A Poet Laureate in our Presence

Washington State Poet, Rena Priest

My Poetry Club, meeting since 2015, has studied classic and contemporary poets (think Wordsworth and Margaret Atwood), well-known and lesser-known writers (Ferlinghetti and R.C. Weslowski) writers, but we’ve never had a real-time conversation with a current poet laureate. This month Washington State Poet Laureate Rena Priest joined us via Zoom, the discussion led by Ron Leatherbarrow, a teacher of poetry for over 50 years and a poet himself.

One might think a poet laureate is singled out and selected by the sponsoring organization, ArtsWA, because of a poet’s achievements—such as Rena’s first book, Patriarchy Blues (2017) which won the prestigious American Book award in 2018. However, potential laureates must take the audacious step of applying on their own behalf or by being nominated. She was encouraged by Fellows in the Jack Straw Writers Program, and poets John Green, Kathleen Flenniken, and Dawn Pinhon-Baron. “You should try,” they told her. Their confidence was encouraging.

In 2020 she applied and was selected. ArtsWA director Karen Hamen said she was chosen because of “the compelling nature of her poetry and work, the depth and breadth of her connections and her capacity to further extend these connections through her role as State Poet Laureate”

Rena is no stranger to hesitancy. She sat on poems for Patriarchy Blues for seven years, putting out little chapbooks at literary salons. Those little handsewn chapbooks resulted in the publication of Patriarchy Blues by MoonPath in Tillamook, Oregon. Now, she tells young writers:

Don’t be scared to send out your work because you never know what might happen.

Rena enjoyed the process of applying for the laureate position, calling it “quite cool…and very long. I had to answer deep questions that made me reflect. I felt like I was talking to other poets about poetry.”

Priest’s two-year term began last April and continues through March of 2023. As the first Indigenous state poet laureate (a member of the Lhaq’temish, or Lummi Nation), she treasures the opportunity to visit tribes, to “bring poetry out into the natural world to celebrate beautiful places in Washington,” and to write poems “based on environmental restoration and preservation.”

A moment of fun

With the honor has come an onslaught of attention, requests for appearances, and a life anchored by Zoom. “I feel like I’m living the life of an artist’s personal assistant, not the life of an artist.” At one point, she and her husband took off in their VW camper and drove to Big Sur. They followed Washington State Poet Laureate Tod Marshall’s advice: “Find time to run away.”

Answering Ron’s question on how her poems begin, Rena replied: “I’ve always loved the sounds of poetry and foreign words. Sometimes an image, a scrumptious set of words or cadences—whatever intrigues me.”

Within her work the reader finds poems with curious, sometimes enigmatic, titles (“Toward a Beautiful Flare of Ruin,” “The Frolicsome Crests and Glistening”), poems on disparate subjects (“Daffodils” and “Vinegar”), and poems carrying references to Walt Whitman and Wordsworth. One of my favorites, “Tour of a Salmonberry,” begins like this:

A salmonberry is
a luminous spiral,
a golden basket,
woven of sunshine,
water, and birdsong.

When asked about the role of storytelling in her work, she talked about how every word tells a story, that the story and the word are one, like the Lummi word Elhtalnexw, which means “the people.” Broken down through its etymology, the word says “We are here—out to sea—living together in a village.” It tells the story of the great flood. In Seismic, an anthology exploring Seattle’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature, she writes in her eloquent essay, “Story is a way of seeing each other and ourselves. Story is a way of surviving.”

Rena finds poetic forms a good jumping off point and likes inventing forms. Her poem “The Hobo and His Pigeons” is a Petrarchan sonnet—14 lines, eight plus six lines, each with a specific rhyme scheme. Instead of rhymes that end a line, she likes internal rhymes that cascade in upon themselves as in her hobo poem when she writes of birds: “Those burdened beaks, they long and sing for crumb/from bum with rum and roses in his cheeks.” Currently, she’s writing pantoums.

Priest calls herself “a good student” (B.A., English, Western Washington University; M.F.A., Writing, Sarah Lawrence College). While considering a graduate degree, she looked at different schools: St. Mary’s, Goddard, Bennington, and The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets at Naropa University. While chatting with poet Jim Bertolino, he said, “Have you thought about Sarah Lawrence?” She was thrilled to be accepted at Sarah Lawrence. “I wanted to live in New York City, a good place to make art. The experience was both awesome and hard.”

Having taught at Western, Northwest Indian College, and Hugo House, she finds challenges in teaching. “I don’t like measuring people’s poetry; it takes away from the kind of connection I like to have with students.” She smiles about one student’s evaluation: “Rena will be a very good teacher when she learns to use her authority.”

See Rena Priest’s web page for a list of, and links to, her publications (Yes! Magazine, Poetry Northwest, Jack Straw Writers Anthology, Sweet Tree Review, and others) where you’ll also find her biography, teaching activities, awards, and fellowships. Check out our discussion with the poet laureate and hear the enthusiasm and love of poetry in her voice. Shannon Law and Michael Singletary regularly post Poetry Club’s meetings on Podbean a few days after the discussions occur.

The Blog link on Rena’s website is absent of material and reads “Posts are Coming Soon.” That’s likely because she’s paying attention to requests, even from tiny groups like ours (seven in attendance) for which Poetry Club is grateful.

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