Poet Carl Adamshick

A self-taught poet learned to write at the public library and in the aisles of Powell's Books.


Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about love. Letters, books, plays, songs, movies and certainly poems have all been patched into shapes that try to tell us how love feels. Some succeed. More prompt scoffs and eye rolling. 

But Carl Adamshick isn't writing about love—at least not precisely—and this is why his poetry works. Fragments of days spent in the airport or evenings sharing pints of beer with friends assemble into an image of life we all recognize. When we pause to reflect on the picture as a whole, the realization swoops in like a rush of breath: This is love.

Adamshick's debut collection of poetry, Curses and Wishes, won the Walt Whitman Award in 2010, a prize Adamshick accepted with disbelief. Prior to the release of his highly lauded collection, there had been no MFA programs or writer's workshops. With a goofy grin and an endearing tendency to ramble, he admits he didn't finish reading a book until he was 21. He'd moved to Portland in 1990 from a small, northern Illinois farming town simply to get away.

"I haven't studied anything formally," says Adamshick, 45. "School and I have always been at odds. I started writing when I moved to Portland. I was basically jobless, so I read, for long stretches of time, in the downtown public library. It was before the remodel. I would sit in the map room on the second floor with a pen and notebook. [Poetry] fed a hunger I didn't know I had. It still feeds that hunger, although now I might call that hunger loss."

Reading rare and out-of-print books spurred Adamshick to help found Tavern Books in 2009, a non-profit poetry publisher that highlights obscure or translated works. "We wanted to have a press that focused on poetry that was slipping into oblivion," he says. "We wanted to bring important books back into the cultural fray."

Now Adamshick himself is back in the fray. His new collection of poetry, Saint Friend, was published by McSweeney's in August and has already been heaped with praise from everyone from Albert Goldbarth to Patton Oswalt ("Adamshick's way with a glancing aside can hit you like a truck," the comedian said). The slim volume speaks in lyrical narratives and bursts of humor, following the thoughts of Amelia Earhart to a relationship lived in the days on the calendar. "I just wait around, loiter on the steps of creativity," says Adamshick of his self-described "loosey-goosey" writing process. "Something always comes by that engages."

Saint Friend's opening poem, the multi-page, stream-of-consciousness "Layover," so perfectly encapsulates the love of friendship and the inscrutable passing of time that readers may find themselves torn between giddy reverie and quaking sadness.

Let the muse make whatever needs to be made,

let the muse tend the fire. Your whole body

is curled like an ear I wanted to talk

into all evening. Your hand, a ring

of articulated keys.

"I would describe Saint Friend as a late night conversation where one of the interlocutors is trying to get it right, where the conversation is winding down and both parties are sober and even though it is late it's not too late," Adamshick says. "It is a book where everyone involved will soon be home and in bed getting enough sleep."

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.