Talking with the future of Seattle poetry about finding a voice in difficult times

Last month, I interviewed three poets as part of the launch party for the third issue of the Northwest literary magazine Moss. Seattle poet (and Stranger books and theater editor) Rich Smith had a lot of smart things to say about the political moment in poetry, but I was especially impressed with the two younger poets on the bill — Troy Osaki and Jasleena Grewal. Grewal is a brand-new poet who has only just started attending readings, and Osaki is a slam champion who is making the move into a more literary sphere. The stories of personal transformation through poetry that they shared with the audience felt inspirational.

"I went to law school," Osaki told me, because "I wanted to learn a skill to serve people in a tangible way." But he said "law can be really limiting," in that so much of it holds things "in place" so they "aren't necessarily transforming anything."

"But with art and poetry we can imagine new things, new ways of living, new worlds," Osaki argued. And so in this time when Donald Trump has ratcheted up political tension, everything is "really intense," and so many people are feeling powerless, they're turning to poetry.

"A lot of folks are looking for answers and new ways of thinking," Osaki said, "and they're turning to art to kind of grab onto those new worlds and try to expand our view of what could be. Intense times equals intense poetry."

I asked Grewal how she went from being an entirely inexperienced, unpublished poet to reading at a literary magazine launch party in less than a year. Her first published work appeared in former Washington state poet laureate Tod Marshall's anthology of local poets, WA 129. From there, she started reading with "my friends who are writers, and then I started submitting."

Grewal's theory is "I just go to whatever I'm invited to and wherever my friends are reading." She shows up to support her friends, "and then I'm talking to people and meeting people."

I asked these two poets at the beginning of their careers who they'd highlight if they were asked to choose the poets for the next issue of Moss. "When I think about a quintessential Northwest poet, I think about Sierra Nelson," Grewal said. "I studied poetry at Friday Harbor for awhile and she was one of the mentors and I learned a lot from her."

Osaki cited another Moss poet, Azura Tyabji, as someone he wanted to highlight. "She just became the Seattle Youth Poet Laureate a few weeks ago," he said. "She's incredible. And I think just in general, turning to young poets who are writing really awesome stuff around the city and greater Seattle" is important in times like these.