Vendor Profile: Inspired from within and without

By Cole Merkel, Contributing writer

Oregon’s relentless rainy months between late summer and late spring are difficult for many, including Debra Knauf, who admits that the winter is probably the hardest time to sell Street Roots. “Not very many people want to come out in the rain and buy a paper,” she says. “You have more luck in the snow than in the rain.”

Still, Debra finds inspiration in the environment, both natural and physical. She is a poet. She has been published in Street Roots several times in the last few months and continues to produce and turn in new work. “I find a space to write about things that happen in Portland,” Debra says. While her poems revolve primarily around being homeless, they often display great depth, exploring topics of femininity, race and spirituality, sometimes simultaneously. Take for example this extract from, “Write A Page,” published in Street Roots on Jan. 20:

“I’ve seen their stories on the news but I haven’t lived them.

I’m no stranger to poverty, but I’m white, white bread, white wine —

New grapes of wrath vintage.

Poor and white is not poor and black,

Poor and Asian, poor and Mexican.

They’re right: I won’t know their truths.

They don’t know mine either.”

“She Emerges” was published in Street Roots on Dec. 9:

“Spine Elongates

Tension releases

Hips off the ground

Arms strong

Head upright looking forward


This is just what it is.”

Debra’s poems grapple with the beautiful mystery of being human, the difficulty of being homeless and ways that she relates to others. Often viscerally focused on her own body and mind, Knauf’s poems focus on coming to terms with our own human inter-connectedness. Her poetry is stark in its simplicity yet striking in its depth.

Poetry speaks to Debra because it allows her to employ her love for rhyming words coupled with topics she thinks are important. Debra says, “I am working on a poem about the environment and keeping Oregon green. It’s really important that we get the message across somehow that we need to start recycling and doing better for the environment before it’s too late.”

Knauf considers herself an environmentalist and is an avid recycler.

“I don’t like seeing trash all over the ground and people not even trying to pick it up or get rid of it. It causes a lot of damage to the ozone and the living creatures that are among us,” she says.

Street Roots is the best job Debra has ever had, and as she moves toward the future she would be interested in going into publishing, which would allow her to keep writing poetry and help others do the same. Until then, she would like to find an apartment: something simple with a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen and maybe a cat like one of the many she had as a child.

Debra can be found selling Street Roots most weekday afternoons at the Starbucks on SW 3rd and Jefferson.

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