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Arts & Culture

Meet Rena Priest, Washington's first Indigenous poet laureate

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Courtesy of Humanities WA
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Rena Priest is Washington's new Poet Laureate

Washington has a new state poet laureate. Rena Priest officially took the mantle in a ceremony Wednesday evening, hosted at the Lummi Nation, where she is from.

She was appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee and is the state’s first Indigenous poet to serve in this role. She succeeds Claudia Castro Luna and will serve for two years.   

Priest says she discovered poetry at a very young age. She credits her grandmother, who published a small book of poems and who she was named after, as well as her school librarian, who inspired her with his renditions of books he read aloud.

“He would read to us in the library, the voices of the characters. And I just thought that was the greatest. And you know, that, along with a lot of other experiences, gave me a love for hearing language out loud and the music of language and poetry,” Priest says.  

She went on to study English and earn a bachelor’s degree at Western Washington University in Bellingham, where she credits a vibrant poetry scene with shaping her as a writer.

We're super lucky to have so many amazing poets in our community here. I think that there's just a lot of talent and a lot of love and a lot of true devotion to the craft of poetry in this community,” she says.

She earned an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her literary debut, Patriarchy Blues, was honored with the 2018 American Book Award. She was selected by poet Kathleen Flenniken to be part of the 2019 cohort of Jack Straw Writers in Seattle. (Flenniken was Washington’s state poet laureate from 2012-14.) 

Priest's second and most recent collection is Sublime Subliminal.

TALKING TO TRIBES

Despite her own experience, Priest says she did not get a lot of support for her literary aspirations in her home community, the Lummi Nation. She says many tribes do a good job supporting young people in athletics and cultural activities but not so much in things like poetry and performing arts. As poet laureate, she hopes to set a different example and encourage writers who might not see the craft as a real path.

“It's going to be a lot doing a lot of readings, but a lot of reaching into communities and maybe encouraging writers,” Priest says.

She plans to visit lots of tribal communities and to celebrate poetry there, "to give people the sense that it's not such a crazy thing to write poetry. Or it's not such a strange thing to write poetry.”

Here she cites another one of her favorite poets and childhood influences: Shel Silverstein, with his poem “Put Something in.”

Draw a crazy picture,
Write a nutty poem,
Sing a mumble-grumble song,
Whistle through your comb.
Do a loony-goony dance
'Cross the kitchen floor,
Put something silly in the world
That ain't been there before.

Priest says she first read that poem when she was 8 years old and took it to heart. She wants it to be accessible to everyone.

“Poetry is as much something to like, just enjoy the sound and playfulness of as it is a medicine that can soothe during hard times or be used to commemorate important times,” she says.

“I think that it is as much just to celebrate the fact that we can make music with nothing but our thoughts and our words and our mouth and our breath.”

POETRY'S POWER TO CHANGE

Priest says it can also be used to raise awareness for issues, such as the need for environmental protection in the face of climate change.

I mean, poetry is so versatile, and maybe it's even the best medium to use,” she says.  

“It allows for associative leaps and it allows -- it kind of opens a person's willingness to accept something that maybe they really wouldn't want to look at previously. It's almost like it can trick you through song and imagery.”   

As an example, she reads her poem “Words of Encouragement” about the looming extinction of Puget Sound’s southern resident orcas.   

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Rena Priest reads her poem, “Words of Encouragement.”

'SALMON ARE KIND OF MY HEROES'

Among the projects she hopes to pursue as poet laureate is creating an anthology of poems about salmon.

"Salmon are kind of my heroes. You know, they overcome incredible odds to return home and continue their cycle of life. And they're just so ... I mean, they'll defy gravity. They'll jump up a raging waterfall and cascading rapids, and they just keep trying. And I feel like I want to honor that struggle and that heroism,” Priest says.

She says by honoring salmon she feels she could honor all the species in our bioregion that rely on the nutrients they provide upstream, “not just orcas … And I feel like poems about salmon, it's just appropriate right now.”

She also wants to get more poetry into parks – on public placards where you would normally only see scientific or historical information.

Priest’s term as poet laureate runs from April 14, 2021, to March 31, 2023. The poet laureate program is a joint effort between Humanities WA and the Washington State Arts Commission.

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An extended cut of the interview, including more background on the regional poetry scene that shaped Priest, and her reading of the poem “Words of Encouragement" from the 2019 anthology "For Love of Orcas."

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