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Sunday, May 16, 2021

New state poet laureate focuses on community

Rena Priest discusses plans to foster appreciation of the natural world

Rena Priest reads from a book of poems in a bookstore located in Bellingham, Wash. on Thursday, April 15. Priest was just announced the new Poet Laureate of Wash. // Photo by Jake Isom.
Rena Priest reads from a book of poems in a bookstore located in Bellingham, Wash. on Thursday, April 15. Priest was just announced the new poet laureate of Wash. // Photo by Jake Isom

By Jake Isom 

Rena Priest was named the new Washington state poet laureate by Governor Jay Inslee on April 1. Priest is a member of the Lhaq’ Temish, Lummi Nation and is the first Indigenous poet to assume the role. 

“When I got the official word, I was over the moon,” Priest said. 

The poet laureate program is a joint program between Humanities Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission.  

Priest began her role April 15. 

“[Priest will] work to build awareness and appreciation of poetry — including the state’s legacy of poetry,” according to Humanities Washington’s announcement

“[Being poet laureate] means I’m carrying forward a tradition not only from 2007 when Sam Green was appointed the first poet laureate but from ancient Greece when heroes and poets were crowned as a mark of distinction and honor,” Priest said. 

One of Priest’s goals as poet laureate is to celebrate poetry within Washington’s tribal communities. 

Having not visited all of the writing communities across the state yet, Priest is hoping to participate more with them while acting as poet laureate. 

“What that means to me is building community and doing so through seeing what’s out there existing, and then trying to go be a part of it,” Priest said. 

Another one of Priest’s goals is to utilize poetry to increase appreciation of the natural world and the threats facing the environment. Priest hopes to carry on Sam Green’s tradition of placing poetry on placards alongside nature walks in Washington. 

“To see [nature] celebrated through poetry in another person’s eyes kind of builds a stronger connection,” Priest said. “Hopefully maybe a sense of needing to preserve it.” 

One of Priest’s first orders of business is to create a work plan and strategize how to implement more poetry into natural settings. 

“I think poetry is a powerful way to convey messages to the public because it’s an accessible yet lyrical format to write and read in,” Peter Dyer, a Bellingham poetry enthusiast, said. 

Strategically placing poetry in natural settings is one of many ideas Priest has to convey the importance of the natural world in Washington communities.

Priest said she’s also interested in creating an anthology of salmon poems, as the reduced population of salmon is fairly inclusive of every community throughout Washington state. 

“If I could get salmon poems from everybody, everywhere, in all the communities I think that would be fantastic,” Priest said. 

Priest has worked with people in different communities throughout the state that have been involved in salmon and orca recovery. She said she’d “like to draw on these resources” as she addresses these issues in her new role.

“Poetry is absolutely a means of change and advocacy,” said Jane Wong, an assistant professor and academic advisor for English creative writing at Western Washington University. “Poetry is a powerful space where we can make the emotions, experiences, histories and futurisms we want, felt.”

Rena Priest is building communities and advocating for the environment through utilizing the power of poetry during her time as poet laureate. 

“I’m going to try to carry this work forward and steward poetry in our state in a way that is deserving of this honor,” Priest said.

Jake Isom is a city life reporter for The Front and a third-year visual journalism pre-major at Western Washington University. His work focuses on health and wellness within local communities. You can contact him at jakeisom.thefront@gmail.com.

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