Thom Caraway thrives in a place many Spokanites would avoid: the dilapidated streets of the West Central neighborhood.
He’s drawn to the crime, the drug problems, the failing 150-year-old houses and the sound of what he calls the “Ghetto Bird,” the police helicopter circling overhead.
He’s drawn to the community too: the sounds of wives talking over their fences in the summer, the shouting of children playing in the streets, the things that make West Central a community like any other.
The conflict between the two sides breeds inspiration for both literary work and community activism for Caraway, named Spokane’s first poet laureate by the Spokane Arts Fund.
“From an artistic perspective, there’s a really fertile kind of tension that as an artist I am drawn to just because you don’t have to look very hard,” Caraway said. “You don’t have to make stuff up. It’s right there.”
A recent poem, “Bridge,” is named for the West Central street on which Caraway lives. The neighborhood also permeates his other work, as does Spokane as a whole.
Fifteen years ago, a boy was beaten
to death in the alley behind my garage.
Last week, a man was shot to death
a few blocks away. Homes have burned
at both ends of the street. One faulty wiring,
one meth lab. We grow Oregon Grape
six feet high around the perimeter of the yard. (From “Bridge”)
As the poet laureate, Caraway will serve as an ambassador for Spokane’s literary community, presenting his work publicly several times a year in an effort to encourage interest in poetry.
Though many applicants were accomplished writers and poets, the selection committee wanted something more, said Karen Mobley, program manager for the Spokane Arts Fund. They wanted someone who could represent not only Spokane’s vibrant literary scene but the soul of Spokane.
“The person should have a foot in the literary world, but a foot in the community as well,” Mobley said. “This person represents Spokane as a place as well as their own writing and literature.”
The role will complement the work Caraway has already completed in Spokane, Mobley added. Caraway is a lifelong resident and is currently a senior lecturer at Whitworth University’s English Department, where he teaches creative writing and literary magazine editing classes. He has been published in literary journals and participates in many of Spokane’s reading series, such as Get Lit! He is also the editor-in-chief of Rock & Sling, a literary journal.
Caraway is also the board president at Project H.O.P.E., a local nonprofit dedicated to improving the West Central neighborhood and providing job training for at-risk youth.
“He seems to be from and of the neighborhood and committed to getting it as good as it can be for anyone,” Project H.O.P.E. director Joel Williamson said.
Across the street, condos and townhomes,
men working at 7 a.m., new streets
formed on top of old. The decay of fall leaves
means fertile soil by spring. But there is waiting.
Chickens forage for grit. Down the road,
a house is empty, the cats the man kept
freeze, as winter settles pale as milk. (From “Bridge”)
Caraway’s office at Whitworth looks like a small library. Books line the walls. A metal board with scattered Magnetic Poetry sits on his desk. A typography chart hangs on the wall, showing several different-sized E’s.
Caraway’s work as poet laureate hasn’t started yet, but he’s eager to begin. He has to give three public presentations at community events each year and provide a public reading list to local libraries, but he is otherwise free to interpret the role as he wishes. He’ll receive a nominal stipend for the two-year appointment.
“A lot of poets who often work in solitude might see that as a constraint on them,” Caraway said, but working with the community is a part of who he is.
Caraway sees potential in Spokane, and in its community of writers. He’s been a writer here for years, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Eastern Washington University in the early 2000s. He was initially drawn to foreign policy, inspired by the struggles in the Middle East and the Patriot Act following the 9/11 attacks.
He soon discovered that wasn’t for him. He began taking fiction classes and found he was in the right field.
“I felt like I had finally made the right decision,” he said.
Though Caraway does write in other formats, he thrives under the pressures of poetry.
“What a novel can do or a short story can do in 5,000 words or 50,000 words or 300,000 words, the poem is trying to do in 50 words or 17 syllables,” Caraway said.
He thrives, he says, just like he thrives under the pressures of the neighborhood and the city he calls home.
“If you think you know what West Central is, the work I’m doing right now is to complicate that understanding,” he said.
Walking the alleys is a tunnel of barking dogs,
black labs and pit bull mixes. We keep so much
inside, yards and homes in yellow light.
Stripped-bare shrubs jeweled in ice,
and at last, the work has stopped.
Silence comes with the snow, and down
the steep bank, the river burns on and on. (From “Bridge”)