YAKIMA, Wash. – For decades, Washington’s mountains and residents have inspired a wealth of fledgling writers, including some who are now among of the nation’s most venerated authors.
Think the dreamy novels of Tom Robbins, or Jack Kerouac, who wrote evocatively of summer spent in a North Cascade fire tower.
But what about poetry?
Washington has a rich history of poetry, and Yakima has an especially active poetry community, said Mark Fuzie, an English composition instructor at Yakima Valley College.
That’s one reason he helped bring two Washington state poets laureate to the college on Monday for poetry workshops, readings, and an unofficial transfer of duties.
In a “passing of the guard” ceremony, current state poet laureate Tod Marshall handed his successor, Claudia Castro Luna, a decades old book of poetry. A more formal ceremony takes place in Seattle at the end of the month.
While unofficial, the transfer marks an important moment for the Valley’s poets, Fuzie said.
“We wanted to place emphasis on the transition, big things like this don’t just happen,” he said. “It puts a focus on the Central Washington poetry scene, taking it away from Olympia; Who says we’re not competitive?”
For Marshall, the state’s fourth poet laureate, the role changed over his two-year term that saw him crisscross the state repeatedly in the service of his craft.
“At first, I was saying ‘I gotta convert everyone to be a poet like me,’” said Marshall, a 50-year-old Gonzaga University humanities professor whose poetry has won national recognition.
But after spending time working with diverse crowds, he realized traditional poetry isn’t for everyone.
“Probably the most challenging thing about the position, to me, is that you have to have a willingness to try and connect poetry to so many different communities,” he said.
But luckily, he said, poetry has a very broad definition.
Marshall began shifting the focus of his lectures away from a need to appreciate traditional poetry toward an appreciation in written words themselves.
“Poetry is the place where lots of words matter to me,” he said. “But I started encouraging people to discover words that matter to them, whether those words are in Psalms, the Bill of Rights or (Martin Luther King Jr.’s) ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’ ”
During his tenure, Marshall compiled and published an anthology of 129 poems from Washington residents. Called “WA129,” the poems – each one representing a year of statehood – were selected from 2,400 submissions sent in from every corner of the state.
Marshall said he had trouble narrowing his choices to 129, so he set aside about 100 others and published them in a series of four online books.
The amount of submissions, he said, highlights the passion for poetry he discovered among Washington residents during his trips.
“The more I traveled around the state, the more I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I should’ve known about this,’ ” he said. “It was really intoxicating, in a good way, to encounter all that art and culture.”
For Castro Luna, whose term begins in February, the role is an opportunity to bring people together.
“We as the general public in the state want to hear each other and want to hear each other’s stories, and I hope to be a bridge-maker in that,” she said.
Marshall and Fuzie said part of what makes Castro Luna’s appointment important is that she’s the first bilingual, immigrant poet laureate to be chosen, and her work could resonate with Washington’s Latino population.
“The demographics of the state are changing, and (Latinos) are the most rapidly growing demographic,” she said. “Poetry is one of the best ways to celebrate our culture and our history here.”
Castro Luna was the first person to be appointed the Civic Poet of Seattle, and in that position won acclaim for her Seattle Poetic Grid – a digital, interactive map where users can read poems about places in Seattle by clicking the corresponding place on the map. The poems were written by Seattle residents, and feature poems written in various languages, including Spanish and Japanese.
Castro Luna said the city’s participation in creating the map was another example of Washington’s passion for poetry. She said that no matter what she accomplishes in her term as the state poet laureate, she’s excited to be a part of a long history of expressing that passion.
“I was surprised by the love and the attention and the allegiance from people,” she said. “I think we’re lucky to have such a history, and I hope I’m able to contribute to that history.” ?
Marshall was born in Buffalo, N.Y., but grew up in Wichita, Kan. He studied English and philosophy at Siena Heights University in Michigan, before earning a Master of Fine Arts from Eastern Washington University and a doctorate in American literature from the University of Kansas.
He said he gained an appreciation for the power of language while at school in Michigan, and considered a career in journalism before he became interested in poetry while in graduate school.
In 1999, he accepted a teaching position at Gonzaga University, where he’s taught classes on modern literature and all eras of poetry ever since.
Marshall said he became interested in the poet laureate position in 2015 after learning more about it from people at Humanities Washington – one of the position’s sponsors.
Castro Luna fled El Salvador for the United States at the age of 14 with her family. The daughter of two teachers, Castro Luna said the importance of literature was ingrained at an early age.
Despite this, she said, writing didn’t come into her life until her mid-30s.
“Everything I wrote turned into a poem, which is annoying if you don’t want to write a poem,” she said
She had held jobs as a teacher and an urban planner, but didn’t take writing seriously until she enrolled in writing classes at a community college. She initially wanted to write prose, but kept returning to poetry – describing it as a dog continuously nipping at her heels.
After reflecting on her life trajectory, said she decided to follow that impulse. The risk ultimately paid dividends for her.
“It was at that point in my life I realized I couldn’t live without it,” she said. “It became clear to me that is what I needed to do; I can say it with a straight face, poetry saved my life.”
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