"If you're ever introducing me at a party," our April Poet in Residence Jeanine Walker says, "introduce me as a poet." She ticks down the list of ways she's often described: "don't say I'm a musician, don't say I have a variety show, don't say I've written a novel. I'm a poet."
The risk of being described as a multihyphenate artist is real. Walker moved to Seattle a decade ago, and in the years since, she's insinuated herself into seemingly every aspect of our literary culture. Walker debuted on the local scene as the quick-witted host of the late, lamented Cheap Wine & Poetry and Cheap Beer & Prose reading series. She's the host and curator of the Mixed Bag variety show that until recently took place at the Royal Room in Columbia City and will likely relaunch at a new venue this fall. She's a musician, she's written a novel, and she's currently working on a novella-slash-album with her husband, Steve Mauer.
And Walker is an educator, too. She works with Seattle Arts and Lectures' amazing Writers in the Schools program, which teaches Seattle-area students to "discover and develop their authentic writing and performance voices."
She also coaches writers one-on-one, helping them develop their voice and shepherding them through the process of creating works of literature, from first draft through finished book. "I love coaching," she gushes. "I feel like that's my special gift. When I'm working with people, I think I'm able to read what someone is doing and notice what they might hope that their piece is going to do and then ask good questions to help them arrive at that conclusion." This isn't a one-way transaction: Walker greatly enjoys the deep dive into a person's work. One of her writers lives in New York and they regularly chat over Skype, Walker says, and "I've gotten to read his books, and it's a real privilege to get to know his characters."
But like Walker says: above all else, she's a poet. And she's not one of those stare-out-a-window-and-write-one-line-per-month kind of poets. No, Jeanine Walker writes. A lot. Every day. "I'm writing so many new poems that some of them won't ever be published," Walker says. Those unread poems are helpful, though, she says "because they helped me to get to the other ones," the ones that readers get to see.
One of the things I love most about Walker's poems is that they seem strongly built around a moment. Walker's poetry is immersive; she places you into a location and time with great economy, and then she wallops you with detail. Consider "Conversation," which begins "The rain pinched the glass/of the windowpane." You know the sounds that particular type of rain makes, you can feel the emotion that it brings to you. It's as vivid as an excellent haiku - in fewer syllables.
And in "At Night, Asleep," a gentle noise awakens the poet and her mind wanders. She thinks about her mother, about the need for our parents that never really dies. It's an atmospheric poem - a ghost story with a happy-ish ending - and the heart of the poem is a line that feels so specific that it's universal: "I mistook the sadness for beauty." Really, at one time in your life or another, haven't you mistaken sadness for beauty? Hasn't everyone?
Walker agrees with my assessment of her poems as largely built around very specific moments. "I am interested when I'm revising a poem that an image is as clear as it can be and that it's doing something." But she's not a narrative poet, exactly: "What's being made clear might not always make logical sense, or be linear, or even be clear."
This love of poetry came almost at the beginning. "I was writing stories when I was really little and I wrote my first poem in 7th grade," Walker says. In ninth grade, she found a mentor in a poetry teacher who encouraged her to write poetry for the rest of high school.
With Writers in the Schools, Walker is finding her own inspiration in the students. "The kids I'm working with now are second to fifth grade," she says. "I really see them as their own people, and their own poets." Walker says one of the girls in her class recently rhymed the word "enough-y" with "stuffy," and the delight of the pairing kept her going for days afterward.
All Walker's many talents and pastimes, ultimately, come back to the poetry. The performance, the coaching, the teaching, the prose all inform the poems. She's close to finishing a manuscript, and she's shopping individual poems around to different outlets. When I ask about her process, she shows me the wirebound notebook she's been filling with poetry. The handwriting starts legibly, but as the poems draw on, the writing becomes messier, more ecstatic as the poem pours out of her. Even without reading the poems, it's obvious that their writing was a biological imperative.
Walker affirms the urgency of the writing. "Without poetry," she says, smiling, "I would not be."