When Mery Smith started a writing group with a couple of local poets in her South Hill basement six years ago, the single mother of four children felt inferior.
“I was sitting in this room with everyone and they all had an MFA (master of fine arts),” Smith said. “I felt like an imposter. I felt like I didn’t belong.”
Smith, 38, attended Wenatchee Valley College in 2004 but her experience was short-lived.
“I was told, ‘We’re going to let you go since you’re flunking out,’ ” Smith recalled.
The following year, Smith moved to Coeur d’Alene and lived in her friend’s garage while she aspired to become an artist. But Smith married and had her children.
“I felt like I didn’t belong in that writer’s group since I wiped butts and cut the crust off of sandwiches everyday,” Smith said from her South Hill home. “How could I be in a group of all of these people who have MFAs?”
Well, Smith is the only member of that collective to become poet laureate. Smith, who applied for the post during the summer is the fifth poet laureate in Spokane since the position was created by Spokane Arts in 2013.
“It’s an honor,” Smith said. “I’m thrilled to be Spokane’s poet laureate.”
Smith, who will succeed Chris Cook on Jan. 1, which is when her two-year run as poet laureate commences, acknowledges that writing isn’t about degrees. Some of the greatest poets either failed to attend college or quit school.
Bob Dylan, arguably the greatest songwriter in rock history, left college after one year. Percy Shelley was expelled from Oxford. Dylan Thomas left school at 16 to become a reporter.
The Kettle Falls native is in excellent company and she also has some good friends who have a way with words. Former Spokane poet laureate Mark Anderson encouraged Smith to focus on her moving prose.
“Mark said I didn’t need an MFA to be a great poet,” Smith said. “I was just told that I had to heed the call.”
Henry David Thoreau nailed it when he said, “How vain is it to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” Smith has plenty to draw from as a mother, artist and dreamer.
The imagery from Smith’s “Starship Corpse” is deep and evocative.
“We stick our fingers into each other as if we have the authority/ As if the neon sign was ours to turn from open to close/ Dim lights and assumption look good on you/ We gnash on each other for an hour/ We can go longer like that/ When you’re buzzed the potato chip bag that held our attention slides off of our bed like a discarded prop takes center stage/ I’m the star now.”
Indeed. The poet laureate gig in Spokane isn’t just about words but also action. Smith will continue as a prolific writer but her goal is to raise the consciousness of poetry in town.
“I’m going to spread the word about this art form and would like to make it accessible through workshops,” Smith said. “There are workshops that are $50 a person and some people can’t afford that. I was in a workshop listening to Ada Limon (earlier in 2023) and I looked out the window and wondered how many local writers would like to be there but couldn’t afford it.
“I want to make the writing room bigger. I want to bring the workshops to Airway Heights Correctional facility. I want criminals and addicts to have access. Poetry and writing is healing. It can save a life. It saved mine.”
Smith is an alcoholic who became sober after spending a number of years writing moody prose while in a hazy state.
“I fell into alcohol at sleepovers as a kid,” Smith said, while recalling growing up in Wenatchee. “The other kids were drinking for fun. I was drinking for oblivion.
Smith, who works at a catering company has been sober for 15 years and has no desire to pick up a bottle since she’s sated by raising her four sons, Otto, Hugo, Hobbs and Howie, who range in age from 7 to 14, and writing.
“You want to build up momentum as a writer,” Smith said. “You have to write everyday. You sit down and focus.
“When you write and get going it’s like a wind blowing through your house. You have to shut all of the windows and doors so that (inspiration) doesn’t escape. I love to write.”
Smith still has her book club, which now gives her solace.
“I meet with a group of women once a week and sometimes we talk about books,” Smith said. “Sometimes we just sit around and cry. Sometimes we laugh and sometimes we razz each other.
“It’s great to have this bond with some amazing people around the written word.”
Speaking of the written word, Mery is one letter short for Merry, since Smith was born within two weeks of Christmas. “And my middle name is Noel, so when I was born had an impact on my name.”
It will be a very merry Christmas for the future poet laureate of Spokane, who will do all she can to spread the word on poetry, creativity and literacy.