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Spokane’s first poet laureate ready to pass the baton

It’s been nearly two years since Thom Caraway was named Spokane’s first poet laureate. Over his two-year term, the poet and English professor at Whitworth University has hosted or participated in numerous poetry readings all over the city, he co-edited the first “Railtown Almanac,” a poetry anthology for Spokane, and even published a short work of narrative fiction as part of The Spokesman-Review’s Summer Stories series.

His final reading as poet laureate will be Friday. In this email interview, he talked about the highs and lows of the job, and his advice for his successor, who will be named Oct. 30.

Q. As your two-year term as Spokane’s inaugural poet laureate nears its end, and as you’re reflecting on it all, how are you feeling?

A. Feeling a little bit of relief, but also some sadness. It has been a great two years. I’ve met so many artists and writers I never would have met otherwise, in Spokane and around the state. It forced me out of my comfort zone. I felt obligated to go to all of the things. There were several stretches where I was going to one or more things every night for weeks on end. And there is so much great stuff happening in Spokane. Being laureate gave me a reason to show up, and also to ask people what they were working on. It gave me a kind of access I hadn’t had before. I’ll still go to a lot of things, but I’ll also be able to say no and spend time in my studio, or finishing a letterpress shop I’m building with a friend, or just write new stuff.

Q. What was your favorite thing you did as poet laureate?

A. A couple of writing assignments were a lot of fun to work on. The Inlander asked me to write a poem for their series on Sprague (May 2014) and I was able to finish a short story for (The Spokesman-Review’s) summer fiction series this year. Nance Van Winckel’s poetry workshop responding to Kay O’Rourke’s Spokane paintings (on display at the Spark Center). I never would have produced that work without the invitations. A couple of workshops in various schools (Spokane Public Montessori, the Riverpoint Academy) were memorable. But mostly, just meeting the people who were doing good work in and for Spokane.

I’m still very pleased when I think about Verbatim, or when I see people leafing through “Railtown Almanac” at Auntie’s or Atticus. Much of what writers produce is very private, but being able to see people enjoy the things I helped do is pretty satisfying. A couple readings stand out, too. One in Moses Lake with state poet laureate Elizabeth Austen. Pie & Whiskey this year. My first feature at Broken Mic was a great rush. The slam community was entirely unknown to me, and they welcomed me. They cheered when I read. That had never happened to me before. Polite applause, sure. But people getting excited? That was awesome.

That’s like 10 favorite things, but it was a lot of fun.

Q. Least favorite?

A. I got pretty run down for a while, going to things every night. Parts of it were exhausting. There was a point about a year in, too, that I just hated everything I’d ever written. I didn’t want to read anything ever again. But it forced me to make new work, because I still had readings to give, so it ended up working out.

Q. Do you feel Spokane is a bit more “poetry friendly” these days?

A. For sure. I think having a public/civic poet helps keep poetry in the community’s line of sight. It’s pretty easy to never encounter poetry for most people. But the position creates curiosity and awareness. Now when new things happen (Bazaar, parklets, music festivals), organizers are getting poets involved. And it turns out, people like poetry!

Q. What’s your advice for the next poet laureate?

A. Pace yourself. Don’t be afraid to say no.

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