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.

Follow Poetry Club on Facebook

“We was all walkin’ on golden clouds…Just like that, we was free.”

–FELIX HAYWOOD, former slave

Just when curiosity about a topic beckons, a friend comes along with a timely story. PEGGY SMITH, a member of the League of Women Voters of Thurston County, wrote a column for the League’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice Committee newsletter.

Peggy’s lived in the Puget Sound area most of her life, except when she pursued her education (BS in chemistry, PhD in Biochemistry) and a career in biochemistry out of state. A career change from the natural sciences to public service, after an MPA in Policy Development, facilitated her return to Washington. She enjoyed doing planning and research for state government until retirement. She has been a life-long advocate for human rights and social justice, mostly in the context of church and nonprofit organizations. Since retirement, she has been involved in such efforts with the League of Women Voters. She and my wife Amory have been friends since the seventies, and I am proud to call her my friend too. Here’s her column.


The first thing I knew about slavery is that President Lincoln had something to do with it. This resulted in a school holiday on February 12th each year, and I would be sure to bake and eat a Lincoln Log that day — just as I baked and ate cherry pie on February 22nd, a school holiday. By the time I made it through high school, I knew that Lincoln was president during the Civil War. I sort of understood that this war was a conflict that pitted human rights and economics. I was clearer on the fact that the war brought an end to slavery in the United States.


The way I understood things for many years after high school was that Lincoln freed the slaves by way of the Emancipation Proclamation. As a chemistry student, I did not need to know more. It took quite a while for me to realize it wasn’t as straight forward as that, as noted in this information I uploaded from The National Archives.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared ‘that all persons held as slaves’ within the rebellious states ‘are, and henceforward shall be free.’

Despite this expansive wording the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the United States, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy (the Southern secessionist states) that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union (United States) military victory.


In the mid-1990s, I became friends with a woman named Janet. She had grown up in Texas, been in the Peace Corps, and we became good travel partners. One June, we were traveling overseas, and she said that she wanted to celebrate Juneteenth. I didn’t have a clue, but I’m always ready for a celebration. Here is basically what she told me.

Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. In June 1865, Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army landed in Texas and brought the news that the Civil War had ended, and all slaves were free. The news came as a shock to more than 250,000 slaves in Texas who were unaware of it. On June 19th, in the city of Galveston, Granger publicly read General Order No. 3, which stated: ‘The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.’ Granger was there to enforce this decree, which had originally gone into effect two years earlier.

Celebration of Juneteenth (aka Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, or Jubilee Day)

The first celebration in 1865 is recounted in Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas by Felix Hayood, a former slave. His description included the following:

We was all walkin’ on golden clouds […] Every body went wild […] We was free. Just like that, we was free.

Here are links to a few of the notices I have received about celebrations this year:

From the Northwest African American Museum

A selection of graphics representing Juneteenth Art

An informative overview of Juneteenth

Next year we will be able to enjoy an official holiday in recognition of Juneteenth which became a federal holiday on June 17th, 2021. I am open to suggestions about what I can bake and eat in honor of this day.



Next year I hope Amory and I can celebrate Juneteenth with Peggy and honor Janet. Peggy says, “I can clearly say Janet is the only person to tell/talk to me about Juneteenth.”

I know I can come up with a menu. A Google search yields scads of recipes. I recommend 44 Recipes from Black Food Bloggers to Celebrate Juneteenth. Jerk BBQ Ribs, Sweet & Tangy Coleslaw, Brisket-Stuffed Sweet Potatoes…one can only say Yum, and those are only three of the choices.

Peggy with my daughter Deborah and her daughter Mason


Becoming a Ghost

Punching “ghostwriting” into Britannica.com brings up “forgery.” Britannica does not include a separate article distinguishing the genre from counterfeiters of art, literature, etc. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ghostwriter as “Originally a hack writer who does work for which another person takes the credit.”

Tony Schwartz, the writer behind Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal (1985) said, “Being a ghostwriter was hack work.” He was a young writer then with a pregnant wife and a mortgage. He did it for money—half the $500,000 advance and half the royalties. Years later, Schwartz acknowledged a “deep sense of remorse,” admitting he “put lipstick on a pig.” Ed Kosner, former editor and publisher of New York, had stronger words for his colleague at the magazine: “Tony created Trump. He’s Dr. Frankenstein.”

Ghostwriting’s history includes Sinclair Lewis who, as a new Yale graduate, sold literary plots to Jack London and penned Tennis as I Play It for a U.S. national champion.  Katherine Anne Porter, a Pulitzer prize winner, wrote My Chinese Marriage for Mae Franking, a 17-year-old Irish-Scottish girl who met a 19-year-old Chinese student in high school.

John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter Ted Sorenson penned the then-senator’s Profiles in Courage for which JFK won the Pulitzer Prize. Two dozen ghosts wrote Ronald Reagan’s An American Life. “I hear it’s a terrific book!” Reagan said to a group of reporters. “One of these days I’m going to read it myself.”

Ghostwriting businesses are all over the Internet and vary in size. I found a huge company claiming hundreds of bestselling books ghostwritten for globally known public figures. And, I learned about a small shop run by a man well past middle-age—sparse hair sprayed into vertical pick-up sticks—who touted himself as “the author of your next bestseller.”

You may wonder why I’ve spent almost three hundred words and you’ve spent fifty-five seconds reading about a topic I’ve cast in a questionable light. A few months ago, my son told me, with excitement, that he was investigating an executive position with a company that produced ghostwritten books—a curriculum not included in either of my graduate degrees: an M.A. in journalism, an M.F.A. in creative writing. Who would want to study ghostwriting, anyway? I was interested in personal essays, poetry, and memoir. Ghostwriting was not my jam.

But, sometimes, a pursuit disparaged, turns into a pursuit embraced.

“Ghostwriters,” claims Scottish mystery writer Sara Sheridan, “have as much right to think of themselves as good writers as academics, poets or literary novelists.” Yes, I thought to myself, whatever I’m writing—blog or memoir, poem or paid assignment— I don’t compromise quality.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Three decades ago, I helped my older friend Ruth, describe her Maori upbringing in New Zealand. She possessed fascinating stories and basic writing skills. I added editorial polish and basic publishing skills, resulting in a small booklet for her and her family. Last year, Ruth’s twelve-year-old granddaughter, with help from her mother, found my address and wrote to ask if I had an extra copy of her grandmother’s stories. I dug out my copy and mailed it to her, imagining applause from Ruth’s perch in heaven.

Extensive online resources have increased access to genealogical records, but, like Ruth, some older people (one company tags eighty-two as the average age of their clients) are interested in doing more than filling in blanks on a family tree; they want a legacy book for their families. Remembering lovely chats with Ruth and her pleasure in the completed product, I decided to use my skills to help someone, a stranger, to tell their story.

I applied to a middle-sized company. The interview process was standard: application, resume, interview, and a test. The test included transcribing an interview and constructing a story that retained the “voice” of the interviewee—always called the “author.” I transcribed a thirty-seven-minute interview which contained the usual circumlocutions, unfamiliar place names, and curious pronunciations characteristic of everyday parlance. I pared the 3,236-word count down by one third and wrote, I hoped, a readable distillation of her story.

The process was tedious and hard! Since the individual was widely traveled, I had to sleuth out spellings and names of places in South America, Morocco, and the United Kingdom. As a librarian, I’m a pretty good detective, but I ended up with a list of ten problems I couldn’t solve. Most perplexities had to do with names: Is “ Naim” the correct spelling of the family member’s name?”  Where is the town of “Gottlering?” and what are “Crocodile nails.” I grew to enjoy the author’s cheerful, lilting voice, and her effusive laugh when telling about personal misdeeds. The rhythm of her language, the cadence of her speech stayed in my head, often as I went off to sleep.

I passed the test, signed a contract, and have an assignment. I would love to include details from the subject’s story and say, with happiness, the syllables in her name, but I can’t. I honor the unwritten ghostwriter’s code: anonymity and confidentiality.

Like the character in J. P. McEvoy’s 1928 play Show Girl, I am  “…one of them there ghostwriters doing my bit for belle lettres” and, I think, affirming the idea that there is a book in everyone.

“I’m Not Famous like Aaron”

During  author Aaron Hamburger’s June 4th  reading at Third Place Books, he asked someone to stand: Emily Dietrich, his first creative writing teacher. Hamburger, author of two novels and a short story collection, said he had never thought about writing until he landed in Emily’s creative writing club at Detroit Country Day School in the late 1980s.   

In September of 1987, Emily was a new teacher with a new graduate degree in English. Her first piece was about to be published in Historic Women of Michigan.  She had a single class in pedagogy on her resume, but when  Detroit Country Day School called the English department at the University of Michigan and recommended her, Country Day, an elite expensive school, hired Emily. 

“Aaron,” she recalls, “wrote naturally, dropping right into whatever we were doing as if it were completely familiar to him. I remember feeling happy to see him–he had a great smile and sparkling eyes–when he came into the room. He joined the creative writing club and his writing appeared in the club’s publication, Spectrum.”

In 1989 Emily got married, the software development company her husband worked for was sold, and they moved to Silicon Valley. “I did not  want to live in California.” A decade later they relocated to  Washington where they still live. She wrote for SeattleWomen and Seattle’s Child.  She ran a creative writing club at Redmond Junior High and Redmond High School when her daughter was a student there. She’s on the board of RASP, the Redmond Association of Spoken Word which promotes literary arts and poetry through open mics, author readings, and writing groups.

Years passed with no contact between Emily and Aaron until a suburban Detroit newspaper interviewed him after the publication of  The View from Stalin’s Head  in which he mentioned his first creative writing teacher. A distant relative sent Emily the article. Aaron and Emily reconnected on Facebook.

Aaron made room in his Nirvana Is Here book tour schedule  to teach a craft workshop for  Emily and her writer friends, the  Mount Holyoke Club of the Puget Sound Writing Group. “We met at a member’s home in Bellevue and had dinner. Aaron brought a collection of exercises for generating ideas and vivid descriptions. He showed us how to think about characters in a different way. Best of all, his accepting, playful prescence got us talking, sharing and going deeper into the process.”

Emily’s response when I approached her after Aaron’s reading was “I’m not famous like Aaron.” Right. Not many of us are, and Aaron would probably say, ‘I’m not famous like, well, Philip Roth or Herman Wouk.’ But, if you believe the old maxim “A writer is one who writes,” Emily’s track record is proof.

The first thing she ever wrote was a poem–and that’s the genre she connects with most. Right now she’s working on a chapbook of poems she read as part of the Duvall Poetry series last year. She’s also drawn to fiction. When Ms. magazine published her essay, she decided she had “permission to work on a novel.” She completed Holding True, published in 2013 by Booktrope.  She pitched a second novel at the 2016 Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, “but then Trump got elected, and I redirected my energy toward activism and resisting.” She’s found time to contribute to co-author a puzzlebook, The Conjurer’s Almanaq  and writes Magentic, a  blog which, yes, boasts a briliant magenta theme.

Because her husband was disabled in an accident, she is spending a preponderance of time caregiving, allowing her to enjoy books like  Where the Crawdads Sing, A MAn Called Ove, There, There, Nine Below Zero, and Crazy Rich Asians.                

In fact, she scurried away from Aaron’s reading to get home and reflected later on on her early assocation with Aaron, enlightened by his ficionalized story of homosexual assault  (based on his own experience) in Nirvana is Here.

“I had no idea, not the slightest idea, of what Aaron had been through when I met him. I didn’t realize that our creative writing club was a safe place for him as a very recent trauma victim.” She continued,

“Reading Aaron’s novel and the non-fiction he has written about that time in his life has been intense and changed my understanding of those years. I feel so much gratitude and admiration for his work and for his way of being in the world.”


Getting’ It Done: A Writers Conference at Home

Writers Conferences—tempting ones—are all over the place: the SleuthFest in Florida; the Kauai Writers Conference in Hawaii; the Writers Police Academy in Wisconsin; the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference in Alaska. Some are subject specific; others offer a range of genres and guest faculty.

Beyond USA borders, print ads for the San Miguel Writers’ Conference in Mexico list Billy Collins, Margaret Atwood, and Barbara Kingsolver as past speakers. The elite Rohm Literary Agency in New York offers conferences abroad in Cape Town, Dublin and Paris for the respective prices of $1,550, $1,995, and $2,245, travel not included. Rohm has advertised the participation of Tom Robbins’ and Margaret Atwood’s literary agents, along with other nationally known authors.

So why wouldn’t I, despite the perk of a conference in her own backyard, hop over the back fence to an exotic setting or a genre-specific conference? Here’s why: The Chuckanut Writers Conference is characterized by 1) low cost: under $250; 2) stellar assortment of authors and agents, twenty of them, including standouts like Garth Stein, bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain and Claudia Castro Luna, Washington State Poet Laureate, 2018-2020; and 3) intriguing panels like “Seven Steps to a Strong Political Essay, “Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads: Using Imagery in Writing,” and “Novel Development: From Appalling to Polished.”

A disclosure about “Novel Development:” I was the moderator though I suggested neither the title nor the emphasis—plotting, planning, researching and developing novels. I put myself forward as a moderator because my work as a librarian brought me in touch with a writer I admire, Nancy Pearl, “America’s librarian,” and because I wanted to see how the tactics of fantasy, dystopian, and literary fiction writers would inform my process as a creative non-fiction writer. Sure, I could attend the panel, but reading and over-researching authors, especially the work of unfamiliar authors is as good as taking a university class.

The assigned panelists included Terry Brooks, an amiable individual who has written 23 New York Times bestsellers. I launched a discussion on outlining vs. not planning with two of the strategies he suggested in Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life (2004): 1) daydream; 2) Write an outline. The rest of the panel were pantsers—authors who create content, flying by the seat of their pants, though Laurie Frankel (The Atlas of Love, Goodbye for Now, This is How it Always Is) does both.

In contrast, the characters of George and Lizzie (whose names are the title of Nancy Pearl’s debut novel) took up residence in her head. “I had a basic idea of George and Lizzie and I knew the direction of the story.” Her manner of working goes like this: she gets up early in the morning, takes off on a seven-to-ten-mile walk, listening to books or podcasts. “I find that while I’m walking and not consciously thinking about much of anything, all sorts of ideas come to me; it’s basically how I figured out what would happen in George and Lizzie.” Nancy delights in the adventure of publishing her first novel at age 72, but she considers herself a reader first and a writer second.

Of reading, Laurie Frankel says, “If you write two hours in the morning, then you have to read two hours in the evening. Read books in your genre that make you want to say, ‘Omigosh, I wish I’d written that book.’ Read books that have solved the problem that you want to solve in your work. Read like a writer. Ask what worked and how; what didn’t work and why not. “

Omar el Akaad handed out a list of books relevant to the new genre of Cli-Fi—Climate change Fiction. Omar, an investigative reporter born in Cairo whose family moved to Toronto when he was sixteen, wrote three novels before his novel, American War was published in 2017. “Those first books were terrible,” he said. “I didn’t even try to publish them.” His work with Toronto’s national paper The Globe and Mail took him to Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay and Missouri. He was struck by the “symmetry of injustice”—tear gas and armed soldiers both in Afghanistan and Fergusson. He saw civilians living in combat zones and in refugee camps. American War, the second American Civil War, takes place in the closing decades of the 21st century and shows the consequences of climate change. He observes, “I like to say that a lot of what happened in the book happened; it just happened to people far away.” When I told him I was halfway through the book, he said, “Don’t worry, it gets much more depressing.”

Tara Conklin’s novel, The Last Romantics, is also dystopian. Chapter one, titled “Year 2079,” opens with Fiona, a 102-year-old poet talking to an audience of a thousand people. The chapter ends Fiona saying “…this is a story about the failures of love…” The love and its failures revolve around Fiona and her three siblings after the sudden death of their father, the family’s financial ruin, and the mother’s debilitating depression. Tara believes that “stories navigate us through difficult times and help us understand the past and point the way to the future.”

Her comment and four other fine fiction authors gave me new ways of working with plotting (I don’t), planning (I’m a pantser), researching (enhancing my librarian background) and developing my work (chapter by chapter). Craft elements of fiction can transfer to creative nonfiction; yet there was so much more to be learned from the conference…

I do not reference the astonishing address by Sonora Jha after which the audience rose as one body to cheer her passion, humility, and insight; I do not explain how Laurie Frankel’s workshop, “Work+Magic: Strategies for Gettin’ It Done” recharged and reframed my work habits; I’ve not mentioned the poem that lifted out of me, catalyzed by poet Jane Wong‘s session on Elegies; I’ve not acknowledged conference chair Kaitlynn Teer‘s smooth piloting of a conference with many shifting parts. I’ve been to other excellent writers conferences, but Bellingham, the city of “subdued excitement” is lucky to have a writers conference sponsored and presented by Whatcom Community College and Village Books.

P.S. To hear from another writer who chose to attend this conference, read my friend Laura Rink’s takeaways here.

Nirvana is Here and so is Aaron Hamburger

Aaron Hamburger

The novel Nirvana is Here showed up in mid-May, adding to Aaron Hamburger’s list of books: The View from Stalin’s Head and Faith for Beginners. While Hamburger will not exactly be “here” in Bellingham where I live, he will be at Third Place Books on June 4th in the Seattle area.

I’m going to hear him. When I attended the Stonecoast MFA program, Aaron was a sought-after faculty member––a sharp evaluator of both fiction and nonfiction and a critic who salted his feedback with wry observations. His attitude and approach were always about making our work the best it could be. I suspect students at Columbia University, George Washington University, and Brooklyn College where he has also taught, feel the same way.

Nirvana is Here is about sexual identity and has roots in Hamburger’s own experience. To check out the plot and determine whether you want to read a cleverly written, spiked-with-humor piece of fiction about a gay Jewish teenager who endured a trauma of the most difficult kind––rape by an older high school boy––scroll down through Amazon’s cluttered pages to Hardy Griffin’s review.

The musical group Nirvana’s been called the “flagship band of Generation X” and the band had a distinct effect on Aaron Hamburger. In 1991, he was “a nervous freshman” at the University of Michigan when a guy ran down the dorm hall yelling “You’ve got to hear this!” For Aaron, listening to “Smells like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana was

“an explosion of insolent Pacific Northwest cool into my deeply uncool and fundamental conservative world…Hearing his music was like receiving a dispatch from another spiritual plane, one that offered irrefutable evidence that there were other ways of living–and maybe other ways of loving, too.”

References to Nirvana’s music threads through Nirvana is Here. Kurt Cobain’s advocacy of gay rights impacted Aaron. “During his relatively short life and career…[Cobain] spoke with a clarity that inspired me to do the same, creating a kind of role model for me to follow.” (You can read more here.)

As for me, I paid little attention to Nirvana in the 90s. I was probably too busy saying “Turn it down!” to my children to attend to the rhythms and lyrics of Nirvana. When I asked my 35-year-old son if he knew the band Nirvana, he said, “Mom, that’s like asking an English major [me] if she’s heard of Shakespeare.”

Now, having revisited “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are,” on YouTube, I get it––the hard driving, powerful drumming of Dave Grohl and the raspy-voiced magic of Kurt Cobain. I see how Cobain contributed to the liberation of Aaron Hamburger and his fictional character Ari. Aaron integrated his own trauma into his novel and has advised other writers to

“Travel to dark, secret places in your work and expand your knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax so you have all the tools at your disposal to express your vision .”

But he’s not all serious. Once at a Stonecoast talent show, Hamburger participated wearing a chef’s apron and hat, and wielding a hamburger-flipping spatula. I wonder what surprises he’ll have for us in Seattle.

The Kumquat Challenge

Ara  Taylor, project manager for  The Kumquat Challenge, emceed the KC celebration and announced the  2019 winners on April29th. In the Student Category: Kristen Dietz, 1st place; Rem Naughton, 2nd; Mariia Neguliaeva, 3rd. Community Category: Sally Sheedy, 1st; Alana Erickson, 2nd; J.S. Nahani, 3rd.

Every spring during National Poetry Month, the Whatcom Community College Library, sponsors a poem writing contest. Every year I’m both confounded and energized by the pile of disparate words—ten of them—that land in my inbox and charge me to make a poem.  This year the words were

ardent, hour, intent, open, yearn,
mingle, keen, just, quarter, shimmer

For a moment, I considered writing about Casanova—more than a womanizer, he was a Roman Catholic cardinal, a spy, a diplomat, a violinist, a magician, and…a librarian —a bullet point in my biography as well. From 1785 until his death in 1798 he worked as a private librarian for a count in Bohemia.

What came to mind, however, was doggerel about a promiscuous rake—ardent and keen of intent—mingling hands with a yearning maiden beneath a quarter-sized, shimmering moon just as the midnight hour opened. So:

I turned to the method I’ve used for several years, looking up each word in the Oxford English Dictionary which contains alternative meanings, obscure usages and curious quotations which stimulate my imagination. The OED is the 20-volume dictionary that Ammon Shea wrote about in Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 pages, a book I recommend.

I’m pleased that I don’t have to drag thick, individual volumes of the OED off library shelves; my wife gave me an online subscription Christmas three years ago which has become a fixture in our budget.

I enjoying finding quotes…even if I don’t use them like the dialogue Charles Browne created in his 1862 publication Artemus Ward, His Story: “‘Hast thou not yearned for me?’ she yelled…‘Not a yearn!’ I bellered.”

Yearn as coagulation of milk, “to form curds, typically after the introduction of rennet or ‘yearning’” won’t be a usage for me, nor will this definition of quarter: “any one of four parts of a body or carcass in which a human body may be divided, as was commonly done to a traitor after execution.”

Mingle means mixing things together, like voices or people (i.e. the dating site “Christian Mingle”). Merriam-Webster adds “usually without fundamental loss of identity.” (I like that!) Then there’s Shakespeare’s creative conveyance in Antony and Cleopatra: “Trumpetters…make mingle with our ratling Tambourines.” I wonder what he’d do with the modern-day parlance of real estate people who use mingle as a noun meaning “an unmarried person who shares a residence with another of roughly the same age.”

As for shimmer, I hit pay dirt (can’t resist the OED’s definition of the mining term “pay dirt,”  first used in 1853,“ground ore in sufficient quantity to be profitably extracted” and the figurative application “to achieve profit or success”) when the OED prompted me to think of shimmer not just as a gleaming, flickering light, but as “A workman who inserts shims in cabinet work.”

A line came to me: “She was a shimmer.” Like a sculptor teasing art from rock, I began to chisel out the finished poem that satisfied the technical requirements for The Kumquat Challenge, a poem that I called


Two daughters remove fixtures, paint walls,
stage the house into magazine-ready saleability,
Kondo-readying us for our new condo.
Marie would be pleased with their downsizing
and the parsing of items into categories:

One son, ladder-borne, sanitizes the attic,
his gloved hands mingle with rodent deposits
and the webbed netting of spiders.
Wise to his mother’s yearning,
he, an ardent eliminator of the unnecessary,
notes the slight nod of my head, heaves
unused items destined for disposal into
his pick-up before I can change my mind.

He Boraxes rug stains into invisibility,
pilots a rug cleaner over yards of carpet,
replaces switch plates, installs a bathroom heater,
carries sofas, beds, thirty cartons of books,
erects and steadies eight bookcases,
positions furniture, mounts TVs, builds shelves,
slices remaining cardboard boxes into quarters.

Another son, rabbit-quick, hauls, unloads, organizes.
Returns to his out-of-town home. Repeats.
Posts photographs to social media platforms.
Predicts no sales. Correctly.

We settle in, make changes.
Our daughter-in-law shifts
an IKEA desktop onto table legs
which double as file cabinets.

Loaded, they are heavy; they will not open,
but she is solution-oriented, keen of eye,
a workwoman, intent on success.
She slides, just so, a slim triangle of
found wood between the floor and the drawer.
She is a shimmer.

I am a-shimmer too, caught smiling
in a glow of gratitude for adult children
who make possible the hour of our
departure from one place, one life
to another place and another life.

Limericks, Pangrams & the Dazzling Ascent of Wordsmith.org

Anu Garg. Do you know that name? People in 171 countries do because they receive what the New York Times called “the most welcome, most enduring piece of daily mail in cyberspace.” I’m one of them.

Eleven years ago on January 8th, 2008 I heard Garg (Indian-born and raised) at Village Books. Enchanted with his deep knowledge of words and their history, I subscribed to Word.A.Day (A.W.A.D), and I bought The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two: the hidden lives and strange origins of common and not so common words. The title was a mouthful, but then as now, I’m fascinated by the words he chooses, defines, and writes about.  

Garg founded Wordsmith.org, the vehicle for A.Word.A.Day exactly 25 years ago today: March 14th, 1994. He sent out his first word, zephyr––he liked the exotic sound of it and the meaning, “a breeze from the west”––when he was a graduate student in computer science at Case Western University in Cleveland. By 2002, his success allowed him to quit his corporate job at AT&T. Since Wordsmith’s inception, Garg has sent out 3.6 billion emails and featured 5,626 words. Here’s a recent favorite of mine: throttlebottom

Meaning: noun: A purposeless incompetent in public office.
Etymology: After Alexander Throttlebottom, a vice-presidential character in Of Thee I Sing, a 1931 musical comedy. Earliest documented use: 1932
Usage: [Lyndon B. Johnson] wanted to be Vice President, both to position himself as JFK’s successor someday and because he believed that he could convert any job––even Throttlebottom’s–– into a power base.” (James MacGregor Burns, The Crosswinds of Freedom, Knopf, 1989)

Will I use throttlebottom in conversation? Probably not. Still, I like knowing that it’s available to apply to a recalcitrant legislator. Likewise, scapegut, cernuous, mordibezza, and clutchfist. Not all curious, obscure words are meant for more than an appreciative smile. Some go straight to my brain’s wastepaper basket. As a writer I might find a fun application for palilogy (the repetition of words especially for emphasis) at my critique group and once, I used alazon (a person characterized by arrogance, braggadocio, lack of self-awareness, etc.) in Words with Friends, wedging the Z onto a triple square.

To celebrate its anniversary, Wordsmith.org has announced limerick, anagram, pangram and coin-a-word contests. You know what limericks are. Anagrams are words that use the same letters, like debit car/bad credit or dormitory/dirty room. A pangram uses all the letters in the alphabet as in “Intoxicated Queen Elizabeth vows Mickey Jagger is perfection.”  Garg’s coined  word, linguaphile (a lover of words) made it into the American Heritage Dictionary.

Wordsmith has assembled an impressive list of judges to judge the contests Garg is offering: big names in the word biz like Will Shortz, New York Times puzzle editor, Kory Stamper, author of Word by Word, and Richard Lederer, author of the humorous classic, Anguished English. Prizes include books, dictionaries, and a tour of the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary in the UK. I had to still my heart over that last prize. I like to read anagrams, limericks, and pangrams; I don’t like to write them. Maybe I could coin a word: how ‘bout Gargfan?

Wait. Maybe I should check the OED to see if it is already a word. Results: ‘‘No dictionary entries found for Gargfan. Did you mean arghan, gangman, marfan, or sarafan.’’ Nope. Garg, no gangster he, bears no resemblance to the fiber of a South American plant, a heritable disorder of connective tissues, or a long mantel that is part of the national dress of Russian peasant women.

Gargfan: what do you think? I’m a fan. Anyone else?

P.S. For more about how Anu Garg uses his created vocation as balm for his mom, see https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/19/…/solver-crosswords-child-becomes-parent.html





How I Search

Cradle Rolls, Rabbit Holes, Serendipity & Obliquity

I discovered my mother’s 1908 decorative Cradle Roll certificate, a document that had foundered, unexamined, while boxed in my last two garages. Squelching embarrassment, I reveled in the new information it provided: that my grandmother was my mother’s “guardian;” that she and my mother were living in Bakersfield, California; that my grandmother––never a church-goer in my lifetime––had associated herself and her about-to-be adopted daughter with a Methodist-Episcopal Church.

Thrilled to obtain this information. I brought the treasured certificate and my latest bio-memoir chapter (Untold, in progress) to my critique group. One member after supplying feedback, suggestions, and edits, per our group’s process, said, “What’s a Cradle Roll?” Another said as she has before, “I’d like to hear stories about how you research.”

First, let me say that my writing has never been so derailed and distracted as when I researched Cradle Rolls.

Do you want to know who created cradle rolls, and when? No problem. Two sisters, both Sunday School teachers, in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1877. What good is a Cradle Roll? Well, sometimes they’re used to establish births—which is exactly what I believe my father did in order to procure a passport for my mother.And…what about those Presbyterian scholars in New Zealand who write about cradle Rolls?

 Wait a minute, nobody wants such far-away facts, but I’m going to tell you anyway. In 1907, one Kiwi Presbyterian noted that women in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were involved in “some rather quaint activities,” i.e. Cradle Rolls, “a mystic but motherly-sounding venture.” The spokesman was certain that the purpose of Cradle Rolls was to get mothers to sign up their children and commit to bringing them up as abstainers.

 I love that kind of incidental trivia. With my family history/memoir writing project, I’ve found myself with fistfuls of well-researched irrelevancies that struck my fancy and possibly noone else’s.  But you know what, I don’t think I can change. Heavy revision is required and/or finding places for extraneous material––like in this blog: a justification for serendipitous searching.

 Let’s start with rabbit holes.  You know what a rabbit hole is: a cavity dug by a rabbit which she claims as her home. Today, the destination for human rabbits, thanks to the Internet, is not often home. Investigators hyperlink into distracting labyrinths from which escape is difficult, arriving at information often unconnected to original questions.

 As Alice discovered when she tunneled into her fantasyland of anthropomorphic characters, rabbit holes are a metaphor for entering the unknown, for broaching something stranger than imagined. Lewis Carroll’s book was published in 1865, long before a subculture called hippies appropriated psychedelics to amp up their view of the world.

Sagacity, now there’s a word to embrace! Wouldn’t we all like to be known as discerning, intelligent, and having an aptitude for investigation?

Is my related pursuit in this paragraph intelligent, an apt investigation? Maybe. Anyway, it’s a rabbit hole that fascinates me: Walpole met Horace Mann just once, but he maintained epistolary contact with him for 45 years and penned more than 4000 letters to a variety of other correspondents. Called “perhaps the most assiduous letter writer in English,” his correspondence has been published in thirty-eight volumes and also exists in a difficult-to-navigate digital compilation at a Yale University Library: http://images.library.yale.edu/hwcorrespondence/)

I’ve also found justification in another word: obliquity. I take Merrill-Webster’s definition into account––“deviation from moral rectitude or sound thinking”––as well as the Oxford English Dictionary’s “Divergence from right conduct orthought”––but I prefer the interpretive application given by systems engineers:“Obliquity is a theory that proposes the best way to achieve a goal when you are working with a complex system is to take an indirect approach instead of adirect one.” (www.searchcrm.techtarget.com). The best way. Yes, I think it is.

 I value cogent, relevant, well-constructed prose. My bio-memoir’s end goal is truth and understanding, big concepts that have guided the discovery of obscure information and the construction of chronology—i.e. my family history. I have a high tolerance for segues; in fact, I have a preference for them because they help me figure out the world that my ancestors lived in.

 Also: way back when I said my writing about cradle Rolls had never been so derailed and distracted…not true. Derailment and distraction are the curses of the curious and undisciplined, fellow-traveling qualities in every manuscript I produce.

And one more rabbit hole: Wanna know more about those New Zealand scholars–– theologians, historians, clergy and students who meet four times a year and start their meetings with “drinks and nibbles.” They’re called Presbyterian Research (https://preshist.wordpress.com/nz-presbyterian-research-network-2/)–– a collaboration between Knox College and the Presbyterian Church of Aoftearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand). Or, check out their (non-scholarly) 2010 piece on and reproduction of Cradle Rolls on their website: https://preshist.wordpress.com/2010/08/20/the-cradle-roll-and-its-ephemera/

Rabbit holes can lead the researcher Down Under. I’m happy about that.

Postcard Digi-Stalker, Pt. 1

In 2007 Paul Nelson and Lana Ayers launched The August Poetry Postcard Festival (APPF). Participants pay a small fee, with the intention of writing a postcard poem a day to each member in their assigned group of 31 poets.  htpps://www.paulenelson.com/august-poetry-postcard-fest/

As one who sent postcards to friends and family, plucking touristy designs from loaded racks in places as diverse as Pismo and Prague––before Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter decimated that bounty––I wondered: how could I write to thirty-one people I didn’t know? Questions (a happy constant of my former profession as a librarian} about those in my assigned group, beset me.

What could I find out about the person on my list with an address in Nagoya so I could write a relevant poem? Where was Nagoya anyway? What unusual places could I learn about?  Were there academics in the group? What interesting jobs or hobbies did they have? Were their political views similar to mine? Did we have friends in common? And, what unexpected discoveries would come my way and stimulate the birth of my thirty-one poems?

I used all the popular tools at my disposal––Facebook, LinkedIN, Goodreads, Google, Google Images, web pages, blogs, Amazon, and, as a last resort and with great discernment, Rate My Professor and Wikipedia. I plundered databases that required subscriptions or access from a library: Britannica, WorldCat, the Oxford English Dictionary, and Ancestry.

I spent an average of 2 to 2½ hours researching––one-sided and uninvited as the process was––before I flash-typed a poem and pasted it onto purchased postcards.

When no information could be found, I let surnames drive the poems, Lark, for example, and the German translation for King. On one desperate occasion, I extracted material from the library building plan of the poet’s city. Surely I could make a poem out of enchanting references to “flamingo pink shelves” and the name of the library’s first land donor, Thatcher Magoun.

Facebook’s yield was highest, but digging through other data sites produced satisfying tags for poem-making. Imagine my pleasure when I found

  • an expat who spent time in Nagoya, was a member of the Japan-based “1000 Poets for Change,” and took first place in the 2015 Vancouver (WA) Haiku Invitational
  • a poet’s place of residence was not only Joseph, Oregon but also called Hah-um-sah-pah, Oregon
  • a Ph.D. from Kent State whose Google image depicted a purple-clad professor against a backdrop of brambly branches and a brick building
  • a poet whose job in marketing was to “develop win themes and client pain points” (what does that mean?)
  • a poet’s letter forwarded to political leaders questioning 45’s mental stability
  •  friends in common:  Nancy Pearl, “America’s librarian,” and, surprise! my daughter-in-law’s sister, Shanna Noel, a Bible illustrator with her own line of Hallmark cards
  • a naturalist, who rambled through New England wetlands and forests and, a  teacher for a nonprofit who gave classes on banding birds
  • one poet’s list of 548 books on GoodReads including the piquantly named Proust & the Squid
  • a participant who ordered her postcards from Estonia
  • the discovery of the existence of a Poetry Pole (address: the Path of the Mailman) in parched Yakima
  • a maker of story quilts, born within 22 months of me who attended two of the colleges I did and was connected to the same church denomination as I

When I told my wife I’d found a participant’s birthday on Ancestry, her accusative tone was undisguised: “You’re stalking people.” So I wrote a poem for Poet #3 who had “wren” in her email address and whose poetry personified a “walkyr,” (Obs. “watchful, vigilant”).

Indeed, I am. I own it/A digi-stalker/a Googling people gawker/a LinkedIn and Facebook talker/discovering in the public locker/a punk rocker, a sweet talker/ a paster caulker, a d. trump mocker/or a Steller Jay squawker/ limericking sleepwaker/ and today, a wrensong walker.

Read Digi-stalker, Part II to find out what happened when I sent that poem off to #3 on my list. Meanwhile, believe me when I say, I no longer embrace the lines that sprung from my pen right after I signed up for APPF:

Of poems epistolary

to a stranger

I am wary.