No one can teach you to listen for what only you can hear. — W.S. Merwin
The new poet laureate of Washington state is well-caffeinated when we meet. “You’re lucky. I’m in good verbal form,” Elizabeth Austen says smiling.
But she’s about to attract a lot more of the public’s attention, traveling to every county in the state over the next two years and hosting events as a way to stoke interest in this literary form.
“I feel like it’s a great loss when people feel poetry isn’t available to them,” she says.
“My motivation for being poet laureate is, I think, that without even knowing it, people want what poetry offers. They want language for what feels large. Large in the sense of awe or large in the sense of grief or large in the sense of mystery.”
She quotes poet W.S. Merwin: Someone needs to hear what only you can say. “Poetry can be lifesaving,” she says.
And then she explains.
“One of the things in my book (“Every Dress a Decision”) is the sudden and quite strange death of my older brother. It forms a kind of narrative spine. He and I had some inappropriate sexual contact as a child. So that’s one of the things the book is wrestling with. The problem of forgiving him once he’s already gone. The complications of grieving someone who has harmed you.
“There are poets who wrote of experiences of sexual trauma. Lucille Clifton. Marie Howe. Their work helped me realize life could be bigger than that event. That it could be transformed through art. But mostly, I knew I wasn’t alone. And so much of what art can do is help us understand that even our most messy, complicated difficult emotions are not unique to us. They’re particular, but they’re not unique.”
Poetry, she says, has the power to connect us. But it’s not always easy to write. She’s “a slow bake.” “I’m not someone who is facile with words.”
For the record, she’s terrible at crossword puzzles. When she’s writing, she’ll let her doubts creep in, doing that thing that artists do but should not do: compare themselves to one another.
She envies Heather McHugh’s verbal pyrotechnics; Tim Seibles’ mastery of politically-charged topics; Lucille Clifton’s extreme economy. But when she second-guesses, she pauses and accepts: “I can only do what it is that I can do.”
What she does is create poems that most often fall at the accessible end of the spectrum.
“One of the amazing things about poetry in this state is that we have the whole gamut: from the very experimental to slam poetry to nature poetry and everything in between and around.
“Some people reject poetry that’s too straightforward. They want to tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson said. I do believe poems can communicate. I want to give readers and listeners an experience where they can recognize themselves and where they have a sense of a real human person behind the poems.”
Which is what her best-known poem, “The Girl Who Goes Alone” imparts. It’s a work about being a girl or a “grown-up girl” who forges a path in the world, shedding the constant warnings of peril. It’s a manifesto about taking charge.
“And what’s surprising to me is how many men come up to me afterwards and they want to talk. I’ve heard from men who are fathers because it makes them think about how they’re raising their daughters. I’ve heard from men who’ve said, ‘This gives me a different sense of what it’s like to be a female.’
“Which is sort of the best thing you could say to a writer: that you wrote something that made them rethink their view of the world.”
This weekend, the state’s new poet laureate will read her work alongside her predecessor Kathleen Flenniken.
If you go: The Passing of the Laurel: A Reading With Elizabeth Austen and Kathleen Flenniken, 3 p.m. Feb. 16, Open Books: A Poem Emporium, 2414 N. 45th St. Seattle, (free).
Photo of Elizabeth Austen courtesy of www.humanities.org.