My notebooks are full of DIY phonetic pronunciations of Washington place-names (“pond-or-RAY”), snippets of landscape descriptions (“so many shades of green, and not one the color of money”), early drafts of what eventually became poems for Bedtime Stories, Citizenship Day and Country Doctor Community Clinics, ideas about how to improve a workshop or a prompt, new favorite restaurants (Cugini, in Walla Walla).
No two years of my life have passed more quickly — or been as rewarding on so many levels — as these. The whole experience of serving as the Washington State poet laureate was an incredible privilege, and I grew as a writer, teacher and person in ways I suspect I will be assimilating for some time.
I’ve described these years as a kind of “teaching boot camp” because giving one-time workshops in so many different contexts — state and national parks, jails and prisons, elementary/middle/high schools, colleges and graduate programs, community and tribal centers, retreat houses, churches, libraries — meant constantly improvising in response to that particular group’s chemistry.
What stays with me most vividly is individual encounters, conversations with people after readings or workshops, or while staying in their homes. It was not uncommon to have just met someone, and then find myself listening as they talked about how a particular poem evoked their struggle to forgive a family member, acknowledge a lifelong drug addiction, grieve the loss of a child, spouse, parent, sibling, friend.
I was frequently witness to poetry’s capacity to tap into and give voice to our urgent and all-to-often-hidden inner lives. The programs I offered during my tenure — Poetry for All workshops and video writing prompts, Washington Poets in Conversation, Hike and Write — were predicated on the idea that people are hungry for what poetry offers, and when given an invitation to engage with it, they do. I found that to be true in every one of our state’s 39 counties.
So much help along the way
From the very beginning, kind, knowledgeable people helped in ways large and small. I want to particularly acknowledge the enthusiasm, expertise and logistical help provide by the staff and boards of Humanities Washington and ArtsWA, the two organizations that sponsor our state’s poet laureate program. Former Washington poet laureate Kathleen Flenniken’s experience and advice saved me countless wrong turns.
I could not have reached every county without the insight and collaboration of librarians and teachers, especially in rural areas, whose help often extended to giving me a place to sleep and recommending the most scenic driving route.
I’m grateful to the many poets who made time to read with me and participate in on-stage interviews for Washington Poets in Conversation.
Fellow artists Peter Munro, Sheila Farr, John Helde and Janet Buttenwieser generously shared their expertise and energy to help me shape and carry out particular projects. Finally, my husband Eric Jordan deserves extra thanks for keeping the tires rotated and the oil changed, and for always leaving the porch light on.
For me: new poems, eventually a second book. Putting in a vegetable garden. Solo hikes. A trip abroad with Eric. Continuing to teach, of course — Holden Village in February, King County jail in March, Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in April. Details at elizabethausten.org/events.
What’s next for the Washington State Poet Laureate program?
Tod Marshall’s fresh energy, deep knowledge, skill and passion as a teacher and advocate for poetry. His own intense and gorgeously made poems, paired with a subtle and down-to-earth sense of humor. One of Tod’s main projects will be curating a state-wide anthology celebrating “how the citizens of Washington make poetry.” His events will be listed at https://wapoetlaureate.org/events/ soon.
Follow him here, on Twitter @wapoetlaureate or at facebook.com/wapoetlaureate/.
Thank you, Washington. Now go write.