Not ‘too late’ to hear poet talk

Jenny Westdal, Contributor
Posted 9/19/17

Although Finn Wilcox has traveled, his writings are rooted in place. That place is the Pacific Northwest. This is the Northwest where work is found in the woods, and life is hard, simple and engulfed …

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Not ‘too late’ to hear poet talk

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Although Finn Wilcox has traveled, his writings are rooted in place. That place is the Pacific Northwest. This is the Northwest where work is found in the woods, and life is hard, simple and engulfed in beauty. This place runs deep, down to the core of a person’s identity.

And it’s this place where Wilcox, of Port Townsend, takes you.

“Too Late to Turn Back Now: Poems & Prose 1980-2016” is set to be released at an event beginning at 7 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 21 at the Northwind Arts Center. It contains new and collected work that takes readers from the rails with American hobos to the Silk Road through China and back home to the Northwest.

NORTHWEST NATIVE

Wilcox spent his childhood in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

“Klamath Falls was the most redneck, right-wing, logging, hunting, fishing place. That’s sort of how I grew up,” said Wilcox.

By the time he was 16, it was the late 1960s, and Wilcox was determined to get out of Klamath Falls.

“The first place I ended up was in Eugene with a house full of hippies, and on the top of the refrigerator, I can still see it, was “Trout Fishing in America,” Brautigan, and the Chinese translations of Kenneth Rexroth. Both of these books blew my mind and that’s what got me interested in writing,” said Wilcox.

Several years later, fate once again intervened and set Wilcox on a path that would lead to his development as a writer. Having been away from the Northwest for a few years, he decided it was time to return. He started traveling to the Oregon coast, where his family owned some lots on Gold Beach.

“I took off, I hitchhiked. I thought, ‘This is it, I’m going to go to Gold Beach and that’s where I’m going to make my stand as a poet and I’ll figure out what I’m going to do from there.’”

“Jessie Miller, an old tree planter guy, picks me up and says, ‘Hey kid, do you need a job?’ I had like 40 bucks and I said, ‘Sure.’ ‘You want to plant some trees?’ ‘Sure, I’ll plant some trees,’” said Wilcox.

Jerry Gorsline was traveling with Miller to the tree-planting job and would become a mentor and lifelong friend to Wilcox.

Gorsline let Wilcox sleep in the front seat of his van and loaned him Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.”

Coincidently, there were other poets on that tree-planting crew: Michael Daley, Tim McNulty and Mike O’Connor.

As they worked together in the cold and wet, they encouraged and supported Wilcox’s poetic endeavors.

“Here I was ... with a bunch of really good poets who were interested in a young kid who was interested in poetry,” said Wilcox.

EMPTY BOWL

Daley, one member of the tree-planting crew, began thinking of starting a literary magazine that emphasized the Pacific Northwest bioregion. The literary magazine became a periodic anthology of writing, Dalmo’ma, and a publisher, Empty Bowl Press. Many pieces written by the tree-planting crew would appear in the magazine.

Several years later, in 1984, Empty Bowl published Wilcox’s first book, “Here Among the Sacrificed.”

Wilcox discovered the world of riding freight trains when he first ran away from home at 16, and he continued to periodically hop trains as a means of transportation. On one rail journey with his friend Steve Johnson, he decided he’d keep a journal “just for the hell of it.”

The result was “Here Among the Sacrificed,” a collection of Wilcox’s prose and poetry, with photographs by Johnson. Requests for the book continued long after it went out of print. It was while thinking about reprinting “Here Among the Sacrificed” that Wilcox started considering a book that would combine his collected works with new work.

The new book should be a trade edition, with a wider distribution than his works had previously had. A few East Coast publishers expressed interest, but that didn’t feel right.

“I don’t want an East Coast press. I mean, I love these guys [who were inquiring about the book], but this is a quintessential Northwest book,” said Wilcox.

The choice was obvious. Empty Bowl would publish Wilcox’s new book, “Too Late to Turn Back Now: Poems & Prose 1980-2016.”

TOO LATE NOW

The first third of the book consists of all the work in “Here Among the Sacrificed,” which fulfills the desire to get this book back in print and available once again. It’s followed by “Nine Flower Mountain,” a collection of poems written about Wilcox’s two trips to China, in 1991 and 1993, with writer and translator Bill Porter. Porter uses the pen name Red Pine when he’s translating Chinese poetry and religious texts.

Traveling with Porter, a Mandarin-speaking Chinese scholar, gave Wilcox a considerably different experience of China than most tourists have. Johnson, Wilcox’s friend, photographer, and rail-riding companion, accompanied them on the first trip, during which they visited the graves of several poets from the Tang Dynasty.

“Steven, Bill and I spent most of our time up in the mountains in monasteries,” said Wilcox.

During one of their mountain hikes, they visited a nun Bill knew who lived alone in a cave. That visit was the inspiration for the poem “Nine Flower Mountain.”

Wilcox and Porter traveled the ancient Silk Road when Wilcox visited China a second time, journeying through remote, primitive areas with plenty of unknowns and adventures.

“That was really the wild West,” said Wilcox.

The Chinese poems of “Nine Flower Mountain” are followed in the new book by “Lesson Learned,” love poems from a chapbook of the same name. A chapter of Wilcox’s new work, “Not Letting Go,” which is both poetry and prose, closes the book.

The new work contained in “Not Letting Go” ties it all together. Wilcox returns to the Northwest and reveals a simplicity and beauty of life here that mirrors that found in the Chinese monasteries and the lives of the hermits.

Wilcox opens the section of new work with memories of, and a tribute to, poet Robert Sund. Sund, much admired by the Northwest poets, embodied an Asian simplicity in his life and writing. Wilcox’s work contains his own simplicity of subject and style, but Buddhist detachment is replaced with a love of friends, family and people met on the road, which shines through his words.

Jenny Westdal’s driving passion is to capture and record as much of Port Townsend’s pre-computer-age art and literary history as possible. She particularly wants to preserve the stories of the unique and vibrant life of Port Townsend in the ’70s and ’80s, when Port Townsend’s identity as an art town blossomed, while there are still people who remember that time.

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