Elizabeth Austen is finding clarity by embracing mystery

I've been following Elizabeth Austen's work for years now — from her early chapbooks to her 2012 debut collection Every Dress a Decision, from her role as Washington state's third Poet Laureate to her role as a poetry correspondent for KUOW. Her poetry has always been accessible enough to capture a reader's immediate attention, but durable enough to reward multiple readings with new discoveries. She's a complex writer who constructs levels in all her poems.

The four poems Austen contributed to the Seattle Review of Books this month as our Poet in Residence, though, feel different somehow. It's not that Austen doesn't sound like herself — that voice is as clear and confident as ever — but the rhythms of the poems feel different, and there's a mystery to the new work that departs from her previously published material.

On the phone, Austen admits to being "relieved" when I ask her if there's a difference between her new and her old work "because they seem different to me. And I want them to be different." But she's not entirely clear on what the difference is, either.

In many ways, Austen is just recovering from her time as Poet Laureate — a role that awkwardly fuses the sociability of a politician with the introspection of a poet. Austen was a tremendous advocate for local poets and a very effective conduit between ordinary Washingtonians and the literary arts. But she says her two years in office were "draining in a way that I don't think was possible to anticipate." Austen says she "loved" being Poet Laureate and "I was grateful to get to do it," but she confesses that "I needed about two years of quiet" when her term was over.

Of course, nothing has been quiet about the last two years. Austen says her newer work is "partly dictated by the times we live in." Since 2016, she's been "feeling silenced by my own sense that poetry seems an incredibly paltry response to the state of the world."

This isn't just about a Seattleite despairing at Trump's election. Austen says her poetry was silenced in the face of "the resurgence of something ugly that I thought was a lot closer to its deathbed: overt racism, overt misogyny, this incredible xenophobia and anti-immigrant insanity."

After months of feeling helpless, Austen says she came to terms with her responsibility as a poet: "I finally just gave in and realized that it may be paltry, but it's what I have to offer."

As a reader of poetry, Austen says, her needs have changed. "I need poems that speak to the moment we're living in," that provide a context to modern American life as part of a continuum of history. Who does she read for inspiration? "Danez Smith and Terrance Hayes are two poets that are just continually rocking my world in terms of what they managed to do with the clarity and imagination with which they're meeting the moment." She credits Ada Limón for being "willing to hold the heartbreak of moment."

But in order to find her inner voice again, Austen has had to reach outside herself. "It feels very practical when I bring poems to groups of people who, for example, do palliative care or who work with people who are unhoused," she says. (In her day job, Austen works as the senior content strategist at Seattle Children's Hospital.) "The value of poetry feels very urgent and very tangible to me because I see it through the eyes of people who don't have the kind of everyday access to poetry that I do." By sharing poetry with people who are experiencing grief and trauma, Austen remembers why poetry matters.

And what does she do when she actually needs to sit down and write? Since 2016, she says, "the big change in my process is that I do most of my initial drafts now with one other writer in the room with me. I meet once a month with Kathleen Flenniken and once a month with Susan Rich." The poets coax each other along the creative process. "We give each other prompts, we do timed writing, and then we read aloud whatever we wrote. That's how a lot of my new poems have started, really, for the last two years."

That support network has helped Austen immeasurably. "In many ways, the two of them kind of carried me through a time of feeling like I really had kind of forgotten how to write."

The new process is definitely having an effect on her work. "I'm very purposefully trying to set up situations where something will arise that is beyond my conscious control. Where my first book had a very definite narrative spine that was clearly autobiographical, I'm trying to do something here that is probably much more ambitious."

You can see that in the poems Austen has published with us this month. "Shall Not Be Infringed," she says, came during an exercise when the poets exchange the end lines of poems. Borrowing words from another poet "pushed me in a particular direction," Austen explains. "I followed where they went and at the end of it realized something I had been percolating about, and probably even dreaming about."

Her poem "[ ]" is "an experiment" in "how much I can leave unsaid and infer and leave room for the reader." This poem, along with several others in the manuscript Austen's working on, grapple with "a kind of hideous, cyclical mess to certain kinds of news — certainly news of shootings." She says "I wanted to convey that sense that there are so many different names that could go in those brackets."

Finally, Austen seems able to communicate what's different about her new work: "I'm a lot more willing to include in the poem things I can't rationally account for." She wants to capture something that is "a little bit beyond my reach." All of Austen's new poems interact with that energy, that mystery, that gap between reality and aspiration. At a moment in which poetry felt weak and ineffectual, Austen started down a path that led her to an exciting new strength.