In a fleeting series of words, poetry can take readers from wry chuckles to sighs of regret, tears of joy to pangs of longing. The power of poetry — not just for poetry lovers, but for all audiences — is a message new Washington state poet laureate Elizabeth Austen hopes to share with people throughout the state.
Appointed to the position earlier this year for the 2014-2016 term, Austen plans to focus primarily on encouraging adults to explore poetry.
“I think that too many adults, they get into adulthood getting this idea somehow, often through their education, that poetry isn’t for them, and that kind of breaks my heart,” she said. “So I want to be one of the voices that offers another point of view on that.”
Austen, 49, is the third poet laureate in state history. The program, created by a state bill passed in 2007 and sponsored by Humanities Washington, ArtsWA and Gov. Jay Inslee, involves a self-nomination process and selects an applicant for the position every two years. The laureate, who receives a stipend of $10,000 per year, spreads poetry appreciation through public readings and presentations across the state. Previous laureates include Samuel Green and, most recently, Kathleen Flenniken.
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Austen, a literary programming producer at KUOW radio and a communications specialist at Seattle Children’s hospital, was somewhat of a latecomer to poetry. After growing up in San Diego, she earned a BFA in Theatre (Acting) at Southern Methodist University in Texas and worked as a stage actor, vocal coach and director. However, she reached a point of uncertainty in her early 30s, when she could feel her acting career waning and didn’t have a clear sense of where her life was going.
In search of some answers and direction, she booked a one-way ticket to Quito, Ecuador, and wandered around the Andes Mountains region of South America for six months. That period of soul-searching, plus the devastation of losing her brother shortly after her return to the states, solidified her devotion to poetry.
“My decision to commit to poetry coincided with a very real need on my part for what poetry could offer,” she explained. “What I love about poetry is the way that it reaches for language to say the unsayable.”
After Austen’s return to the states, she went on to achieve an MFA in poetry from Antioch University Los Angeles. Now, she is the author of one published collection of poems, called “Every Dress a Decision” (Blue Begonia Press) and two smaller “chapbook” collections.
Austen was one of nine applicants this year — all of whom have published at least one full-length book of poetry. Having authored fewer published works than some of her peers, Austen was surprised to learn of her selection; however, she believes it was her longtime advocacy for poetry that ultimately set her apart and got her the job.
“I know from my work [producing literary programming at KUOW] that people have really connected with the way I present poetry,” she said. “I felt like there was a possibility that the way I advocate for poetry, the way I invite people to poetry, could be useful.”
Julie Ziegler, executive director of Humanities Washington, can verify that. As part of the committee that selects the poet laureate, Ziegler said Austen’s experience reaching out to various communities and her detailed outline of strategies for the next couple years allowed her to stand out from the other candidates.
Austen’s personal story, Ziegler thinks, is also inspirational.
“Elizabeth I think can be particularly inspiring because of her coming a little bit later to poetry,” Ziegler said. “Poetry can be intimidating, and when people see that even successful poets didn’t necessarily have it figured out from the moment they picked up a pen in preschool, it creates an accessibility there.”
For information on the Washington state poet-laureate program, go to wapoetlaureate.org.
Shirley Qiu: firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @callmeshirleyq