Call it the lament of the poet laureate: having people come up to you and confess, “Poetry makes me feel dumb.” Elizabeth Austen, Washington’s newly crowned poet laureate (the third in state history), says that over the course of her many years as a poetry writer, promoter and teacher, she can’t count the times she’s heard this refrain. She attributes the unfortunate epidemic in part to the way poetry is often taught in school, “as if it’s a puzzle we’re supposed to figure out.” But, she explains, poetry isn’t so much a code to decipher as an experience—one that varies wildly depending on the reader’s personal history. “Everyone hears a different poem,” she says. “All poetry asks of you is your attention.”
Bringing attention to poetry is one of Austen’s primary duties during her two-year tenure. “My job is to foster awareness and appreciation for poetry across the state,” she says. That includes the reading she was asked to give for the Arts & Heritage caucus at the State Capitol in Olympia at 7:10 a.m. (“definitely the earliest reading I’ve ever done!”). She read her poem “This Morning,” which exhorts listeners to “be your own, unknown self.”
Austen, 48, grew up in Southern California as an arty kid, putting on plays and pageants and writing the occasional poem (all with the full support of her parents, who she reports are “so freaking excited” about her new post). At age 18, she legally changed her last name to that of her favorite author, Jane Austen—a decision she feels a bit sheepish about now, but laughs off, noting that she was raised Catholic, so the ritual of renaming was familiar.
In 1989, she moved to Seattle (sight unseen), where as a young adult she pursued acting and classical theater—she especially loved performing Shakespeare, relishing the way it felt to speak his words aloud. But the dream of being an actor often doesn’t match the reality of becoming one, and as she says, she “got tired of how that was going for me.” At age 31, she spent six months on a solo walkabout in South America, intent on figuring out what (aka who) she wanted to be. Upon her return to Seattle, her brother died suddenly, and amid grieving she found reading and writing poetry “enormously nourishing on many levels.” What she gained from poetry is part of her mission as poet laureate: “I want people to have access to what poetry can give them.”
Before submitting her official poet laureate application in November, Austen, who lives in West Seattle with her husband, had long been been playing the part. For the last 13 years, she has read poems and interviewed poets on “KUOW Presents.” She also brings poetry to her day job, as a part-time content strategist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, where she offers poetry sessions to staff. She regularly teaches poetry writing classes at Richard Hugo House, and in 2007, served as the “roadshow poet” for Washington state, giving readings and workshops in rural areas. Austen’s poetry collection Every Dress a Decision was a finalist for the 2012 Washington State Book Award.
Her poems can be based in truth or fiction, funny or philosophical. Past collections contain personal explorations of the “internalized expectations of being female.” Her poem “The Girl Who Goes Alone,” about her love of hiking and camping solo (and the inherent mix of fear and fearlessness involved), showcases her clear voice: To be a girl alone in the wilderness is to know / that if something goes wrong— / you picked the trailhead where the ax murderer lurks / or the valley of girl-eating gophers, she writes. And later, The girl who goes alone says with her body / the world is worth the risk.
Austen’s emphasis has always been “poems that are accessible to a general reader, but contain an element of mystery.” She clarifies, “That doesn’t mean they’re totally graspable.” But she disagrees with those who instantly dismiss “accessible” poetry as too simplistic. “I think of accessible poems as those that are aware of a reader,” she says. That’s part of the reason she appreciates and employs humor in poetry—as a way to draw people in to something they might be otherwise intimidated by. She holds up Louis C.K. as a master at combining wisdom and humor in his stand-up comedy. “He’s accessible, but he pushes people to think, too.”
A short list of Austen’s poetic influences include Marie Howe, Lucille Clifton, W.S. Merwin, Stanley Kunitz and Christopher Howell—writers who she says blend intelligence with an intensity of feeling. “Smarts can still welcome the reader,” she notes. But she understands why people say poetry makes them feel dumb. “Poems are disturbing because they don’t resolve,” she explains. “Poems say multiple things are true simultaneously. But when we learn to find pleasure in that ambiguity—to tolerate that discomfort—we’re stretched a bit.”
Austen hopes to stretch a few minds in the course of traveling to all 39 counties, giving free public readings and workshops, and showcasing the work of other Washington poets. (And maybe stretch a few legs, too; as a devoted hiker, she plans to implement a program called “Write and Hike with the Poet Laureate.”) She also aims to refute the idea that only professionals can be the artists. You don’t have to be “a writer” or “a poet” to benefit from poetry, she says. Just being given the chance—and permission—to connect with language helps people articulate how they experience the world. “People are hungry for what poetry does for them,” she contends, “even if they don’t know it yet.”
For information about Elizabeth Austen’s upcoming readings, or to request a community appearance, visit wapoetlaureate.org.