After dropping out of high school at 17, Omanson worked in Illinois, Colorado and Minnesota as a barrel plater, drill press operator, autoworker, tree trimmer, truck driver, taxi driver, bus driver, gardener, day laborer, fruit picker, groundsman, nurseryman, librarian, barn restorer, farmhand, gravedigger, garbageman, custodian, greens-mower & night waterman on golf courses in two states, nurse’s aide on a locked ward for the criminally insane, and teamster (driving draft horses).
He served in the ranks of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, and also in the Teamsters, and participated in the ill-fated Rockford Park District strike of 1972, which cost him his job.
In November of that year, 22 years old, newly married and facing a long, hungry winter without work, he hit the road with $5 in his pocket and hitched-hiked out to the northwest coast where a major logging boom was at its peak, and immediately found work in a shingle mill. His job interview consisted of a single question: “Did you bring your gloves?”, involved no paperwork, and wages paid in cash ($4 an hour, twice what he had earned in Illinois).
He started off working on deck where enormous red cedar logs were received and cut into great two-foot thick slabs up to seven feet in diameter. His job was to split the slabs into “bolts” using an overhead hydraulic splitter. He then passed the heavy bolts on to the next man who heaved them onto a small platform and split them into boards with a foot-operated razor-sharp guillotine blade: a far more dangerous job (costing many a man his fingers or hand), to which he was soon promoted.
For the first few weeks he wired his wages home to his wife until he received a letter from her in early January, telling him she had met someone else and please not to come back. After that he kept his pay for himself.
For the next eleven months he lived in the wilderness in a lean-to, along the Calawah and Hoh rivers on the Olympic Peninsula on the Washington coast, working on logging crews, in shingle mills, and as an independent cedar-bolt cutter.
Though never graduating from high school, Omanson began taking college courses on a part-time basis in 1968 at Lincoln College, eventually earning a BA in English literature, with a minor in philosophy, from Rockford College in 1990.
Currently, Omanson is the owner of Monongahela Books, an online bookstore specializing in American culture and history. He also works as an historical interpreter at Pricketts Fort, a living history facility near Fairmont, West Virginia depicting everyday life on the Virginia frontier, ca. 1770-1800. His duties include overseeing a small, 18th-century frontier farm, militia drill, musketry, wood-cutting, rough carpentry & sheep-shearing.
Omanson’s poems and literary criticism have appeared in The Stark County News, The Hudson Review, The Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, Verse, The North Stone Review, Sparrow: A Yearbook of the Sonnet, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, The Pennsylvania Review, Best American Poetry and the Academy of American Poets anthology, New Voices, 1989-1998. Twenty-one of Omanson’s Stark County poems were featured in the book Stark County, Illinois: History and Families, published by the Stark County Genealogical Society and Acclaim Press in 2012.
Omanson annotated and wrote the section introductions for a book of World War I poetry This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-odd Sonnets by John Allan Wyeth, a staff officer with the 33rd Division, AEF. Completely unknown when Omanson rediscovered him in the early ’90s, Wyeth is now widely recognized as the most significant American poet of WWI. His 1928 collection of war sonnets was reissued in 2008 by the University of South Carolina Press as part of the Joseph Bruccoli Great War Series, with critical introduction by Dana Gioia.
Omanson also annotated and wrote the chapter introductions for the memoir of a volunteer soldier in the First World War: At Belleau Wood with Rifle and Sketchpad: Memoir of a United States Marine in World War I, by Louis C. Linn, published by McFarland & Company in 2012.
Stark County Poems: War and the Depression come to Spoon River, a collection of narrative and lyric poems published in a very limited run in 2012 and now all but impossible to find. Read the poems here, with accompanying illustrations and background information. Both sides of Omanson’s family farmed in Stark County, Illinois, along the upper Spoon River, since the late 19th-century.
Recently BJ Omanson self-published a selection of his poems, A River Gray with Rain, spanning thirty years and culled from several different collections.
His most recent essay, “The Effects of War: how one Illinois farm couple’s experience of the First World War inspired a cycle of regionalist poems,” appears in the current issue of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly.