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For Spokane poet Kathryn Smith, first collection is a Russian journey into imagination

Spokane poet Kathryn Smith’s debut book of poetry, “Book of Exodus,” is in part a survivors’ tale, based on the true story of a Russian family who fled religious persecution by isolating themselves for more than 40 years in the Siberian wilderness. By the time the Lykov family was discovered by geologists doing survey work in 1978, the mother had already starved herself to death to keep her four children alive.

Smith’s poems in this collection stand alone, as spare and yet verdant as the wilderness itself. But organized together, “Book of Exodus” reads like a harrowing page-turner, as the family she follows grapples with hunger, loneliness and loss.

In the book’s acknowledgments, Smith describes being inspired by a 2013 article about the Lykovs that she came across at smithsonianmag.com. Author Mike Dash wrote: “For 40 years, this Russian family was cut off from all human contact, unaware of World War II.”

In 1936, the Lykov parents took their small children, “seeds and any possessions they could carry, including a Bible and a loom” to set up a homestead in the Russian taiga. Smith’s poems take readers along on her imaginings of the extremes to which the family pushed themselves, in faith, frailty and fierceness.

“I’ve always been interested in solitude and wilderness,” said Smith, 40, in the living room of her Perry District home. “I’m also interested in religious outliers, or people willing to take their faith to a place beyond what most of us would be able to do.”

Among the books of poetry and fiction stacked in the shelves lining a bright blue wall in her home are several titles related to faith and theology. The religious works belong to Smith’s wife, who works at Avista, but is a student of theology. Smith herself, who worked for 12 years as a copy editor for The Spokesman-Review, grew up in a Lutheran household and attends West Central’s Salem Lutheran church.

“Religion is a part of my life, but it is still unfathomable to me that there are people who can believe something so strongly that they give up everything else in the world,” Smith said. “I tried to imagine what life would look like in that stark of an environment without any ‘stuff’ around you.”

With no libraries, musical instruments or even electricity, the family’s main form of entertainment was to describe their dreams to each other. In one lyrical section of the book, Smith’s poems imagine what the children dreamed about, having heard stories about cities and other things they had never seen. Here’s one:

She Dreams the Fall

There is one book in the world. I dream

its words into new arrangements.

Noah does not survive the flood. Eve

and the serpent curse Jesus’ fig tree.

She in not man’s rib, but the jawbone

of an ass, her hair the strength

of Samson. She dreams her own

Delilah, someone to seduce.

A dream within my dream.

I wake ashamed.

In another section Smith explores the lives of the children, with their made-up alphabet songs and scary, fairy tale-like existence, surrounded by an almost suffocating forest. There are also powerful poems dealing with hunger and want, even fashion, like this one:

Starvation Couture

I have torn this life out at the seams

and reshaped it. Our clothes

hang like sacks on a line from our shoulders.

Bone pegs. Wind-

billowed No cords to cinch our shrinking

waists. This is wilderness fashion.

Sister, don’t give me

that pouty expression: so last

year. So gaunt and wanting. Shoes

are so completely out. I mean,

so out we cut away the soles and

boiled and ate the leather.

Sharma Shields, whose Scablands Books recently published “Book of Exodus,” interprets “Starvation Couture” as a modern commentary on eating disorders and body image issues.

“The way Kat starts from this historical reference and turns it into this modern couture poem is really genius,” Shields said. “So much of her writing to me felt that way, that she could cross both lines of interpretation and make us reflect on our own modern life as well as on the history she’s evoking.”

Shields points to a poignant, one-sentence poem near the end of the book, describing life after the family has been discovered and returned to “civilization:”

They Show Him Television

Dream after dream

and the dreams

are not my own.

“This poem is so relevant now that we have all these different screens,” Shields said. “That whole theme about being lost in order to be found, and being found but being lost to themselves, it is so striking in the book.”

In Smith’s home on this day, the kitchen counter is scattered with flour and open cookbooks. The slender baker, clad in a Fair Isle sweater she knitted herself, has started to make sour dough bread from scratch. From time to time, Smith writes about food and local arts on a freelance basis for The Spokesman-Review. She opens a pungent jar of viscous, living yeast she uses as a sourdough starter. “I don’t know when or how this was started, but we got this jar from a friend and have to feed it every so often,” Smith chuckled.

Smith bakes, knits, gardens and raises chickens, pleased when she can avoid having to buy eggs and vegetables at the store. Her fascination with the earth, animals and insects permeates much of her poetry. She has explored in her work the unavoidable pull of the high-tech world. Her well-being stems from her connection to animals and nature. To stay in touch with a healthy reality, “I spend a lot of time staring,” Smith explained with a loud laugh.

Raised in Port Angeles, Smith attended Whitworth University and earned a bachelor’s degree. After graduating in 1999, she moved to San Francisco to work for the community service organization Americorps. She returned to Spokane in 2002 to earn an MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University.

Although “Book of Exodus” is Smith’s first book of collected poems, she has published poetry in a wide range of local and regional publications over the years. She was nominated for Best American Poetry and the Pushcart Prize. Last spring, she won a Spokane Arts Grant Award to continue work on a book-length poetry and art project inspired by the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, New York, who in the mid-1800s helped spur the Modern American Spiritualist movement. Believers thought they could communicate with the dead.

Smith has been a fixture in Spokane’s burgeoning literary community, participating in two local writing groups. She has taken part in local anthologies and readings, 3-min mic performances, Get Lit! Festival events, and Pie & Whiskey, among others. She has volunteered at the nonprofit education center at Spark Central in Kendall Yards, helping young girls empower themselves writing lyrics for rock songs and teaching teens how to write creatively.

Smith admitted that publishing her first full-length book of poetry has been validating. “I’ve made some choices about how I spend my time … pursuing something creative that does not generate income,” she said. “So to know that my work is being well received makes me feel like my sacrifices are worth it, and that I’ve made the right choices for myself and hopefully for the readers.

Shields has little doubt that readers will find “Book of Exodus” riveting. She felt compelled to read all the poems in a single evening last January and called Smith the very next day to offer her a publishing deal.

“I told her I got goosebumps reading it and would love to publish it,” Shields said. “But we are really small, and you could get this published anywhere.”

Smith said she was attracted to Scablands Books after seeing the job it did publishing books by Spokane poets Ellen Welcker and Tim Greenup. Poet Maya Jewell Zeller edited the “Book of Exodus,” and Keely Honeywell produced the cover art and book design.

“Working with a local press goes along with supporting and being part of the Spokane community,” Smith said. “And I was very involved in the production process every step of the way, which is rare.”