Washington’s Poet Laureate brings poetry to, and discovers it in, each of the state’s 39 counties
Although my parents lived in the same house in Richland, Washington—my hometown—for 50 years, they never stopped being proud, relentless Oregonians. But in 1989 Mother and Dad celebrated Washington’s centenary in a big way. They dreamed up one of those projects that makes sense to retired couples but bemuses their children: visiting and photographing all 39 Washington county courthouses. They were even written up in the Tri-City Herald for achieving their goal, and photographed paging through their album. A family friend rediscovered the newspaper clipping more than twenty years later, more than ten after my parents had passed away, and sent it to me; I carry it in my wallet and am startled to think they had a good idea after all.
I think of my parents whenever I pull out of my driveway for one of my road trips as Washington State Poet Laureate. Though they didn’t live to see it, Mother and Dad gave me the idea and the conviction to visit all 39 counties with poetry programs. I’ve traveled more road miles and seen more of my state in the last 18 months than I have since childhood. In those days, the 1960s and ’70s, Dad would occasionally come home early from work and take Mother and me along as he followed the back roads to some favorite fly-fishing stream, which for me meant not just missing all those precious TV reruns and staring unappreciatively at the passing scenery, but pastimes that mostly elude children: bird-watching, wildflower identification, and listening to classical music on the radio (fortunately, mostly out of range in those days). And I had a tendency toward carsickness. As I’ve aged, time has sped up, and I’m the one steering, so those once interminable drives are so much quicker and infinitely more interesting.
My appointment is two years and to date I’ve visited 22 counties. This fall and winter I will reach the final 17. The counties in eastern Washington are generally more dependent on the happy fact I can offer my programs for free, thanks to Humanities Washington and ArtsWA (formerly the Washington State Arts Commission), who jointly manage the Poet Laureate Program, and who have secured private and federal funding (no state funding) to support my position.
Many of my travel opportunities come to me like gifts. In April 2012 I attended a monthly poetry-and-music open mic in Goldendale after a great day in the local elementary and middle schools and another spent celebrating “Put a Poem in Your Pocket Day” with my generous hosts at the Maryhill Museum of Art. I was approached by Jackie McManus from Bickleton, a community of fewer than 100 just 35 miles east of Goldendale. Jackie taught in the Bickleton School and wondered if I could visit them next year. We firmed up our plans over the next months. I invited Juniper White—a lovely poet, the force behind Dwell Press, and owner of a “portable” printing press perfect for projects in the schools. Bickleton School is a K–12 school housed in a beautiful new building at the outskirts of town. Juniper and I worked our way through every classroom, grades 1–12, which are taught in two-grade splits—1–2, 3–4, etc., including 11–12. The students were curious and great fun, and I had the sense, as I so often do when I’m working in the schools, that the way to really learn about a community is through their children. While “all children are the same,” they’re not living the same lives. Some write about wheat, or abandoned farms, others winter beaches, bus rides, or Minecraft. And some—and this goes back to the magic ingredient of class chemistry—are easier than others to convince, Hey, let’s play a little with language! That’s my task and I enjoy it, though I never fail to feel a little nervous walking in.
Despite a little snow, the town of Bickleton came out that evening to the warm, wood-paneled Grange Hall, and a crowd of 60 listened attentively to Juniper and me as we read our poems. The rest of the program belonged to the locals: the old poems of an original homesteader, read by his gray-haired granddaughter, and several recitations—“The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “Gallipoli” by a local farmer, and—no doubt the reason the crowd was so large and young—five high school students reciting marvelously Yeats and Wordsworth and others, followed by cookies and coffee and a lingering crowd. Jackie put Juniper and me up in the local bed-and-breakfast, and because the town restaurant was under repair, we found a homemade casserole in the fridge along with plenty of milk, juice, coffee, and breakfast makings.
I think of my Bickleton trip often, and of that young high school teacher, Silvia Navarre, whose classroom was full of art and who inspired her students to memorize great poetry and really think about our English language (and—small school, teachers wearing many hats—German too). It’s clear to me that my greatest contribution to the community of Bickleton and several others has been the promise of my visit, that date on their civic calendar, which galvanized teachers and students and locals to create an evening program around poetry that proved to be a great success. Maybe they will do it again?
I offer a number of programs, but one is especially gratifying—and fulfills my matchmaking instinct: a poetry reading that includes me, yes, but also two or three other established Washington poets. It’s a chance to bring a variety of voices to an audience that might not be entirely accustomed to poetry readings. I acknowledge that even well-read citizens who are frequent supporters of the arts do not often attend poetry readings, and even those who can recite and speak with pleasure about Dickinson and Whitman and “J. Alfred Prufrock” may feel a little lost where contemporary poetry is concerned. That’s why readings like these work so well—they bring in poets all writing at a high level and all very different, and provide a “Whitman’s Sampler” of voices.
One reading I will never forget was held in the cafeteria/public meeting area of the Washington Women’s Correctional Facility at Purdy. This and another very moving prison visit were arranged by an inspired state librarian in charge of prison libraries, Laura Sherbo. I knew, when given this opportunity, that I wanted to offer up women’s voices and poems that really engaged with social justice, so I went to two treasures: Merna Ann Hecht and Storme Webber, who immediately agreed to take part. Laura kept us updated as the reading approached—50 women were signed up, there was a waiting list, inmates kept asking. When we finally got through security that afternoon, and after an unscheduled lockdown, our audience came in, smiling, excited. I have to say I’ve never heard an audience listen as hard as those women did that day, like their lives depended on it. I began by reading poems by a variety of Washington women poets, and handed the program to Merna and Storme, who in turn wowed the audience with their powerful poems. I sat behind the readers facing the crowd and could watch the nodding heads, tears, laughter. Afterward, a number of women came up and visited with us and begged for more poetry, workshops please, more poets, more books. The librarian informed me that their poetry section gets vigorous use. I was able to supply a number of poetry collections donated by the poets themselves, which felt good. When my appointment is concluded in 2014 I intend to work on a grant to bring those women the workshops they’re so hungry for. I wouldn’t be much of a poet laureate if I didn’t believe poetry can change lives, help us to understand ourselves, let us try on somebody else’s shoes, take in deeply—through the senses—the human experience. That afternoon at Purdy was profound proof.
I try to tailor my presentations to my audiences, and that means being flexible. Most commonly I am invited to read poetry, either my own or poems by Washington poets. It turns out even civilians who are afraid of poetry enjoy being read to. (The fear, I suspect, has something to do with line breaks and cranky literature teachers from a dark past.) It’s very common after an event at a Rotary luncheon, fundraiser breakfast, or seniors lecture, that I receive the most satisfying sorts of response: I had forgotten I love to hear poetry read aloud. What great poems! Can you tell me again who wrote the one with all the anagrams? (That would be Peter Pereira.) Sometimes I pull out a few guaranteed-to-wow gems by third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders to demonstrate how capable young writers can be, and how important it is to include poetry in the curriculum to hone students’ ears, imaginations, and writing skills—precision, musicality, discipline, logic, surprise.
I bring hands-on programs too. Very active poetry communities (and there are many in Washington: poets, contrary to myth, tend to seek out other poets) ask for writing workshops. I spent a sunny April afternoon at the Port Angeles Public Library with two dozen poets asking informed questions, writing intensely to a prompt I provided, and sharing their drafts—which were remarkable: poet after poet proving again that talent is among us and everywhere. Sometimes my most important contribution is drawing renewed attention to local poets in small communities. It’s hard to come out as a poet in a culture that doesn’t quite know what to make of us or whether to take us seriously. If the poet laureate thinks my neighbor Abbie Miller is good (and she’s very good), maybe it’s time to break down and buy Abbie’s book.
Road trips have turned out to be one of the great pleasures of my poet laureate appointment, especially when I have the privilege of purpose, and when each mile seems to take me deeper into my future and past. A chance to be alone with my thoughts, a chance to watch the landscape change and see myself riding its undulations, driving beneath its forest canopies or through miles of wheat fields, basalt outcroppings, imagining the lives inside those farmhouses, both dilapidated and tidy, counting wineries, river views, climbing mountains while I steer, and alders, almost stopping for roadside cherries, roadside strawberries, roadside dahlias, $3 per bouquet, please don’t take the vase. And when I arrive at my destination, there is someone there waiting for me—a librarian, teacher, someone who wants to write a poem, hear a poem, share a great poem—that’s meant the world to me.
Kathleen Flenniken ’83 studied engineering at WSU, then worked as a civil engineer and hydrologist, including three years at Hanford. Her first collection of poetry, Famous (U. Nebraska 2006), “flirted with the sublime” and featured characters as various as Marianne Moore and Flenniken’s deceased parents. Plume (UW Press 2012) is a powerful meditation on Hanford. For more about Flenniken and to read some of her poems, visit kathleenflenniken.com.