Washington State Poet Laureate

Sponsored by Humanities Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission


Poem for the times: “Deciduous”


Days like today
I could let it all go.

Release ambition
like a balloon floating

into someone else’s
yard. Let the radio

keep its death toll
and speeches. I will give

myself to what will answer
with blossom and fruit.

Could I die back?
Could I be mere twigs,

waiting? Give me
light, rain, a piece of ground.

Here I might remember
the prayer of silence, practice

one thing until done well,
heal what lies

within reach.


-Elizabeth Austen

This is an old poem; I wrote it at the start of the Iraq war.


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Poetry at Walla Walla Penitentiary and Coyote Ridge Correctional Center

Prison Library Poetry Workshops

This photo by Alan Berner for The Seattle Times does an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere. I walked long corridors like this to get to the library. (See http://projects.seattletimes.com/2014/prison-labor/1/)

This photo by Alan Berner for The Seattle Times does an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere. I walked several long corridors like this to get to the prison library. (See http://projects.seattletimes.com/2014/prison-labor/1/)

“I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,”

I began the workshops at the Walla Walla Penitentiary and Coyote Ridge Correctional Center with Stanley Kunitz’s “The Layers.” It’s a poem I’ve carried with me for years, and often recite at the start of readings. I also hoped that its images and ideas would speak to the incarcerated men I had just met.

“When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength”

With both groups, I read a couple of my own poems, and listened as they read theirs aloud. We talked about revision and how to write so that our work might connect across wildly different life histories. With the smaller group at WW Pen, we also discussed poems by Lucille Clifton (“memory”) and Yusef Komunyakaa (“Facing It”).

“In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.”

I have no idea what led these men to their prison sentences; I know there are crime victims and families who also need what poetry offers. But my role in the workshops was to try to offer the same thing I hope to provide at workshops in libraries on the outside: the chance to read a few good poems together, and avail ourselves of poetry’s power to illuminate our lives and connect us to each other.

“and every stone on the road
precious to me.”

The original poems they read aloud voiced regret and longing, struggles with anger and addiction, sorrow at lost connections to children, parents and spouses. One of the most memorable poems was an extended metaphor describing the freedom of a bicycle ride; another was a strongly metered, rhyming poem about being held in maximum security, “the belly of the beast.”

“no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.”

As with any workshop, I can’t really know if what I did was useful to the participants. I hope so; I know it’s going to take me a while to assimilate the stories I heard through their poems and conversation.

The quotes above are from Stanley Kunitz’s “The Layers.” Read the whole poem here.

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Fire Series Concludes

Voices from around the state

For the past couple of months, I’ve posted poems here related to fires and the people who battle them. The series has included the voices of Washington poets from the Methow Valley, Spokane, Ellensburg, Yakima, Kingston, Leavenworth, Lake Chelan, Seattle and (because fire knows no border) poets from Oregon and Idaho.

My deep thanks not only to those poets whose work is featured here, but also to the dozens more who sent in their poems, and to all of you who took the time to read them.


Thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine

Heading out to the final three counties

Later this morning I’ll point the car east, and head toward Benton, Walla Walla and Franklin counties. By week’s end, I will have met my goal of visiting all 39 of Washington’s counties. (Huzzah!) That doesn’t mean the end of my travels — my term continues through the end of January (see the Events page for details, or the Contact page to schedule a visit to your area) — but it feels like a milestone worth celebrating.

Here’s what I’ll be up to:

Nov. 9: “Poetry for All” generative writing workshop at the Richland Public Library, 4 to 6p.

Join Washington State Poet Laureate Elizabeth Austen for a free, hands-on poetry workshop designed to engage participants’ imaginations, life histories and sense of empathy through language. The class includes close reading of a few contemporary poems, then using one as a model for writing our own first draft. No previous writing experience needed, and all are welcome. Maximum 25 participants. Register online.

Nov. 10: Classroom visit, Walla Walla University.

Nov. 10: Reading at Walla Walla University with Dan Lamberton and Linda Andrews, Chan Shun Pavilion Lecture Hall, room 154, 100 SW Fourth St., College Place. 7p.

Nov. 11: Classroom visits, Walla Walla University.

Nov. 12: Classroom visit, AP English, Walla Walla High School.

Nov. 12: “Poetry for All” generative writing workshop at Walla Walla Penitentiary, 1 to 3:30p.

Nov. 13: “Poetry for All” generative writing workshop at Coyote Ridge Correctional Center, 1 to 3p.

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Katharine Whitcomb: “Inscription Found on a Cliff Face After Drought”

Tony Kroes: "Tiger at Marigold Gate" Color-reduction woodcut.

Tony Kroes: “Tiger at Marigold Gate.” Color-reduction woodcut.

Inscription Found on a Cliff Face After Drought

We fled our valley after the vine-beans withered,
followed the stream’s dwindling trickle to the high trail.

Burning brushfires chased us up to the treeline,
great flame-bombs leapt grove to dead grove.

The old people used to say to break a drought
one had to track the tiger, follow her far

into the mountains, and wait. Our wasteful lives
caused the water to dry up; our only hope her forgiveness.

We hid in dry weeds for days near her paw marks.
We offered her our hunger-gifts. She slipped behind rock

after rock, shy, then radiant. She breathed out dark clouds.
We sang our songs so her tail waved with pleasure, she heard

this story and her sweeping tail raised the rain. Then we
crossed under marigold gate alive, wet petals on our sleeves.

–Katharine Whitcomb

“Inscription Found on a Cliff Face After Drought” is being exhibited as an artist/writer collaboration in artist Tony Kroes’ solo exhibit, “October: Bells Heard Through Leaves” at Keeler Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, October/November 2015.  When the artist sent me an image of his print for our collaboration, my head was full of worry about the fires in the west and the drought — I built my poem around an imagined place after the rains had come again. —Katharine Whitcomb

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Carol Smith: “Wildfire Weather”

Wildfire Weather

Every year, the Santa Anas
Rushed down from the high desert.
The winds sang hardest in the blue night,
Blowing through our dreams and turning
Children into small gods
With fingertips that sparked.
The winds blew against nature.
Hot and dry
And drove people from their houses,
Instead of in, children spreading
Their coats for wings.

Some years, the winds set the hills
Above my childhood house on
Poppyfields on fire.
Neighbors gathered in the streets below,
To watch the fire whirl
And breathe the sweet and stringent
Smell of eucalyptus burning.
The fathers spoke of devil winds
And wildfire weather.
The mothers calculated and recalculated
A safe distance from the flames.

The children, though.
We danced in the street,
Excitement leaping crown to crown.
We knew the burned hills
Were the best place to fly kites.
Tossing a square of fabric overhead and running
Down the hill,
Feeling the string snap and suddenly,
We were holding down the sky.

–Carol Smith

Originally published in the Mississippi Review; reprinted here with permission of the author.

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Julie Tate: “Fire Summer”

Fire Summer

Not one, but many
so many
you thought the whole valley would burn
gone up together like some sort of
end-of-the-world rapture.

It was the summer of texts and Facebook and
get out

get out

get out.

What did we take?
You looked around: a brown sweater,
a pair of shoes, that skirt you never wore,
no, leave that.
The dog, of course, the dog.
You wouldn’t leave the dog, or the cat
but you had to choose.

Time to go.

You stumbled to the car,
you heard someone crying- it was you- but you didn’t recognize the voice
because it was new.
Strange, keening sobs as you gunned the engine and pulled away
leaving the place you thought
your babies would grow up,
bring their first boyfriends,
have that wedding with
candles and sunflowers and white table cloths.

You left when the Shasta daisies were blooming,
whole hosts of them
glowing like fireflies in the almost-dark.
You wanted to kiss them
bury your face in them
say goodbye to the roses that just opened that morning.

You drove away without looking back
because the fire was ahead of you
blazing away like some kind of freak show, the
whole mountain lit up and shining
trees exploding like bombs.
You drove too fast, reckless, crazy
the firefighters turned away when they saw you because
there was nothing to say.

It felt like the
of the world
that summer.

You got drunk on white wine and blueberries,
went swimming in the river,
you dove




Down there with the fishes
grazing your hands on river rock
slippery with silt
you could forget
the image of your friend’s house burning
like a sunset
smell of smoke and
scorched earth and
burnt-over landscape.

For a moment you were
just a girl underwater






–Julie Tate

Julie Tate Libby is an anthropologist/sociologist who lives in the Methow Valley and has written about regional issues such as amenity migration, socioeconomic restructuring and tourism in North Central Washington.  She teaches anthropology and sociology at Wenatchee Valley College.  This is her first attempt at poetry.


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