Washington State Poet Laureate Builds Poetry Legacy – One Mile at a Time

Washington Poet Laureate Elizabeth Austen is building a poetry legacy, one mile at a time.

The honor of being the Washington State Poet Laureate comes with a given: miles and miles on the odometer. Whether by car, on foot, on a ferry, or by small plane, Elizabeth Austen knows it is all part of the journey, and relishes each experience.

Named to the two-year poet laureate post in 2014, Austen knows that she’ll be here, there, and everywhere throughout her term as the state’s ambassador of poetry for appearances all across the state. This includes the annual Bedtime Stories fundraising events in Seattle September 12 and in Spokane October 17, readings with fellow authors, writing workshops, and even some hikes. Austen offers a free program she calls “Hike and Write with the Poet Laureate,” partnering with the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

“The idea is to combine the two things I love most, hiking and writing, in an accessible way,” Austen says. “It’s basically a chance for people to take a really manageable walk with me, about two or three miles, and to let that lead us to writing. I’m excited about it. Twenty-two people joined me for the recent ‘Hike and Write’ at Deception Pass State Park.”

Austen came to poetry after years of working in theater, and brings an actor’s investment to her public readings. She’s been a familiar Seattle voice for years as producer and host of KUOW’s poetry segments, sharing and discussing the work of other Northwest poets. She has also authored three volumes of her own verse, Where Currents Meet and The Girl Who Goes Alone in 2010 and Every Dress a Decision the following year. In her day job, she’s a content strategist for Seattle Children’s Hospital. Two of her newest poems will appear soon in Poetry Northwest magazine.

Humanities Washington: Do you maintain a goal to visit every county in Washington during your term?

Elizabeth Austen: Absolutely. I’m scheduled in twenty-one counties so far, and I’ve already visited eleven. I hope to do more than one event in each place — it’s not like landing in an airport and counting that as having visited a state.

HW: How much time do you have for creating new poetry in your new role?

Austen: It’s very important to me that I model the possibility that writing is simply part of what we do in our lives. So I still work the same number of days at Children’s, but I’ve cut back a little bit at KUOW, and given up my cello lessons—temporarily, I hope. I’ve definitely made continuing to write a priority. It doesn’t make sense to be in this role and not be writing; that would just be absurd. But in a way, I’m immersed in poetry to a deeper extent than I was before. I’m giving two or more readings a week, and that’s in the lull of the summer.

So, the simple answer is that the how I get it done is shifting.

HW: Bedtime Stories participating authors are asked to write a composition based on a theme. Is writing to a cue helpful?

Austen: It’s a very particular challenge, and what I love about it is that it almost always sends me off in a direction where I wouldn’t otherwise go. The title poem in my book The Girl Who Goes Alone was the result of a commission for Richard Hugo House, and it’s a very different poem from anything I had written before, very different from the kind of compressed, small lyrics that I had been doing. It was tremendously freeing. It’s that whole idea of the creative constraint that sends you off in a direction you wouldn’t go until certain doors are closed off to you. But I never find it easy to write a poem on cue. I always say yes with a certain amount of terror.

HW: How did your expectations of your new role compare with the reality?

Austen: One of the things I suspected that has turned out to be true is that it is a fascinating way to get to know our state better. I mean that both in the sense that is probably obvious, going to new places — for some reason I’d never taken the Bremerton Ferry, and found myself on the ferry at dusk, and it was spectacularly beautiful. And then it’s the unexpected: Here in my own city last week, I was invited to visit a creative writing class that takes place every week at the King County Jail. There are three volunteers who teach a class for women. It’s a building I drive past on I-5 all the time and had never been in before. It’s not easy work to go into the jail, even just the sort of administrative hoops they deal with, but they have so clearly established a rapport both with, and among, the women they are teaching, so it’s brought me into contact with something that was happening right next to me that I didn’t know about.

HW: How do you structure one of your poet laureate visits? Are you sharing mostly your own work, or introducing other poets?

Austen: The visits are very, very much based on the venue. One of the things I’m trying to do is think carefully about the audience. If I’m invited to give a reading on the west side of the Cascades, I always open by reading the work of a couple of poets from the east side of the Cascades. I’m also sharing the work of another poet, Kim-An Lieberman, who passed away shortly before her second book came out. I think she’s a tremendous poet, and particularly because she’s not here to read those poems, I’ll often use something from her book to start a reading.

I read recently for the annual volunteer celebration for the Seattle Public Library, and I brought in some poems related to work, like Marge Piercy’s “To Be Of Use.” I’m trying to think about poems that will feel relevant to my audience, and then I try to read a few things from my own work. There’s always a Q&A, and I find that’s one of the most delightful parts of a reading, because I’m always being asked challenging questions by the audiences. It’s helping me think about what to bring to different audiences, and try to really tailor my playlist, if you will, thinking about, “What’s the context?”

The other thing I started doing was talking about various poetry anthologies that I recommend. It occurred to me that whether or not we consider ourselves cooks, everyone has at least one or two cookbooks in their house, because at some point you’re going to have to figure how to make a soup or cook a turkey. I’ve been thinking it would be really helpful if people had at least a couple of poetry anthologies at hand. I’m trying to just introduce the idea that whether or not people decide to make poetry a part of their daily lives, they can know where to turn for what poetry offers.

Austen maintains a website of her work at wapoetlaureate.org.  To get in touch or to book her for a workshop or presentation, email poet@humanities.org.

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