National Put a Poem in your Pocket Day

This blog post first appeared in the Seattle School of Visual Concepts Blog2018+Poem+In+Your+Pocket-44.jpg

April is National Poetry Month; across the country there are festivals, readings, workshops, and write-ins that celebrate the power and beauty of words. As Washington State Poet Laureate and as SVC’s Designer in Residence, I created a project to acknowledge the month, and April 26th in particular, which is also known as National Poem In Your Pocket Day.

With abundant help from SVC’s staff; shop director Jenny Wilkson; my Letterpress 2 instructor Amy Redmond; teaching assistant, Chris Copley; and SVC office assistant Carrie Radford, I printed 2,000 miniature letterpress broadsides. On each was a poem, in both Spanish and English, titled “El árbol dentro de mi / The tree inside me,” which will be distributed today by independent bookstores across Washington State.

Michelle Carranza, an 8th grade student at Denny International Middle School in West Seattle, wrote the poem. For the past four years, I have been teaching a series of poetry workshops in Spanish at this school. For the month of January, we wrote poems exploring ways in which humans are interconnected with the natural environment.

Choreographing my right foot, my right hand, then my left hand on the treadle-operated platen press for hundreds of impressions, I was minutely aware that much time had lapsed from the morning in which Michelle, sitting in a bright classroom, wrote the first draft of her poem. The words, thus arranged in this particular composition, travelled a long journey from Michelle’s imagination to a page of college ruled paper, to a relief printing plate, and to the Neenah paper that was their final destination.

Standing at the press, I understood that printing is much like writing a poem. They are both inexact sciences, driven by the mystery of intuition, overseen by the ruler of all things: time. What I mean to say by “inexact” here is not that precision is optional in a printing run. On the contrary, one cannot serialize something that was not exactly measured so that each document is faithful to the one before. The ability to replicate is, after all, the revolutionary power of the printing press. What I mean to say is that in a letterpress print run, adjustments need to be made every step of the way. Human hand and judgment and exquisite tinkering, are needed to attend to all of the details involved: mixing inks to obtain the desired hue, obtaining the right amount of pressure from plate to paper, etc. Said another way, printing requires time. Lots of it.

Unbeknownst to us when we admire a poem — its voice, form, rhyme, content — we are also paying tribute to Mother Time. Poets spend hours, sometimes years, working with a poem to reach full expression of the thing which intuition sparked. Likewise, when we admire a hand printed object, time is one of the components inherent in our admiration, whether we are aware of it or not.

The poem could not be shaped, the printed object could not be created without time’s filaments threading through them. Time hangs from every letter like dew hangs at dawn over every blade of grass in a spring meadow.  Human awareness is needed to create and to behold that something eternal and unmeasured, that thing that catches our breath, that thing we call art.

El árbol dentro de mi

En el río de los recuerdos
las raíces de mi árbol
buscan la seguridad
de un lugar de siempre
caras familiares
amigos del pasado
el tronco fuerte y alto
resiste como un faro
la tormenta de pensamientos
no se deja caer
aunque las olas
lo empujen y empujen
entre el vacío de las palabras
y el silencio de mi cuerpo
aún asi, mis ramas tratan
de alcanzar una aventura
lejana entre planetas y estrellas

Michelle Carranza
8th Grade
Denny International Middle School

The tree inside me

In the river of memory
the roots of my tree
search for security
yesterday places
familiar faces
friends of the past
my trunk, strong and tall
resists like a lighthouse
thunderstorms of thought
it refuses to fall
even after
wave after wave shove it
between the emptiness of words
and the silence of my body
even then, my branches clamor
a far away adventure
among planets and stars

Translation Claudia Castro Luna
WA Poet Laureate

2018 Poem In Your Pocket-5.jpg

Ode to brilliant spring


I recently had the honor of meeting Governor Jay Inslee at his office in Olympia. Our appointment, which was made weeks and weeks in advance, was for 10:30 in the morning.Outside on the Capitol Plaza cherry trees were in bloom and spring’s verdor was eminent on tree branches all around. When I walked in to his office he was sitting at his conference table reading Emerald City Blues, one of my poems. We launched into an easy conversation about poetry, he asked about the latest trends, we talked about what had inspired me to write the poem on his desk.  At one point I mentioned that the Washington Transportation Department had recently held a haiku contest that I judged and explained that the winning haiku would appear on the Ferry Summer Sailing Schedule.

He looked at me and said something like, “Let’s write one!” Before I could respond, he was gazing out the stately window and in the next second his pen was gliding across the page in front of him. He looked up once to verify the syllable count. In a swift minute Governor Inslee had composed a perfect haiku.

Ode to brilliant spring

Hangs on tip of alder branch

And falls at first dawn

I admired his agile mind and his ability to quickly descend into the internal quietude needed to walk into a poem’s territory. I wondered how many Governors had the temperament, talent and graciousness to sit and compose a haiku in the course of a busy morning. Not many – I am sure. As the Poet Laureate I thought how very fortunate for us poets and for libraries, universities and schools across Washington to have such a person hold the highest office in the State. Read the Governor’s proclamation for National Poetry Month.

Governor's haiku


The rails of the printed page


This week libraries across the country are celebrating National Library Week. We all have read, or heard, stories of how libraries have literally saved people’s lives. Those lives were perhaps mired in difficulty and libraries offered a way to engage with new ideas, imagine possibilities and experience lives different than their own.

Growing up in El Salvador I did not have any public libraries. I knew there was a National Library in San Salvador, the capital. There were probably libraries in larger towns, but they were not easily accessible nor part of the collective consciousness. My father and mother, both teachers, were avid readers so I was lucky to have many books at home. They showered me with books they thought useful for me to read. They signed me up for a Book-of-the-Month Club through which I read Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Juan Ramón Jímenez, and many of the Western classics. It was not until the fourth grade when I attended a school run by American Maryknoll nuns that I had access to a children’s library for the first time. The excitement on library day was palpable. Every week we selected a book of our choosing without any adult mediation. Such freedom.

Libraries are mothers of love in my opinion. Everyone is welcome to the books on their shelves and the worlds, ideas and feelings within them yield their riches equally to all who take the time to read them. With our taxes we contribute to their existence and in turn reap benefits beyond what we individually could afford. Avarice and knowledge hoarding are anathema to public libraries; libraries keep the flame of democracy alive.

The poem that follows is one of three I wrote for Seattle’s Public Library while serving as the city’s Civic Poet. Whenever I share it out loud, I introduce it by saying that I don’t write love poems – or have written very few – but this is definitely one of them.

Ode to Library Books

Because more than ink glints beneath the rails of the printed page

Because like snow flakes, each person’s hands profile unique lines

Because every time a library book is borrowed, lifelines overlay each other

Because borrowed books bear fingerprint constellations on their backs

Because on borrowed pages we leave something of ourselves behind as tender evidence

Because fingerprints remain as glaciers remain in the valleys they carve

Because imagine all the points of connection

Because older hands may yet find their youthful versions on the cover of the same book

And because over the same borrowed book, neighbors not on speaking terms may still shake hands amicably

Because books visit our homes and witness the contents of the bags we carry

Because the trouble we would be in, if library books could talk

Because hand upon hand built the seven wonders of the ancient world

Because in a city of almost a million, chances are we’ll find each other first on the pages of a library book

Because from hand to hand, home to home, library books map the city

Because a hand that turns pages of a book collectively owned feeds a gracious and gentle    thing, a communal spirit whose wings span over park benches, over streets and p-patch plots, affirming dreams and daydreams alike, hatching songs that pour and cycle over us all — like spring’s pollen and winter’s rain.


World Poetry Day


So it is that the first day of spring this year corresponds with World Poetry Day, a designation made by UNESCO in 1999 — a more fortuitous collision of days.

The declaration states that, “Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings. Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures.”

According to UNESCO, “one of the main objectives of the Day is to support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and to offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities.”

With this in mind I’d like to share a few lines from poets the world over whom I turn to often.

We all know and love Bashō, but few have heard of the extraordinary woman poet who went by the name of Rengetsu (Lotus Moon) and who wrote unforgettable poems in classical Japanese waka style. The translation here is by John Stevens.

Spring Rain

Random thoughts

And loneliness trouble me

But I am soothed by the

Anticipation of cherry blossoms

And spring rain falling on my hut.

Here is a short excerpt from the poem Stage 8 form the Danish poet Inger Christensen – translated into English by Susanna Nied.



Time:      dregs of words

like nubbly slugs.

Place:      solidarity of things

like random stones.

This past summer I did a reading in Barcelona and was chastised for not knowing the Peruvian writer Carmen Ollé. Below are a few lines in Spanish from her powerful book, “Noches de Adrenalina” (Adrenaline Nights)

“Tener 30 años no cambia nada salvo aproximarse al ataque
Cardiaco o al vaciado uterino. Dolencias al margen
nuestros intestinos fluyen y cambian del ser a la nada.”

From Chile, a poem by the Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf. The Mapuche territory encompassed most of Chile and a big part of Western Argentina. Mr. Chihuailaf writes in Mapuche. The poem below was translated from Mapuche into Spanish the into English by John Bierhost.


And at times there is nothing, I tell them. Nothing

The uneventful days pass by

My brother says to me

Listen to the song of the stream

(Come, let’s lean over and drink from its banks)

Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is an Irish poet who writes exclusively in Irish and has played a big role in fomenting a renaissance of the Irish language in modern poetry. The English translation of A postcard home can be found here:

Cárta Poist Abhaile

Tá earraí ana-dhaor san áit seo.
bhíos ar mo shlí síos feadh na gcéibheanna
go caifé
nuair a chonac i bhfuinneog siopa
scata éanlaithe stuáilte.
Do chuimhníos láithreach ortsa, a chroí,
nuair a chonac an t-éan is mó is ansa leat,
an bonnán buí,
ina sheasamh suas cruinn díreach,
a mhuineál leata is cuma na scríbe air.
Cheapas go bpriocfainn suas é
ar neamhní
is go dtabharfainn mar fhéirín abhaile chugat é.
Ach nuair a d’fhiafraíos díobh cé mhéid é
gheit mo chroí.
Bhí sé i bhfad i bhfad
thar raon m’acmhainne.

Ko Un has written 135 books and been shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His book Songs of Tomorrow was published by Green Integer and translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Gary Gach.

A Drunkard 

I’ve never been an individual entity.

Sixty trillion cells!

I’m a living collectivity

staggering zigzag along.

Sixty trillion cells! All drunk.

Hailing from South Africa, Vuyelwa Maluleke’s chapbook, Things We Lost In The Fire, appears in the collection Eight New-Generation African Poets (Akashic Books) edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani. 

Black Girl

Black girl, loan me your lonely,
don’t bother washing it or giving it a pretty press,
let me have it at its worst
and I will keep it for you,
till there are more hands to share it.

Because I can go on and on, I will end now with a poem by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish translated here by our local, most talented poet Lena Khalaf Touffaha.

From: And We Have Homelands

“and we have homelands without borders,

like our idea of the unknown, narrow and wide

– countries whose maps narrow to a gray tunnel

as we walk in them and cry out

in their labyrinths: “And still we love you.”

Our love is an inherited disease.

Countries that grow
by casting us into the unknown.”

Word Poetry








On Beginnings

easy speak

There is magic in beginnings. The anticipation of what might be and the force behind the thought that generated the action conjure excitement to each start we endeavor no matter how small. February has been a month of beginnings for me. I started a year-long creative residency at the Seattle School of Visual Concepts where I have been invited to discover everything related to letterpress printing and design. And of course the big beginning happened at the Passing of the Laurels ceremony on January 31st when I took over as WA State Poet Laureate from the amazing Tod Marshall.

The Monday after the Passing of the Laurels I was the featured reader at Easy Speak at Jude’s Old Town in Seattle’s Rainier Valley organized by Paul Nelson – ( I was my first time at this small but mighty local restaurant and after the fine evening I have every intention of returning. A good crowd gathered that Monday evening and between servings of gumbo and libations we enjoyed a range of poetic expression and thematic concerns.

The following Sunday I had the privilege to read at the African-Americans’ Writers Alliance ongoing monthly series at the Columbia City Library ( Those of us gathered there remembered that Tod Marshall had also read there at the beginning of his term. I was in the audience two years ago and was so pleased, along with everyone else, at how personable and inclusive his presentation was.

Both of these events use a similar format: a featured poet is followed by an open mic. On the Sunday I attended the Columbia Library more than twenty people shared their poetry and stories. At the Easy Speak the number was similar and it included someone who gave a beautiful plaintive rendition with his bugle. It was fantastic.

Events like this, which happen all across our state, showcase the best of ourselves in that as poets we come to share art and as citizens we convene in a positive spirit, with openness in our hearts. We gather to celebrate beauty and in so doing, grow communities that affirm tolerance and promote diversity and inclusion.

I know the two events I mention here augur many similar others and look forward to discovering communities large and small all over Washington State.