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“I Think I Need to Come Home”

An interview with Rena Priest, new Washington State Poet Laureate, about the meaning of home and the music of language.

  • April 14, 2021
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  • Interview
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  • By Samantha Allen

Rena Priest writes poetry that is as personal in its perspective as it is planetary. Her first poem, written in the second grade, was about sunsets and bees. A more recent work, “The Index,” imagines a ledger recording the deeds of every earthly creature, humans especially, on the brink of environmental collapse. To read her words is to care deeply about the ground they were written on.

A member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation, Priest is the first Washington State Poet Laureate from a tribal community. For her, the appointment is a confirmation and culmination of her decision to come home to Bellingham after graduating with an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College in 2008. Shortly after she returned to Washington with a veritable mountain of student debt on her back, an elder at a community gathering told her, “Now, that you’ve come home, you have to help your people,” to which the young poet asked, “How?”

“Think good things about them,” the elder urged.

That piece of advice has been the through-line of Priest’s poetry career, likewise her simultaneous work as a job skills instructor for the Lummi Indian Business Council and in her environmental advocacy on behalf of the Salish Sea. In 2017, she published Patriarchy Blues, a searing collection of poems about abuse and desire in a society that condones the former and restricts equal access to the latter, netting her an American Book Award the following year.

The intertwinement of man and nature occurs not just at a thematic level, but at a textual one, in Priest’s poems, which are often punctuated by halting breaks between stanzas that propel you forward, rapt, to the next indelible image. Her second collection, 2018’s Sublime Subliminal, features rhymes like “krill” / “mill” that feel playful in isolation but together paint a landscape in which the boundaries between the personal, the animal, and the environmental have been blurred.

Interconnectivity is not just something Priest preaches, but a tenet she put into practice in her profession, as evidenced by her above-and-beyond involvement in the Bellingham poetry community, and in Washington writ large. For Priest, poetry is social — something meant to be experienced together in rooms — and her commitment to the art as a communal practice, in addition to her talent, has made her a favorite among her peers. Kathleen Flenniken, Washington State Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014, tells Spark that Priest’s work is “quick on its feet and moves in ingenious ways,” praising her successor for being able to “dispense hard messages, beautiful images, and jokey observations, sometimes all at the same time.” Michael Schmeltzer, the Seattle-based poet who published Priest’s second book, calls her work is “as cerebral as it is playful.”

“Rena is ambitious; her list of achievements and awards testifies to that trait,” Bellingham-based poet J.I. Kleinberg adds. “But whatever she can attain through her own efforts, she shares generously with family, friends, and community. What benefits Rena benefits all of us.”

Since coming home, Priest has been trying to think good things about her people; it would seem they have also been thinking good things about her.

Humanities Washington spoke with Priest on the eve of her appointment as Washington State Poet Laureate about the position and about her belief in the power of poetry. The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

You’ve said before that growing up in a tribal community feels like living two lives. Do you think poetry can come from that feeling — or that it can be a way to bridge the distance between those lives?

Totally. I feel like it’s been a tool for me to navigate that, and to make these associated leaps between seemingly unrelated things — and to try to merge them somehow, because there’s a cognitive dissonance that happens [between] what you’re taught in school and then what you’re taught at home. They’re just so contrary in some ways, and you have to find a way to make them compatible.

I’ll give you an example: I wish that I knew my native language fluently. I’m learning it right now. We don’t have a word for “poem” or “poetry” in the language, but the language itself is so poetic. Then there’s this mistrust of the English language in my tribal community. It’s not held by everyone, obviously, I don’t want to generalize. But I remember an elder saying, “English is the language of the treaties, and if you embrace the English language, you embrace the values of the colonizer.”

I thought about that a lot. And I was like, “Oh my God.” [English] is this language that I love so much, and it’s the only one that I know how to express myself in. [Canadian poet] Lee Maracle talks about repatriating language, and how language is a part of our DNA. It’s a deep part of our physiology and how we understand the world. It’s structurally — physically — a part of who you are. If you don’t have the language of your ancestors, your body is aware of that emptiness of that. There’s a chasm in your way of understanding the world. I feel like poetry has maybe helped me to answer that a little bit.

How do you feel your voice has shifted since Patriarchy Blues? From the interpersonal to the global, maybe?

Yeah, definitely. I think part of that has to do with being in my tribal community. I wrote most of Patriarchy Blues when I was living in New York. [In New York], there’s this feeling, I think, in hindsight, that you’re ground down and there’s no place for you. You’re constantly bombarded with images and representations of women as fulfilling a role that is secondary and at the service of men. It was a lot to be under that and trying to climb out. It was also a big contrast to how things are in my tribal community. A lot of my work responded to that feeling.

Whereas now my work seems to be responding toward gratitude for what a beautiful place we have, and that really what’s at stake is this amazing planet if we don’t care for it — all these different species that are struggling, including us. I feel it takes a toll on people, emotionally and psychologically, to be living in ways that are so contrary to our nature, to how we’ve evolved for millions of years.

Why did you come home to Washington after New York?

Well, this is personal. I think part of it was starting to see things go sideways in my marriage and thinking, “Oh gosh, what’s going to happen with me and my little daughter? Are we going to have to go to the women’s shelter?” It was that feeling — and then the feeling of needing to come home, wanting to come home, for that reason.

But then also, I remember that we came home for a visit. We were at the beach with my brother and his children, who were approximately the same age as my daughter, and they were playing on the beach, and she turned over a rock, and saw a little crab scuttling away. And she just flipped out with joy: “Oh, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, there’s a big crab, c’mon, la la la la.”

I was like, “Oh, she’s not having these experiences that were so formative for me. She’s not connecting to this place the way that I had the opportunity to do.”

That really made me sad. I was like, “Man, I think I need to come home.”

“The ability of language used intentionally, to get to the heart of something, to get down to the structural building blocks of human experience — it just has this profound way of reaching into people…”

You’re Washington’s first poet laureate from a tribal community, which is an important precedent, but do you also feel like a burden of responsibility comes with it — the weight of all that history?

Well, there is going to be some of that. But also we’re all raised from a very young age, growing up, to know that we have this responsibility. We’re aware. The elders and the parents and the aunties and uncles, they tell you, “You’re going to have to go to school. You’re going to have to learn everything you can. Don’t talk back to the teachers. Don’t argue with them, listen to them, try to respect what they’re saying. Just take what you can out of it — take the good out of it.”

Then you learn the truth and you learn your responsibility to it. You learn your responsibility to protecting the treaties and your treaty rights, and your homelands, and the future generations, and the elders. There’s always this weight of responsibility that comes with being an indigenous person in this country. It’s heavy. To be able to celebrate my identity in this forum is really just a blessing because that responsibility is always there, no matter what. I have a platform to be able to speak the kinds of truths that I think that people will be appreciative of — or maybe resistant to.

You’re planning to read more poetry in tribal communities to foster healing and justice. Why do you believe poetry has the power to address some of those historic wrongs?

I think poetry is so powerful for its ability to use metaphor to bind together seemingly disconnected things — and also to just reach into a person. Even the sounds of it. One of the things that I love most about poetry is its kind of built-in, innate music and language, the rhythm, the scales. I love the vowel scale. I get a big kick out of it all the time. But the ability of poetry, the ability of language used intentionally, to get to the heart of something, to get down to the structural building blocks of human experience — it just has this profound way of reaching into people, and relating, giving them a doorway to relate to each other, to relate to experiences.

I once read a Charles Simmons essay in which he talks about the function of poetry, and compares it to a machine that takes what’s inside of me and puts it inside of you, and we’re connected that way. I love that so much.

You’ve been writing poems since you were a child. At what point did you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet?

I think, earlier this morning? [laughs] No, I think probably when I went away to graduate school to study it, maybe.

I read this really sad story about — who was it? I think it was Carolyn Forché  — and she met some famous poet, maybe [W.H.] Auden or something. I’ll have to find this at some point. But she’s a famous poet in her own right, and she’s at this party, where she meets this other famous poet who asks her, “So, what do you do?” She’d never met him before, and she knew that he had no idea who she was, so he wouldn’t have known that she also was a poet.

She said, “I’m a poet.”

Then he said that that was pretentious, and nobody calls themselves a poet. And she said something like, “I never called myself a poet after that,” because she was horrified.

I said, “Oh my God, that’s so awful.” And I think maybe, when I read that, I was like, “Well, f**k that, I’m a poet.” Sorry for the language. I was like, “If that’s what you are in your soul, embrace it.” Who’s to say otherwise, you know?

Samantha Allen is the author of Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States and a contributing opinion columnist for Crosscut.