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Cal Kinnear and the language of love
A black and white illustration of William Butler Yeats — the famous Irish poet looking dark, intense and brooding — hangs over the desk where Cal Kinnear sometimes works.
Yeats was one of Kinnear’s early influences as a young poet, although over the years Kinnear has come to admire a number of poets — James Wright, William Merwin, Robert Bly, Pablo Neruda. He likes poets, he said, who “push language as hard as they can,” who surprise you with their syntax, metaphors and puns, who use poetry to try to connect “with what we don’t know.”
“Call it life-death, call it the dream world,” Kinnear said as he sat in the warm kitchen of his home near St. Vianney Church.
Kinnear will read from his newest book, “Shale Eyes,” Friday evening at the Vashon Bookshop, where he’ll bring his poems — some of them intimate, others abstract, all of them evocative — to life. His voice is deep and resonant, and his poems, when he reads them aloud, take on a remarkable energy.
Indeed, as he read one, tears welled up in his eyes. “You come to me / from so many directions — / with your black hair, mistress / of roads and costumes and bits,” he began.
“Shale Eyes” is a collection of love poems, all of them about his partner, massage therapist Jennifer Johnson. The self-published chapbook, only 110 of which were printed, was designed by Annie Brulé and Phil Bevis.
The 24 poems in the collection are, of course, personal. “I insist that they include all of me, from the shoes up — intellectual, personal, humorous, sensuous,” he said.
But he also believes that reading them aloud, using his voice to full effect, adds to their depth and intensity. “I love reading because I want to get as much of that (energy) into my voice as I can.”
Kinnear, 72, moved to Vashon nearly three years ago, brought here by Johnson, whom he met in 2005 at a West Seattle Chamber of Commerce meeting. He was the development director of Explorer West Middle School at the time.
He’s held a number of jobs over the years. He was a college teacher, a bookstore owner, a waiter at 13 Coins (one of his favorite jobs, he said), a grant writer, a carpenter, a modern dancer. Until his retirement in 2010, he was the executive director and sole staff member of Washington Lawyers for the Arts, a nonprofit that provides legal services to artists and arts organizations.
All along, he said, he has written poetry. He wrote his first poem in graduate school at Princeton University, where he studied English literature. Since then, he guesses he’s written close to 500 poems, publishing many of them in a number of reviews, his own collections and one anthology. In 2003, he was the winner of Fine Madness’ Nelson Bentley prize, and he currently has a poem on the Washington State Poet Laureate’s website.
Prolific and open with his poetry, Kinnear even sends out a poem with his holiday cards. This year, recipients received a poem, printed on soft yellow paper, called “Dreamtime,” where “dream” is an old woman, or perhaps Puget Sound. “Float out on her limpid surface / only faintly salt, in my slim / lapstrake dory.”
Though he’s not lived here long, he has found a place of honor among the Vashon literary scene; he was a moving force in the creation of the Vashon Poetry Fest.
“Since he has moved to Vashon Island, I have found a peer in both the art and craft of poetry,” said Ann Spiers, a well-known island poet. “He has the gift of talking about love that’s rooted in his own personal experience. His poems allow the reader to enter his world of love and recognize its strength and its raw exhilaration.”
For Kinnear, poetry is always with him. He keeps a journal, jotting down thoughts and images, and reads the works of others who he finds particularly interesting; a favorite these days is Lucie Brock-Brodio.
“I’m thinking in the place where poems come from all the time,” he said.
Asked where that place is, he paused. In silence, he said. In solitude. Or “when I see a woodpecker or ducks on the water or remember a moment with Jennifer that was particularly wonderful.”
Cal Kinnear will read from his book “Shale Eyes” at 6 p.m. Friday at the Vashon Bookshop.