Mike O’Connor, poet, writer, translator, and editor August 3, 1944 - January 4, 2021
who championed Olympic Peninsula writers, died on January 4 at his home in Olympia following a short battle with cancer. He was 76.
O’Connor was the award-winning author of eleven books of poetry, stories, and translations from the Chinese and editor of several anthologies. His publisher, Jack Estes, described him as someone whose life and poetry were one. “Mike’s work was a direct expression who he was,” Estes said. “His love of nature, his deep Zen Buddhist philosophy, and his infectious humor came through in everything he wrote.”
O’Connor’s clear and direct poems celebrate living simply, holding friends close, and honoring the earth. He helped found the Foothills Writers Series at Peninsula College and was active in the literary circle around Port Townsend’s Empty Bowl Press. His writings touched the hearts of thousands of readers. One of his best-loved poems, reflecting on the end of a day cutting cedar in the Olympic foothills, concludes, “the moon and stars / jingle in the sky / like wages.”
Thomas Michael O’Connor was born August 3, 1944 in Aberdeen, Washington. He spent his childhood in nearby Montesano, a time delightfully recreated in his book of stories, “Unnecessary Talking.” He moved to Port Angeles for his high school years and was a standout athlete.
O’Connor studied with Pulitzer prize winning poet Elizabeth Bishop at the University of Washington, but his roving spirit also took him to the University of the Americas in Mexico City and the University of California Berkeley before settling on a small farm in the Dungeness Valley.
In the 1970s he worked seasonally for the U.S. Forest Service, built trails, planted trees, and selectively logged in the Olympic Mountains. Those experiences inspired many of the poems in his first book, “The Rainshadow.”
A student of Chinese culture and poetry, O’Connor lived in Taiwan through the 1980s and early 90s where he edited and wrote for English language newspapers. He mastered classical Chinese and translated the work of Buddhist poets, publishing several volumes including “Where the World Does Not Follow” with photographer Steven Johnson and “When I find You Again It Will Be in the Mountains, Poems of Chia Tao.” He published several more volumes of original poetry including “The Basin,” “Immortality,” and “When the Tiger Weeps.”
His honors included fellowships from the International Writers Workshop and the National Endowment for the Arts and grants from the Pacific Cultural Foundation and the Washington State Arts Commission, among others.
O’Connor was married to Della Knox-Bennett of Bainbridge Island and to Port Townsend choreographer and dance instructor, Ling Hui. He spent his final years with his grade-school sweetheart, Mary Hughes, about whom he wrote a biographical fantasy called “Mary O’Houlihan.” He is also survived by his sister, Sharon Georg, of Alberta and innumerable friends and admirers in the U.S. and abroad.
Port Townsend Leader, January 13, 2021
Mike O'Connor: My editor, publisher, mentor, and dear dear friend. I will always miss him and begrateful for the value he brought to my life--this Chinese linguist/translator, extraordinary poet, and story teller. His books are available from Wisdom Publications, Pleasure Boat Studio, and Empty Bowl Press.
Galleri Faire, downtown Seattle, with poet Tom Nivison (a gem of a man) on drums and Perry Emge on sound board, my last appearance with the marvelous Floating Mountain Poets.
At Northwind Gallery, Port Townsend, 2017, saying, Hey buy my book! I don't need the money, but my self esteem is desperate!
2018 private salon/soiree
at Ms. Carmichael's, Capitol Hill, Seattle. Plenty of terrific performers that night!
Thanks to San Diego's Verbatim Books for your warm and generous welcome. December, 2019
In San Francisco at the corner of Columbus and Jack Kerouac Alley, one of my many pilgrimages to the mecca of the Beats: Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, William Carlos Williams. But it was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights proprietor and publisher of the Pocket Poets Series that set me on fire with his Coney Island of the Mind (New Directions, 1958). Over 32 printings, over one million sold, in fourteen languages. Not only did he introduce so many brilliant poets to the world, he won a landmark First Amendment case when authorities attempted to ban Allen Ginsberg's HOWL as obscene (Pocket Poet Series No. 1, City Lights Books, 1958). More than anyone, He inspired my life long interest in poetry. In San Francisco, he died February 2021 at 101.
Floating Mountain Poets, 2006. Paco-Michelle Atwood of Los Angeles; Lydia Swartz of Wheeler, Oregon; Tom Nivison and David Jones of Tacoma, Dobbie Reese Norris (deceased) of Bellingham, Noelle Parkinson of Bainbridge Island; Tito Titus; and Kerry Lee, FMP Instigator-in-Chief; and others too numerous to mention.
C&P Coffee Company, West Seattle, January, 2020, POETRYBRIDGE 10th Anniversary celebration, presenting featured poets from past ten years.