Vibrant reds and oranges provided a backdrop to the cityscape as Laura Read strolled across the Monroe Street Bridge on a recent evening. The rush of Spokane Falls below provided a soundtrack to her quiet footsteps. Catching a glimpse of a stenciled letters on the concrete, she paused.
“Oh, there it is!” she exclaimed, pointing out a poem written by her close friend, Spokane poet Maya Jewell Zeller: “On Monroe Street/the sky outside/our windows was/always most lovely/in the evenings/pink like the/inside of a body.”
Read, who recently ended her tenure as the second poet laureate of Spokane, is responsible for the poem’s presence on the bridge. The stenciled words are part of her “I Am a Town” project. Read asked community members to submit poems relating to places around Spokane that hold significance for them, and 13 poems were selected and stenciled outside the locations they described.
Poetry can seem like an inaccessible medium reserved for academics, but Read fought that idea during her term, proclaiming poetry is part of everything.
“I think poetry is something people feel distant from, like it belongs to only a few elite people. It’s the poet laureate’s job to make it more accessible,” said Read, who’s spent the majority of her writing career focusing on poetry about specific places and emphasizing the idea that people can find poetry wherever they are.
“I feel like having a city poet laureate says that where you live is part of everything about you – there’s a beauty in that,” said Read, whose term ended Nov. 4.
During her tenure, Read worked with Spark Central to create a small book highlighting poems about place with a mapped table of contents representing featured locations. She also taught classes at Spokane Public Library branches, focusing on writing poetry about place. The poet laureate of Spokane is also expected to participate in local readings and literary events, something Read already did – and continues to do – regularly.
Read was born in New York and moved to Spokane when she was 3. Apart from a short study abroad trip to France during her undergraduate career and a year in Washington, D.C., while working on her master’s degree, she has lived in Spokane her whole life. She saw this as an advantage when applying for the poet laureate position in 2015.
“I’m from here, and I’ve lived here for so long. I wrote a poem titled, ‘When you’ve lived a long time in one place’ and the concept was that I drive by these places and they contain so many memories for me,” Read said. “I know a lot of other people who have lived here their whole lives and probably have a similar experience.”
Poetry has long been a part of Read’s life, but she didn’t begin as a poet. She first attempted to write fiction.
“Reading was all I wanted to do once I learned how,” she said. “I remember my brother charging into my room saying, ‘Let’s play!’ and I would refuse over and over, wanting to read more. I thought whoever could make those stories was just brilliant and I admired them so much. I always wanted to be able to write.”
But, when she began writing fiction, her stories lacked something: Plot.
“When I was in first and second grade, I would read these stories to my mom and she would say there was no plot, that something needed to happen. She would say, ‘You’re just describing things.’ I felt a little stuck then because I could never think of anything that should happen. So I read a lot and wrote a lot, but it was really just description.”
Read didn’t begin thinking seriously about poetry until she went to graduate school for a Master in Fine Arts and a professor suggested she take a poetry class.
“I realized that was actually how my mind worked. My mom was trying to tell me that at a young age, but I didn’t get it.”
However, the desire to write doesn’t always translate to everyday life. The busyness of a hearty schedule can allow days to pass without generation of content. To combat this, Read and a group of friends created a private, generative blog where they post prompts and encourage one another to write at least three poems a week.
Zeller, the friend whose poem adorns the Monroe Street Bridge, is a poetry professor at Central Washington University and splits her time between Spokane and Ellensburg. She started the blog.
“It’s been going for nearly three years and has been the most important writing group of my life,” Zeller said. “The group is rewarding because of the shared trust and the impetus to write in varied aesthetics. Also, the women are just damn fine people.”
Read said, “We just give each other praise, because the concept is just to generate work. Maya says it’s like six moms responding to you right away to say good job. You just get so much encouragement!”
Zeller and Read met in fall of 2007 when they were both teaching at Spokane Falls Community College. Read has worked there for 20 years, but Zeller was just teaching for that particular quarter.
“Laura loves to tell the story of how we ‘met,’ ” Zeller said. “Laura says she approached me and said, ‘I’m Laura, and I’m your mentor,’ and as she tells it, I said, ‘Oh, no, I don’t need a mentor!’ and sort of walked away. I am pretty sure what really happened was that it wasn’t clear to me that Laura had been appointed my mentor; I just thought she was some random person who sought mentees. Ha! We ‘met’ again in Port Townsend for a writing workshop, and bonded over poems and walks on the beach. From then on, we’ve mentored each other.”
Read will continue teaching classes at SFCC. Her mother was a college professor, and Read credits her with her own interest in teaching. When she first moved to Spokane, both her parents worked at Gonzaga University.
As a girl, Read would prance around the college classrooms, strolling to the front and facing the rows of empty desks. She would bounce her small voice around the room, pretending to be the teacher while her mother was in her office.
“Because my mom taught at Gonzaga, I could go there for free,” Read explained. “But I also chose to go there. There were some Jesuit schools they have exchanges with, but I’m really kind of a homebody so I wanted to stay in Spokane. I’m also really close with my mom and have four younger brothers, so I was really family-oriented.”
Read double majored in English and French at Gonzaga, then went on to get her MFA at Eastern Washington University. She attended American University for a year, but transferred back to EWU when she married her husband Brad Read. They have two sons, Benjamin and Matthew, one who is attending college and one who is a sophomore at Lewis and Clark High School.
At SFCC, Read teaches a variety of writing and literature classes. Currently, she’s teaching a class focusing on women writers and two advanced composition classes.
Sophomore Maddie Pearson is in Read’s Women Writers class, which covers novels such as “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs and “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin.
“My favorite thing about the class is that I feel so … welcomed,” Pearson said. “Everyone, including Laura, has a sense of humor even when discussing serious topics. We can have an intellectual conversation and discussion but still be lighthearted and laugh together.”
About a decade ago, Read taught an Intro to Poetry class in which students provided her favorite teaching story.
“We were reading this book ‘Donkey Gospel’ by Tony Hoagland, and there was a fire drill,” Read said. “We were having a seminar, so students were in small groups discussing the pieces. When the alarm sounded, we evacuated and it was pouring rain. One of my students opened this giant umbrella and they all just gathered around and opened their books and finished the seminar. I thought it was so amazing, because I wouldn’t have done that. I would’ve been like, ‘It’s raining. It’s cold,’ but they were like, ‘Let’s finish talking about this poem.’ That was my best teaching moment.”
Read said she is looking forward to what her successor does during his term. Mark Anderson is the city’s third poet laureate, following Read and Thom Caraway.
“I hope we have this position for a long time, because people keep coming up with cool ideas,” Read said. “There are going to be all kinds of ways that people are going to start seeing poetry as part of their city.”