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

Elizabeth Austen is Washington State's new poet laureate Credit: 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.

Austen approaches her poems with a question in mind, What else is also true? As she engaged with that idea, she discovered that the more she “tried to craft poems that would reach the reader,” her own “self-expression was no longer paramount.” She uses this question to find her way under the layers.

“My story is that my brother abused me and he died. But it also true that I loved him and he loved me, and that he was also really little when it happened. I loved and grieved for him, and we had this horrible unfinished business.”

But it’s not just about the layers of her story. “As I push at the edges with a poem,” she says, “my relationship with those events and my brother’s death changes — that’s the transformation. When a poem begins to change beyond memoir, the craft is part of what starts to shift these things outside of myself and into something more.”

Austen has learned to get out of her own head. Her poems are rooted in the body and the senses, to the universal, and written with an ear attuned to, as she says, “the sound of the poem out loud.” Both a poet and a teacher, she invites the reader to have their own direct experience, not only of her poems, but of themselves as well. Her pantoum This Morning begins with the verse, “It’s time. It’s almost too late. / Did you see the magnolia light its pink fires? / You could be your own, unknown self. / No one is keeping you from it.”

In retrospect, engaging in “theater first and then poetry,” she says, a smile curling to the side, “that was my process of figuring out who I am.”

Writing is often an act of looking back, of reflection on the past in the context of the present moment. It seems that writers often write what would have helped them along the way, as both a way of healing and as a way of reaching out. Austen’s work does just that.

“I have needed to hear other people’s stories,” she says, “not just about survival, but about people who are thriving.”

Elizabeth Austen is a poet, performer, and teacher. Every Dress a Decision is her first full collection of poetry. She was recently named Washington State’s Poet Laureate of 2014 – 2016.

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