Every so often some jackass from a conservative outlet will point to government expenditure on poets as a sign that spending is out of control. Two years ago, for example, KIRO ran a story headlined “City will pay poet $10K to hold performances, workshops” that seemed to be designed to whip commenters into an uproar. In terms of state and city budgets, the numbers we’re talking about aren’t even big enough to count as pocket change: the Washington state Poet Laureate position receives a $20,000 annual stipend from the state (though mostly that money comes from grants and not taxes) and Seattle’s Civic Poet earns that aforementioned $10,000 for a two-year stint. But angry mediocre white guys gotta whine about something, and state-sponsored poetry seems as good a target as any.
But so far as investments go, these government-sponsored poetry positions pay out in huge ways. Washington state has had a string of excellent Poets Laureate (Sam Green, Kathleen Flenniken, Elizabeth Austen, and, currently, Tod Marshall) who have worked hard to elevate local poets and their poetry through a blend of education, promotion, and memorialization. The Poet Laureate job, put simply, is to make Washingtonians care about poetry.
Seattle’s very first Civic Poet, Claudia Castro Luna, has done excellent work on a citywide level. Luna reads poems at the beginning of city council meetings, she performs at readings around the city, and she honors Seattle poets whose work deserves to be more widely known. Poetry doesn’t pay well, but it does remind us to stop and acknowledge the beauty and the sublime and the injustice in everyday life, and it records our daily life in a format that will speak to future generations in ways that old newspaper articles or archived tweets cannot.
This year, Marshall released what might be his crowning work as Washington state Poet Laureate: an anthology of Washington poets titled WA 129. From some 2000 submitted poems, Marshall selected just over a hundred to illustrate who and what we are as a people right now. The depth and breadth of the anthology is inspiring.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a poem that more perfectly encapsulates our city right now than Cate Gable’s “Seattle: The Crane,” which begins:
some weeks later
took itself apart
Others identify the character of Washington by placing it in context with decidedly non-Washingtonian figures. Michael Daly’s “In Memory” begins, “Seamus Heaney appeared to me last night.” The deceased Nobel-winning Irish poet, in Daly’s dream, pauses to acknowledge the Northwest poetic tradition: “I heard him admire as ‘vegetative’/that tendril-soaked turf of early Roethke.” (“Roethke,” of course, is poet and University of Washington professor Theodore Roethke, who is largely considered to be the forebear of modern Washington poetry.) Catherine Bull imagines German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer moving to a small Washington town:
…Dürer would have seen reason for living
in Ilwaco: the updated Horsemen,
Recession, Meth, Obesity, and Debt,
flying grotesque up and down the peninsula
Those somewhat stodgy historical figures seem too formal when placed against our state; maybe that’s why it’s so much fun to imagine them here. Sherman Alexie’s meditation on train travel and empire that opens the book feels earnest in comparison to Heaney, and that’s perfectly okay; we like to wear our feelings on the outside here. It’s part of our character.
Other poems in the book touch on squid masturbation and nuclear reactors and the slaughter of hundreds of horses. Many are about moments in Washington history. More are about life in Washington right now. Others don’t mention Washington at all. Together, it’s a striking portrait.
Marshall arranged the poets in WA 129 alphabetically by last name. It’s easy to see why he’d make such a decision — no one can levy claims of favoritism then — but sometimes the transitions between poems don’t work when you’re reading the book in order, rather than dipping in and out. The poems might have had more power had they been arranged thematically, to form a narrative about Washington state.
Or perhaps they should have been arranged geographically. For her last major act as Civic Poet, Luna finally unveiled her masterpiece: a poetic map of Seattle, which you can find online for free at http://seattlepoeticgrid.com/. It’s a very intuitive idea: on top of a sleek greytone map of Seattle, Luna has overlaid a mesh of blue dots. Click on a dot and a site-specific poem will pop up.
On the UW campus, for instance, you’ll find a Roethke poem honoring the “antic grace” of a heron the poet spotted on the university’s grounds. At Top Banana in Ballard, there’s a Madeleine DeFrees poem about buying oranges on a dreary Seattle spring day: “I go/crazy, buy all I can carry. At home, they/tumble from the sack to kiss my eager lips.”
On the grid, you’ll find established and lesser-known poets. Some poems are in Spanish, others are in Japanese. Seattleites searching the grid will likely find the poem closest to their own home and then spiral out to less-familiar corners of the city. The discovery of poems in this way is similar to that feeling when you wander the city and turn a corner to find a neighborhood you never visited before. The poems help you learn where you are.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant