Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JULY 2006

Versus to Verses
Lawyers find meaning and relaxation in the muse of poetry
By Melody Finnemore

"Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow." —Oliver Wendell Holmes

The death of a friend inspired Portland attorney James McCobb to write his first poem. For Salem lawyer Sandra Smith Gangle, it was a battle against breast cancer that led her to begin writing poetry.

Sonia Alisa Montalbano, Ron Talney and Ed Johnson, all Portland lawyers, have been poets since childhood. Ellen Mendoza, a legal aid attorney in Oregon City, discovered a passion for creative writing in high school.

For a few of these attorneys, poetry is a way to explore, reflect and make sense of the social dynamics — and, often, the underbelly of life — they encounter during their work. For others, their writing is held completely separate from their legal practice and rejuvenates them after working long hours. All of them say, however, that writing poetry is something they can’t live without.

James McCobb’s passion for writing was born at the pulpit. He served as a Methodist minister in Boston and Oregon for more than a decade starting in the late 1950s. "That’s where the writing really began," he says. "I was writing sermons every week and writing for the church bulletin, so it gave me a lot of opportunities."

A return to his legal career in 1968 required McCobb to do a completely different kind of writing. A second-generation attorney with a law degree from the University of Michigan, McCobb had practiced in Portland for three years before attending seminary at Boston University. When he resumed his work as a lawyer, he moved to Michigan to practice with his father for many years, then lived in Klamath Falls and practiced agriculture law during the ’70s. When the recession hit during the ’80s, McCobb moved to Portland and began specializing in tax, business and estate planning.

"I think the planning challenge is what I enjoy most," says McCobb, who currently serves as of counsel for Laser Industries. "I enjoy being able to organize families and form business entities to help save them money."

His interest in human relationships ties McCobb’s careers as a minister and a lawyer together with his desire to write poetry and his volunteer work for hospice. It was a particular friendship, in fact, that introduced McCobb to writing poetry.

"The writing I’m doing now started quite by accident, although nothing is ever totally by accident," he says. "A dear friend of mine died, and his widow asked me to write a poem for the service. I had never written a poem before."

Encouraged by renowned Oregon poet Kim Stafford, the son of Oregon poet laureate William Stafford, McCobb continued to write poetry and has been published in the Sunday Oregonian’s poetry section.

"I was attracted to the discipline of writing every day and I’ve pretty much stuck to that. Maybe one out of 20 poems is worth repeating, but it’s the process that’s important," says McCobb, whose favorite poets include William Henry Wordsworth and John Milton. "The writing I like is probably deemed passé by most contemporary poets, but I like to write in meter. I enjoy writing in rhythm and the way language fits within a rhythm."

Sandra Smith Gangle discovered the healing power of poetry after a battle with breast cancer and three joint replacements during a two-year span that began in 2000.

"When you go through an experience like that you have a chance to think about a lot of things, and I felt there were things I wanted to say and leave in writing for my family and my friends," she says. "I found I had a gift for writing poetry. I enjoy putting words together and finding the right words to express particular ideas and feelings."

Gangle’s poem "Saturday Sisters" was written for a group of five women she has walked with every Saturday morning for the last 15 years. More recently, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina inspired her to write a poem called "One Woman’s Power," which was included in a publication produced by the League of Women Voters.

"If I had to define a theme for my poetry, I would say it’s my personal responses to life experiences and my family and the world around me," Gangle says.

The cancer diagnosis forced her to close her practice briefly. Gangle now provides arbitration and mediation services from her home office in Salem. The former French teacher considers the law her second career. Gangle earned her law degree from Willamette Univeresity in 1980 and established her own practice so she could combine her family life with a legal career.

"I really wanted to represent ordinary people — I didn’t want to be a corporate lawyer or do criminal law for either side," she says. "I enjoy helping people understand their legal rights and responsibilities and achieving the best results under the circumstances." She finds that she can now accomplish those same goals through serving as an impartial arbitrator and mediator for labor relations cases, securities and business-related disputes, employment discrimination cases and claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A similar desire to help people led Sonia Montalbano to become an attorney. She graduated from Lewis & Clark’s Northwestern School of Law in 1996 and now works as a litigator for Portland’s Elliott Ostrander Preston firm.

"In college, I realized I wanted to have an impact on the world around me. I know it sounds really hokey, but I wanted to make the world a better place. I wanted to affect the most people possible, and the law was the way to do that," she says. "I like figuring out how to solve my clients’ problems. That’s really how I view my job as a lawyer. People come to you with a problem and you figure out how to solve it. I really have a tremendous sense of satisfaction when people come back and say, ‘thank you.’"

Montalbano, who regards Shel Silverstein as a major influence, began writing poetry in pursuit of a large, shiny trophy awarded during her elementary school’s annual poetry contest.

"My big sister won it, so I started writing to be like her. It was the only thing you could do with your brain at my school and win a trophy, and I wanted that trophy," she says. "In general, though, I’ve always been interested in creative writing. Poetry was something I dabbled in, and it wasn’t until I got to law school that I really started writing seriously. A lot of people gave up their writing totally for their legal education. I couldn’t do that. I needed some way to escape, so I would just grab a piece of paper or a napkin and jot down observations."

Such observations are a theme of many of Montalbano’s poems, which have been published in an anthology written by lawyers called "Off the Record." She also has performed her work in local poetry slams, which blended her love of theatrical arts, poetry and the oratory skills required to be a good litigator. Montalbano no longer participates in poetry slams, but continues to write whenever the opportunity arises.

"I enjoy writing about being on the outside looking in and capturing observations about what’s going on around me in everyday places," she says. "I also like writing about the search to discover who you are."

Ed Johnson, also a poet since childhood, holds a bachelor’s degree in creative writing but opted for a legal career instead.

"A couple of things dawned on me. One is that it’s a lot easier to make a living as a lawyer than a poet. Also, my adviser in college was a poet and we both agreed that it would be more possible to change the world through the law than poetry," Johnson says.

He earned his law degree from Columbia Law School in 1993, and has been an attorney with the Oregon Law Center for 10 years. "I think what I enjoy the most is getting to know people and having insight into their lives. People come in and share these private details of their lives and expect you to be able to help, and I enjoy being able to help," he says.

A fan of poets such as John Ashbury, James Tate, Billy Collins and Sharon Olds, Johnson says he writes regularly despite the pressures of a busy work schedule. He has published a couple dozen poems in various literary journals.

"I like using poetry to make some sort of point. I want people to be enlightened in some way," Johnson says. "I’m also interested in the sounds of language. Especially in our modern society and being a lawyer in particular, there’s so much language that fills your day. Between clients, judges and even just walking downtown, you hear thousands of words."

Ron Talney discovered his love of language as a child, and devoured poetry in La Grande, where he lived near the town’s library and Eastern Oregon University. He cut his teeth on William Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe, whom he enjoys reading because of the rhythm that fills their work.

"I think probably I had a leaning toward poetry from an early age. I always had a good memory and there was a retired English teacher who I would proudly recite poetry for in exchange for refreshments afterward," he says. "I’ve always loved language and my father did, too. He was a preacher and used a lot of poetry in his sermons."

Talney started writing his own poetry during the early 1960s while working as a claims adjustor for the state Unemployment Compensation Commission and attending law school at Lewis & Clark College at night. He earned his degree in 1966 and worked as director of Multnomah County’s civil service system for many years. In 1969, Talney went into private practice and did criminal defense, juvenile law, domestic relations and trial work for more than 20 years.

In 1990, he joined the Marion-Polk Legal Aid Service and practiced public interest law and ran its volunteer lawyer program. Now semi-retired, Talney says his legal career centered around interaction with others. "I never wanted to live a cloistered life. I wanted to live an engaged life, and there’s no better way to be engaged than to be a lawyer and meet with clients," he says.

Throughout the years, Talney’s poetry has focused on such interactions as well as his natural surroundings. "I was always very moved by place, particularly here in the Northwest where we have such beautiful scenery and Native American and Japanese culture and history," he says.

Talney started publishing poems in his mid-20s and has appeared in dozens in magazines and literary collections over the years. In addition, he has published three collections. The most recent, "The Secret Weeping of Stones," includes 30 poems and was published last spring.

Talney, who teaches poetry writing workshops, says he admires contemporary poets such as William Stafford, Richard Hugo and Carolyn Kaiser. "We have an immense amount of poetic talent in this country. It’s really kind of a golden age of poetry, and I wish more people would recognize that," he says.

After four decades of writing poetry, Talney says he still enjoys the rush that results when the words come out just right.

"The discovery that sometimes, not very often but sometimes, you say something that’s more important than you originally thought," he says. "There’s a kind of clarity when you’re writing and a kind of ‘aha!’ moment. Every now and then a poem emerges that says perfectly what you want to say."

Ellen Mendoza, whose father was an English teacher, remembers the first time she read Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s work. "It was sort of thrilling to find someone who wasn’t writing in classical language but kind of on the fringe," she says.

Today she looks to poets such as her mentor, Kim Stafford, who "offers a really inspiring perspective." An attorney with Legal Aid Services of Oregon for 23 years and a pro tem judge for domestic violence restraining orders from 1994-2004, Mendoza’s work sometimes appears in her poetry.

"It’s given me a look at the miseries of human relationships and some insights that have shown up in my poems," she says, adding she has written a couple of poems about domestic violence. "A lot of times I see it as a reflection of the other side of my life."

While her work often involves the painful realities of life, Mendoza says she appreciates the variety that comes with being a legal aid attorney. "I like hearing people’s stories and being amazed at how different their lives are from mine. I like interacting with them," she says.

A lifelong dedication to environmental issues nearly led Mendoza to become an environmental lawyer. However, there were few jobs available in that field so she joined Legal Aid Services of Oregon after graduating from the University of Oregon law school in 1982. The outdoors plays a key role in her poetry, which has been published in several poetry journals and literary magazines.

"I think a major theme of my poems is relating the natural environment to myself and others," she says.

While each of these six attorneys has different reasons for writing poetry, each agrees that the craft has strengthened their work as lawyers. McCobb says he has learned how to be more clear and concise.

"I find myself making my briefs much shorter. In poetry, you’re trying to get rid of words, so it’s very helpful in making my legal writing less redundant," he says.

Montalbano says she, too, finds the art of writing poetry beneficial in its impacts on other types of writing. "It’s more complex to write poetry in a way. You’re trying to take an emotion and an experience and communicate it to the reader with as much clarity and in as few words as possible," she says.

For Johnson, his work is an invaluable resource for his writing as well. "Practicing poverty law informs my poetry," he says. "When you spend an hour interviewing a client, you learn how they use language to describe what’s going on in their lives. Then there are the bigger themes: What is the government doing? What are landlords doing to tenants? What are tenants doing to landlords? These are all considerations that come up in my writing."

Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin. She occasionally waxes poetic.

© 2006 Melody Finnemore

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