Monday, February 3, 2014

Monday Muse: Washington's New Poet Laureate

I'm one of those writers who's usually writing to find out
what is going on internally. . . I'm often looking to the outside
world for the concrete elements that will provide
a metaphor for the internal life. . . .*
~ Elizabeth Austen

Elizabeth Austen is Washington State's new Poet Laureate for the term beginning February 1, 2014, and concluding January 31, 2016. Austen, the third person to occupy the official post, succeeds Kathleen Flenniken (see my post of February 20, 2012, for a profile of Flenniken).

Background about the state poet position is found in my post of February 7, 2011.

A self-described "poetry evangelist" for whom poetry is "[her] church", Austen is an active and particularly expressive poetry performer, poetry coach, and workshop leader. As Poet Laureate, she will be the state's chief advocate, promoter, and supporter of poetry, with the aim of "reach[ing] people — even people who think they don't like poetry — by sharing works that are both vivid and relatable."**

Note: On February 16, 3:00 p.m., at Open Books: A Poem Emporium in Seattle, Austen will join Kathleen Flenniken in a reading and talk that includes the "presenting of the laurel" to Austen as Washington's new Poet Laureate.

* * * * *
. . . It's not enough to be honest in a poem;
there also has to be something new — a surprise. . . .***

Seattle-based Elizabeth Austen is the author of Every Dress a Decision (Blue Begonia Press, 2011), her debut full-length collection and a finalist for the 2012 Washington State Book Awards.

In addition, Austen has published two chapbooks: The Girl Who Goes Alone (Floating Bridge Press, 2010; sold out) and Where Currents Meet (Toadlily Press Quartet, 2010). The latter received the 2010 Toadlily Press chapbook award; it was part of Sightline, the Toadlily Press Quartet Series of 2010. Austen's one-disc audio CD skin prayers, comprising 26 poems, came out in 2006.

Why I write is to have that kind of experience. . . of having
something unexpected happening on the page 
that I can then work with and shape. . . .*

Not a formal verse poet, Austen writes about place, the physical world, food (part of the many sensory details that recur in her work), love, family, gender identity and roles, choices, domestic situations, and, especially, how we choose to present ourselves in our world (the self within and outside society). A persistent theme, which she herself has identified*, is "wanting to talk back to the idea that women's lives are limited in ways that men's aren't". Austen's long poem "The Girl Who Goes Alone" from Every Dress a Decision (try to hear Austen read it aloud) wonderfully encapsulates her themes and the emotional complexity of her work generally.

In these excerpts, notice the images, musical line, and clarity that are hallmarks of Austen's poetry, which is masterfully crafted:

Don't offer opiates.
Lay me naked in the ocean's
hammock, still awake enough
to know myself her own.
Feet on her salt pillow,
hands at last with nothing
to grasp. [. . . ]
~ from "Ebbing Hour" in Every Dress a Decision

he crosses the path of a blue sedan
bounces twice and embraces the road

his cheek pressed to asphalt
as if merely napping

sunlight splinters off the fractured windshield
[. . . .]
~ from "Not My Brother" in Every Dress a Decision

You, girl of twenty-five. Here's a thing
to consider—he believes in the color

of your hair. You turn in sunlight
and he sees cave walls painted red-ochre
[. . . .]
~ from "Girl With Stone in Hand" in Every Dress a Decision

Poems by Austen have been published in a number of literary periodicals, including Bellingham Review, Crab Creek ReviewDMQ ReviewLos Angeles Review, Seattle ReviewShark ReefSwivel, Switched-on GutenbergVerse DailyWillow Springs, and The Writer's Almanac.

Austen's work is anthologized in Fire on Her Tongue (eBook Anthology of Contemporary Women's Poetry, Two Sylvias Press), Here, There, and Everywhere (RASP Poetry Anthology, 2013), Introducing A Sense of Place: The Washington State Geosptial Poetry Anthology, The Best of Toadlily Press: New and Selected Poems (Toadlily Press, 2011), Many Trails to the Summit: Poems by Forty-Two Pacific Northwest Poets (Rose Alley Press, 2010), In the Telling, Poets Against the War (Nation Books, 2003), Pontoon 7: An Anthology of Washington State Poets (Floating Bridge Press, 2004), Weathered Pages (Blue Begonia Press, 2005), and What To Read in the Rain (826 Seattle, paperback, 2012).

Among her awards are grants from Artist Trust (2010), City of Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs (2008; see press release), and 4Culture, as well as residencies at Artsmith on Orcas Island and Hedgebrook. Nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize, she has been a featured performer of poetry at numerous venues, including Bumbershoot Arts Festival, Get Lit! Festival, poetrynightRichard Hugo House Literary Series (Hugo House commissioned Austen to write on the theme of "Visiting Hours" for its 2009-2010 series), Seattle Town Hall, and Skagit River Poetry Festival. She helped bring poetry to underserved communities in Washington's rural areas as the leader of Poetry Roadshow 2006. She also has participated in "A Poet At Your Table", a program sponsored by Seattle Arts and Lectures Poetry Series and Crab Creek Review.

Austen, who teaches frequently at Richard Hugo House and elsewhere and conducts poetry and journaling workshops for staff at Seattle Children's Hospital, is in charge of weekly poetry programming (interviews, commentary, recordings of readings and literary events, and the like) for KUOW 94.9, an NPR affiliate.

Interestingly, Austen's background includes training in theatre and classical acting.


All Poetry Excerpts © Elizabeth Austen

* Quoted from Interview at Bellingham Review Audio

** Quoted from "Elizabeth Austen Named 2014-16 Washington State Poet Laureate", Press Release, January 27, 2014

*** Quoted from Profile at Seattle Wrote

Elizabeth Austen Poems Online: "Untitled" and "The Morning" at Elizabeth Austen Website; "The Girl Who Goes Alone" at Vimeo (Performance); "On Punctuation" at The Writer's Almanac (Audio Included); "Humans" and "Scene: Interior, Night", Both at Verse Daily; "False Spring" at DMQ Review; "Not Yet" and "More, One More", Both at Shark Reef; "It Didn't Happen That Way" from Sightline at Toadlily Press; "This Morning" at The Alchemist's Kitchen Blog; "Scene: Interior, Night", "It Didn't Happen That Way", and "Morning", All at get lit! Programs; "Leaving the Island", "Problem Was", "The Girl Who Goes Alone", "What Is Known", All at Richard Hugo House; "Where Currents Meet" and "Leaving the Island", and "Ebbing Hour", All at About Place Journal; "More, One More" at Poet Populist Seattle; "The Girl Who Goes Alone" at The Far Field; "It Didn't Happen That Way" at Remembering English,  Midge Raymond Blog; "On Punctuation" at Dialogues - Poems We Love Blog and Bossy Betty Blog; "Where Currents Meet" and "Overhead, Underfoot", Both at Ballona Blog; "Ebbing Hour" at Poet Tree Blog; "Her, At Two" and "Where Currents Meet", Both at Bellingham Review Audio; "The Girl Who Goes Alone" at Floating Bridge Press; "Her, At Two" and "Deciduous", Both for Words' Worth of Seattle City Council (pdf); "The Permanent Fragility of Meaning" at Voices Education Project; "Untitled" at EWU Women's & Gender Studies Blog; "Insomniac Doggerel" at Switched-On Gutenberg; "On Punctuation" at Seattle Business Magazine

Every Dress a Decision, Trailer from Blue Begonia Press on YouTube

Every Dress a Decision, Reading at Open Books, Seattle, on YouTube

Midge Raymond, "Mini Q&A with Poet Elizabeth Austen", Remembering English Blog, January 16, 2014

Author2Author, Interview with Elizabeth Austen, March 12, 2013 (Audio)

Bellingham Review, Interview with Elizabeth Austen (Audio Only), Fall 2012 (This is a very good interview in which Austen addresses, in particular, her performance of poetry. She also talks about her influences and inspirations, radio work, reading life, writing techniques and methods, the Seattle poetry scene, the notion of "accessibility" and "layers", "deep reading", and her "firsts". In addition, she reads two of her poems.)

Katherine Whitcomb, Conversations, Interview with Elizabeth Austen, May 2013 on YouTube (An excellent interview, Austen talks about how she put together Every Dress a Decision, which addresses the mystery, and grief over the loss, of her brother's death, her search for spirituality, how to be in relationship and yet separate, her identity as a woman, and her connection to "wilderness" (Pacific Northwest). She also reads from her collection and talks about what it means to "perform" a poem so that the poem "moves out into the room" and connects with its audience as a "form of service".)

Jennine Hall Gailey, Interview with Elizabeth Austen, June 6, 2011

Kathleen Kirk, Every Dress a Decision Review, Prick of the Spindle

Every Dress a Decision ReviewGalatea Resurrects #19 (A Poetry Engagement) Blog, December 13, 2012

Kathleen Kirk, The Girl Who Goes Alone Review, Fiddler Crab Review, May 2011

826 Seattle (Nonprofit Writing & Tutoring Center)

Jack Straw Productions Writers Program (Austen was in the 2003 lineup.)

poetrynight, Bellingham, Washington, on FaceBook

Puget Sound Poetry Connection

Elizabeth Austen on FaceBook and Twitter

Elizabeth Austen's Blog


Kathleen said...

I love her for so many reasons! Thanks for this.

Louise Gallagher said...

Such a gift to find a new poet laureate!

And such a gifted poet!