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Writer remembers father in new poetry book

Cal Kinnear will read from his new book of poetry,“The House of My Father,” at the Vashon Bookshop. - File Photo
Cal Kinnear will read from his new book of poetry,“The House of My Father,” at the Vashon Bookshop.
— image credit: File Photo

Islander Cal Kinnear likes to ponder life’s big questions. For this natural-born philosopher dressed in the guise of a writer, former English professor and bookstore owner, the answers to his musings often appear in the form of poetry. His latest and fourth book, “The House of My Father,” explores what he calls the magical border between memory and imagination in a series of prose poetry about his late father. Kinnear will read excerpts and talk about his book next week at the Vashon Bookshop.

Ask Kinnear, 74, to describe his father and an image of a man larger than life starts to appear. Take his resume: U.S. Naval Intelligence officer in World War II, an American attache to the British Navy in Senegal, a lawyer and politician, state representative and director of revenue for Governor Dan Evans’ administration. Then factor in Kinnear’s early impression of his father returning from war to their home in Seattle when Kinnear was 6. It was also the first time he met his father. Add a dose of his father’s rule to recite the Gettysburg Address or Bill of Rights as prayers before a bed made tight with hospital corners, and the alchemy of facts and memory creates an almost mythical character.

“My father was a force when I was growing up,” Kinnear said. “I had to learn to outgrow it.”

Outgrow it he did with the help of his writing. Twenty years ago Kinnear penned a series of poems to sort through his understanding of the man who was his father and the relationship they had. Yet it wasn’t until 2012 that Kinnear reread those poems and realized they should be gathered into a book. With distance and reflection, Kinnear recognized his poems were also investigations into what makes up memory and what defines time.

“The poems are a sequence of moments brought back not from time but from a mingling of memory and imagination,” Kinnear writes in the book’s introduction. “Modern scientific thought has demanded we be so certain of time, that it is a line, like a railroad track, on which we find ourselves in a passage we can never reverse. As I reread (the poems) … I know time, memory itself is something different. Ghosts, visitations, hallucinations, the reshaping of desire and regret, where do these reside? ”

Kinnear, who moved to Vashon in 2000, wrote his first rhyming poems as an undergraduate at Stanford University. His classmate, poet Sharon Olds, convinced him that poetry could still be written and sold, that it was not yet a meaningless form. With his graduate degree from Princeton University, Kinnear taught English at the University of Virginia and Wells College in New York. But his true poetic muse — inspired by poets James Wright, W.S. Merwin, Pablo Neruda among others — only began to sing once he and his brother opened a bookstore near The Evergreen State College in 1970.

Kinnear’s current poetry project called “The Great Wheel,” takes a look at Western philosophy and how he believes it needs to change.

Does Kinnear ever worry he’ll run out of ideas to write about? Apparently not. For according to Kinnear, poetry is all about life.


Cal Kinnear will discuss and read excerpts from his new book at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 17, at the Vashon Bookshop.

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