Washington State Poet Laureate on Teaching and Composing Poetry
Kathleen Flenniken believes if you don’t like poetry, you just haven’t yet encountered the poem to “make your hat pop off your head.”
The Washington State Poet Laureate popped a few hats with her debut poetry collection, Famous, and her 2012 followup, Plume — each of them mining lyrical miracles out of the everyday. Raised in Richland with family ties to the troubled Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Flenniken’s first book touched on her domestic life as a stay-at-home mother who found energy in the study of poetry; the second addressed her dry, irradiated roots in the Tri-Cities, where she followed in her father’s footsteps as a scientist.
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What: Bedtime Stories Spokane 2013 [Details]
When: 6 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. dinner, Sept. 20, 2013
Where: Spokane Club, 1002 W. Riverside Ave., Spokane [Directions]
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Selected for a two-year term as state laureate in 2012, Flenniken dedicated herself to visiting all 39 Washington counties, with a focus on teaching the discipline of poetry in local schools. She’ll read her work at Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories event Sept. 20 in Spokane, alongside fiction writers Sharma Shields, Shawn Vestal and Jess Walter.
When not writing and teaching, she presides over Floating Bridge Press, a nonprofit publishing house dedicated to Washington poets.
“It just feels good to be able to publish poetry that might not otherwise get published,” she says. “It’s very gratifying. That’s kind of how I got to know the poetry scene before my laureateship — it was a wonderful little window into all these communities.”
Humanities Washington: Do science and engineering reconcile well with poetry? People think of them as very separate.
Kathleen Flenniken: I know that’s true, and I don’t understand why. I think that goes back to the whole idea that your mind is divided into two halves, and I don’t think that’s very accurate to the way the mind really works. I’ve never had any trouble reconciling those two sides of myself. I think my engineering training is indicative of a sort of no-nonsense approach. My writing is pared down to something that’s straightforward and pretty simple. It kind of has a surface clarity to it, and I think that’s probably in keeping with the same kind of mind that was attracted to trigonometry and things like that.
HW: How does one teach poetry?
Flenniken: I guess emulating enjoyment — that’s one thing. I’m trying to try to talk to the kids, showing them things I think are fun. I have some little word games and then exercises. I don’t like to dictate subject matter so much. It’s usually about getting at it through some kind of backdoor — talking about form, or maybe there’s a model poem that we’re using. I like open lessons. There’s a lot of different kinds of poetry, so when I’m working with kids that I get to see week after week, I always expect that some (forms) will work and some will not work for any given student. I think it’s a lot to expect for every kid to love every lesson or every single mode, and that’s a broader message I’m trying to bring to people new to poetry: Just because you don’t like one kind of poem doesn’t mean you don’t like poetry.
HW: Do you ever start with a meter and compose to fit that model, or does that have to emerge naturally?
Flenniken: … Say I’m going to write a pantoum — then I have to figure out what my subject’s going to be. It usually winds up being a sort of felicitous agreement between form and content. I have a lot of poems that don’t work. It comes in different ways, but usually a poem for me begins with either an image or a line, and the form evolves as I start writing it down.
HW: We all keep our childhood towns with us, but Richland’s relationship with Hanford seems particularly rich for a writer or poet.
Flenniken: Certainly, when I was writing about Hanford, I was finally ready to write about that part of my life. I think if I look at my first book, it wasn’t really built around place so much. I think the very first landscape poem I ever wrote — meaning a poem that didn’t have people in it — was the title poem Plume. So I kind of get out of my ordinary fashion when I write one of those (Hanford-focused) poems. (But) now that I’m trying to move out of writing about Hanford, I find myself returning to some of my older ways, so not so many poems are just about place.
I guess I’m following my interest in subject — my subject isn’t so much place, but sometimes place plays a big role in my thinking, so it has to come into a poem. Right now I’m trying to write about America, about my relationship with my country, and it feels like a problematic love affair in many respects, and (I’m trying to find) ways to talk about the country that really aren’t based in place. They’re based more in my emotional understanding of the country, and trying to figure out how to write about that.
HW: Which environment is more poetically evocative for you: damp urban or dry rural?
Flenniken: I love the landscape here (in Seattle). That’s basically why I want to stay here. The landscape speaks to me, but it isn’t tied up as much in what I feel is my identity as the landscape around Richland, which feels like it’s tied deep, deep, deep into my formative years. I associate it with family and childhood and learning who I was. It’s very personal to me. But I don’t think it inspires me to write about larger things. It brings me back.
This (Seattle) landscape is sort of more freeing. I can think about whatever I want to think about. I think it’s funny I haven’t written more about this landscape, the beautiful, green, watery world I live in. I guess it just frees me to write about other things, because it feels so right.
A lot of it has to do with sky. There’s so much sky where I came from, and there isn’t so much here. There’s always a tree in the way, or a house, or a building.