Mike O’Connor, a poet, writer, translator, and editor who championed Olympic Peninsula writers, died on January 4 at his home in Olympia following a short battle with cancer. He was 76.
O’Connor was the award-winning author of eleven books of poetry, stories, and translations from the Chinese and editor of several anthologies. His publisher, Jack Estes, described him as someone whose life and poetry were one. “Mike’s work was a direct expression who he was,” Estes said. “His love of nature, his deep Zen Buddhist philosophy, and his infectious humor came through in everything he wrote.”
O’Connor’s clear and direct poems celebrate living simply, holding friends close, and honoring the earth. He helped found the Foothills Writers Series at Peninsula College and was active in the literary circle around Port Townsend’s Empty Bowl Press. His writings touched the hearts of thousands of readers. One of his best-loved poems, reflecting on the end of a day cutting cedar in the Olympic foothills, concludes, “the moon and stars / jingle in the sky / like wages.”
Thomas Michael O’Connor was born August 3, 1944 in Aberdeen, Washington. He spent his childhood in nearby Montesano, a time delightfully recreated in his book of stories, “Unnecessary Talking.” He moved to Port Angeles for his high school years and was a standout athlete.
O’Connor studied with Pulitzer prize winning poet Elizabeth Bishop at the University of Washington, but his roving spirit also took him to the University of the Americas in Mexico City and the University of California Berkeley before settling on a small farm in the Dungeness Valley.
In the 1970s he worked seasonally for the U.S. Forest Service, built trails, planted trees, and selectively logged in the Olympic Mountains. Those experiences inspired many of the poems in his first book, “The Rainshadow.”
A student of Chinese culture and poetry, O’Connor lived in Taiwan through the 1980s and early 90s where he edited and wrote for English language newspapers. He mastered classical Chinese and translated the work of Buddhist poets, publishing several volumes including “Where the World Does Not Follow” with photographer Steven Johnson and “When I find You Again It Will Be in the Mountains, Poems of Chia Tao.” He published several more volumes of original poetry including “The Basin,” “Immortality,” and “When the Tiger Weeps.”
His honors included fellowships from the International Writers Workshop and the National Endowment for the Arts and grants from the Pacific Cultural Foundation and the Washington State Arts Commission, among others.
O’Connor was married to Della Knox-Bennett of Bainbridge Island and to Port Townsend choreographer and dance instructor, Ling Hui. He spent his final years with his grade-school sweetheart, Mary Hughes, about whom he wrote a biographical fantasy called “Mary O’Houlihan.” He is also survived by his sister, Sharon Georg, of Alberta and innumerable friends and admirers in the U.S. and abroad.
No service is planned.