Kathleen Flenniken Reflects on Her First Months as Our State’s Poet Laureate

The Hanford-engineer-turned-poet reflects on her first months as Washington State Poet Laureate and looks ahead to her upcoming goals and events, including a madcap poetry and PowerPoint event July 19.

Kathleen Flenniken

Kathleen Flenniken

Five months into her term as the Washington State Poet Laureate, Kathleen Flenniken is hitting her stride.

The engineer-turned-poet has been presenting and conducting workshops in libraries, festivals, bookstores and classrooms throughout the state. For a full list, check out the Events page on her blog, The Far Field.

Her poetry speaks to the experiences of daily life, from her past as an engineer in Hanford to her experiences raising her sons and daughter.

Flenniken says poets across the states have made her feel welcomed. But, she added, “It’s thrilling to meet people new to poetry, too, who are often surprised that poems can be of this ordinary world — about Washington’s history, or hydrogeology or sons that lose their coats.”


What: Poets, PowerPoint and a Delightful Misuse of Company Time: A Benefit for Humanities Washington, with presentations by Kathleen Flenniken, Keri Healey, Peter Pereira, Martha Silano, Molly Tenenbaum and Barbara Earl Thomas
Where: West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St., Seattle [Directions]
When: Saturday, July 19, 2012
Cost: $30 through Brown Paper Tickets

Along with Humanities Washington board member and West of Lenin proprietor A.J. Epstein, Flenniken helped conceive of the upcoming event Poets, Powerpoint & a Delightful Misuse of Company Time: A Benefit For Humanities Washington The fundraiser will borrow from the “Pecha Kucha” form.

Humanities Washington recently asked Flenniken via email to reflect on her first quarter as Washington State Poet Laureate and to look ahead to her goals for the rest of her 2012-14 tenure.

Humanities Washington: How does poetry connect people to our state community and history?

Kathleen Flenniken: Poets take the stories of our lives here in Washington, distill and intensify them. Read a poem like Sibyl James’s about the town of Twisp or Larry Matsuda’s poem about Minidoka during the war, or Chris Howell’s memory of eating at a favorite Chinese Restaurant in the 1950s, or even a poem like Tim Kelly’s about a woman recovering from a stroke and see if you don’t feel yourself transported to another time and place and mindset. Poetry is a gateway to understanding the human condition. A good poem can make us better listeners, more compassionate, because it takes us for a walk in somebody else’s shoes.

HW: Have you found time to write while being the poet laureate? What sort of poems are you writing?

Flenniken: It’s been interesting. I’m swimming in a rich poetry soup, and I feel ideas nudging at me on a pretty regular basis. I’m getting a few … drafts written here and there, but the time for turning drafts into something better is a little elusive at the moment. I’m learning how to make do with the time I have, because it’s essential. If I’m going to call myself a poet I need to be writing.

My recent first drafts touch a good deal on traveling. And I have a few writing assignments to attend to — like the Pecha Kucha (style) event coming up, and Bedtime Stories in October, whose theme is “Red Eye.”

Goldendale girls

Two fifth-grade students in Goldendale show off their writing after a class workshop with Flenniken this year.

HW: Do you have a favorite memory from your time as poet laureate so far?

Flenniken: I’ve had some wonderful moments with students in schools in Goldendale, Longview, Olympia, Spokane, when they’re so clearly having a blast and fully engaged. Maybe the most emotional sessions so far have been with prisoners at the Washington Corrections Center for Women and Stafford Creek Corrections Center. There’s a hunger for poetry in prisons. I’m so fortunate to have this license to bring poetry to forgotten corners.

HW: You’re trying to make it to all 39 counties as the poet laureate. Why did you set that goal, and how is it progressing?

Flenniken: I grew up in Richland, in Eastern Washington, and I remember how it felt when programs passed us by because we weren’t on the I-5 corridor. That was a big reason I made it a goal to visit all 39 counties. Often it’s the more remote areas that struggle for arts grants, and (especially) in difficult economic times when arts funding dries up first.

In my first four months I’ve visited 11 counties in my official capacity, and I have nine more counties included in my schedule for this fall. The office of the state librarian is helping me make contacts in the more challenging areas. Fortunately I have two years to meet my goal.

Longview students

A class in Longview writes during one of Flenniken’s presentations this spring.

HW: What are your goals for the next year and a half as poet laureate?

Flenniken: My overarching goal is to help build an audience for poetry across our state and to find new poets for poetry audiences and new audiences for our poets. We have so many accomplished and extravagantly talented poets here, and I want to show them off. In practice that means traveling to give readings with other poets and visiting schools. I’m especially targeting 3rd-5th graders (and their teachers) to introduce them to the fun of wordplay and poetry. It also means continuing to add to the blog I’ve started called The Far Field where I publish several Washington state poets each week.

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