Late one fall, Oregon-born poet Carolyn Moore found herself wandering through the past life of Emily Dickinson. She was walking the formerly cobbled streets of Amherst, Massachusetts at Smith College, working on one of her numerous graduate degrees, visiting the “swelling in the ground” of Dickinson’s grave, and spending days in the bookstore where Dickinson’s poetry now resides alongside the work of “dead white guys,” as Moore once penned in a witty letter to the late poet.
Walking Dickinson’s roads must have imbued Moore with the muse’s favor. In her lifetime, Moore went on to accumulate over one hundred awards and honors for her own poetry, including the New Millennium Writings Award, the Foley Poetry Award, and the C. Hamilton Bailey Fellowship from Literary Arts, Inc. In addition to her four chapbooks, her family says they’ve found thousands of unpublished poems tucked in the nooks of her family estate. Moore passed away from ovarian cancer in 2019, and that estate—a family farm in Tigard—was left to her trustee with specific instructions to donate it to an institution of higher education so it could find new life as a writer’s retreat.
Last year, Portland Community College won the bid, and in December, they announced plans for what will become the Carolyn Moore Writing Residency. “[Carolyn] would have been happy with that choice. The idea of leaving the house and property to some kind of writing program was always percolating for her. She really wanted to support burgeoning writers,” says Moore’s niece Katie Marquez. PCC’s Justin Rigamonti says he already has “a very exciting list of potential inaugural residents” for the residency, but until COVID-19 dissipates, the retreat will have to wait. Once open, the home will be an opportunity for literature lovers to acquaint themselves with a vibrant voice whose legacy has been mostly lost to time.
Moore was born in 1944 and raised on her mother’s farm in Tigard. Her grandparents migrated from Sweden, landing in Oregon in 1904, where they bought the property—their street, now host to mid-1900s homes and the local middle school, was once raw farmland and strawberry fields. After her parents’ deaths, Moore inherited the estate.
She was an incredibly private person, even to those close to her, often prone to using mythologies to describe her life and avoiding intimacy in her writing. “As Carolyn would have said, ‘Tell the truth but tell it slant,’” her close friend and fellow poet Laura Weeks says. Dickinson scholarship was just one of her many proclivities. Moore was of’t found traveling, and she was also a self-made craftsperson, teacher, political activist, and once even a model (rumor is she modeled for White Stag during her high school years). She wore many hats—literally. “She actually had hats for different moods and different types of writing,” says her niece Cassandra Olson. “She was a captivating presence.”
Moore’s cousin Don Olson says the family largely voted Republican, but “Carolyn, likely never.” She was a women's rights activist, environmentally conscious, and a supporter of the Green Party since its conception, but her greatest triumph (according to Cassandra) was participating in an anti-war protest in California with her writer’s group alongside Vietnam vets also pushing for anti-war policies and nonviolence.
After her stint in Massachusetts, Moore headed back west. But instead of landing in her native Oregon, she detoured to California, where she worked for several decades as an English literature professor at Humboldt State University. One novel, a few mystery books (published under a pseudonym), and innumerable poems later, Carolyn decided her stint had come to an end. She and her husband, John Travis—a political science professor at Humboldt—divorced, and Carolyn found herself back on the family farm in Oregon. “She drove out into the desert, and she screamed, and she thought and thought,” Weeks says. “Then she resolved to be strong.”
This was the late ’90s, when OPB’s Poetry Beat was in its infancy with host Charlotte Digregorio, and Moore was invited on for a feature segment. On the show, Digregorio introduces Moore as a “prominent and distinguished Oregon poet,” and over the next hour, Moore carefully catalogues her best poems and performs them on air.
Yet her numerous awards and poet-worthy eccentricities (she was known for telling men she didn’t abide by their time; she went by “island time”) never launched Moore into the upper echelon of the Portland art scene, a stratosphere that’s sometimes hard to break into. “She contributed richly to the poetry world, but I’m not sure how much Portland appreciated her,” Weeks says. Part of the problem was the fact that very little of her work was printed or anthologized. “Once [the poems] were performed, they didn’t have another life,” Moore tells Digregorio during their interview.
In smaller, more insular circles, however, Moore was beloved. In local haunts, beside acrobatic or modern dancers, Moore would don fantastic hand-made masks and elaborate costumes to perform her work. She was part of several writing groups in Portland, within which she was highly regarded, Weeks says.
“She was a poet for poets,” says Marquez. As vibrant and “larger-than-life” as Moore was, her poetry was even more so. From conjuring images of mermaids defending themselves in court to queens feeding flea circuses to please their kings, Moore’s poetry always had a certain anomalous quality. Her version of a Dear John letter (a style first coined by Christina Rossetti in her “No, Thank You, John” poem), puts a new spin on salads and packs a hell of a punch to all the men who just can’t move on:
Hey, it’s me—the grit in your oyster that never turned
to pearl—writing to you, cigarette butt in my salad
before I finished lunch. Whatthehell were you doing
in last night’s storm, knocking at my dream door
after all these years of leaving me alone,
in peace? Was it because your new wife phoned, edgy,
quavering, duty-bound to share your news?
I slipped into my better-you-than-I apron
and served her alas sandwiches of ooh and ah,
with a side of pardon, free of charge. My dream door,
back to that—what was your point in tracking mud
to its welcome mat with nothing new to tsk or blub?
And why did we pretend that you still lived?
Moore’s wit will be missed, but perhaps appreciated further posthumously. In collaboration with Weeks, Rigamonti is editing a new collection of Carolyn's work, which PCC will publish in the coming months. “After we finish that, there should be no excuse for not knowing Carolyn Moore,” Weeks says.