SEATTLE — For the first time ever, Washington state’s poet laureate is Native American.
Her indigenous roots are helping shape the state’s top literary post.
Rena Priest was an award-winning poet before Gov. Jay Inslee selected her last spring as the state’s sixth poet laureate.
But the selection of the Lummi Tribal member has significantly raised her profile.
Beyond the walls on the Lummi Indian reservation west of Bellingham, history is being made.
A native daughter, her arms linked with the sisters of the grandmother for whom she was named, center stage, at the passing of the laurel ceremony, courtesy of Humanities Washington, Arts WA and the Lummi Nation, formally assuming her role as Washington state poet laureate.
None of the previous poet laureates have been indigenous to this land.
“I was actually on my way to Seattle with my husband and they called,” remembered Priest, the day she got the word of her selection. “And I was so excited.”
Priest speaks softly, but the sometimes reluctant poet’s way with words has taken her far from the shores of the Lummi Nation.
She earned a masters degree in fine arts from Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, in 2008. But two years later, this place drew her back home.
“My daughter and I were here for a visit,” Priest said. “And she was still pretty little. And she turned over a rock and she saw the little crabs scuttling away and she was like, ‘Oh my, god, mommy, mommy.’ And she just kind of like freaked out and I was like, ‘Oh, she’s not getting to have all these really cool experiences that I had as a child.’”
Here is where much of her poetry is found, too.
The glimmer, the idea of self, blood, water, a soul;
my body, a brief victory over death by making breath.
This, she says, fulfills a deep need.
“A need to express or work through my own thinking about a particular subject,” she said. “It feels like you’re putting order on something.”
The Indigenous poet
gets requests for poems about being Indigenous.
“But all my poems are about being Indigenous.”
The Indigenous poet says
“Stang tse tenxwila”
and writes about daffodils
and the untouchable beauty of a poet’s life.
Being the state’s first Indigenous poet laureate has not come without some costs. Priest had to give up her day job here on the reservation just two years before she would have qualified for full college loan forgiveness.
It is a measure, perhaps, of a life devoted to poetry, the sacrifices and the joys, inextricably linked.
“There have been many times when I wondered why I do this work,” told those gathered for the ‘Passing the Laurel’ ceremony. “And there are many, many more where I feel lucky beyond words to have poetry in my life.”
Now she is working to take her poetry to the state’s 29 federally recognized Indian tribes, a testament to the power of words, this time, writing a new history.
“Fish recorded singing dawn chorus on reefs just like birds”
-newscientist.com, September 21, 2016
Below the waves even the
unheard, unseen world sings.
Still, at dawn,
the people wake, face east and sing.
Rena Priest is not the first person of color to be named the state’s poet laureate.
That distinction belongs to Claudia Castro Luna, a Salvadorean-American, poet and adjunct professor at Seattle University.
Priest’s term runs through April of 2023.
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