Words

Poet Laureate

Washington honors Lummi poet Rena Priest

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WHAT: Virtual launch of the poetry anthology Solstice: Light and Dark of the Salish Sea, which includes work by Rena Priest
WHEN: 7pm Sun., April 11
WHERE: Zoom
INFO: http://www.villagebooks.com

WHAT: “Washington State Poet Laureate Passing of the Laurel” with Rena Priest and past laureates including Claudia Castro Luna, Tod Marshall, Elizabeth Austen, Kathleen Flenniken, and Sam Green (in absentia)
WHEN: 6pm Weds., April 14
WHERE: Online
COST: Free; registration is required
INFO: http://www.eventbrite.com

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

After years of entering poetry contests and submitting to literary journals, Rena Priest had developed a habit: She would slip a copy of a New Yorker cartoon into the envelope along with her work. The image showed a car with a driver and passenger stuck in a sea of traffic. The caption: “Try honking again.”

Though the cartoon was mostly for laughs—and to soften the potential blow of rejection—that’s how it felt trying to make it as a poet: honking into the void, hoping to make progress. These days, Priest, 42, is breezing through the fast lane. She has been named the new Washington state poet laureate, the state’s highest honor in poetry.

The author of two poetry books and a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation, Priest is the sixth poet and first Native person to be selected for the two-year term, a program of the Washington State Arts Commission and Humanities Washington.

“When I got the news, it was a moment of elation—and then relief,” Priest says. “If you’re not having any success with the thing that you’re doing and love to do, and you’ve made sacrifices for it, it starts to feel like ‘what if I was wrong?’... Now, I feel this huge sense of relief that I did follow my calling—and that it was not for naught.” 

Despite her writerly self-doubt, Priest has had her share of literary success: Her debut, Patriarchy Blues (2017), was honored with an American Book Award and her poetry has appeared in a variety of anthologies and literary journals, such as Poetry Northwest and Poets.org, the website of the Academy of American Poets. She also recently won a Vadon Foundation Native Artist Fellowship worth $10,000.

Priest’s term as poet laureate, appointed by the governor, officially starts April 15 and runs through April 14, 2023. With a virtual Passing of the Laurel ceremony, Priest will take over from Seattle poet Claudia Castro Luna, who has held the position for three years and succeeded previous laureates Tod Marshall, Elizabeth Austen, Kathleen Flenniken, and Sam Green.

Poet laureate selection panelist Jasmine Mahmoud, an assistant professor of arts leadership at Seattle University, says she was “endlessly impressed” with Priest’s work and application. (Which didn’t include the New Yorker cartoon, but it’s pinned near Priest’s desk as a permanent reminder.) “Ruminative and meditative, her poetry weaves thoughts, feelings, and insights about the earth, its peoples past, present, and future, and our practices, including as they concern the environment,” Mahmoud wrote in a statement.

The poet laureate is not just tasked with producing new work, but expected to be an ambassador of poetry itself, lifting up other poets and connecting with readers and writers across the state through readings, workshops and lectures. Some of Castro Luna’s tenure projects included the Washington Poetic Routes, a digital map of location-based poems, One River, Many Voices, a series of poetry readings and writing workshops along the Columbia River and a call for Poems to Lean On during the pandemic.

“Washington state has very rich poetry communities across the state, not just in the Puget Sound, but in Eastern Washington, Ellensburg and the peninsula, Vancouver,” the outgoing poet laureate says. It was during a poetry event in Ellensburg that Castro Luna heard Priest read for the first time. “She’s so expressive and so warm,” Castro Luna says. “That will serve her very well as she travels and engages with communities across the state.” 

During her tenure, Priest plans to draw attention to the importance of preserving the “beauty and integrity of the natural world” in Washington, particularly as it concerns tribal lands. A leading theme will be “solastalgia,” the anguish and grief caused by environmental change.

“Washington is such a beautiful place. I’ve grown up here and spent most of my life here,” Priest says. “My reservation where I grew up, my homeland, is beautiful beyond compare. I’ve seen how the state, the landscapes [surrounding the reservation] have changed. Right now, that’s an important discussion to be having, without feelings of guilt or blame around how these beautiful places have been altered, but how we can fix it [and] get back to a healthier ecosystem and environment.” 

Though she hasn’t settled on her projects yet, Priest has a few ideas brewing. She would love to add poetry to scientific flora-and-fauna placards at beaches and parks. She’s also hoping to visit tribes and tribal schools throughout the state to build mini-anthologies of locally written poetry for each community, as well as a statewide anthology of Native writing. Priest also dreams of asking various tribal and other communities across the state to submit “salmon poems” for a collection.

Her first endeavor is launching this month, which is National Poetry Month—a free letterpress-printed handout conceived as a “Poem in Your Pocket.” The poem is by youth poet Sadie Olsen, written in English and also translated into Xwlemi Chosen (Lummi language).

Its title, “Thank You Poem,” proved challenging to translate: There’s no direct word for poem in the Lummi language, Priest says, but the director of the Xwlemi Chosen program, Ted Solomon, told her either “prayer” or “song” would convey the closest meaning. Perhaps that’s because the poetry is embedded in the language.

“The language itself is so poetic and beautiful,” Priest says. “The magic contained in certain words, it’s just so pretty. Like, the word for cottonwood tree is a ‘dancing tree.’ And the word for river is the same as the word for the Milky Way.”

Priest didn’t grow up speaking Xwlemi Chosen, but was always a “writerly kid,” as she puts it, fond of rhymes and poems. She wrote her first poem at age 7, inspired by the prompt “springtime.” The words came to her easily, she says. Her teacher sent it to the local newspaper. “I saw my name and was like, ‘Oh my God, this is a big moment for me.’”

After a detour in theater studies, returning to poetry by way of a class at Western Washington University taught by Bellingham poet Jim Bertolino felt like a homecoming. She then moved to New York to get an MFA in poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. The poems in Patriarchy Blues were shaped by her time in the city: the sound of neighbors arguing through the apartment wall, “sexy” girls on billboards, car alarms blaring on the street, the names of red nail polishes clustered in a salon, such as “Freaky Friday Night” and “Gypsy Girl.” In one poem, Priest proposes her own shade: This Predatory, Capitalist, Patriarchy/ is Killing Me and I’m Trying/ to Learn to Like It.

In many of these poems, Priest takes herself out of the equation by acting as an observer of society’s strange (not to mention sexist and racist) tendencies, using snippets of conversation to make characters come alive to humorous effect.

“I’m terribly amused at the world all the time,” Priest says. Some of her work starts out with a serious tone “and then all of a sudden it’s really funny. Because life is like that,” she says. “I feel like, in order to survive, I had to use [humor] to my advantage.”

After her studies, Priest moved back to the West, to Bellingham, where her poetry once again molded itself around the (natural) surroundings. In her second book, Sublime Subliminal (2018), she gravitates toward themes that bring her more pleasure: nature, matriarchy, playing with language itself. 

Vera Rubin, did you ever wonder, she asks the famous American astronomer in the sweeping poem “Super-Sacred,” if dark matter weren’t made/of women like you? Quietly/ doing 90% of the work/of holding together the universe? Keeping it all from flying apart,/ just like a family matriarch?

One-third of the way into the poem, she tells the reader, in parenthesis: (This is my real Indian poem, the one the/admissions board and a certain readership/have been waiting for.) and then offers up beads, feathers, song and dance, along with the requisite mention/of mother Earth, and the moon.

“I feel like there’s a lot of, maybe accidental, censorship of Native writers by editors, and [audience] expectations of what Native poetry should be,” Priest says. She hopes poems like “Super-Sacred” can “challenge and broaden a reader’s ideas of Indigeneity beyond the limited range of topics that are considered appropriate for American Indian literature to address.”

Take, for example, “Daffodils,” which kicks off like this:

The Indigenous poet

writes life-affirming poems

about daffodils.

Her audience says,

“But you’re oppressed.”

The Indigenous poet

writes poems of outrage

about oppression.

Nobody cares.

She gets depressed.

 
On one hand, she wants to write about daffodils—have it be just a poem about daffodils and whatever makes her heart sing. But the non-Indigenous reader expectations are always looming. 

At the same time, as an Indigenous poet, she also feels an internal imperative to talk about “the extinction and disappearance of species, and erosion of the quality of life and degradation of the environment, all impacting my tribal community,” Priest says.

From the loss of the fisheries to unkept promises of treaties to the thinning of salmon and orca populations, “it hasn’t quite hit the average person in America the way that it has hit tribal communities who have relied on the integrity of the natural environment,” Priest says.

Still, through (and perhaps against) the grief over climate change and the loss of vital natural resources, Priest’s poetry has shifted into a more reverential gear. “I’m trying to celebrate the natural world,” she says. “Show how it was, so that people can have an idea of how it could be again.”

Priest offers a taste of what that future could look like at the end of “Daffodils,” wherein she explains a phrase in Xwlemi Chosen that translates to “What the hail,” which she says is “the closest we get to a swear word.”

The Indigenous poet says,

“Stang tse temxwila!”*

and writes about daffodils,

and the untouchable beauty

of living a poet’s life.

This story originally appeared on Crosscut. It is reprinted by permission of Crosscut and the author. Photo of Rena Priest by Hillary Cagey

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11:00am

From 11am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday, visit La Conner’s Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum, 703 S. Second St. Currently on display are “Scatter Sunshine: La Conner in Bloom…

Recycled Art & Resource Expo

11:00am

A “Recycled Art & Resource Expo” can be visited from 11am-4pm Tuesdays through Saturdays through April 30 at Allied Arts, 1418 Cornwall Ave. In addition to providing a platform for…

Spring Into Art

11:00am

View works by Stanwood-Camano Arts Guild members from 11am-5pm Wed.-Sat. in Stanwood at A Guilded Gallery, 8700 271st St. NW. A “Spring Into Art” regional juried art show can be seen through…

Briggs Shore at Good Earth

11:00am

Vases, planters and drinking vessels by Briggs Shore will be on display and for sale from 11am-5pm Mondays through Saturdays (closed Tuesdays) and 12pm-5pm Sundays through April 30 at Good…

Tulip Poster Artists, Past and Present

11:00am

The fifth annual “Tulip Poster Artists, Past and Present” exhibit can be seen from 11am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday through May 2 in Anacortes at the Scott Milo Gallery, 420 Commercial Ave.…

Origins and Evolutions Exhibit

11:00am

“Origins and Evolutions: Five Generations” can be seen from 11am-4pm Tues.-Thurs., and by appointment, at least through May 22 at Gallery Syre, 465 Stuart Rd. The show gathers together…

Whatcom Art Market

11:00am

Works by as many as 45 Whatcom Art Guild members can be viewed from 11am-5pm Tuesdays through Sundays at Whatcom Art Market, 1103 11th St.

A Road Well Traveled

12:00pm

“Max Benjamin: A Road Well Traveled” can be seen from 12pm-4pm Thursdays through Sundays at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art, 121 First St. The solo exhibit featuring the work of the…

Seeds of Culture at Whatcom Museum

12:00pm

View “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Voices of Native American Women,” “Fluid Formations: The Legacy of Glass in the Pacific Northwest,” “Jac Trautman: The Specter of the Indigenous,”…

An Artist's Universe

10:00am

View painter and mixed-media master David Syre’s latest installation, “An Artist’s Universe,” hanging throughout the corridors, lobby and dining room of Hotel Bellwether and the Lighthouse…

McKnight and DeLacy

10:00am

Mixed-media works by Bainbridge Island-based artist Aaron McKnight and sculptures by Marceil DeLacy can be viewed from 10am-5pm Fridays through Sundays through April 25 in Edison at Smith &…

Art-iversary Exhibit

10:00am

From 10am-5:30pm Mondays through Saturdays through April 30, celebrate 20 years of ownership for Sheri Wright of Fourth Corner Frames, 311 W. Holly St. A wide variety of works are for sale as…

The Work of Jesus Guillén

11:00am

“The Work of Jesus Guillen: An Artistic Legacy of Love and Courage” can be seen from 11am-4pm Fridays through Sundays through May 2 in La Conner at the Skagit County Historical Museum, 501 S.…

Recycled Art & Resource Expo

11:00am

A “Recycled Art & Resource Expo” can be visited from 11am-4pm Tuesdays through Saturdays through April 30 at Allied Arts, 1418 Cornwall Ave. In addition to providing a platform for…

Rock, Paper, Paint

11:00am

“Rock, Paper, Paint” shows from 11am-4pm Fridays through Sundays through April 25 in Edison at i.e. gallery, 5800 Cains Court. The exhibit features new “drop” oil paintings by Allen Moe, rock…

Spring Into Art

11:00am

View works by Stanwood-Camano Arts Guild members from 11am-5pm Wed.-Sat. in Stanwood at A Guilded Gallery, 8700 271st St. NW. A “Spring Into Art” regional juried art show can be seen through…

Briggs Shore at Good Earth

11:00am

Vases, planters and drinking vessels by Briggs Shore will be on display and for sale from 11am-5pm Mondays through Saturdays (closed Tuesdays) and 12pm-5pm Sundays through April 30 at Good…

Whatcom Art Market

11:00am

Works by as many as 45 Whatcom Art Guild members can be viewed from 11am-5pm Tuesdays through Sundays at Whatcom Art Market, 1103 11th St.

Origins and Evolutions Exhibit

11:00am

“Origins and Evolutions: Five Generations” can be seen from 11am-4pm Tues.-Thurs., and by appointment, at least through May 22 at Gallery Syre, 465 Stuart Rd. The show gathers together…

Tulip Poster Artists, Past and Present

11:00am

The fifth annual “Tulip Poster Artists, Past and Present” exhibit can be seen from 11am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday through May 2 in Anacortes at the Scott Milo Gallery, 420 Commercial Ave.…

Sculpture Northwest Exhibit

11:00am

The works of 15 Sculpture Northwest artists can be viewed both indoors and out from 11am-5pm Fridays through Sundays (and by appointment) through April 23 on Camano Island at Matzke Fine Art…

Scatter Sunshine

11:00am

From 11am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday, visit La Conner’s Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum, 703 S. Second St. Currently on display are “Scatter Sunshine: La Conner in Bloom…

Spring Juried Exhibit and More

12:00pm

A “Spring Juried Exhibit,” “Winter Textile Explorations,” Lisa McShane’s “A Decade of Landscapes,” and Ron Pattern’s “The Seasonal Forest” can be viewed from 12pm-4:30pm Thursdays through…

Seeds of Culture at Whatcom Museum

12:00pm

View “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Voices of Native American Women,” “Fluid Formations: The Legacy of Glass in the Pacific Northwest,” “Jac Trautman: The Specter of the Indigenous,”…

A Road Well Traveled

12:00pm

“Max Benjamin: A Road Well Traveled” can be seen from 12pm-4pm Thursdays through Sundays at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art, 121 First St. The solo exhibit featuring the work of the…

An Artist's Universe

10:00am

View painter and mixed-media master David Syre’s latest installation, “An Artist’s Universe,” hanging throughout the corridors, lobby and dining room of Hotel Bellwether and the Lighthouse…

McKnight and DeLacy

10:00am

Mixed-media works by Bainbridge Island-based artist Aaron McKnight and sculptures by Marceil DeLacy can be viewed from 10am-5pm Fridays through Sundays through April 25 in Edison at Smith &…

Briggs Shore at Good Earth

11:00am

Vases, planters and drinking vessels by Briggs Shore will be on display and for sale from 11am-5pm Mondays through Saturdays (closed Tuesdays) and 12pm-5pm Sundays through April 30 at Good…

Whatcom Art Market

11:00am

Works by as many as 45 Whatcom Art Guild members can be viewed from 11am-5pm Tuesdays through Sundays at Whatcom Art Market, 1103 11th St.

Tulip Poster Artists, Past and Present

11:00am

The fifth annual “Tulip Poster Artists, Past and Present” exhibit can be seen from 11am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday through May 2 in Anacortes at the Scott Milo Gallery, 420 Commercial Ave.…

Scatter Sunshine

11:00am

From 11am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday, visit La Conner’s Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum, 703 S. Second St. Currently on display are “Scatter Sunshine: La Conner in Bloom…

The Work of Jesus Guillén

11:00am

“The Work of Jesus Guillen: An Artistic Legacy of Love and Courage” can be seen from 11am-4pm Fridays through Sundays through May 2 in La Conner at the Skagit County Historical Museum, 501 S.…

Rock, Paper, Paint

11:00am

“Rock, Paper, Paint” shows from 11am-4pm Fridays through Sundays through April 25 in Edison at i.e. gallery, 5800 Cains Court. The exhibit features new “drop” oil paintings by Allen Moe, rock…

Sculpture Northwest Exhibit

11:00am

The works of 15 Sculpture Northwest artists can be viewed both indoors and out from 11am-5pm Fridays through Sundays (and by appointment) through April 23 on Camano Island at Matzke Fine Art…

A Road Well Traveled

12:00pm

“Max Benjamin: A Road Well Traveled” can be seen from 12pm-4pm Thursdays through Sundays at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art, 121 First St. The solo exhibit featuring the work of the…

Seeds of Culture at Whatcom Museum

12:00pm

View “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Voices of Native American Women,” “Fluid Formations: The Legacy of Glass in the Pacific Northwest,” “Jac Trautman: The Specter of the Indigenous,”…

Art-iversary Exhibit

10:00am

From 10am-5:30pm Mondays through Saturdays through April 30, celebrate 20 years of ownership for Sheri Wright of Fourth Corner Frames, 311 W. Holly St. A wide variety of works are for sale as…

Seeds of Culture at Whatcom Museum

12:00pm

View “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Voices of Native American Women,” “Fluid Formations: The Legacy of Glass in the Pacific Northwest,” “Jac Trautman: The Specter of the Indigenous,”…