Washington’s New Poet Laureate
Ladies and gentlemen, the new Poet Laureate of Washington State, Tod Marshall: “I think of it as a service position as well as an honor,” Marshall says, on the phone from his office at Gonzaga University in Spokane, where he’s a professor of English. “The previous laureates have been amazing in their outreach and I hope to continue that dynamic and take poetry to as many places in the state as I can.”
This proselytizing, Marshall says, is the prime directive of the state poet laureate. His specific focus will be on parts of Washington where poetry—its study, its practice, its benefits—doesn’t have a strong foothold. Marshall will safari to the far corners of the state and lead readings, workshops and other forms of engagement with the twofold goal of connecting people to existing poetry and poets and instilling enthusiasm within the public to create their own works. From those far-flung generative exercises, Marshall plans to produce an anthology comprising new work from budding and established poets for placement in libraries across the state.
“We’re gonna have a poem for every year of statehood,” he says. “You can give yourself a civics lesson and ask how many that will be: 129 poems by the end of my term.” (Washington became a state in 1889.) He’s leaving room for themes to emerge as he culls the poems, though he also expects the state’s vast and varied geography to influence language and imagery.
Washington’s poet laureate program began in 2007, with poet Sam Green, followed by Kathleen Flenniken and Elizabeth Austen. Prospective laureates are not only talented writers but enthusiastic advocates of literacy and literature, willing to travel far and wide to convey the value of poetry throughout the state. The program is jointly sponsored by the Washington State Arts Commission and Humanities Washington. As the outgoing laureate, Austen will officially pass the torch—or rather, the laurels—at a ceremony at Hugo House on Feb. 9.
“People will turn out for poetry in places that might surprise you—Republic, Manson, Dayton, Cathlamet,” Austen says, “and they really appreciate it when a poet makes the effort to come to their town for a genuine conversation about poetry and its place in our lives.”
Among the laureates, Marshall is the first to be based in Eastern Washington, where he settled to teach at Gonzaga.
“I felt like I won a lotto ticket in getting a job at Gonzaga,” he says. He was born in Buffalo and raised in Kansas, where he also received his doctorate. An avid outdoorsman, Marshall says the scenery of the Northwest paired with Spokane’s emerging arts scene have kept him rooted.
“Spokane is a great city. I know people complain about our cultural offerings compared to larger cites, but I consider myself a culturally active person and it’s more often that I don’t go to events than find myself wanting more.”
Marshall’s most recent book of poetry, Bugle, was published in 2014 and last year won a Washington State Book Award. His work is rough-edged and dark-humored, injected with a wry fatalism that projects the urgency and folly of man’s short time in the world against the cold beauty of nature. He mixes classical form with emojis; references to classical mythology with nods to consumer culture. Or as he puts it, “From Lucretius to the Starland Vocal Band. It’s all part of that stuff that we mine out of ourselves and the world to make a poem.” (Read one of Marshall’s poems on page 20.)
“I called the book Bugle because I thought it had a pretty harsh music,” Marshall says. “There’s a kind of splat-blat raucous note that the book sounds. I know it’s full of violence and misdeeds but the challenge of making music out of those things is very real for many writing today. There’s nothing in that book that one doesn’t encounter tenfold when you pick up a paper.”
It’s poetry’s ability to convey voice—distilled, direct—that Marshall is most eager to share.
“I think of poetry as representative of the arts writ large,” he says. “Whether poetry, dance, sculpture or music, people need those things in their lives. And the arts and poetry can provide for a space where we challenge ourselves and where we think about things in a different way. Because we’re being told by many different forces how to think about things.
“To bring poems to people that challenge how they see the world and understand themselves and navigate their daily joys and pains seems important work to me. And it seems equally important to find the language equal to their own unique understanding and to get them to put that language on paper.”