition—I knew I had the skills to draw upon,” Locke said.

Locke said the anthology touches on a wide variety of themes.

“A lot of the poets are experiencing homelessness, so you would think that would dominate what they’re writing about,” Locke said. “While the book does talk about street life, it also discusses things like love, mental health issues and recovery.”

Locke said she spent nearly 2 1/2 months helping to curate I Am Not A Poet. Volunteers combed through every poem ever published in Street Roots—nearly 1,000 poems. The book will contain 200 poems when it’s released.

Locke said poems were not excluded for their subject matter. Poems appear exactly as they did when first published in Street Roots, which itself provides an unflinching look at street life.

“These are all issues that should be explored,” Locke said, “There was no censoring or filtering.”

Locke said working on the anthology has given her a greater understanding of Street Roots and has helped her see the vendors in a new light.

“Before, I would see them in passing,” Locke said. “I didn’t realize their commitment and the hours they put in.”
Locke said her favorite poem in I Am Not A Poet is “Mirror” by Twila Nesky. Locke said “Mirror” is a poem about the poet accepting her own beauty by way of acknowledging her daughter’s beauty.

“I like the resolution at the end,” Locke said. “I like the eloquence of her words. I like how simple it is, and then I enjoy the revelation that she arrived at.”

Writing from the heart

Several of the poems included in I Am Not A Poet were written in Cole Merkel’s creative writing workshop. Merkel, who acts as the vendor coordinator for Street Roots, has hosted the workshop every Wednesday for the past 2 1/2 years.

“We see people who are in constant states of crisis,” Merkel said. “Through creative writing we see almost a transformation, where people who aren’t necessarily able to communicate can finally get their voice out in poetry.”

A wide range of people with varying backgrounds attend the workshop, Merkel said. Some never graduated high school. Others have college degrees. Part of the challenge of running the workshop is to make the exercises relevant to everyone in the room.

Merkel said he considers the anthology to be a 15-year retrospective of street life in Portland. Merkel said he has noticed certain recurring themes in the poems, which include addiction, recovery, love, anger and a desire to shake established systems to their foundations.

Merkel’s favorite poem in the anthology is “Dull Point Blues” by Michael Vance. Merkel said he likes the poem because, while it’s about the poet struggling through their darkest hour of addiction, the poet ultimately retains his sense of hope.