William Carlos Williams wrote his epic poem about Paterson, New Jersey, and Charles Olson wrote his about Glouchester, Mass.
In his book, “A Time Before Slaughter,” Apprentice House, 2009, Paul Nelson, poet and founder of the non-profit Global Voices Radio and co-founder of the Northwest SPokenword LAB (SPLAB!), has done much the same for Auburn, and along the way written its first epic.
In rich verse and prose, “A Time Before Slaughter” tells the community’s story before and after the arrival of the first white settlers. The tale begins with Native Americans and moves from there through the death of Lt. William A. Slaughter — for whom the early town was named — the early settlers’ efforts to control the landscape, the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII, Frank Natsuhara and more.
Nelson’s recounting leaves the warts in and the bark on, not to pass judgement on the past, he said, but to discover something about the place. Here, the poet becomes part of his own work. He can be seen there, wandering about the landscape he has created, learning about himself as he explores the essence of the place where he lives.
“The notion of discovery through the poem is something that resonates with Olson and with others before him. It’s what can I discover about this place and about myself, about my relationship with this place, and why I chose this place to live for 17-and-a-half years,” Nelson said.
Nelson, who moved to Seattle in 2009, interlaces Native American mythology — “Hops and the Snake People,” “How the Whales Reached the Sea” — with poems that recount the settlers’ efforts to tame the White River by blowing it up and finally diverting it. He works in a critique of corporate history, especially the railroads, and what he calls “the crazy notion” of corporations as people.
Place, however, place is the thread that binds.
“I wanted to tell these stories. I wanted to give people a sense of what’s across the street,” Nelson said. “The Pioneer Cemetery, for example, why is it almost all Japanese-Americans? That’s very interesting to think about. What happened to Japanese-American people? Do we believe the line that they were taken away during WWII for their own protection? Or do we look at the story about barns being burned in the 1920s and think there were acts of terror perpetrated against them simply because of their race? To tell the story is the first part of getting justice.”
Nelson has sprinkled his work with phrases in the Muckleshoot language, Wholshootseed, employing a special font called Fontootseed. His respect for Native Americans, is obvious and it runs deep.
“I think that if we recognize Native Americans as people whose ancestors came here from other places, if we recognize that we are on the ancestral ground of a certain people and because of that fact they are due a certain amount of respect, I think that we can only benefit as humans,” Nelson said.
Twelve years from idea to finished publication, the book draws from multiple springs, including Greg Watson’s “A Mythology of South Puget Sound,” a renewed edition of Arthur Ballard’s original book, Josie Emmons, “A Walk Down Main Street,” “White River Journal: The Story of a Japanese Community in Rural Washington” by Stan Flewelling, and J. Miller’s “Lutshootseed Culture and the Shamanic Odyssey,” to name just a few of the sources. A number of the prose stories come directly from Watson’s book.
Nelson said he started thinking about writing the book in 1997. In 1998 after he described a little of the history to Joanne Kyger, a poet visiting SPLAB!, she suggested that he “write a Paterson for Slaughter.”
“And she was the first one who articulated that, and I thought, ‘You know what, I am going to do that,’ ” Nelson recalled. “And I thought that as a poet you have to tell the history, as a poet you have to be connected to place. What better way to be connected to place than to learn about the history and to write about it in a lyric and engaging way and yet in a non-didactic way?”
The title poem, in which Nelson writes about Slaughter as a man, a town, and an idea or a method of operation, sets up the notion of the book. He includes several examples of the desire to control, which is what Slaughter is a metaphor for, Nelson said. But also on that first page the reader begins to get a taste of some of the good and beautiful things about the community. Part two of the title poem is about the Japanese experience, and part three includes some of the Wultshootseed words in the Fontootseed font. The second poem, “Where Slaughter Begins,” is about where water comes from, the Emmons Glacier. From there the work glides seamlessly into some of the native stories, “Elk Woman,” “The River’s Dream,” “The Attack of the Snake People” and “First Jail and Maney Sneatlum.”
“It’s not only older history and Auburn’s beginning but more contemporary history with Maney Sneatlum, who was said to have taken her own life in the Auburn jail, but the family and other people on the reservation believe otherwise. The flyer is a reproduction of a flyer that was there when I went to teach a workshop at the Muckleshoot Library. Maney Sneatlum allegedly committed suicide, but there were a lot of doubts about that, and there was a rash of suicides in the Auburn Jail at that time.”
One of the poems, “Song for Arthur Ballard,” Nelson likes to read to audiences not only because it honors the Native Americans but because it honors Ballard, a pioneer ethnographer of Northwest Native Americans and an exemplar of the idea hat people, here the European Americans and the Native Americans, can get along.
“He’s such an example of that,” Nelson said of Ballard. “He’s probably one of the most beautiful and conscientious people who ever lived in this town, and there should be more to honor him.”
The work is rich in poetic forms. “The River’s Dream,” for example, employs acrostics, where the phrase starts in the left margin and Nelson spontaneously composes the rest of the poem from those starting words for each line.
As a proponent of “organic poetry,” Nelson said he doesn’t know what will emerge until he sits down and starts writing. Both form and content, he said, are a revelation.
“When I sat down to write a poem about the death of William A. Slaughter. I knew it was going to be about him dying. What gets into the poem, what extraneous sources are collaged in there … how’s it going to end, that I don’t know until the moment that it happens. And as long as I’ve prepared myself enough and the poem has incubated long enough, and I have strong enough feelings about it, the poem is going to come out pretty much OK after the first take.”
Nelson explained why he choose poetry as his vehicle.
“Poetry is the language of the mythic, and mythology is the story that can’t be told. So how can you get around it? I think I have gotten to the story from about as many angles as are possible. I could have spent another 20 years and gotten up more, and you probably would have seen more in the book, about the shadow side of Native Americans. I could tell you stories from my 14 months working for the reservation that would just tear your heart out. So you can tell the story in a very straight way, and you can tell the story in a very mythic way, and I am much more interested in the mythic than in trying to make a point,” Nelson said.
Nelson hopes that the work can one day be used as a teaching tool or text book in Auburn high schools and at Green River Community College.
“A Time Before Slaughter” can be ordered online at www.apprenticehouse.com. The cost is $12.95.