In many schools across the State children are gearing up this week to begin a new school year. I can imagine librarians closing down summer reading programs and setting up homework help centers, sprucing up teen reading corners, all to help ease children and youth into the 2019-2020 school year.
All summer long I have anticipated the first of September because it is this month when I launch my project, One River, Many Voices. I have been busy connecting with librarians, teachers, poets, community leaders in Kettle Falls, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Brewster, the Tri-Cities, Mattawa, White Salmon and other places along the river where I will stop to share poetry and stories and practice community through the power of words.
Late August I had the opportunity to travel along the Columbia River Gorge to visit some of these locations in preparation for what it is to come. I look forward to sharing news of this months-long project.
For now sending my very best to our children, youth, their parents, teachers, librarians, all who support our young people across the state as they embark on a new learning adventure.
Two weeks ago on a fine spring morning I found myself hiking with tender fern leaf at my heels and a richly yellow green canopy overhead in Snoqualmie’s Iron Horse State Park. The hike was the third Hike and Write organized by the Black Dog Arts Coalition, Anthea Karanasos, who organized this particular event told us that the original hike was the brainchild of former WA State Poet Laureate Elizabeth Austen.
The plan was for me to lead the expedition through a series of writing exercises as we paused for hiking breaks. In preparing for this ambulant lesson I thought of trees, all the things they grant us every day, their regal postures, the superb tonalities of their foliage and above all the ways in which they express silence. I titled the walk: Writing Stillness. I thought the forest’s abundant vendor and tree varieties could teach us something on this topic. With regards to form, I thought haiku would be ideal because its brevity lends itself to quick imagistic note taking. I figured by day’s end we would all end up with a few haiku that we could either string together to weave into a larger poem or leave on their own as morsel sized testimonies of our morning together.
Thinking deeper on haiku as the morning’s choice led me to Basho and his use of the Haibun to record his travels through Japan. I amended my plan so that our morning’s writing would also include writing a haibun.
At the end of the hike we sat on a shady spot at the trail’s head and shared our poems. It was lovely to hear the haikus and to hear in the haibun impressions of our hike, which included taking the wrong turn at the outset, sharing the trail with mountain bikers, discovering giant slugs and coming across a country mouse so absorbed on gorging himself on dandelion seeds that it failed to notice us until one of us almost stepped on it. Collected, the haibun worked as a prism, offering different lenses through which to re-experience our shared time.
Thank you again Anthea for organizing a lovely morning for us all.
New day on the way up, no signs, few people, groves of fragrant fir and cedar. Mountain bluebirds, thrush, and warblers sang to the shrouded sun. Our small group rambled, lost our way. Happy calamity. All around, tender ferns sprang up, blackberry’s spanking-new thorns armored thick purple vines, and the wind crooned a tender liturgy through the treetops. Wild strawberrys’ small white buds still closed tight waited underfoot in the hush and crunch of gravel for pine sweet air to warm them. In a small clearing lush with plantain and wild greens, we came upon a soft brown mouse shielding a heap of dandelion seeds. Utterly vulnerable, the mouse watched us gather round. Small black eyes burned. Fierce in stillness: “I am not leaving.”
Hiking through cedars,
a wrong turn and revelation.
Brave mouse guarding seeds.
Warm welcoming song of the birds blind the abruptness of artificial signage “KEEP OUT” and “NO TRESPASSING.” The sound of trees slushing in the wind remind me, they too, are part of the symphony. With each careful step, the ripping sounds of gravel and the wisps of the green grass become a distinct duality. Air as crisp as an apple, I can almost bite it. Not similar to any hike I’ve ever had, but my head-space enjoyswandering through the poetic forest for the first time.
Sticks, stones, and leaves, the
sweat of the forest I breathe
and some stinky bobs”
Traffic, winding road, crowded parking, dismay. Organize calm, find folk, Nature slowly envelops. How many colors of green can the eye discern? A riot of silence. They’re all here, a different world, so available with some effort. Cloud cover cools, sunlight and exertion warm as do conversation and camaraderie.
As was the case last year, I teamed up with the Seattle School of Visual Concepts and their fabulous letterpress director Jenny Wilkson to produce thousands of pocket-sized poems that will be distributed today across Washington through independent book sellers in celebration of National Poetry Month.
Photo Credit: Radford Creative
Here is the list of bookstores in case you would like to go and nab one of these beautiful mini broadsides.
Light. This is what has returned to us in WA state in recent weeks. Spring inching forward, trees changing before our eyes, the ground breaking to release new colors. I have been criss crossing the state holding poetry readings and writing with others sometimes in small groups, sometimes in larger gatherings. What I take away from each encounter is light. That is what poetry is in the end. Little moments of light. Even when the subject matter is difficult, when the diction harsh, when line breaks break hard and unexpectedly, it all comes from the pool of light inside each of us.
This post gives a partial snap shot of my travels since the start of the year and it ends with a link to my state wide project released a few days ago in time for National Poetry Month.
In January I read at the opening day of the Senate in Olympia. It was a crisp winter day. Beautiful. I received a second invitation to return in February and by then snow had arrived over Puget Sound and alas I could not make the second trip.
My next trip was to Port Angeles – Kate Reavey at Peninsula College made my visit possible. I loved rolling along the long ribbons of two way roads flanked by evergreens that go up and down, on and on, in Kitsap county as I made my way north toward Jefferson County. Next I visited Tacoma to serve as a judge for the regional competition of Poetry OutLoud. What an honor that was! The students – all of them high school age – delivered poems that made me tear up, laugh, rejoice in the verve and delivery of the poems they chose.
On the first of April in a most fitting turn for National Poetry Month I visited Bellevue Children’s Academy in the morning and in the afternoon Puget Sound University in Tacoma. I read with the wonderful Glenna Cook who read masterfully from her book Thesholds, which was a 2018 WA State Book Award finalist in the Poetry Division.
In March I drove down from Seattle to the Lower Columbia Valley College in Longview where I held a workshop and held a reading at the public Library. From there I crossed the state to visit Pend Oreille County where thanks to Joyce Weir and the folks at Create in Newport, who organized my time there I did readings in Cusk, Newport, Metaline Falls and Deer Park (technically Spokane County). The librarian at Metaline Falls, Kathleen Huffman, had prepared a lovely table for us to have fellowship after the reading. It is from this feast that the photo at the top of this post is taken.
I write these lines from Spokane where I am to take part in the fantastic week long Get Lit! festival. Before arriving here I spent time in Ellensburg for the spectacular three day event called Inland Poetry Prowl. I visited Olympia and South Puget Sound College then travelled south to Vancouver for a wonderful reading with Christopher and Toni Luna and community poets at the Vancouver Public Library. Redmond, Seattle, Bellevue came next. In Bellevue I led a workshop at the public library where two girls loved the poems they wrote so much they decided to write an extra copy so that they could walk away with each other’s poems! Walking home with light in their pockets.
Here is a link to Washington Poetic Routes – Please tell others about it or submit a poem yourself. There are 26 poems on this map now, when I finish my term I want the map to have dozens and dozens more.
I travelled yesterday to do a reading at the Oak Harbor branch of the Sno-Isle Library System. The library is shared with the Whidbey Island location of the Skagit Valley College and so my day also included visits to a few English classrooms.
As I stepped out onto the street to begin my travels I thought it would be interesting to document my day.
How many poets are there after all, who could claim going from a major metropolitan area (at the top of rush hour traffic) on busy highways, to catch a ferry onto an island, drive for an hour through lonely rural roads to arrive at a sea-side town where the local library serves both town and community college, all to do a reading?
Very, very few indeed. And how lucky I felt to be such a poet making such a journey on a glorious, crisp December day.
Not pictured: bumper to bumper traffic on I-5 and every arterial leading to downtown.
Mukilteo – the ferry dock (with hardly any cars!) and lighthouse
Last week I was in Philadelphia and New York City for readings at Temple and NYU respectively. As my days in the east coast wore on I started to miss my life here in WA State. Most notably I missed the trees! The lushness of them, their stoic stance and their silence. How much pause and serenity they bring into our lives — into mine.
On one of these Whidbey Island trees pictured here I saw a hawk, its back turned to the morning sun. Frost covered the ground and I imagined what must have been a cold night for all critters. I saluted her with a “Good morning Mrs. Hawk!” as I rolled by in my car, then, less than 800 hundred meters ahead, a dead racoon. Its front legs were crossed one over the other and even from the car I could see its fur covered in icicles. Death never far away to sharpen my vision, to make me appreciate the splendour of life.
After a quick bite to eat and a cup of tea in Bayview I drove on the length of the island to Oak Harbor. I had only ever driven through the town, never been to its old section — a mistake. I wished that I had time to explore the shops and take in the view of the marina from the park that faces it. Instead I drove onto the college, visited four classrooms where I gave short presentations and then walked to the library for my 3 p.m. reading.
The scene 10 min before the reading
Afterwards with high school students
This was the scene about 10 minutes before the reading. It was really well attended with town folks, community college and high school students. I read and answered many relevant and interesting questions and afterward exchanged photographs and anecdotes with many of the attendees. Here I am with the very last group to leave – four very smart high school students.
Good bye day. Good bye Oak Harbor. Thank you Mary Campbell from Oak Harbor Library. Thank you Gail Davern from Skagit Valley College.
I left the town at 5 p.m. The first picture here is from the library and the second one from the road along the marina. The island is a dark place in the evening. My drive on 520 south to Clinton to catch my ferry was not as easy as the morning drive had been. But again the ferry dock was nearly empty and I was able to get on the return boat easily.
By seven p.m. rush hour traffic had died down in Seattle. Only as I approached downtown did it thicken enough to merit snapping this picture. I arrived home tired but satisfied, thankful for having been granted a fine day of discovery, community and poetry.
I write these short lines on Thanksgiving morning, a holiday which for many is the most important one of the year.
I for one feel extremely grateful to have served the past 10 months as the Poet Laureate of Washington State. I can say without equivocation that every corner of our State I have visited, from the barren hills overlooking Clarkston in the south east corner to the rolling hills of Orcas Island in springtime, from Spokane in full autumn glory to Bellingham under the spell of summer’s solstice, has filled me with awe and marvel.
I am thankful to have basked in myriad moments of natural beauty and to have shared my love of words with all sorts of writing communities: some small, some thriving, some mighty and some in the making as in young writers in the schools. I have also interacted with so many individuals who value community building through the power of language, such as the inspiring teachers and librarians with whom I have collaborated and others who have invited me to share poetry in community centers, longhouses, farms, vineyards, cafes, bookstores, parks, classrooms, auditoriums and radio stations.
I thank every adult, every youth and child I have thus far connected with for keeping my inner fire and hope alive, for sharing with me a joint conviction that words matter. It is through them that we convey our joint humanity.
still careens under western and eastern skies alike
extracting widows, homeless, mourners, sufferers
in the lamentable social strife
in which we find ourselves.
Light wanes turning leaves fire and gold
revealing over horizon’s lip
the margins of our days.
Time it is to give thanks
for grandpa and grandma
sitting in the old living room sofa holding hands
waiting for their slice of apple pie
and for the cousins playing
their annual football game
in the park across the street.
We gather to acknowledge
our mothers’ lost hours,
lost on growing the alabaster
bones on which we stand.
We give thanks for ancestors
who came before us and lost,
for courageous walkouts
and for those who subsist
on malnourished minimum wage checks
for they will one day be relics
of our grinding, slow march
If we in our days, put a fraction
of what bird puts into her song
we may yet reap a future
when injustice and war are the moraine
of our present, bitter, epoch.
We are gathered here today.
César Chavez – “We are gathered here today to observe, not so much the end of the Fast” from On Ending Fast – 1968
From participant’s notes Cascade Women’s Program – “grandpa and grandma”
Abraham Lincoln – “commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged” from Proclamation of Thanksgiving
This is the first full week of school for my children who started their new grade levels a few days after Labor Day. It has not been easy rallying them out of bed after throwing bedtime routines out the door for a few weeks. To enjoy the summer break late in August we travelled to Whidbey Island, even taking our 5 chickens along. We’d hoped to visit Useless Bay every day as we have done in years past, but poor air quality due to wildfire smoke kept us indoors lamenting what could have been.
One of the smokey grainy mornings on the island I braved sitting on a porch to do a bit of writing. I’d read earlier that after 17 days of carrying her dead calf in mourning, Tahlequah, the orca whale, had finally let go of the corpse. Staring at a blank page, watching azure skies channel through a clump of heavy hydrangea heads, my thoughts drifted to the hundreds of children separated from their mothers and fathers, alone, afraid and withering in ICE detention facilities. If an animal deeply mourns the loss of her offspring as Tahlequah has, then imagine what the thousands of moms and dads that have lost their children against their will must be feeling? What torments might they be going through? And what of the children’s experience? What do their feelings portend?
Immigrants are leaving El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, on foot, in great numbers, women and children, men and children, children alone. They are leaving because of unprecedented violence from gangs that had their origin in the streets of Los Angeles, they are leaving because of poverty, because they have zero prospects for earning a living, and they are also leaving because of environmental degradation. This summer, El Salvador experienced extreme heat and the longest draught ever recorded. For millennia predictable rainfall from May to September has nourished corn, beans and squash –the triumvirate of the local diet. This year the entire annual production of subsistence grains has been jeopardized because of abnormal high temperatures and lack of precipitation.
Could it be, I asked myself sitting under the eerie sky, feeling the itch in my throat increase from breathing the ashy air, that the orca in Puget Sound is connected to the lost corn, squash and beans in Central America and to the hundreds of children holding on to themselves in ICE facilities?
My meandering brought me to Chief Sealth’s speech of 1854 where he addresses the interconnectedness of all things. There are a couple of versions of the speech, but in my favorite one which you can watch here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9a70fz6420 he states, “We are part of the earth and it is part of us […. ] Man did not weave the web of life. He is merely a strand in it – Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
In early August I had the pleasure of traveling to Vashon Island to a reading organized by Merna Hecth, the Island’s Poet Laureate. There I read with Shankar Narayan, a Seattle based poet originally from India. Shankar shared a poem with us that evening that has haunted me ever since and he was ever gracious to le me share it in this forum.
From Whidbey Island, to the Salish Sea, ICE detention facilities, Central America, India, Vashon Island, to Seattle, “Every part of the earth is sacred,” as Chief Sealth once said.
The Times Asks Poets to Describe the Haze Over Seattle
No one asked me, but I would have said this apocalypse
looks like home. The laureate
says a grey gullet has swallowed
a molten coin, another calls it powered cadmium
and cirrhosis, dystopian, grotesque, a crematorium. Yes,
all of these describe my Delhi, and which
of my well-meaning friends will understand
that for a week now I have woken to the warm nostalgia
of exactly the familiar cataclysm that hangs
there every day as I imagine Hiroshima’s
mushroom cloud might have done before dispersing into that dead
silence? Every sunrise and sunset so brilliantine,
and like the finest earth-to-table restaurant a new recipe
daily for the fresh soup of toxins, the plastic mill, the pyre
ground, the matchstick factory where every day five year olds blow off
fingers. There has been no blue
for years. No, these are not things to be proud
of, and looking up at this brown smudge of a Seattle
sky I know I should look away, feel for evacuees and ashed
homes and bear and deer and antelope, but
in the confusion of entanglements holding my life
together I cannot say what’s catching
in my throat, am I now animal remembering how once I would run
in Delhi, laps around that little brown park
with its mongooses and illegally grazing buffalo, before the haze
pressed in, caught into its creep my blackening lung
and squeezed, or is my animal
brain transported to another home on days outside
those twenty-one per year I am allowed
to be my other self, exhale into just another no-different
anonymous body, or is my animal howling
to dam the forgetting when breathing clean so long feels like birthright,
blowing down all those accidental animals, of whom I
am one, whose water is hauled from Cascadian streams where no one
may so much as dip a grimy toe, whose children will never leach carpet-factory
mercury into their bodies, is my animal screaming
blue murder that if some can’t breathe
then none shall breathe, my asbestos lung rasping
to anyone in this town who will listen— this is how the world
In May I travelled to Snoqualmie to the Black Dog Arts Cafe home of the Black Dog Arts Coalition to dedicate their poetry pole. The sun was out that afternoon for the first time in a while engaging in spectacular fashion the light greens and deep greens on either side of I90. As I climbed up to the pass, leaf, branch and bark seemed to rejoice, as I did, in the lovely spring light.
It could not have been a more perfect day to celebrate the value of words and the importance of community. Inside the Café I read poems and said a few words that the existence of this carefully chosen log, would over time serve as gathering place for thoughts and sentiments lovely and otherwise, thoughts articulated with care and deliberation. After the remarks, those of us who chose poetry over sunshine went outside, sat on the deck and one by one read the poems we’d brought to offer the pole. I include two of the poems down below.
In the meantime, I know of a few other poetry poles in the state: on Vashon Island, in West Seattle and the mother of poetry poles, the one who has inspired others in Selah, WA. This pole is the work of Jim Bodeen, founder of Blue Begonia Press Poetry Pole
“The Pole is energy, She Who Shines For All, from nine kinds of flower, the singlepoetic theme of life and death, the question of what survives after the beloved.”
Poems From Snoqualmie’s Poetry Pole dedication:
there is a charm in verdigris
my breastbone shatters
against the memory
you — of goldfinches
in the backyard who
once were chickadees —
you crack me open
and i weep
as you make a
– Lily Renner
The tune blows hauntingly from my soul
The exhalation of life’s young breath spent
Tender ears hear the beauty of sorrow incarnate
Weaving of melody with heart’s pained yearning and learning.
Each refrain calling
Drawing inner world to sound
Exquisite ache reaching down
The poignant frailty of strength
Knowing – flowing through the simple clay.
Each chorus building
Mightily shaking with grounded emotion
Ebbs like the ocean, mounts a wave
Spirit grows luminous, years and tears
Pushed out in a breath, released to the ears.
-Sheri J. Kennedy
Please let me know if there are poetry poles in your community that I may add them to this blog post.
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
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
Denny International Middle School
The tree inside me
In the river of memory
the roots of my tree
search for security
friends of the past
my trunk, strong and tall
resists like a lighthouse
thunderstorms of thought
it refuses to fall
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
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.