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The end of the road: Washington poet laureate Tod Marshall looks back on two years of words, inspiration, and road trips

Two years ago, award-winning Spokane poet and Gongaza University professor Tod Marshall embarked on a new journey – as Washington’s poet laureate.

The laureate program, sponsored by Humanities Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission, had him talking poetry, the humanities and “words that matter” to residents from Willipa Bay to Metaline Falls, and from Clarkston to Bellingham. He curated a poetry anthology, “WA129,” that gathered one poem from a Washington writer for every year of statehood.

The collection was celebrated last March in Olympia, when it was released. He’s bringing the party to Spokane on Saturday, where several poets who contributed to the collection will read their work. The event will serve as a finale, as well, as Marshall prepares to turn the poet laureate post over the Claudia Castro Luna at a ceremony in Seattle on Jan. 31.

As he sprints to the finish line, Marshall took a few minutes to look back on his two-year tenure, and to think about what the road ahead will look like. (Hint: Less driving.)

Q. During your two years as poet laureate, what has most inspired you?

A. I’ve visited so many communities that have thriving arts programs – theatrical and musical offerings, community open mics and underground lit journals and zines and comics and galleries and concerts – that usually survive because of the incredible dedication and work of the organizers. I always find those sorts of programs inspiring. I’ve also encountered so many teachers and librarians that give so, so, so much to their students, the young people in our state. The work that these teachers and librarians do to put their students in touch with art, with poetry, with imaginative worlds: that work is stunning, inspiring, and beautiful. We are really fortunate in Washington to have so many people committed to the arts, which is, of course a commitment to helping people discover and explore what it means to be human.

Q. What still gives you cause for concern?

A. Well, plenty. The economic disparities in our state are, frankly, stunning: we have, with Seattle, one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and we also have so, so, so many communities where 100 percent of the students are eligible for subsidized lunches; we have a real estate market on the I-5 corridor that is astronomically pricey while so many others (in the very same city) often sleep in the streets. I am neither sociologist nor economist nor politician; I am a poet, and so I’ll stick to language and language-usage. I’m concerned that weaponry and violence seems to inhabit such a large part of our children’s – especially boys’ – imagination – several times I had kids between 12 and 15 years-old tell me that their favorite word was AR-15 or autofire or “Call of Duty.” I’m concerned that screen time subtracts from time in substantive human interactions with one another and that our younger citizens are becoming even more tightly tethered to devices. I’m concerned that people seem to be reading fewer books (novels, poems, essays, and plays): the less we read, the smaller the circumference of our world. I’m concerned that fear will trump hospitality, that isolationism will leave communities cut off from one another (Eastside from Westside, red from blue, agrarian from urban). I could go on and on. My service as Washington State Poet Laureate began in February 2016; by the end of that year, we had witnessed a divisive election and a denigration of language. My term ends on Jan. 31 of this year: that division has only gotten deeper, the denigration of truth more severe.

Q. Do you have a most memorable moment, one that still gives you chills or makes you smile?

A. So many moments: occasions when I made poems with people, and we all smiled together when we opened up at the end of those sessions and shared our creations, everyone a little bit stunned at the art in the air, everyone risking a little bit of vulnerability with other human beings. I had dozens and dozens of visits to schools where the creativity and brilliance and exuberance of the children gave me uplift and energy (even when the daily news tried to drag that down). Hmm. One story – well, one story that I have come back to again and again in my mind happened in Brewster. I was there meeting fifth graders, those gawky and awkward kids on the cusp between unabated goofiness and the unavoidable prism that is self-consciousness, and we were talking about similes and making similes together that reflected the sound of our names. Here’s an example: my name is Tod – ahh, “Tod!” – none of the cool kids were ever named Tod; when I was growing up, they were always Kevin or Blake, Randy or Ryan. So my simile was: “Tod sounds like a box of dropped rocks.” That school in Brewster serves an impoverished population, maybe you know the sorts of kids that I’m talking about – the ones who devour any snack, who slump a little but still have stars in their eyes, brilliant possibility beyond economics and demographics and the unfortunate challenges into which they are born. In Brewster, in that particular class, I met Jalissa, a tiny fifth grader who talked in the morning about how hungry she was, how she couldn’t wait for lunch; who talked about how much she wanted nachos for lunch (and was crestfallen when the cafeteria ran out of them). I remember all of that, and I remember how, later in the day, we made poems together, similes for the sounds of our names, and she wrote, “I am Jalissa, and my name sounds like three notes played on a silver flute.”

I’m sure that there are so, so many other moments with students and teachers and aspiring writers that I will remember, but I’m sure that I will never forget Jalissa and her amazing simile, her enthusiasm, exuberance, and sad smile.

Q. How did the experience change you?

A. I’m an introvert. I’d rather hide in a book (or out in the woods). This appointment forced me out of that way of being in the world. I’ll never be an extrovert, of course, but I’m much more able to “roll with any situation, any occasion when someone asks me to speak, to share something – and believe me, there were wonderful events where everything seemed to go exactly as one would have hoped and there were dreadful, cringe-worthy occasions. Lots of other ways, too: how I think about poetry and publication, writing and literacy and literature and audience and an artist’s relationship to her/his community, political moment, and the medium that he/she served.

Q. Any regrets?

A. Oh, sure. I’m sure that there were occasions when I could have been more tuned in, more attentive, more present. I’m sure that I made scheduling blips that made me hurry when I should have slowed down; I’m sure that I missed emails and found myself unable to travel every place. I will say this, though: I really tried to do my best. I really, really tried to serve, to listen, to share, to spread the gospel of “words that matter.”

Q. Did you settle on the ultimate driving soundtrack?

A. My road trip listening is bizarre: I balance classic rock with an array of recordings and podcasts (the Atlantic, Seth Meyer, “On Being” with Krista Tippett, audio books by Coates and Orwell and others) with NPR and the most acerbic of talk radio. I still love rocking out to Rush and Styx and CCR, and I usually save the most raucous tunes for that stretch after Sprague, when the glowing lights of Spokane would start to illuminate the horizon (and my energy started to fade).

Q. How many miles on that trusty Subaru?

A. I drove 41,000 miles in the state of Washington on my wonderful Subaru CrossTrek. I had two broken windshields, a busted mirror (someone in Bellingham hit me when I was parked), and I wore out a set of tires. I visited all 39 counties, spoke in person with thousands and thousands of people (at dozens of libraries and schools and art museums and correctional facilities and bars and coffee shops and … ), wrote several editorials for our states’ newspapers, talked on AM and FM radio, and even appeared on television once (an occasion that I would classify as among my least favorite—see “cringeworthy” above). What a journey.

Q. The “WA129” anthology, released in 2017, has a new component. What can you tell us about that?

A. I received over 2,400 submissions for “WA129.” So many great poems. I wanted to include more than the 129, and so, with the help of my colleague, Jeff Dodd, and some of his great students at Gonzaga, we produced a series of four chapbooks called “WA 129+”; the books include about 80 more poems by Washington poets, and you can download the collections (they are beautifully designed and full of wonderful words of Washingtonians) at my website, www.wapoetlaureate.org.

Q. Has your wife forgiven you yet for that time you drove across the pass in snowstorm and videoed the road ahead as you recited Robert Frost?

A. Well … uhh, no comment. I sure am glad, though, to be home more with my wonderful wife and my fantastic Yorkie-poo. We’re going be homebodies for the foreseeable future.

Q. What are the three things your most looking forward to as a former Washington poet laureate?

A. Routine – walking the dog, sleeping at home, day in, day out. I’ll miss the kindness and generosity of the many, many people, and I’ll certainly miss working with Arts Washington and Humanities Washington (I so love all those people!), but I look forward to avoiding email and slipping into a space where “words that matter” are part of my life in a quieter sort of way.


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