The poetry on Washington’s poet laureate’s shelf

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

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.

What is it about poetry that intimidates us sometimes? 

As Terrance Hayes puts it, “Poetry is the language of suggestions, not the language of meaning.”  

Which is to say: poems often ask more of us as readers than other forms of literature. We meet the poem with our attention, imagination, life history. What we make of it will vary based on what we bring to it. This is why reading a good poem again and again over the course of a lifetime will always yield something different, because we ourselves are different.

Whether a poem is “good” or “bad” depends on the needs of the reader. (I didn’t come up with that astute observation, but can’t for the life of me recall who did.) So the poem that rocks me to the core may mean nothing to you (or to me five years later, if what I need from a poem has changed).

And I would elaborate on the Hayes quote in this way: Some poems are nearly all suggestion, and others seem to offer meaning much more readily. You can find poetry at every point on that spectrum.

Can you suggest how those new to poetry might best begin to read and enjoy it?

Start with an anthology, a collection of many different poets, and read around until you find something you love, something that speaks to you in a way you can’t resist. There are as many varieties of poetry as there are different kinds of music. If you’re not enjoying it (and I mean “enjoy” in the fullest sense of the word, not merely as entertainment), turn the page.

I’ve been recommending Edward Hirsch’s “How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry” for years, because he’s tremendously knowledgeable without ever being stuffy. His enthusiasm about poetry is infectious.

I also recommend Kevin Young’s anthology “The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing.” Young has said that after his own father died, he needed others’ poems about loss, and though there were many anthologies of elegies, none met his need, so he created the book he wished had been on the shelf. As he writes in the introduction, “Poetry steps in at those moments when ordinary words fail.” 

Two more anthologies I recommend: “Courage: Daring Poems for Gutsy Girls,” (edited by local poet and novelist Karen Finneyfrock, with Mindy Netifee and Rachel McKibbon), and “Between Water & Song: New Poets for the Twenty-First Century,” edited by Norman Minnick. It offers a broad range of contemporary poetry, a variety of styles, subjects, and authors.

And browse the shelves at Open Books (store@openpoetrybooks.com) in Wallingford. They have a good selection of poetry CD’s, and anthologies you’d never dream of, like cowboy poetry and eco-poetry.

Who are your top two or three favorite poets, the ones you return to again and again? Has your taste changed over the years? 

Oh boy, I couldn’t possibly limit it to two or three, because every poet whose work I love gives me something different, and what I need/want from poetry is constantly changing.

But since you asked, here are a few of the poets whose work I re-read, share, teach, treasure: Lucille Clifton, Stanley Kunitz, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W.S. Merwin, Li-Young Lee, Tim Seibles, Marie Howe, C.D. Wright, Mark Doty, Mary Oliver’s early work, Shakespeare’s sonnets. OK, I guess that’s more than a few, and I’m already thinking of five other poets I can’t imagine excluding (Emily Dickinson, Wislawa Szymborska, Christopher Howell, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jane Kenyon…)

Your collection is called “Every Dress a Decision.” I love the title…but what does it mean?

The title is a twist on a line from my poem “Scene: Hotel, Interior”: “she fills the dress with her decision.” Women, far more than men (though I realize men aren’t exempt from it), are perceived and treated differently by others based on how they are dressed. When I decide what to wear, I’m deciding which self/aspect of self I want to present to the world. That serves as a kind of governing metaphor in the book.

Many of the poems in “Every Dress a Decision” are attempts at expressing some of the complexities of being female in our culture, as I experience them. I wrote the book over a period of about a dozen years, though one poem dates all the way back to my undergraduate years.

Can you name a childhood book that influenced you? What did you read as a child?

Three that left lasting impressions: Dr. Suess’ ”The Lorax,” Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” and Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century.”  When I was in 7th grade, my English teacher gave me a copy of Tuchman’s book. It was a tremendous gift — not just because it was an expensive, hardcover book — but because it signaled to me that this adult whom I admired believed that I not only could read such a book, but that I would enjoy it. She was right.

Did you read poetry as a kid?

Dr. Seuss, Catholic prayers and the Psalms were the first poetry I encountered as a kid. Somewhere early on I fell in love with Shakespeare’s plays — I don’t even remember how I was first exposed to them. I read them aloud to myself and pestered my parents into taking me to the theatre.

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book or poem that’s stuck with you? 

For me, this line from Stanley’s Kunitz’ poem “The Layers” says something essential, something related to why I write:

“How shall the heart be reconciled/to its feast of losses?”

And, later, from the same poem:

"Live in the layers, / not on the litter."

You can meet and spend time with Elizabeth Austen at her free event “Hike and Write with the Poet Laureate” at Deception Pass, 1 p.m., on Sunday, August 10th.

What Val’s Reading This Week: “God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine,” by physician Victoria Sweet is the story of a young doctor at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. In treating the down-and-out patients there, Sweet learned empathy and how to practice “slow medicine” as she began to question the impersonality of modern medicine.

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