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Washington's Poet Laureate gets the F* out of her head

At 17, Elizabeth Austen had a mission: Get out of your mind and into your body.
Elizabeth Austen is Washington State's new poet laureate

Elizabeth Austen is Washington State's new poet laureate Photo: John Ulman

When we look back at ourselves at 17, we are alternately horrified and charmed by the strange beings that so whole-heartedly inhabited our bodies. They had terrible hair or maybe they hadn’t yet quite grown into their ears or teeth; they were smug with how much they knew and yet so desperate to be grown. But as impudent as they may seem to us now, they stood on the cusp between childhood and the rest of our lives. They worked crappy fast food jobs for record money, volunteered at animal shelters, did AIDS walks, took art classes on the weekend. They were working desperately hard to figure out who we are.

Like most of us, I have a lot of stories about myself from that time. In talking with people now about what they were like at 17, I noticed that, with the distance of two or three (or more) decades, the white spaces between the lines of those stories that we still carry have their own shape, and that within those negative spaces, there is a part of that strange 17-year-old who is still with us. For Washington State Poet Laureate Elizabeth Austen, it was the training ground for the embodiment that roots her poems in the physical world.

Over the next few weeks, Crosscut will bring you more glimpses down the 17-year-old rabbit hole, with profiles of local creatives.

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Elizabeth Austen will tell you that at the age of 17 she was dead wrong about who she was. But when she starts to peel back the layers, it’s obvious that her commitment to who she was not, was essential to becoming who she is.

At 17, she was a classical theater geek, determined to play Shakespeare’s great women. She’d always considered herself an extrovert, and as she talks about that teenage dream she sweeps her hand in front of her, as if Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Ophelia and all their cohorts stood in front of her, waiting for her to step forward and fill their shoes on an imaginary stage. She studied seriously at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego during this time. It was there that she discovered her central problem.

“I was really disconnected from my body in ways that were really obvious to my teachers,” she says. “I had no idea who I was.”

Below: Austen in 1982.

That disconnect stemmed, in large part, from being molested as a little girl, a secret no one knew. Although it was an unconscious move, looking back at her drive to perform she says that it was “all about getting back to my body.” And her teachers at the Old Globe weren’t afraid to call her on it.

“They kept drilling it into me,” she says, palms on the table. “Get the fuck out of your head and into your body!”

Acting, at least the good and convincing sort, requires embodiment. It requires that the actress set herself aside and fully inhabit — from the inflections of speech to the mannerisms and tics of movement — someone else’s body. You can’t do that when you don’t even inhabit your own. That connection is essential; the fundamental essence of being human is that we have bodies. They hold our life’s experiences through our senses. And like acting, poetry that connects us to the universal experience of being human requires embodiment.

It wasn’t until she was well into adulthood that Austen decided to focus her creative life on poetry. Around that time her older brother suddenly died. He was 37 years old. For over two decades, she’d carried the secret that he had inappropriate sexual contact with her when they were both young kids, which complicated her feelings of grief over his loss.

This type of abuse is “terribly common,” she says, “and a big part of the harm I experienced growing up was from feeling like I couldn’t talk about it.” Her first full-length collection of poetry, Every Dress a Decision, grapples with the complexity of her relationship with her brother, while also moving toward new forms of spirituality and embracing her own sexuality.


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