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.

I stop somewhere waiting for you.


For the last two years, I’ve traveled our state, and that journey brought me into contact and friendships with many generous and welcoming people:  teachers, librarians, arts organizers, book store owners, and, of course, poets.  I’m very grateful for that hospitality, and I’m very grateful for the service all of these people put toward the same cause I’ve pursued in this appointment. Truly, I’ve met so much hospitality in my journeys, and although I’m ready for a return to a quieter sort of schedule, I’ll miss my many new friends; all of them should know that I’m waiting for visits (on the east side of the Cascades) if you’d ever like to come have some coffee or tea or a walk by the river.

Humanities Washington and Arts WA are important organizations in our state.  I’ve appreciated their support for my outreach, and I’ve also continued to marvel at the many ways that they provide our state’s citizens with challenging programming to help all of us live inquisitive, thoughtful lives.  I owe both of them a big THANK YOU for their support.

I look forward to watching the work of Claudia Castro Luna; I’ve had the good fortune to spend some time with her–at readings and workshops–and I can say with confidence that she is going to bring enthusiasm, thoughtfulness, and devotion to the position.  Her poems are graceful and memorable–read Killing Marías when you get a chance.  Our state is truly fortunate to have her as the fifth poet laureate.

As for me–I look forward to spending some time in the mountains, finding my way back to a writing desk, and, if I’m lucky, maybe catching a few fish.



WA 129 +

WA129+2 Digital Chapbook-1

As I was reading through the 2400 or so submissions in order to choose the poems for the WA129 Anthology, I knew that I would be creating one version of the book; that is, I received so many fine poems from so many talented poets that I knew I’d be making decisions between many poems that I admired equally, and I’d have to leave out many works that were quite good–and so I decided to set aside another several dozen poems to share with readers via a digital format.

With little input from me (I provided them with the poems), Gonzaga professor Jeff Dodd and the talented students in his literary editing and design course produced four beautiful chapbooks that feature several dozen more wonderful poems by the poets of our state, including Carolyne Wright, David Fewster, Devin Devine, Don Foran, Dan Clark, Kurt Olson, Jennifer Cushcoff, Cynthia Manycolors, David Haldeman, Bob Toohey, Carver Bain, Lindsay Rutherford, Harvey Schwartz, Jess Gigot, Joseph Powell, Kate Peterson, Jayne Marek, and Terry Lawhead.

Feel free to share links to these works and/or to print out copies to distribute!  The books were designed by Iris Matulevich (#1), Isabella Manoguerra (#2), Alyssa Cink (#3), and David Landoni (#4).  I’ll be on the road in Kennewick, Dayton, Yakima, and a few others places in January, and I’ll print out several dozen copies to hand out at my last few events.  Thanks again to all of the poets who shared their works and to the talented students who worked so hard to make these delightful chapbooks.

WA129+1 Digital Chapbook

WA129+2 Digital Chapbook

WA129+3 Digital Chapbook

WA129+4 Digital Chapbook



Dia de los Muertos

The weather folks are calling for snow in Spokane this weekend; I can’t say that I’m excited about driving in ice and sleet and that fun powdery stuff, but I do enjoy the changes in the season–Halloween and the Day of the Dead, of course, as iconic moments when we acknowledge the spirits that have gone before, the fact of our own mortality, and, maybe, the monsters that lurk about in the worlds through which we move.

October was busy!  I had a wonderful visit with the Red Wheel Barrow Writers in Bellingham; big thanks to JP Falcon Grady and Betty Scott for organizing; Jim Bertolino came out for the event and read some poems with his cow friends watching from behind.  The WA 129 Reading in Bellingham was also a great joy; Tess Gallagher and Alice Derry came over from the Olympic Peninsula and anchored what was a wonderful evening.  Luther Allen and Judy Kleinberg are energetic and creative presences in Bellingham; Village Books is one of our state’s great stores; BHAM is just a great place for the arts.

And just a few days ago, Pomeroy and the Denny Ashby Library gave me a chance to drive across the SE part of the state–and enjoy the rolling hills of the Palouse and the startlingly large windmills that rotate around and around and around like clocks measuring the passage of clouds.  I also learned about A. G. Farley, poet laureate of Washington from 1939-46.  Many thanks to Lillian Heytvelt and the folks at the high school who hosted me!

AG Farley

Like Farley (above), I’ll soon “take my shingle down” from this appointment: this poet will no longer be serving.  Look for an announcement from Humanities Washington and Arts Washington in the next few weeks that will name the next poet to serve our state.  I know who it is, and I’m excited for the poet, the poetry communities in Washington, and all people in Washington who value language and words.  The organizations had a hard decision to make from excellent finalists, and they made a wonderful choice.  So, another transition:  falling leaves, snow, the change of seasons, the passing of the laurels.

But not for a few months.  First:  some driving.  Stevens pass and Robert Creeley:

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

I probably should look out where I’m going before I get too far ahead of myself–to Walla Walla and Redmond, Puyallup and La Conner, Waterville and Pullman.  Lots more poetry stuff to share and to experience in these last three months:  WA 129 events, the soon-to-be-released digital WA 129 chapbooks, workshops and chats, Yusef Komunyakaa coming to Gonzaga, a celebration of Native American poetry in Spokane, and the always poetic moment that is the start of the Jayhawk basketball season.

Writing a Poem for Others

A few weeks ago, I received this poem via email from Cynthia Trenshaw, a poet who lives on Whidbey Island.  She sent it because she wanted to share it with those immediately affected by the fires of this last summer in order to let them know that others felt compassion for their situation.  The gesture reminded me of Kathleen Flenniken’s wonderful project to share poems of support with those affected by the Oso mudslides–or Elizabeth Austen’s great project to share poems connected with the raging fires in the Methow area of our state.  I love it when poetry tries to reach directly to others and let them know that they are not alone in their travail.

Here’s the poem:

Prayer to the Scarlet Sun


On my bedroom carpet and on the closet doors

patches of muted morning sunlight

throb an alarming red.

This week’s every molecule is murky,

hazed by the savage wildfires

on the Cascade mountains’ other side.


On that inferno side

families are evacuated,

reluctantly abandon homes, their personal

museums of memorabilia,

to a gluttony of flame.


Ashes fly westward to land

on my side of the mountains —

small gray supplications settling

on my flower pots and windowsills:

Help us!

            Pray for us!

            Pray for my home,

            pray for the smoke jumpers,

                        sweating, choking, dying in the flames,

            pray for the hundreds of thousands of trees

                        that used to breathe for us here.


But prayer is far too sanitized a pledge

for the murky ache that duplicates

the air on both sides of the mountains.

Any god that I might pray to

is obliterated by the smoke and ash.

So I send my supplications

to the sun that’s red for me,

the sun those refugees can’t even see

as they flee their homes,

fight back flames

and despair.


On this, the safe side of the mountains,

I tell that surreal scarlet sun

I won’t pretend to empathize —

that’s far too painful.

But please, please let them know,

on the other side of the mountains,

that I hear them,

and I touch the ashes reverently

for all the suffering they contain.

By Cynthia Trenshaw



An Art Festival, Nirvana Nostalgia, and the Pacific Ocean (as far as the eye can see)

I was honored to be part of the first Cathlamet Arts Festival; from Steampunk gizmos and pottery classes to compelling music and memorable poetry, the two-day gathering showcased how a small town with dedicated citizens can put together a memorable event:  memorable for the arts but also memorable because of how it brought people together in conversation.  Conversation.  That word is on my mind after listening to a compelling podcast where Krista Tippett and John O’Donohue talk about beauty and interiority, how in the best conversations we surprise ourselves.

(Thanks to Diana Zimmerman of The Wahkiakum County Eagle for the first photo).  The finale of the festival featured Bob Michael Pyle and Krist Novoselic and Ray Prestegard performing as Butterfly Launches from Spar Pole–

My last day in the SW corner of the state took me to the ocean.  I thought of Robert Frost’s “Once by the Pacific” when I stood near the edge of the continent and looked out at the vast stretch of grey; I thought of the rich history of our state when I walked around Oysterville–and was glad to read with Cate Gable and Bob Pyle in the beautiful Espy House (1871) for a wonderful group of poetry enthusiasts (during the Seahawks game, no less!).

And I thought of journeys:  my 45,000 miles driving around the state suddenly seemed cushy and lavish travel next to the imperative Thomas Jefferson gave Lewis and Clark as they embarked on their exploration:  “The object of your mission . . . the Pacific Ocean.”


The Huge Summer Has Gone By

But not quite–(slow down, Mr. Rainier Maria Rilke: from “Autumn Day” or, in a different translation, “Day in Autumn“).  I’m thankful to have had a slow summer, rereading through WA 129, continuing to explore modern European history, and poking around in poets’ work who have given me sustenance in the past.  Catching a few fish, walking miles and miles on mountain trails, trying to breathe a little after the frenetic spring.

And, of course, preparing for the many events of the fall–readings in Bellingham and LaConner, festivals and workshops in Tacoma and Tieton, as well as many library and school visits throughout the state.  More on all of that soon.  In the meantime, here are some photos from early summer–

Was honored to read with Tess Gallagher and to be a part of the tribute to Raymond Carver (with such delicious pie and gracious company) at his grave just outside of Port Angeles.  I look forward to returning to Port Angeles this fall to celebrate WA129 and to gather with many other poets at readings throughout the state!  Details coming soon!

photo by David Haldeman

May Day

I am grateful for my many journeys during National Poetry Month (and 2017 in general); May is also busy, and I hope that it starts tomorrow (peacefully) with sunshine in our state.  WA129 is in the world, and the wonderful poets who will be part of the digital part of the project should have received a note so that we can move forward with that work.  Here are some images from Louder than a Bomb Tacoma (Nate Marshall), Poets on the Avenue (Auburn!), “Don’t Feed the Goats” (!), and, one of favorites:  a disruption notice (poet in the house).  Thanks to all who hosted me this spring.  Will launch some posts on some recent books that I have found compelling, some upcoming poetry conferences and festivals, and the details of the digital part of WA129 soon.