The unusual facts of Sandra McPherson’s biography come to figure both directly and indirectly in many of her poems. Born in San Jose, California, she was adopted at birth, grew up in this city, and went to San Jose State University. Not only has McPherson’s adoption helped to form her worldview, but her reunion as an adult with her birth parents in 1981 has also provided the poet with a heightened sense of both the random and orderly forces at work in the universe. Now that she has known two sets of parents, many of McPherson’s poems, especially those in Patron Happiness, have come to focus on the similarities between her own ways of perceiving and those of her blood relatives. The poems also take up attendant questions concerning identity formation and the way a person’s life inevitably progresses along unpredictable paths. (See “Earthstars, Birthparents’ House,” “Wings and Seeds,” “Helen Todd: My Birthname,” and “Last Week of Winter” in Patron Happiness and “The Pantheist to His Child” and “Big Flowers” in Streamers.)
After continuing her education at the University of Washington, where she studied with the celebrated poets David Wagoner and Elizabeth Bishop, McPherson worked for a short time as a technical writer for Honeywell, a defense contractor. Poems that reflect this experience are “Preparation” and “Resigning from a Job in the Defense Industry” in Elegies for the Hot Season. After marrying poet Henry Carlile in 1966, she gave birth the following year to a daughter, Phoebe. She has taught at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, at Portland State University, at the University of California campuses at Berkeley and Davis. In 1999, McPherson founded Swan Scythe Press.