Today's poetry for today's world

Don Colburn


Don Colburn is a longtime newspaper reporter who did not start writing poems until he was nearly 40.  During a 33-year career as a reporter, he worked for four newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Oregonian, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing.  His newest poetry collection, called Tomorrow Too, The Brenda Monologues and based on the story he reported in The Oregonian, is due out in November from Finishing Line Press.  A chapbook titled Because You Might Not Remember was published by Finishing Line Press in 2010.  His first chapbook, Another Way to Begin, won the Finishing Line Press Prize, and his full-length collection, As If Gravity Were a Theory, won the Cider Press Review Book Award.  His many writing honors include the Felix Pollak Prize, the McGinnis Award, the Discovery/The Nation Award and the Duckabush Prize for Poetry.  A board member of Friends of William Stafford, he lives in Portland, Oregon. 




Click on the cover to preorder Tomorrow Too: The Brenda Monologues.



Photo by Motoya Nakamura .







Long before I got sick, way back

before I had Jack, before Larry,

I wanted another part besides my own.

I wanted to crawl inside another skin,

not just to look around but be that one

a while – the only kind of make-believe

I could believe in.  To come alive as someone else

changed everything.  In high school, in The Crucible,

nobody wanted to be Abigail,

a troublemaker who danced wild in the woods

and never ‘fessed up.  I loved that role.

I could feel the parents in their seats afraid –

that’s how good I was at being Abigail.

And ever since, I’ve loved to say her name.








One day at a time never made much sense

till now.  It seemed like giving in.

At 31?  With a 3-year-old,

another on the way?  I know a year

is made of days, but I can’t bear to say

my life might not be made of years.

This afternoon I go to Good Samaritan

to see two doctors, one for me,

the other for the one we’re calling Abigail.

They’re both, of course, for both of us.

If their news is good – the baby growing,

the cancer not in sight – I’ll praise the day.

If not, I’m grateful for today. It is a gift.

But when tomorrow comes, I want that too.






Soon as the first few random tufts came loose,

I wanted it all off, done with, gone.

Head bowed, I sat on a kitchen stool

while Larry buzzed the clippers back and forth.

It fell in fistfuls. Jack climbed into my lap,

handed me the wig, “Mommy’s new hair,”

and helped me put it on, then looked amazed.

I hugged him so he’d know I was still Mom

and so he wouldn’t see Mom’s tears.

Larry took my new round face between his hands.

I’m fine, I said.  No, fine! Really, I’m fine.

The mirror hurt: When you lose your hair,

it’s like your eyes have nowhere else to go.

Funny, I never knew I had a crooked nose.




Published in Tomorrow Too: The Brenda Monologues by Finishing Line Press, 2013.



Photo and cover design by Randy Cox. 
Click any book cover on this page to buy Don Colburn's books.






                                                                   US Airways Flight 1549


When the pilot told us to, I couldn’t

take my glasses off and put my head down

between my knees.  I wanted to watch

to the last moment before smithereens.

Closing your eyes won’t help, not like in music.

The eerie part wasn’t death touching down early

but how quiet it was, how smooth.  We were gliding,

the buzz and rumble of engines gone,

and I could hear everything –

the crying (less than you think), Hail Marys,

the man up front trying against the rules

to call home.  An old woman many rows back

sang beautifully in Spanish, maybe to God,

I don’t speak that language.  I wish I had known

they called the captain Sully and how Sully

was a glider pilot too.  We had no idea

why it was happening, no inkling

of geese or gulls, but we were losing

altitude and the quiet sounded terribly wrong.


After we banked left, Sully brought us down

easy onto the river.  The trick is

to ride the thickening air down slow

and plow into the water, head up like a duck,

not to nosedive, jackknife, cartwheel, burn.

When we didn’t die, some panicked.

Suddenly there was time, and ice water

sloshing at our ankles, our knees.  How long

can a heavier-than-air machine float?

Someone named Josh knew to knock the door out

over the wing.  I didn’t notice the guy carrying

his garment bag or the lady screaming for her shoes.

I just remember getting pushed toward a hole

in the side of the plane and tumbling out

into the cold gray blinding afternoon

which held me.  I came to my feet

on the submerged wing with the others

and we walked on water.




“In the Unlikely Event of a Water Landing” was first published in River Styx

and later appeared in Because You Might Not Remember











Until I heard the names in my own voice

I never saw them whole: chickweed, toothwort,

May apple, Dutchman's breeches, Indian pipe.

A list was my father's way of witnessing;

it made a flower real.  And this afternoon

in the weedy meadow by the towpath,

I'm jotting odd names on a scrap of paper

for no one in particular, myself maybe

or my father.  Back then I let him teach me

to look down at the ground for stars,

bells, shades of blue.  He was never happier

than when we looked up accuracy's myriad names

and he wrote them out in slanted letters.

Now, over and over, like a child,

I say gill-over-the-ground, gill-

over-the-ground, gill-over-the-ground,

and in the saying see it blossom again

inside its spilled blue name.




“Wildflowers” was first published in The Nation and later appeared

in Another Way to Begin and As If Gravity Were a Theory











All at once everyone in the room says

nothing.  They continue doing this and I begin to know

it is not because they are dumb.  Finally


the guy from the Bay Area who wears his chapbook

on his sleeve says he likes the poem a lot

but can't really say why and silence


starts all over until someone says she only has

a couple of teeny suggestions such as taking out

the first three stanzas along with


all modifiers except "slippery" and "delicious"

in the remaining four lines.  A guy who

hasn't said a word in three days says


he too likes the poem but wonders why

it was written and since I don't know either

and don't even know if I should


I'm grateful there's a rule

I can't say anything now.  Somebody

I think it's the shrink from Seattle


says the emotion is not earned and I wonder

when is it ever.  The woman on my left

who just had a prose poem in Green Thumbs & Geoducks


says the opening stanza is unbelievable

and vindication comes for a sweet moment

until I realize she means unbelievable.


But I have my defenders too and the MFA from Iowa

the one who thinks the you is an I

and the they a we and the then a now


wants to praise the way the essential nihilism

of the poem's occasion serves to undermine

the formality of its diction.  Just like your comment


I say to myself.  Another admires the zenlike polarity

of the final image despite the mildly bathetic

symbolism of sheep droppings and he loves how


the three clichés in the penultimate stanza

are rescued by the brazen self-exploiting risk.

The teacher asks what about the last line


and the guy with the chapbook volunteers it suits

the poem's unambitious purpose though he has to admit

it could have been worded somewhat differently.




“In the Workshop after I Read My Poem Aloud” was first published

in The Iowa Review and later appeared in Another Way to Begin

and As If Gravity Were a Theory.




Writer's Tip: Fiction or nonfiction – poetry or journalism – good writing must ring clear and true.  As that now-famous newspaper editor Walt Whitman wrote: “No twistified or foggy sentences.”  And, in the words of Bill Monroe, “It's played from my heart to your heart and it will touch you.”




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