Review by Marc Janssen
It is hard to classify the latest in a long series of books by Steven Robert Heine. It is part poetry collection, part comedy, part mystery, part history of Salem, and part autobiography.
The book opens with a scene from September 2017, the state fair and the author is directly in the middle of it, my guess is that it is half real and half false. Either way the little section has a haunting ending, “Steven Robert Heine walks past the Oregon State Fairgrounds and turns down a road that so many people leaving the fairgrounds have walked down before him. Heine shivers and smiles to himself as he sees the street sign. And with that he hurries out of sight down… ‘The Road to Obscurity.’”
Heine introduces two themes right away that he comes back to over and over again through the book. One is obscurity and the other is the state fair.
The definition of obscurity is the state of being unknown, inconspicuous, or unimportant. Living on through words or through books is a goal of many writers and poets. There are volumes of poems written by famous and the not-so-famous on the subject. Heine is unique among Oregon poets in that he is simultaneously Oregon’s most and least obscure poet. Which is strange.
When academics, in their cloistered studies, bend their minds to great Oregon poets, or popular Oregon poets, their lists are filled with their brother and sister academics, these lists usually begin at William Stafford and branch out from there. They never think of Steven Robert Heine. But if you ask a regular Oregonian on the street if they ever even met a poet, maybe some of them will remember an affable man in a crazy hat they met at the fair that one year. Maybe they bought a book from him and it may be the only book of poetry they have in the house!
In 1978 Steven Robert Heine took out a commercial space at the Oregon State Fair to sell his books of poetry. It worked out and he carried on, through Heine’s efforts over the years the state fair now has the Oregon Writer’s area (and that idea of a writers table has moved on from the state fair to other events). He also proposed to have and has judged the poetry contest at the state fair for nearly two decades. As poet Eleanor Berry said recently “I think it is wonderful to have poetry displayed at the state fair and judged along with the other crafts and pumpkins and bouquets.” It has been a gift to have those poems available for thousands and thousands to people to read and enjoy.
Much of this book takes place at the fair. There is a section devoted to some comedy routines he and a fellow writer performed as part of the activities in Columbia Hall. Those routines are funny for people who love corny, and if not perhaps just endearing. As a poet Heine is light and accessible, fun to read and a pleasure to hear.
When I started the Salem Poetry Project I researched local poets. I tried to find out who was around and available to be a featured reader. After some searching I found Heine on-line but for one reason or another could not connect. But guess where I found him, at the Author’s Table at the State Fair. He read at the Salem Poetry Project in January of 2017and has been one of the regulars ever since
I can’t say where you can buy “Smiles from Oregon,” it might show up with his other books on Amazon, or you might have to wait until the Oregon State Fair rolls around again in September.
Marc Janssen hosts the SPP’s open-mic, 7 pm Thursdays at the Barrel & Keg. Catch Steven Heine there as well. See Salem Poetry Project on FB.