Poet laureate Kathleen Flenniken comes in peace with poetry

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Whidbey Life Magazine editor

Every weekday at 3 p.m. writer Garrison Keillor reads from his “Writer’s Almanac,” a five-minute or so program about writers on National Public Radio. Along with tidbits about various famous writers, their birthdays and the history of their work, Keillor chooses a poem to read at the end of the segment. His warm expert reading voice adds its own pleasure, but the poetry itself continues to be a constant revelatory experience as an art form. Hearing one good poem read aloud each day is a reminder of the power of words strung together beautifully, a power Kathleen Flenniken wants to harness.

Flenniken is the current Washington State Poet Laureate (Keillor has read several of her poems on his show) and knows a few things about the power of poetry.

Her first book, “Famous,” won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association and was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Her second collection of poems, “Plume,” was published this year based on her experience of growing up in Richland, Wash. at the height of the Cold War and next door to the Hanford Site where “every father I knew disappeared to fuel the bomb.”

“I came to poetry late, after working eight years as a civil engineer and hydrologist, three on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. I started writing when I quit work to stay home with my young children. I took a night class in poetry – and I’ve taken it seriously ever since.”

Flenniken takes poetry so seriously, in fact, that she is on a mission to create a future of poetry readers in her home state.

The Seattle resident will be visiting some local classrooms on Whidbey Island next week, as part of her state poet laureate’s two year tour around the state. She comes here also as a guest of the Whidbey Island Arts Council’s Arts in Education program on Oct. 23, 24 and 25.

Kathleen Flenniken’s first collection of poems,”Famous” won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize.

According to the State of Washington, the Washington State Poet Laureate serves to build awareness and appreciation of poetry — including the state’s legacy of poetry — through public readings, workshops, lectures and presentations in communities, schools, colleges, universities and other public settings in geographically diverse areas of the state.

Flenniken pares down the language to its essence.

“For me that translates into traveling to reach potential audiences in all 39 counties, and trying to find new audiences for our abundantly talented state poets,” Flenniken said.

She does this with the help of a poets’ page, “The Far Field,” which features three to five Washington State poets each week, along with their biographies and links to their work.

“I also finding readings for some of our poets and invite them to join me at various venues,” she added.

Flenniken said it’s important to her to work to build an audience for future poets and lovers of poetry, so she particularly focuses on 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, though she is happy to work with any age group.

Her poems, too, are very helpful to look at when considering what an artist can do with words, and how such a skill might stir the imaginations of children; perhaps give them ideas about what, indeed, they can do just by paying attention to the world around them.

Here is one of Flenniken’s poems previously published in Tar River Poetry in the spring of this year:

News Item
“New research suggests we have a fixed reservoir of self-restraint.”

This is why at the end of the day
you smuggle bowls of ice cream to the TV

Or put another way
when you pushed your plate aside
and hunger kneaded your gut for months
this is why you crammed the closet with new clothes
and emerged from your diving bell
in a breathless hotel room
why you let the coat fall from your shoulders

That manic week
when you ironed every shirt and tablecloth
why you couldn’t keep up with the grief

Last night sirens passed close
this morning the airwaves crash and moil
and your mail is flooded with catalogs

This is why you’ve staged your house like a catalog
why you can’t bear to open the bills
why streets are jammed with luxury cars
and panhandlers
and your country is at war

Flenniken’s latest collection,”Plume,” draws from the poet’s experiences growing up near the Hanford Nuclear site in Richland, Wash.

“My secret mission is to build an audience of poetry readers. I bring in poems as models for our writing exercises, and of course the writing is important (and I hope fun), but I think reading and talking about the poems is just as important,” Flenniken said.

“I want students to become confident readers, to come to understand their own likes and dislikes. I try to lead conversations about poetry that are explorations, not terrifying final exams.  Too many adults were turned off early because they felt stupid around poetry.  Let’s get back to enjoying the music,” she said.

Ultimately, Flenniken just wants kids (and everybody else) to know that poetry is accessible; just a podcast or a book away from falling under the spell of words strung carefully, but still with surprise, like stars.

“I come in peace,” the poet said.

“No scary questions about the symbolism in line nine.”

Flenniken teaches poetry and is a co-editor and president of Floating Bridge Press.  In addition to her visits to classrooms and teacher workshops on South, Central and North Whidbey Island, Flenniken will give readings at  7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 23 at the Coupeville Library and at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 24 at the Freeland Library.

Links for this story:

The Writers Almanac

Whidbey Island Arts Council

Floating Bridge Press


Patricia Duff is an award-winning journalist whose most recent kudos include several first, second and third place awards in the categories of Best Arts Story and Best Education Story in the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association 2011 competition.

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