Please forgive me. The pen runs away with itself.

-- Tom Gibson

Steam Laundry

Cover Artwork by Margo Klass

Steam Laundry is a novel in poems available from Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. It tells the story of Sarah Ellen Gibson, the sixth woman to arrive in Fairbanks in the gold rush of 1903. With her two children, she followed her husband to Dawson City, Yukon Territory in 1898. As their relationship faltered and her business opportunities dried up, she fled to Fairbanks with hopes of opening her own hotel. The book weaves persona, with poems in the voices of many characters, lyric poems, and historical photographs and documents to trace her path.

Praise for Steam Laundry:

In O’Donnell’s narrative of familial and social history, we experience Alaska—its financial and romantic allure— and the gender disparities that defined frontier reality in the early 20th century. Readers meet Sarah Ellen Gibson, her marriage “so new/I could hold it in my palm /like an egg still warm/ from the henhouse.”  We learn that “where men prospect, women wash” and witness Gibson’s struggle to “wring /our living out of this frozen dirt.”  O’Donnell’s research yields unsparing details that vivify daily life in the Yukon Territory; she honors women who build laundries and roadhouses, making a place for themselves under unrelenting emotional and physical conditions.  This book-length sequence will hold you in its spell.

Robin Becker, author of Domain of Perfect Affection

Steam Laundry is a great story, poems that work research into narrative art.  These are the stories  of the earth, broken for gold, and the women whose work doing laundry made possible difficult but ambitious lives.  One family goes in search of gold.  We readers find gold here in this brilliant book that won’t be put down!

Hilda Raz, author of TRANS and What Happens

This collection of poems about those who came to the Yukon and Alaska over a century ago in search of gold and a better life is a compelling read. I could feel the bitter cold of the landscape and the desires and passions of the characters as I read poem after poem unable to put the book down until I reached the end. This is a book that deserves to be read.

Tom Sexton, former poet laureate of Alaska


In O’Donnell’s poems, ordinary objects become powerful symbols of possibility. The steam from the laundries offers baptism into economic prosperity, a way to “be well-off someday, washed / away in the tide of money this rough / land promises.” “The click / of caribou knees, like twigs snapping in chorus”—heard by wounded men unable to hunt—signal chances lost to dumb luck. This unique debut collection presents not only images worth savoring, but a new voice notable in its commitment to shedding light on past lives. Read the whole review here.

                                                                                                     — Julie Swarstad Johnson, Rain Taxi Review of Books

I couldn’t read this book as a series of poems, but rather as a complex and dramatic story with poetic sensibilities. And I was not disappointed. There is plenty of drama for fiction lovers, painstaking accuracy for history buffs and wonderful lines throughout in the letters. Read the whole review here.

Martin Ott, Writeliving

This collection deserves a wider readership; deserves to be seen as more than an “Alaskan” collection. I hope it will persuade both readers and writers of poetry that there need to be more collections like this, based on courageous and skillful melding of historical documents and lyric poems. Read the whole review here (pages 105-107).

–Ela Harrison Gordon, Cirque, v. 4 no. 1

Steam Laundry is available from Gulliver’s Books (in Fairbanks), Powell’s, directly from Red Hen Press, or from Amazon. You can also ask your local bookseller to order a copy for you.


Read & Listen

My poems and essays had appeared offline in Bellingham Review, Prairie Schooner, Fourteen Hills, The Los Angeles Review, Passages North, Dogwood, The Women’s Review of Books, Ice Floe, and other literary journals.

Poems and essays online:

“Seascape with Eagle, Driftwood, Ravens, Seagull, Two Men and Their Phones” in Brevity.

Poems from the “Helen” sequence in Common-Place.

“The Bossy e Meets His Match” in Diode.

“River Town” featured in Verse Daily.

I wrote a column called Subarctic Mama for Literary Mama, an online journal for the maternally inclined. It deals with Alaska, motherhood, and parenting girls in this peculiar place.

“Mother-in-law” featured in  The Saturday Poetry Series at As It Ought to Be.

Narratives Lost and Found,” an essay written for Northwest Voices, a feature of Pacific Northwest Bookseller’s Association about working in a bookstore and researching in the archives.

“Canzone Basking in the Pre-Apocalypse” appears in Dogwood: A Journal of Poetry and Prose, 2012.

“The Miner’s Wife,”The New Camp” and “Ellen Notices the Dry Spring” appear in Extract(s), March 16, 2012.

“River Town” and “Raven” appear in Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim, Volume 3:1 on pages 63-64.

“Infidelity” appears in Cirque: A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim, Volume 2:1 on page 41.

“The Seven Sisters” appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Summer 1996 46:4.

Commentaries for KUAC and APRN:

I’ve been a commentator for KUAC, our local NPR station, and APRN, our statewide NPR affiliate. You’ll find a couple of samples in the links here.

Here’s a piece called “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” It’s about Walt Whitman, writing poetry, and having kids, and how those things intersect. I wrote it as I was just starting to write Steam Laundry. It aired 4/6/2007.

Fairbanks Funk is about the urge we all get to leave Fairbanks during the month of February. It aired 2/17/2007.

Commentaries for AK Radio:

When APRN used to put out AK, I was an occasional commentator. Here are links to some of the pieces I recorded for them. The links below play the whole show, so you’ll have the good fortune to listen to a little slice of Alaskan life.

10/06/2007: I interviewed my mother, who told a story about a family murder that she witnessed when she was a child.

06/23/2007: I wrote about fashion and Fairbanks, analyzing the deliberately disheveled look I cultivated when I was a cabin-dwelling graduate student.

04/28/2007: I read a piece about found poetry and the infamous Bible Baptist church sign here in Fairbanks.




Thursday, October 9, Gulliver’s Books, Fairbanks. Reading & signing, 5:30-7:30 p.m.



February 26-March 1, AWP Conference & Bookfair, Seattle. Please contact me if you’d like to meet during the conference.

Thursday, February 27, AWP Conference & Bookfair, Writing and the Midnight Sun: A Boreal Books Reading and Discussion with Peggy Shumaker, Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Susanna Mishler and Melina Draper. Thursday 3:00 pm to 4:15 pm (R243, Room LL5, Western New England MFA Annex)

Thursday, February 27, AWP Conference & Bookfair, Booksigning at the Red Hen Booth. Please drop in to say hello and check out Red Hen’s wonderful books. 4:30-5:30 pm. (Times for more signings TBA).

March 16, Avenue 50 Art Studio, Los Angeles. Boreal Books reading featuring: Melina Draper, Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Susanna Mishler, Nicole Stellon O’Donnell & Peggy Shumaker. 131 N, Avenue 50, 2:00 p.m..

March 18,  61 Local, New York City, Boreal Books reading featuring: Melina Draper, Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Susanna Mishler, Nicole Stellon O’Donnell & Peggy Shumaker. 61 Bergen Street, 6:30 p.m.

March 21-30, Writer-in-Residence, Denali National Park. Writing at Park Headquarters and at the Savage River Cabin. Heading out on aerial surveys of the park with rangers. Making new poems.

March 29, Writer-in-Residence Reading & Workshop, Denali National Park, Murie Science and Learning Center at Mile 1.4 of the Park Road, 6 p.m.

June 6, Visiting Instructor, Summer Writing Institute, Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.

July 13-27, Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, poetry faculty for the Creative Writing class.


March 6-9, AWP Conference & Bookfair, Boston. Part of a panel called Micro/Macro: Public and Private Poetic Histories with Tess Taylor, Garrett Hongo, Hilda Raz and David Mason. Friday, March 8, 1:30-1:45 pm, Room 309, Hynes Convention Center. Booksignings at the Red Hen Press booth throughout the conference.

June 14-18,Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, Faculty, teaching workshops, serving on panels, and reviewing manuscripts. Register here.


February 3, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Visiting Writers Series, poetry reading, Wood Center Ballroom, 7 p.m.

February 25, Alaska Library Association, Authors to Alaska Luncheon, Fairbanks Westmark Hotel, 12-1:30 p.m. & Booksigning 1:30-2:30 p.m.

February 29-March 3, AWP Conference, Hilton Chicago, booksigning and poetry reading with a panel of Alaskan writers

March 20, Launch Celebration and Reading, Anchorage. Reading with Joan Kane, Amber Flora Thomas, and Peggy Shumaker. 7:30 ARTS 150, UAA Anchorage

March 24, Fairbanks Arts Association reading with Peggy Shumaker, Amber Flora Thomas, and Joan Kane. 7:00 Bear Gallery, Fairbanks Arts Association

March 27, Talk of Alaska, Alaska Public Radio Network, 10-11 a.m.. Tune in and listen as I talk with Steve Heimel and callers about the importance of poetry in their lives. Click  KSKA stream here to listen online (in the upper right corner). Or listen on any Alaskan NPR affiliate.

April 8, Boreal Books Reading at Ruskin Art Club, Los Angeles with Peggy Shumaker, Amber Flora Thomas, Joan Kane, and Ron Carlson, 2 p.m.

April 9, Reading in Seattle, WA hosted by the Ranier Writing Workshop at the Hugo House with Peggy Shumaker, Amber Flora Thomas, and Joan Kane, 7 p.m.

April 10, Hosted by Ketchikan Public Library, UAS Library, and Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council. Reading with Joan Kane, Amber Flora Thomas, and Peggy Shumaker.

April 11, Reading in Sitka, Alaska hosted by the Island Institute. Reading with Joan Kane, Amber Flora Thomas, and Peggy Shumaker.

April 13, Juneau Public Library, hosted by UAS. Reading with Joan Kane, Amber Flora Thomas, and Peggy Shumaker.

April 27, Gulliver’s Books, Fairbanks, AK. Reading and booksigning, 7-9 p.m.

May 4, If Only, 215 Cushman Street, Fairbanks, AK. Made in Alaska First Friday event, featuring Sue Dranchak, Pauline Lian, Margo Klas and Nicole Stellon O’Donnell. 5-8 p.m.

July 18, Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival Creative Writing Class, guest writer.

December 6, Juneau Public Library, Reading with Sarah Isoto, 7 p.m.

December 7,Alaska Historical Library, Juneau. Half day workshop: Inspiration and Innovation through Primary Resources, facilitating with Sarah Isto and Jim Simard, 12-2 & 3-5 p.m.

December 12, Bear Gallery, Pioneer Park, Poems in Place Reading with Derick Burleson, Renee Singh, Carolyn Kremers, and Rebecca Morse, 5:30-7:00 p.m.