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The Washington State Poet Laureate: What I Know

Tod Marshall does not lead a life of poetic contemplation—he races across the state in a blur of readings and workshops. For the end of National Poetry Month, here’s a sample of what he’s learned.

  • April 25, 2017
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  • Editorial
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  • By Tod Marshall

I have learned a few things during my travels around our state as Washington Poet Laureate—some practical, some poetical, some neither or both.

I know that I-90 has five official rest areas between here and Seattle, that the Viking in Sprague has good milkshakes, and that the varied terrain, scenic vistas, and stunning contrasts in landscape between Spokane and Seattle have few rivals anywhere.

I know that crop dusters always make me ooh and ah.

I know that basalt columns jut up like a weird collection of consonants, an alphabet that spells something both ancient and unspeakable.

I know that Snoqualmie Pass may be treacherous in a snowstorm, but the stretch between Moses Lake and Ritzville in a whiteout frightens me more.

I know that if it’s raining in North Bend, then chances are good I’ll be in warm sunshine by the time my Subaru reaches Ellensburg.

I know that smoked salmon from a shop near Anacortes is always worth the stop.

I know that poetry can often be found in unexpected places, and that the names of Washington State—Nisqually, Nooksack, Walla Walla, Washougal, Chewelah, Chatteroy, Oysterville, Yelm, Coupeville, and Cathlamet are a constant music in my ears.

I know that “so much depends / upon” careful attention to the world around us:  whether in conversation with a friend, ordering a latte, casting a fly line, or eating a meal.

I know that “the darkness around us is deep,” and that the more we speak clearly with one another, the better our chances of staying connected.  I also know that screens attract too much of our attention, and that a reliance upon them in socially awkward situations keeps us from forging connections with other human beings and may even stunt the possibilities of empathy.

I know that “deferred dreams” dry up, fester, stink, sag, and worse.  And those who force others to put off dreams are hurting others and themselves.

I know that “corruption has never been compulsory,” and that we should think about the impact of our every action, especially when the implications of those actions might threaten the weak and vulnerable, as well as those without power or voice (including the environment).

I know that I believe in “imaginary gardens / with real toads in them,” and those toads that inhabit the imagination are as important as any lumpy, warty critters that I know.

I know that love sometimes inhabits “austere and lonely offices” and that I should be aware of the dutiful ways that others provide and have provided for me—those “little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.”

I know the difference between “claiming an education” and receiving an education, and that to claim an education is to take rightful ownership of it—and it is not passive act (if knowledge is light, then I want as much illumination as I can get).

I know that “the world begins at a kitchen table” and thus each day’s breaking of the nightly fast is a beginning of the world, of my being in the world, and that knowledge comes with responsibilities to myself, my thoughts and to every encounter with another because we all “tramp a perpetual journey.”

I know that I must habit myself “to the dazzle of the light” in “every moment of my life.”  Whether the day’s journey takes me far afield (Berlin, London, or a place as strange as Moscow, Idaho) or just on a walk with my dog around the block, I am moving through a world rich with possibilities and powerful encounters.

And I know that I’ll be out on the road again soon—probably zooming west on I-90, thinking about the depths of Sprague Lake, lamenting how little I know about sorghum or alfalfa (crop signs near Moses Lake), gawking at a crop duster, tilting my neck to see the sculpted horses poised up on the hillside, those beautiful animals connected to the ground but ready to gallop forward to the next possibility.

Poems and other writings quoted above (in order of appearance)

William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheel Barrow,” William Stafford “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” Robinson Jeffers, “Shine Perishing Republic,” Marianne Moore, “Poetry,” Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays,” William Wordsworth, “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” Adrienne Rich, “Claiming an Education,” Joy Harjo, “The World Ends Here,” and Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself.”

This article first appeared in Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living.

Tod Marshall is the current Washington State Poet Laureate, and he serves to build awareness and appreciation of poetry — including the state’s legacy of poetry — through public readings, workshops, lectures, and presentations throughout the state. The Poet Laureate program is sponsored by Humanities Washington and ArtsWA. Marshall, a poet and professor at Gonzaga University, is the author most recently of Bugle (2014), which won the Washington State Book Award in 2015. He recently edited an anthology of poetry celebrating 129 years of Washington statehood, WA129.

Read Marshall’s blog at wapoetlaureate.org, follow him on Facebook and Twitter, and find an upcoming event here.

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