Skagit Poetry Fest

A river runs through it

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

When asked to describe what a perfect day attending the Skagit River Poetry Festival would look like, board member Jessica Gigot’s wish list includes plenty of time to savor what La Conner has to offer.

“Saturday at the festival, I’d wake up and take a walk along the channel,” she says of the event taking place May 17-20 throughout the Skagit town. “I’d get some coffee and breakfast at Calico Cupboard, attend the morning panel/discussions, then visit the trade show and vendors at Maple Hall. I’d have lunch downtown, maybe at the La Conner Brewing Company. Visit some shops or galleries that feature local artists and products—like Cottons, Handmade La Conner, Go Outside—or the new bookstore, Seaport Books. See an afternoon group reading and discussion. A wine tasting at Hellam’s Vineyard Wine Shop or dinner or happy hour at Nell Thorn would follow. I’d then return to the festival for an evening program.”

If this chain of events also sounds ideal to you, it’s still within your power to make them happen. For both poets and people who appreciate the wonder of words, the 10th biennial blowout will not only feature a stellar lineup of regional and national voices tackling many important issues via their wordsmithing, but will also provide plenty to do during the downtime.

The event opens to the public Thurs., May 17 with a Poets Table Soiree taking place from 5-7pm at Maple Hall, followed by a reading dubbed “Dear America: Poems of Resistance and Hope in a Time of Turmoil.” Among the voices that can be heard that night are three-time United States Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, Ada Limon, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, and Brian Turner. Hot Damn Scandal will also perform.

Over the following three days, the festival will feature some of the most thoughtful and radical voices in contemporary poetry. Northwest writers include Claudia Castro Luna (the current Washington state poet laureate), Anastacia-Renee (Seattle’s first Civic Poet), Sam Green (former Washington state poet laureate), Lily Baumgart (youth poet laureate), La Conner’s own Georgia Johnson, and Seattle scribes who also work with the Poets in the Schools project—Daemond Arrindell, Jourdan Keith, Matt Gano, and Tod Marshall.

Ellen Bass, Matthew Dickman, Ada Limon, Quenton Baker, Lena Khalaf Thuffaha, Tina Chang, and Irish poet Tony Curtis are also among the big names heading to La Conner to read, lead workshops and share their various insights in coming days.

With topics such as “Writing to Change the World,” “Crossing Borders,” and “Paradise Lost” on the lineup, it’s a fair bet that lines of discussion will reach far beyond Skagit County, and that those attending the events will expand their poetic worldview.

Gigot says stewardship is a focus of this year’s festival, and that many participating poets do exceptional work when it comes to education and outreach about poetry and its roles in our communities. That’s par for the course for the festival, which started in 1998 as the result of a conversation between leaders from seven rural school districts in Skagit County.

“This event was started by teachers with students at the heart of their mission to support high literacy standards in rural school districts,” Gigot says. “The biennial festival has always been secondary to the commitment to put poets in schools. The confluence of artists and dedicated educators in the Skagit Valley was the right formula to host and continue a festival that included students, but also brought exceptional poets to this valley.”

The recipe worked. Since the event began, more than 50 Skagit County teachers a year have hosted resident poets, and 400,000-plus students have learned more about the well-versed world of poetry. Funds raised during the four-day event benefit the Skagit River Poetry Foundation’s mission to support lifelong literacy and cultural diversity through the writing, reading, performing and teaching of poetry in Northwest Washington schools and communities.

“The festival turns La Conner into a town filled with poetry, from its churches to its museums, its community center, and its bed and breakfasts,” Seattle poet Susan Rich adds. “Where else can a person sleep, eat, live and breathe poetry for a spring weekend?”

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