Elizabeth Austen is the third Poet Laureate of Washington state; her term as roving ambassadress for poetry runs through 2016. She’s a Shakespearean trained actor, who writes poetry, produces literary programming for KUOW radio and works as a content strategist for Seattle Children’s Hospital. Austen's latest book of poetry is “Every Dress a Decision.” She also has an audio CD of original poems called “Skin Prayers.”
What books are open on your nightstand right now?
I’m slowly working my way through David Shields’ “How Literature Saved My Life.” I say “slowly” not because of Shields’ writing, which always spins my head in satisfyingly unexpected directions, but because I tend to conk out after two pages of anything when reading in bed.
Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,” has been on my nightstand for months, but it might have to wait until I’ve read James Hillman’s “The Dream and the Underworld,” which I picked up recently after a conversation about it with Christine Deavel (one of my favorite local poets and co-owner of Open Books: A Poem Emporium in Wallingford). I remember my dreams, they’re a powerful experience, so I’m fascinated by this book that goes beyond Freud and Jung in discussing the place of dreams and their meanings.
Have you read a truly great book lately?
Though I read it over a year ago, the one that sticks with me is Tim Seibles’ most recent collection, “Fast Animal.” It’s suffused with intensely sorrowing and enraged care about the world and the state of our country. (Full disclosure: Tim is a dear friend, but this isn’t just my affection talking — “Fast Animal” was a finalist for the National Book Award.)
Do you read mostly fiction or non-fiction?
Neither. I read poetry more than anything else. My days nearly always begin early (6am-ish) with coffee and a collection of poetry. That 30 or 45 minutes spent alone, listening to another poet speak directly into my mind’s ear, is my favorite part of the day.
When I’m not reading poetry, I usually choose non-fiction — often books about poetic craft or the writing process (currently: Gail Sher’s “One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers,” another recommendation from Christine), essay collections related to nature (Diane Ackerman and Terry Tempest Williams are two favorites), or science-for-the-layperson. I’m a fan of Mary Roach’s work — I sent her most recent, “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” to my dad and he loved it. I’ve got to get myself a copy.
When it comes to fiction, I tend to be a binge-reader. A good novel can make me late for work and skip the things I’m supposed to do, so I’ve learned to — mostly — reserve fiction for plane rides and vacations. The end of Cheryl Strayed’s first novel “Torch” had me weeping into a beverage napkin on a recent flight back from Los Angeles.
When did you start writing poetry?
I wrote poems occasionally as a kid and took a couple of poetry workshops as an undergraduate, but didn’t start writing seriously — meaning, as my main creative focus — until my early thirties.
From your perch as Washington State Poet Laureate, how would you characterize our state’s poetry scene? What’s going on that’s new and exciting in poetry, especially in Seattle?
I’m just six months in to my term, so can’t say that I’ve got a sense, yet, of the whole state. I will tell you that I’ve been struck by the number and diversity of volunteer efforts to bring poetry into our communal life. And there are tons of poetry readings in Seattle; you can go to a poetry reading every night in this town. There’s no one central place to learn about them; The Stranger has a pretty complete listing.
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