Front cover of “Poems from the Tom Fry” by Jack Churchill. (Courtesy Photos)

Retired political economist turns to writing poetry

When islander Jack Churchill retired from his career as a political economist writing policy about stewarding our nation’s public lands and waters, he intended to write the definitive book on water policy. But partway through his outline, the man who helped form the Environmental Protection Agency and shape the Clean Water Act had to stop. His words, written in the language of policy and academia, fell flat, felt impoverished. Instead, he turned to the rich arena of metaphor and musicality found in poetry.

Churchill will read from his new book of poetry, “Poems from the Tom Fry,” at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18, at the Vashon Bookshop.

Leaving behind the “stultifying limitation of bureaucratic language,” Churchill, who also taught water and land policy at Portland State University, said he began to write a long poem about a river and, in the process, realized how the coursing water is an archetype of life.

“My long poem on the river became the starting point for a wide range of poetic inquiry into the flow of the river of my life. I employed a variety of poetic forms, from mini-ode to haiku. The poems represent a collection from this rewarding endeavor,” he writes in the book’s forward.

With the long poem completed, Churchill then took classes on poetry and began reading the poems of authors like Gary Snyder, not so much for finding a model as “finding out how to sequence things” and learning the value of specifics.

“Poetry is closer to the oral than the written language,” he said. “And the oral is most meaningful in relating the individual to something in nature. You can describe it scientifically with generalities, but when you describe it specifically in its own setting, there is also an emotional, as well as observational aspect that brings all of our senses to bear.”

In “Streamwalking,” Churchill describes what he hears, sees and feels as in this excerpt:

“Water sounds crescendo heights

cascades over silvery plumes

slides down chutes of bedrock

pummeled into flowing current

lounges deep in foamy pools

formed by eons of time

Leaves of alder and maples

ride canopy in wavering skeins

sun’s light mixes flickering greens

twirl together in sky’s blue”

The water and land, Churchill said, have their own story, so place — and its details — becomes very important. Place for Churchill is both Vashon and the Tom Fry River in Oregon. His book includes poems from each location, spotlighting qualities of each locale.

“If we generalize everything in teaching and in writing theory, then what we are discussing has less meaning, unlike when we come to a place and identify the laughter of a particular stream,” he said. “These poems came out of the water (of the Tom Fry River) itself. Poetry is all about making things come alive.”