Rena Priest has loved poetry since she was a child, listening to Dr. Seuss books being read aloud. “It was just such a pleasure and a joy to hear language, and the rhymes,” she said, remembering how her mother’s renditions of books like “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” were “like magic coming out of her mouth.”
Now Priest, a Bellingham resident and author of two poetry collections (her most recent is “Sublime Subliminal” from Floating Bridge Press), gets to share that magic herself — as Washington state’s new poet laureate, a position sponsored by the Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA) and Humanities Washington. Her two-year term began April 15, and her mission is to build awareness and appreciation of poetry throughout the state.
Priest, the first Indigenous poet laureate of the state (she is a member of the Lhaq’temish, or Lummi, Nation), has given herself two additional goals: to celebrate poetry in Washington’s tribal communities, and to use poetry to increase appreciation of the natural world and the threats facing it.
Toward the first goal, she’s scheduling immediate events with Northwest Indian College in Bellingham and the Salish School of Spokane, and will be reaching out to various Indigenous communities offering workshops and readings, “and just see where poets kind of pop up.”
She’s been inspired by her own ongoing process — a few years in the works — of learning her tribal language, Xwlemi Chosen. “The language itself is very poetic — it’s so beautiful,” she said. “We don’t actually have a word for poetry in our language, but one of my teachers said that the closest would be song or prayer, and I find that it’s very fitting. Those are both things that I turn to poetry for, the satisfaction of my soul and also the music of it.”
For the second goal, she has a specific plan in mind: bringing poetry to the placards that we’re accustomed to seeing in parks, adding a new level of appreciation to the natural beauty. Years ago, Priest said, she was driving on Highway 20 and stopped to visit a scenic viewpoint. “It was an incredible view, of the North Cascades, and there was a William Stafford poem up there, on a placard,” she said. “I remember reading it and having this moment and feeling so connected — it was a beautiful moment.”
Later, she learned that there are poems by Stafford (a former poet laureate of Oregon) at a number of scenic places along that highway, placed by the Friends of William Stafford. “I thought, that’s so cool!” Priest said. She wants to expand that idea, working with the state and local park systems, and will soon be putting out a call to local poets “to write about their most treasured, beautiful place that they like to visit.”
Priest, 42, grew up on the Lummi reservation in Bellingham. Though she moved around a bit as an adult, “to see the world and go to school” (which included a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Sarah Lawrence College in New York), she returned home to the Bellingham area 11 years ago. Her resume includes a number of fellowships and residencies, including a term as a National Geographic Explorer (in which, through funding from the National Geographic Society, she followed efforts to repatriate a southern resident killer whale from Miami Seaquarium), and she most recently worked as a job skills instructor. Priest left that job this month to focus on her work as Washington’s sixth poet laureate, following in the footsteps of Claudia Castro Luna (whose two-year term was extended an additional year due to the pandemic).
Jasmine J. Mahmoud, a Seattle University assistant professor and ArtsWA commissioner, was a member of the committee that selected Priest. While she praised all the applicants, she said that Priest’s submission “was a breath of fresh air.” Mahmoud described Priest’s poetry as “very moving and very thoughtful and makes you think about the Earth and about each other in a way that is so needed, especially right now. … It’s very cerebral, with a lot of pensive thoughtfulness, connected to the earth, connected to Indigenous people and culture.”
She and other committee members were moved both by Priest’s writing and by her project to work with tribes across the state, impressed by “what it would mean to have an Indigenous poet laureate in our state, given her skill as a poet, given what she is thinking about including community, about global warming and the changing of the Earth. All of these things were really resonant with myself and with the committee.”
The position of poet laureate is one for which writers can apply (though not a full-time job, it does include a stipend and administrative support), and Priest did so, encouraged by former Washington state poet laureate Kathleen Flenniken. The two had worked together when Priest was a participant in the Jack Straw Writers Program in Seattle in 2019; Flenniken was then the curator for that program, which selects local writers for training in live and recorded readings, and encourages new work. Applying for the poet laureate position “was really kind of delightful,” Priest said. “It gives you all this opportunity to reflect on what poetry means to you, how you think of it, what you’ve accomplished and what you would want to accomplish, your whole history with writing. It was kind of a revelation to me.”
Despite a mild catastrophe involving Microsoft Teams (“It was really kind of comical!”), Priest enjoyed her interview, saying it reminded her of her first poetry class as an undergraduate at Western Washington University — “everyone was so warm and it felt like we were on the same wavelength. … When they called and let me know that I had gotten the position, it felt very affirming that this whole thing was the right path for me.”
Inspired by her favorite poets — she cited local writers Flenniken, her WWU mentor Jim Bertolino, Michael Schmeltzer and Judy Kleinberg, as well as Layli Long Soldier, Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara — she looks forward to making the role her own. She’s getting “crazy amounts” of requests for readings since the announcement of her positionthis month. “It’s all been very positive and very exciting,” Priest said, “and a lot of fun.”