Judith Roche lived her life fascinated by, and immersed in, the power of the written word.
As a lifelong poet, she published several collections of work, including “Wisdom of the Body,” which won a 2007 American Book Award. As the longtime director of Bumbershoot’s literary arts program under One Reel, she brought countless nationally known authors to Seattle and also elevated the voices of local writers through magazines and other publications. As a writing teacher — at numerous institutions, including Hugo House, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle University, Antioch University Seattle and universities and poetry centers nationwide — she inspired her students with the reverent, endless possibilities of words.
“My basic thing is that poetry is approaching the holy and it’s a translation of the sacred and it says the unsayable,” said Roche in a 2015 interview. “It’s an impossible task you take on saying the unsayable. To approach those feelings of sacred and try to bring them into language, but that’s the project of poetry.”
A memorial service for Ms. Roche, who died at age 78 on Nov. 14 of complications from a stroke, will be held at Jack Straw Cultural Center, 4261 Roosevelt Way N.E., Seattle, at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 5. All are welcome to attend; a number of local writers will share memories of Ms. Roche, as well as poems written by her or inspired by her.
A second memorial will be held at Hugo House on Sunday, Feb. 23, at 3 p.m.; again, all are welcome to attend and share poems by or about Ms. Roche. (In a final act of generosity, Ms. Roche left her vast personal library of books by Northwest poets and writers to Hugo House.)
Friends speak of Ms. Roche as a woman of warmth and graciousness; a natural unifier with a ready laugh. “She really had a talent for bringing the best out of people and helping them to use writing as a way to process things that happened in their lives,” said her daughter, Tari Roche.
“She was free-spirited and daring,” said friend and former One Reel colleague Louise DiLenge. “She was great. She just took life by its teeth and made it do what she wanted it to do. It’s hard to find people like that. A lot of people talk the talk, but they don’t live that life, and Judith did.”
A native of Detroit, Ms. Roche moved west in her 20s and as a young woman worked on the trans-Alaska pipeline before settling in the Seattle area. In the 1970s, recalled her friend Sibyl James, Ms. Roche “was a flagger on I-90 when they expanded it. She would stand there with the flag reading a book.”
Hired by One Reel to direct its literary program in 1986, Ms. Roche and DiLenge “breathed life back into that program,” said DiLenge — gathering funding, publishing anthologies, bringing well-known authors to town, creating curriculum for local schools. Those education programs, DiLenge said, encouraged struggling students to write from the heart, “as opposed to punctuation and structure,” and get words on paper.
Tree Swenson, now executive director of Hugo House, remembered how Ms. Roche revitalized the Bumbershoot book fair, making it a bustling gathering of small publishers. “It really helped build a camaraderie among presses from various parts of the Northwest — we’d all see each other annually at Bumbershoot,” she said. “That was Judith’s greatest gift — she was very good at bringing people together.”
Ms. Roche worked for Bumbershoot until 2005. In 2007, One Reel awarded her its Golden Umbrella Award for Achievement in the Arts, citing among her accomplishments coediting the anthology “First Fish, First People” (winner of the American Book Award in 1998) and editing Bumbershoot’s annual literary magazine, Ergo!, from 1985 to 1994. “Judith’s support of local writers and artists is unparalleled,” wrote One Reel in its announcement, “and her good spirit not only was an integral part of the One Reel community, but of the arts community city- and nationwide.”
In her lifetime, Ms. Roche was a passionate environmentalist, particularly interested in fish. (You can hear her voice, reading from her poetry series “Salmon Suite,” at an installation at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Ballard.) She was a fellow of the Black Earth Institute, a group of artists and scholars who focused on social justice, environmental issues and the spiritual dimensions of the human condition in their art and work. She was a founding member of Red Sky Poetry Theater, a long-running local open-mic poetry series. And she spent much time with young people — teaching students of all ages, working with youth in detention centers and sick children in hospitals. “I think she helped each of them find a deeper level of understanding of themselves through the work they did with her,” said her daughter.
In addition to her daughter Tari, Ms. Roche is survived by her son, Robin, who is deaf and has Down syndrome. Because of him, said Tari Roche, Ms. Roche was deeply involved in the local deaf and disabled communities. Other survivors include her granddaughters, Sahara and Gabriella Suval, her sisters, Lori Johnson and Marilyn Pramstaller, and their families.
The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to L’Arche of Seattle, a nonprofit organization that supports and provides community for people with developmental disabilities.
Ms. Roche’s poem “Metaphors of Dust,” published in Black Earth Institute’s About Place Journal, concluded with these lines:
But it’s so old,
this grand, often told story —
that we are dust and return to dust —
We are an instance of star in story
of rocks, glaciers, carbon-based creatures, stars.
We become the metaphor
and in this metaphor
we are all old
souls, stuff of ancient stars
singing our story
and whatever it says
about our mixture of spirit and dust.
We are the metaphor for the story
old souls swirling in the wind tunnel of time,
spirit and star and dust.
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