Bellingham writer finds much in life to inspire his poetry


Name: Jim Milstead.

Age: 86.

Hometown: Milstead moved a lot as a child, but he and his wife, Mary, settled in Bellingham in 1992.

Family: Milstead's wife died of cancer in 2011. He remains close to his two daughters and two sons from a previous marriage, as well as to his late wife's children, he says.

Young poet: Milstead recalls writing his first poem when he was a young boy. Seeing a fatal auto accident probably prompted his poem dedicated to a dead gopher, he says.

Since then, writing has become an obsession for him. Anything can provide food for his pen, from conversations and works of art, to music, sunsets, sounds and memories.

"Writing has become an automatic response to things that are experienced," he says.

Firm opinions: Through poetry, Milstead says he captures the moment and tells a story. Some are sad, some are lighthearted, but each one tells his emotions or opinions, even ones that might not be widely accepted.

"I consider those insisting on believing that America is pre-eminent in all things to be fools," he says. "I also regard war as a tragic endeavor, the military a mistaken way to serve one's country, the rape of the environment in the name of progress to be unconscionable, and the insistence that global warming is not occurring to be incomprehensible."

Early inspirations: By moving around as a child Milstead met a variety of people, which added to his perspective, he says. It also defined his often cynical outsider personality, he says.

Other memories influence his writing, such as the life stories his father told, a trip to the World's Fair in Chicago in 1933, serving in the Marine Corps in 1945 and '46, and attending the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied zoology and entomology and worked as a researcher.

Some of his poems are reflections on other people and events that happened to them. Several poems were inspired by his late wife, including poems about her need for order, hardships she faced as a child, and doctor visits as she faced cancer.

Muse: Milstead also draws inspiration from Anna Ryan, the editor of Bellingham Senior Activity Center anthologies in 1996 and '98. He calls her his muse, and they remain in contact and work on writing projects together even though she now lives in San Francisco.

"For me, a muse is someone who inspires your deepest insights and aids you in their expression," he says, "Someone who shares your loves, pleasures in the arts and in life, someone with whom you are emotionally and intellectually compatible."

Published poet: Milstead's first works were published in 1972 - three poems in an anthology of underground poetry. Since then, he has had many other poems published in journals or newspapers, he says.

"I have been considering assembling enough poems for a chapbook, but have not yet made any definitive plans," he says.

A self-described "clutterbug," Milstead rarely throws away any of his writings, even if the poem has been abandoned.

"There is always the possibility they may be used in another context," he says.

Some of Milstead's pieces have won awards, including two in Whatcom County's Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest, one in 2008 and one in 2013.

"Winning is definitely nice," he says. "But rather than continually submitting pieces to journals, I find the joy in writing to be my main impetus."

Stays active: Along with writing, Milstead participates in several writing and discussion groups. He's also involved in almost weekly peace demonstrations outside the Federal Building, and advocates against the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point.

Milstead says the demonstrations downtown are the longest-running peace action in the U.S.

"I feel that I am doing my small part to change things for the better, or oppose changes that will make things worse," he says.

Walks daily: Milstead estimates he has walked more than 25,000 miles since he moved to Bellingham. Even while he walks, Milstead remains a poet at heart.

"I always take a notebook in case inspiration overpowers me," he says.


by Jim Milstead

Vistas of blue bay. Leaden waters ruffled by wind.

Soft curtains. Drenched collectables. Torn remnants.

White-sailed relaxation. Raw taste of hunger.

Hand-carved gluttonies. Vast white mountains

tinged with alpenglow. Yells. Curses. Gallery walks.

Banked slaloms. Bounced checks. Open mic

anticipations. Bone-dry witticisms. Sermonized

imaginations. Wetland pollution. Official cadence

of restrained ambivalence. Tails wagging

furiously. Identity theft. Neuroscience on tap.

Thimbleberry delights. Earthworm desiccations.

Hospice devotion. Fault-lined inevitability.

Sandstone magnificence. Kaleidoscopic uncertainty.

Rag town of bleak streets, chilled conclusions.

The echo of your voice.

"Collage" was a winner in the 2013 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest. To read his 2008 winner, "Following Robert Froth," go to and click on "winners."

Alisa Gramann is a freelance writer in Bellingham.

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