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Poetry Is Not a Fancy Thing

An interview with new Washington State Poet Laureate Arianne True.

Poetry is but one of the many arts to which Arianne True is drawn—comics, video, Appalachian folk dance. But it is poetry to which she has devoted the most time. Poetry is akin to those fantasy books, she says, where “everyone is born with the potential to do magic, and they decide to curate it or not.” And what does this magic do? Perform the most marvelous and accessible of spells—making words conjure pathways of connection.

True thinks in pictures, and her poems deliver finely etched word-images that create a visceral resonance between poet and receiver. Whether writing about the changing contours of Seattle (“Seattle Sonata (legato, every note legato)”), a home landscape felt anew (“water asleep on the wall (the view home from Brattleboro)”), or mourning, both personal and historical (“Pandemic: While home is an outbreak, we pass a graveyard”), True’s poems pulse with the energy of knowledges crystalized into words. To read a True poem is to be given the gift of clarity, the precision of her words encouraging a deeper listening. To hear a True poem is to receive with your whole body, a stirring of submerged ways of knowing held within.

True (Choctaw/Chickasaw) is a proud alum of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she found herself experimenting with taking the exuberance and interactivity of the slam tradition, in which she had grown up, into page poetry. The joy of translation—from slam to page, from image to word, from lone to shared—animates all of True’s work. She spreads this joy in multiple ways, honoring the many writing communities of Seattle that first helped her see herself as an artist. She grew up hearing that “writing is a possible thing; you can have it.” And as a teacher with Writers in the Schools and a mentor with the Seattle Youth Poet Laureate program and Hugo House’s Young Writers cohort, she now shares this same message. They, as the next generation, can have it. Writing is for them.

True has been a 2020 Jack Straw Writer, 2020-21 Hugo Fellow, and the first inaugural Native Artist-in-Residence at Seattle Repertory Theater (2021-22 season). With the Seattle Rep, True created a poetry installation, exhibits, in 2022. To walk through the entire collection with your body—hearing it, seeing it, cocooning in it—this was True’s goal.

As the next Poet Laureate, True looks forward to meeting audiences throughout Washington wherever they are, both in terms of locale and their relationship with poetry. While poetry readings are different from poetry installations, True’s goal is the same: to invite people into the magic of shared, heightened listening, putting your body within the poetry and seeing what happens.

The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

Michelle Liu: You have so many artistic interests. How and why did you choose poetry as your current focus?

Arianne True: One of the things I like about poetry, especially as an autistic person growing up in a world where you are told things like, “Use your words,” and, “You have to be able to say this in a way someone will understand,” is that poetry is practice in saying something precisely. It’s more natural to turn picture into words because poetry is so image-based. So the project for me is: How do I take experiences I have had and move them from my body into someone else’s body, so that they cannot possibly say they don’t understand? A lot of my poems are trying to answer this question. Even when it’s the fun stuff, the chill stuff. It’s all about, How can I give you this experience that I had, so that you feel it through words?

And because I come from a lot of identities and categories of people that have been very marginalized and really messed over by a lot of systems and other groups of folks, I know a lot of stories that have gotten silenced. Women’s stories get silenced. Queer stories get silenced. Native stories get silenced. Autistic voices are constantly silenced, all the time. So having a story on a page, you can’t say you don’t understand. I told you as precisely as anyone can. It’s a bid for connection.

And poetry is fun to bring to people—it’s not this fancy, fancy thing! I don’t think it’s a talent thing, or at least it wasn’t for me. I did not start off skilled at this. I just spent time with it, getting better at it and learning how to do it. I had some things that helped, like I think in pictures, and I like precise language. Anyone can do poetry. Poetry is for the people. It has always been for the people. That’s why poets get arrested in authoritative regimes.

“The project for me is: How do I take experiences I have had and move them from my body into someone else’s body, so that they cannot possibly say they don’t understand? A lot of my poems are trying to answer this question.”

How does poetry invite listening with the body?

A lot of times when we talk about image, people just think about visual senses. But images can be in any sense. All of our senses are perceived with the body. And so poetry, being such an image-based form, means it is a body-based form. So when you read a description of a sound, or a taste, or a texture, or a smell, you tap directly into your body and the memories you have of these senses. When people say they felt something or connected to my poems through their body, that’s when I think to myself, I did it! I did it! What I’m trying to do is put my experience into your body through the poetry.

There’s something about poetry that allows people to listen in a way that’s different than, say, a speech. Maybe because poetry exists in this weird middle ground where it’s not fiction and not non-fiction. It has a different kind of truth to it beyond what is literally true or not true. Poetry creates a little magic zone outside of these labels. So I think there’s more willingness to go with it because it operates in a different paradigm–it’s magical. It’s about getting curious about the magic poetry can do. And anyone can do it!

You mentioned that your time at the Institute of American Indian Arts was formative to your development as a poet. In what ways?

I wasn’t going to do a MFA until I saw their program. It’s there that I started exploring page poetry. A lot of folks put in front of me some of the texts that had been the most transformative for my writing and put me in the directions I’ve gone.

It really was important to me to be in a program that is Native-focused and Native-centering. I got to relax. No one expected me to perform who I was. And I also got to be in an environment where a lot of people came from a more similar background to me. Even though we were all from different tribes–some who grew up in urban spaces, and some on the rez–there were just more shared kinds of experiences. I didn’t have to explain.

What do you like about facilitating poetry workshops?

I love facilitating workshops because people come to know poetry as actually, really accessible because it comes through the body. People know a lot more about poetry than they think they know. It feels empowering when people engage with poetry to bring out their own knowledge, and believe that it’s worthwhile knowledge.

I don’t do structured workshops, but we do editing. I use a lot of principles from Ross Gay, as well as Marie Kondo’s The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up. A few years ago, I was at Nathan Hale High School, and—it makes my heart all happy when I think about this!—where I had students highlight the parts of their poems that they liked when they read it outloud to themselves. What do you love about these parts, even if they’re not happy parts? Then I asked them to take all of those parts, copy them over in a new space, and see what they wanted to do from there. One kid was having a little bit of trouble figuring out what parts he liked, so I knelt beside him as he went through it. As I watched him, I could see him start to feel what he liked about his own work. I could see him light up, all glowing and excited. And this is why I do everything! I don’t want them to look for my validation. I want them to be lit with the light of knowing, “I like my work.”

Michelle Liu is a professor of English and the associate director of writing programs at the University of Washington. She is also a member of Humanities Washington’s Speakers Bureau.

Washington State Poet Laureate Arianne True is traveling the state conducting readings and workshops. Find an event on Humanities Washington’s calendar. The poet laureate program is presented by Humanities Washington and ArtsWA.

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