Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Don Colburn

Don Colburn is a freelance journalist and poet in Portland, Oregon. His third collection of poems, a chapbook titled Because You Might Not Remember, came out in 2010. During a 33-year career as a reporter, he worked for four newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Oregonian, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. He became interested in poetry while on a midcareer Knight Fellowship at Stanford University and later earned his MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College while working full-time as a newspaper reporter. His first chapbook, Another Way to Begin, won the Finishing Line Press Prize, and his full collection, As If Gravity Were a Theory, won the Cider Press Review Book Award. His poems have appeared in many anthologies and magazines, including Alaska Quarterly Review, The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest and Southern Poetry Review. His many writing awards include the Felix Pollak Prize, the McGinnis Award, the Discovery/The Nation Award and the Duckabush Prize for Poetry. He is a board member of Friends of William Stafford.


All at once everyone in the room says
nothing. They continue doing this and I begin to know
it is not because they are dumb. Finally

the guy from the Bay Area who wears his chapbook
on his sleeve says he likes the poem a lot
but can't really say why and silence

starts all over until someone says she only has
a couple of teeny suggestions such as taking out
the first three stanzas along with

all modifiers except "slippery" and "delicious"
in the remaining four lines. A guy who
hasn't said a word in three days says

he too likes the poem but wonders why
it was written and since I don't know either
and don't even know if I should

I'm grateful there's a rule
I can't say anything now. Somebody
I think it's the shrink from Seattle

says the emotion is not earned and I wonder
when is it ever. The woman on my left
who just had a prose poem in Green Thumbs & Geoducks

says the opening stanza is unbelievable
and vindication comes for a sweet moment
until I realize she means unbelievable.

But I have my defenders too and the MFA from Iowa
the one who thinks the you is an I
and the they a we and the then a now

wants to praise the way the essential nihilism
of the poem's occasion serves to undermine
the formality of its diction. Just like your comment

I say to myself. Another admires the zenlike polarity
of the final image despite the mildly bathetic
symbolism of sheep droppings and he loves how

the three clichés in the penultimate stanza
are rescued by the brazen self-exploiting risk.
The teacher asks what about the last line

and the guy with the chapbook volunteers it suits
the poem's unambitious purpose though he has to admit
it could have been worded somewhat differently.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote the first draft during the Centrum Writers Conference in Port Townsend more than twenty years ago. I had signed up for my first open-mic reading, and I was very nervous. The reading was at the old Back Alley tavern, now long-gone. I remember having a hard time reading the poem because the paper was shaking in my hands. But I was lucky to have a receptive – and somewhat inebriated – audience.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Dozens, over more than a year. I revised toward specificity, pushing the tone as far as I could without crossing into sentimentality or rant.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

Yes, I believe in inspiration even if I can’t define it. I usually introduce this poem by saying it “never happened – exactly.” Of course, actual experience in various workshops “inspired” a few of its moments, but each is embellished. It says something about the workshop experience that no matter how absurd I tried to make these moments, they ring frightfully true to somebody in the audience.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

It started out as a big clump of lines. At some point, it settled out in three-line stanzas, as I realized that the narrative fell into “scenes” of roughly three lines. That helped me tighten the phrasing, while also giving the poem some breathing room.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

About two years. That was sooner than I expected, and this was the first poem I ever published. With a robust sense of irony, I brought it to a writing workshop a year after I drafted it. One of the participants, who happened to be an editor at The Iowa Review, liked it and asked me to submit it after I finished revising. When they accepted it, I told the editor I would be glad to change “MFA from Iowa” to NYU or Bennington or Houston – it was just a gratuitous poke at prestige. “Oh, no,” she insisted, “that’s our favorite line.”

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

It varies. I revise obsessively, but the older I get, the less time I leave a poem sitting around if it feels ready.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

I’m a longtime newspaper reporter, so I feel pretty strongly about the bright line between fact and fiction – in the newspaper. In a poem, the line blurs constantly. Which is part of the fun, and the challenge.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes. It tells a story and even proceeds chronologically through the hypothetical trashing of my hypothetical poem in the hypothetical workshop.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I know I was reading William Stafford, Mary Oliver and Stephen Dunn, among others. But I won’t implicate them, unless I already have.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

At the time, it was an anxious, would-be writer whose poem had been “workshopped” that afternoon and was now on his second beer at an open-mic in a local dive. Now it’s probably someone dangerously like myself – a skeptical but empathetic wordslinger.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

This one, yes. Because of its topicality, it made the rounds. Usually, I share drafts with a few trusted fellow travelers.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It gets more consistent laughs. At a reading, I know from experience I’ll have to pause to let the laughter die down, so it won’t smother the next line. The poem’s occasion and easy appeal to poet-readers may also be its limitation, so I hope it speaks as well to anyone who must listen quietly while their life work is judged – in a courtroom, say, or a political debate or a book review.

What is American about this poem?

I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure it’s not French.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I think finished. And it’s a hard one to abandon, because it keeps coming back. Even before Facebook, it achieved a life of its own. It has been thumbtacked on English department bulletin boards and taped to professors’ office doors. I’ve heard of teachers handing it out to “break the ice” in the first meeting of a writing workshop. It’s in several anthologies and writing handbooks. A guy from Ohio emailed last year to thank me for writing the poem; he had tracked it via Google to my Web site after hearing a young student read it during a poetry gathering at Larry’s Bar in Columbus. Apparently, it keeps hitting nerves and funny-bones. Recently, a new acquaintance was astonished to find out I had written this poem; she had come across it years ago and still had a copy.


  1. Thank you, Don. That is a wonderful poem. Except for the first 30 lines or so, of course. Yes, that is too obvious an attempt at humor. You nailed the experience based on numerous experiences. Sometimes a person has to keep her or his mind open to suggestions, but not always. I recall my dismay when a few people in a continuing workshop of a half-dozen or so suggested completely reversing a realization, an emotion, I had described in a poem I had just read. Good poem or bad, the suggestion made no sense for me or for that poem. Your poem is so good to read and no wonder the Iowa folks liked it.

  2. I enjoyed reading this post..I must be doing everything wrong.

  3. A great poem. The fifth stanza reminds me of W.S. Merwin's poem about John Berryman, "you can't you/can never be sure/you die without knowing/whether anything you wrote was any good/if you have to be sure don't write."

    There's a pleasant surprise on almost every line. I'm going to scroll up and read it again.

  4. I really like the way
    you write your thoughts
    three lines a a time.

  5. Another justification for not spending money I can't afford on workshops that would only crush what little confidence I possess. I loved this--even though in some respect I'm not sure it's really poetry...

  6. yes, but once upon a time the words had a meaning onto themselves. that is until they were work shopped

  7. Thanks for your comments, folks. I don't think Don means to disparage writing workshops in general. Maybe just this particular workshop!

    Thanks again for reading the blog and leaving comments. Keep them coming.

  8. Keep 'em coming, Don. It gives hope to even someone like me.
    Tom Preston

  9. Don,

    "I'm pretty sure it's not French" has to be one of the all-time great lines! Mind if I borrow it (if I'm ever asked the question about the way I kiss)?

    Good job on the piece -- but you know that already from my previous comments on it and on others in connection with our own pending (April) interview at


  10. Please, please say you made up the questions, as well. I cannot stop laughing at the content of the poem, or the tenor of the questions. My sides hurt. Thank you so much.

  11. When Don worked "until I realize she means unbelievable" (in the other sense), he had me hooked. I am the "guy from Ohio" Don refers to in his last answer in Brian's interview. Like many of those commenting above, I thought his tone was so perfect in this poem. A student from Ohio State recited it at our Monday poetry readings at a campus bar, and it made me laugh out loud--not only because it captured the insecurity of workshop participants but the poet's too, who is being drilled by such a strange tribunal. How could you not love a poem that humorously nails the pretense, sincerity and ambivalence connected to most who strive to write a poem? Anyway, I tracked Don down, got his book "As If Gravity Were a Theory" and found more good things. Looking forward to getting his latest "Because of Cheers." Note: This is not a paid blurb. I never met the guy from Washington.

  12. Oops I meant the "guy from Oregon."

  13. And, not to make this sound too much like a workshop, but I think jacamo (previous message) meant to say the title of my new chapbook is "Because You Might Not Remember." Because it is. And who says irony is dead! Thanks, though, for that great comment.

    Don, guy from Oregon

  14. I believe it was the same year that Don & I were participants in Stephen Dunn's poetry workshop. Anyway, I was in the audience the night Don read that poem. He could barely get one line out before the crowd would erupt into laughter. After he finished, the applause was deafening, and the laughter went on and on. Its amazing how he managed to get it so right. It's perfect that it has gone viral. Each time I read it, I am stunned at the truth it bears.

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