written by Anna Bird | photos by Marion Ettlinger
By the time David Biespiel started writing a poetry column for The Oregonian in 2003, he had tired of the judgement in reviews and critiques. He didn’t want to determine what poetry was worth reading and why, he just wanted people to read poetry. He wanted to show readers the complexities and pleasures of contemporary poetry, to contextualize it.
That’s what he did, every month for a decade. Biespiel wrote about poems, recently published collections and whatever else he found relevant and interesting. This year, he won the Frances Fuller Victor Award for general nonfiction at the Oregon Book Awards for his collection of these essays, A Long High Whistle (Antilever Press). It is his second Oregon Book Award.
“It was the longest-running regular column on poetry in an American newspaper and, I think, the best,” said Jeff Baker, the books editor at The Oregonian, in an article about A Long High Whistle. “I’m not just saying that because I edited it, but because Biespiel brought a lively, accessible style and a sharp critical take to his column, and he did it in an enthusiastic way that showed his readers that poetry can be a joyful, fulfilling part of their lives.”
Biespiel, a published poet and prolific poetry critic from Texas, moved to Portland in 1995. When he needed a place outside of his house to write, he found an attic to lease above a business on Hawthorne Boulevard. In order to pay for the lease, he started offering classes. He then asked a couple of his students, Ariel Gore and Merridawn Duckler, to teach classes. By 1999, the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters was born, known at the time as the Attic Writers’ Workshop.
As a haven for writers, the Attic offers classes and workshops for beginning writers to dedicated writers looking to publish their works. The faculty is an impressive one—Cheryl Strayed, Paulann Petersen, Matthew Dickman and Whitney Otto are just a few of the literary minds at the Attic. “The faculty is highly acclaimed, very visible, and they’re outstanding writers and inspiring teachers,” Biespiel said. “We primarily try to help people in different stages of their writing and their literary life.”
As the president of the Attic Institute, Biespiel still finds time for personal pursuits. He’s currently working on books of essays and poems. Republic Café is a “love poem that takes place in the West during 9/11.” The book of essays, A Ladder to the Underground, is about creativity and the process of writing. “It’s about the process people go through, specifically to write, and how you navigate, figuratively, leaving the modern world that we live in—in which you’re getting your influences and subject matter and material—and entering your imagination and creative life, what goes on in that journey and what kind of trials you face,” Biespiel said.