|Oregon State Bar Bulletin NOVEMBER 2011|
Two Oregon Poet/Lawyers
By Ronald Talney
David Filer heads to his office on South East Milwaukie Avenue in Portland each weekday morning, not unlike many another busy lawyer. Once he arrives, however, he closes his office door and sits quietly with his first and only client of the day: his muse. No longer in active law practice, after years representing the Bonneville Power Administration in employment hearings, he now spends his days composing poetry. On weekends he can often be found enjoying the peace and quiet of his Puget Island getaway on the Columbia River.
While he has written and published poems for many years, now he is able to devote his full time and energy to the task. And since retiring a year ago, he has, indeed, been busy. He published two books of poetry during the years before his retirement, Night Verse (from Finishing Line Press), and The Landscape There (from Stone City Press). But now, in just the past year, two more books of poems have been accepted for publication, and a third, Weather Patterns (from Dancing Moon Press) has just been released. (It should be noted too that proceeds from the sale of Filer’s books all go to support the Imani Project’s orphan fund, a nonprofit with which he is affiliated.) In addition to publications, Filer has given public readings as a featured author at such venues as Wordstock, Portland’s popular annual festival of books, as well as for the Mountain Writers Series, a literary series that has for many years presented some of the most notable poets in America to local audiences.
Filer started his adult life as a junior high school English teacher and holds a degree in English literature. While teaching in Eugene, however the lure of the law called to him and he entered law school at the University of Oregon, graduating in 1981. And now, after many years practicing law, he has returned full time to his first love: literature and the English language.
Some are surprised by the connection between lawyers and poetry, but it is one that has been well established for many years. And on closer examination it should not be surprising. Lawyers work with language constantly, and while they may have different objectives in mind from that of poets, they may also, like poets, be attracted to the law in part because of an inherent love of the language itself.
James Elkins, a professor of law at West Virginia University College of Law, has edited the Legal Studies Forum for many years, a unique law review that specializes in presenting this interaction between law and literature, as it publishes annually the literary works of lawyers, judges and others trained in the law. The LSF website, Strangers to Us All is a treasure trove of information on the subject of law and literature. See http://myweb.wvnet.edu/~jelkins/lp-2001/intro/.
The law school has even taught courses in law and poetry, and has had noted lawyer/poets on faculty as writers in residence from time to time. Filer has been published in the Legal Studies Forum, along with such other poet/lawyers as Gerry Spence, the nationally recognized criminal defense attorney. It should be remembered that Wallace Stevens, one of America’s greatest and most influential poets of the 20th century, was a lawyer, as well as Edgar Lee Masters, who was Clarence Darrow’s law partner at one time.
Another Oregon lawyer/poet of note is Greg Chaimov. Unlike Filer, who now happily retreats into his office each day with poetry as his only client, Chaimov continues to be a busy practitioner at the law firm of Davis, Wright, Tremaine in Portland, and is an elected member of the city council for the City of Milwaukie. He contends that he is gradually seeking ways to increase the amount of time he can devote to the writing of poetry, however.
Chaimov has also been published in the Legal Studies Forum, as well as in many other literary journals and periodicals. His second book of poems, Everything is Water, was recently released by Press-22. He previously had published a chapbook of poems, The Old World, as part of the William Stafford Chapbook series through the Northwest Writing Institute of Lewis & Clark College. Chaimov too has been a featured reader at such venues as Wordstock and the Mountain Writers Series. A graduate of the Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College, he was the legislative counsel for the State of Oregon for many years. He has studied in the highly regarded creative writing program at the University of Iowa as well as the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass.
Like other lawyer/poets, Filer and Chaimov learned early on that one couldn’t reasonably expect to earn a livelihood writing and publishing poetry. For many the alternative has been to teach. But Filer and Chaimov instead chose law school and the practice of law while retaining their devotion to poetry. However that interest has never been just as an avocation or a hobby. Rather it has been for each of them a parallel career, meaning that they have consistently brought the same seriousness to their art and craft that they have always brought to the practice of law. It should be noted that the Mountain Writers Series readings by both Filer and Chaimov can be accessed on the Internet through the Oregon Poetic Voices website, an archive project of Lewis &Clark College that seeks to preserve the work of significant Oregon poets. Filer also maintains a website, davidfiler.com.
And now for Filer retirement has brought the ideal opportunity to spend his full time and energy on that parallel career. For Chaimov, that time will come. In the meantime the cultural life of this community and beyond is enriched by their continued work as poets. One could say they have truly become our “Poets Lawyerate.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ronald Talney, a retired public interest lawyer who lives in Lake Oswego, is the author of the recently released satiric novel, Nockers Up!, from Inkwater Press, and a memoir, The Archives of Silence, from West Virginia University, as well as five books of poems, a juvenile mystery novel and numerous articles and essays.
© 2011 Ronald Talney