Laura Read loves Spokane.
The prize-winning poet and teacher has spent most of her life in the Lilac City, finding inspiration for her words along the banks of the Spokane River, and teaching hundreds of students how to find their voices in poetry.
Even though she’s a teacher and used to talking to groups of people, she’s quick to admit she’s shy. She’s also busy with work and family, but she had what she thought was a good idea for a civic engagement poetry project. So when the call came seeking applications to be Spokane’s second poet laureate, the Spokane Falls Community College instructor submitted her name.
On Friday night, at the Spokane Arts Awards and Costume Ball, Read’s name was announced, and she will be Spokane’s poet laureate for the next two years.
Her idea stems from the song “I Am a Town,” by Mary Chapin Carpenter.
“In the song, the person who is singing is the town itself,” Read said in a recent interview at her office at SFCC, where she is in her 19th year teaching. She wants to have Spokane residents write poems based on the places they see in their lives, places that spark memories, and perhaps post those words at the locations, almost like historical markers.
“I really love this town and I’ve lived here for so long, and I have so many memories of it, and I bet other people share that,” Read said. “So I thought it would be fun to do a public art experience with that.”
She’s taught an “I Am a Town” workshop at the Port Townsend Writers Workshop, and to her students at SFCC. She’s also done something similar at the Salish School of Spokane, an immersion preschool and elementary program that seeks to preserve the Salish language. Read volunteers in the school’s mentor program, and she also helps organize the Beacon Hill Reading Series, bringing regional and local authors to read their works at Spokane Community College.
The poet laureate selection committee, which included the first poet laureate, Thom Caraway, had more than two dozen applications to sort through. Read’s stood out, Caraway said.
“She’s a very established presence here in Spokane, so a lot of people know of her already,” he said. “She also has a great state reputation.”
That reputation stems from her 2010 chapbook, “The Chewbacca on Hollywood Boulevard Reminds Me of You,” which won the Floating Bridge Prize, awarded by the Seattle-based Floating Bridge Press. On a national scale, her first poetry collection, 2012’s “Instructions for My Mother’s Funeral” was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press and won the 2011 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry.
“So she’s got local, regional, and national credibility, and we really wanted someone who had a real presence in the community, not just in the poetry community, but in the education community and the community in general,” Caraway said. “We had a couple other candidates who had that reputation, but her work with the Salish School is really impressive. That’s a population that we should be reaching out to.”
Read moved to Spokane from New York in 1973 at age 3, after her father, Richard Cefalu, got a job at Gonzaga University. Her mother, Jane, started working at GU the following year, and Read spent her childhood within four blocks of the campus in the Logan Neighborhood. (Her father died in 1976, and her mother married Ken Rinehart four years later.)
After graduating from Gonzaga Prep in 1988, she did her undergraduate work at GU, in English and French. She started graduate school at American University in Washington, D.C., but she finished her master’s of fine arts degree at Eastern, because she moved home to get married.
She and her husband, Brad Read, have two sons, Ben, 16, and Matthew, 13.
It was in graduate school that her focus shifted to poetry – essentially out of necessity.
“When I was first in graduate school, I was studying fiction, and my fiction teacher, he said, ‘You know, your stories don’t have any plot. Something has to happen with these characters,’ ” she said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I don’t see why.’ ”
The teacher, noting that Read enjoyed describing, handed her a poetry collection by Dorianne Laux. He told her to read the book and highlight the things the liked.
Read took to it with a pink highlighter.
“As I was reading it, I was turning the whole book pink,” she said. “I was like ‘I love this, I love this, I love this, this is exactly what I want to do.’ ”
Maya Jewell Zeller, a poet and writing teacher at SCC, has been Read’s friend since 2008. She believes that what Read thinks of as her “shyness” is actually an asset.
“She says she’s shy, but I’ve taught with her. She has the ability to listen to people. She bills it as ‘shy,’ but actually she’s just not self-centered,” Zeller said. “So when she gets into a room of people, she wants to listen and observe, and that’s what a poet does. And honestly that’s what a poet laureate should do, is let other people shine. I think that’s actually going to make her a great poet laureate.”
She added, “I love Laura and her poetry. And I think she’s the obvious and perfect choice for poet laureate.”
What Zeller appreciates about Read’s work is her ability to take the mundane, the domestic, the everyday, and “turn it into this really, really gorgeous universal image or moment or narrative that allows everyone access. It gives people permission to see their lives as poetry.”
Read’s poem “Bureau,” which is featured in Volume 70 of Willow Springs, the Eastern Washington University literary magazine, starts off with a husband and wife disagreeing on what to call a piece of furniture.
“When my husband asks me where I put the keys,
I say they’re on my bureau,
and he says you mean dresser
and I say no, bureau.”
By the end of the poem, she’s traveled back to her grandmother’s apartment in Queens, discovering a garment preserved in plastic.
“When she was gone, I unwrapped her nightgown.
It was pink and cotton and sleeveless.
I wore it standing on our porch
so I could feel the wind.”
Read said she’s been writing a lot about Spokane of late, and has a collection of poems, “Dresses From the Old Country,” she hopes to publish soon. Two of the poems are about Ferguson’s cafe in the Garland District, a place she said is an important part of her family. One of the Ferguson’s poems, “Last Night Ferguson’s Caught Fire,” was featured in last year’s “Railtown Almanac: A Spokane Poetry Anthology.”
“In the paper you can see the red booths
turned on their sides, their stuffing
leaking out. The fire spread next door
to the Milk Bottle, which is shaped like one
so you think of the bottles that clinked
on the porch in the first blue light
of morning, at the end of milkmen,
at the beginning of your life.”
Read’s two-year commitment to the poet laureate post requires her do four programs during her tenure. Besides “I Am a Town,” Read is open to seeing what opportunities present themselves. She is hoping to continue some of Caraway’s work, particularly in bringing together the spoken and written poetry communities.
“I think Thom did a great job,” Read said. “And I really admire how much he worked the slam poetry community and spoken word community, and also people who write more poetry for the page. I want to do that as well, and build on that work.”