Celebrating a new collection from poet Mike O’Connor

Derek Firenze
Posted 3/7/23

A line of mist can travel the horizon like a line of verse whisping its way through a reader’s consciousness.

Just as traditional as landscapes are to painting, so too is place to …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Celebrating a new collection from poet Mike O’Connor


A line of mist can travel the horizon like a line of verse whisping its way through a reader’s consciousness.

Just as traditional as landscapes are to painting, so too is place to poetry.

This attention to the natural world is at the heart of the work of the late poet and translator Mike O’Connor.

A longtime Port Townsend resident, O’Connor died in 2021.

His deep roots in the Olympic Peninsula are gathered in the leaves of a new posthumous collection, “Old Growth, New and Selected Poems,” recently published by Chimacum-based Empty Bowl Press.

His good friends and fellow poets Tim McNulty and Finn Wilcox will celebrate and read from the new collection at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 9 at the Manresa Castle in Port Townsend.

Wilcox and McNulty worked alongside Jack Estes, a friend of O’Connor’s from as far back as his high school days in Port Angeles, to put the new book together.

“We just focused on what are really the strongest poems that really show Mike’s heart, and we went back and forth through all his books and some of his unpublished work and came up with this collection,” said McNulty, a fellow local poet, in an interview with The Leader.

Attendees to the event at the Castle can expect a veritable who’s who in Peninsula poetry at the March 9 event as O’Connor was a major figure in the local literary scene, particularly in the circle around Empty Bowl Press.

“Empty Bowl was a little press that grew out of our gatherings,” McNulty said. “It’s one strain; there are many.”

In his 76 years of life, O’Connor grew to become an award-winning author of 12 books of poetry, stories, and translations from Chinese, and the editor of several anthologies.

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.

“While he was there, he became interested in Classical Chinese and began reading and eventually translating in Chinese,” McNulty said.

During which time he crossed paths with local legend Bill Porter, also known for his translations under the name Red Pine, who wrote the foreword for the new collection.

“Lots of people write poetry, but Mike was a poet,” Pine wrote.

In the foreword, he delves into their time spent in “farm sheds” on a mountain in China where O’Connor helped turn Pine the translator into a fellow poet.

“Bill being in Port Townsend is a direct result of Mike’s influence, for sure,” McNulty said.

Like the poets he and Pine were translating, O’Connor had a deep and abiding connection to the natural world.

“I think his reverence for nature came from his experience growing up. His dad was a government agricultural agent,” McNulty said. “There was just a lifetime of being out in the woods, of going camping, of going hiking, of going fishing.”

O’Connor studied with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop at the University of Washington, but his roving spirit carried him across North America.

“He traveled down to the San Francisco Bay area; he traveled to the East Coast, he lived in New York for a while; lived in Texas for a while; lived in Mexico for a while. He was definitely part of that ‘60s, post-Kerouac ‘On the Road,’ wandering experience,” McNulty said.

While not one of the Lost Generation himself, their influence on O’Connor’s life and work was far reaching.

“His connection with the Beats early on was reading their books, finding Jack Kerouac on the bookrack at the corner drugstore, and so got captured,” McNulty said. “Later he went to do his master’s over at the Naropa Institute and met Kerouac and Gary Snyder and several of the other Beats who were still around then and would read and talk and teach.”

Like Snyder, O’Connor was not only inspired by the natural world, but was also an active figure in conservation work to preserve his backwoods muses.

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,” some of which are included in the new collection.

Chainsaw and sacklunch and find a place to fly,

we’ve cut the ridgepole that supports the sky.


And the brittle Goddess – after standing dead

and silver fifty years – like a wave

begins to break upon the rocks.


from “We Come To Ask For Your Bones: Cutting The Great Fragrant Western Red Cedar”

“There was a pretty deep engagement with the forests of the Peninsula and the rivers both as a place of physical work, a place of inspiration for our poetry, and a focus of our conservation efforts,” McNulty said.

While O’Connor’s selective logging would target trees in such a way as to maintain the health of the forests, he and McNulty also witnessed some of the worst examples of logging practices.

“When I met Mike, roads were being pushed up into pretty remote and roadless parts of the National Forest and forests were being clear cut,” McNulty said. “So we worked on putting together a proposal for some wilderness areas in Olympic National Forest and did some field testing, went hiking, went backpacking.”

Their work helped to pass the Washington Wilderness Bill in 1984.

“That included something on the order of 90,000 acres in Olympic National Forest, and of course there were other people that were involved in the process,” McNulty said.

The poetic protectors would often spend their off-hours together by the fire at O’Connor’s house, reading their new work out loud to each other.

“You gotta hear it. You gotta hear the music. And then that also gives either one of us the opportunity of saying, ‘Wait, wait, wait! Whoa, whoa, whoa! Stop right there! Read that again,’” McNulty said.

While they disagreed from time to time on the shape of some of their lines, McNulty let O’Connor’s arguments stand while editing this posthumous collection.

“I excoriated a couple of the endings of his poems and we’d go back and forth on it,” McNulty said. “There were some battles I lost that when I was putting this book together, there they were, and I thought, ‘Oh man, I could change that now.’ But, of course, I never would.”

“Old Growth” is available for purchase at Imprint Bookstore in Port Townsend.