Primus St. John was born in New York City in 1939. For more than 30 years he has lived in Oregon and taught at Portland State University. He is one of the inaugurators of the national Poets in the Schools program, the editor of two anthologies, and the author of several collections of poetry, for which he has received an Oregon Book Award and a Western States Book Award. Three of these books have been collected together, along with more recent poems, in Communion: Poems 1976–1998 (1999), which showcases his idiosyncratic use of language, political engagement, and ability to make tangible the failures and successes of the past.

His poems often wed personal to public and quotidian to historical. He is as well known for his love poems as for his long poems, notably the epic poem “Dreamer,” written in the voices of the slaves and the captain aboard a slave ship. He has said that he tries “to be as comfortable with anger as [he is] with tenderness,” and this is evidenced by his nuanced handling of the human proclivity for contradiction as well as self-improvement.