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Jan. 26, 2023

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In death, Camas poet finds new life

John Kay says bouts with various ailments helped him find his true vision as an artist

By , Columbian staff writer
6 Photos
Camas poet John Kay
Camas poet John Kay Photo Gallery

CAMAS — Strangely enough, it took the spectre of death for John Kay’s artistry to reach the peak he’d always wanted to achieve.

Kay, 68, has been writing poetry and doing photography all his life. “I can create a beautiful photograph, but I didn’t always feel connected with the result,” he said. He often won juried contests, he said, but still: “I had no individual style. I couldn’t find my own way.”

And while Kay has been publishing serious and admired poetry for decades, he started feeling like his poems also felt too derivative of his influences, he said. They were long and rambling, exploring and searching — the kinds of poems you start without knowing where the ending is. That’s the prime directive of writers like beloved Oregon poet William Stafford — but it wasn’t quite right for Kay, he said.

It was disease that helped him find his real vision, he said.

Kay’s new book of poetry, “This Particular Kiss,” was published this year by Pearl Editions of Long Beach, Calif., and won the 24th annual Pearl Poetry Prize. Kay, a Long Beach native, takes satisfaction knowing that “a local boy” was the final winner of that prestigious prize — before the award and the literary journal that sponsored it shut down after 45 years.

About the heart

The particular kisser is cancer. The first poem in the book recalls the moment that word first touched Kay; you feel his quiet disbelief, the pause while understanding catches up.

“Then–like spilled paint–I free-fall

through the architecture of death,

cold prayers on my lips, only to find

my son in his Star Trek T-shirt,

his eyes climbing the ladder to my


Kay has also dealt with heart disease, depression and other serious ailments. He said he’s stable now, if “not perfect.” After many decades teaching in Germany — and a shorter stint working as a mental health counselor in Portland — he has retired to a lovely hilltop in Camas, where he lives with his wife, Susan.

But his multiple, serious health challenges convinced him: “I’ve got to write about death. I’ve got to tell it like it is. But how do you write about death without writing in clich?s? How do you write about the heart?”

Kay started making what he calls “contracts” with himself. He compressed his sprawling, searching poems into a disciplined, simple, 12-line form and stuck with it. (It seemed like an echo of the classic 14-line sonnet, he said — and yet there’s also something “mystical” about it.) And, he started finding his true photographic identity — in the chaos of advertising posters and fliers and graffiti and stickers and other images and text you find splayed across certain urban walls and landscapes.

Kay’s Camas home is decorated with many large prints of these strangely stratified portraits’ modernity and decay. He does do some editing and manipulation with computer software, he said. The final works are printed on huge aluminum sheets.

The pieces are so textured — layer upon layer of paper, some of it torn or shredded to reveal underlying levels and half-hidden images — you want to reach out and touch them. And you can’t help trying to make some sort of rational sense of the jumbled text and images — some partially buried, others sprawling past the edge of the frame.

It all retains a sense of mystery, Kay said, and it touches the emotional truth of his various health challenges: They didn’t come on gradually and gracefully. “How suddenly things happen,” Kay said. “As suddenly as an automobile accident.”

Here’s one favorite Kay example of non-clich?d writing, called “A Brief History of the Heart,” from an earlier book of his:

“Lying in a puddle in the rain.

People walked around it not

Knowing whether to take it seriously.

It thumped, making little splashes.

A man held his umbrella over it

for a few minutes before moving on.

A pigeon landed and pecked at it

a few times before flying off.

Then, as an ambulance arrived,

a shiny, black rat snatched the heart

and vanished up a dark alley.

The children cheered and clapped.”

There’s actually a lot of humor and comedy in these poems, Kay said — but it’s subtle. “It’s all about metaphor,” Kay said.

Writing these poems and making these enormous prints has amounted to “art therapy for me,” he said.

“I have found my own style at last, and ailments are what got me there,” he said. That’s a steep price to pay, he said, but he cannot deny that “they helped me become the artist I’ve always wanted to be.”

“This Particular Kiss,” is available through Kay is working on a companion volume — the third in a series — now. Some of Kay’s big photographic prints are on display and available for purchase at the Camas Gallery, 408 N.E. Fourth Ave.; others are up at 360 Restaurant, 3425 S.E. 192nd Ave., No. 110, Vancouver.