Photo of Rena Priest, Washington State's first Indigenous Poet Laureate.

State’s First Indigenous Poet Laureate Aims to Spread Awareness Through Poetry

by Chamidae Ford

On April 15, Rena Priest was appointed Washington State’s first Indigenous Poet Laureate. A joint program with Humanities Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission, the position is dedicated to connecting people and communities through the art of poetry while celebrating the importance poetry has had to our state’s culture. 

Priest, a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation, is an experienced poet, having published two collections of poetry, won the Vadon Foundation Fellowship, and received an Allied Arts Foundation Professional Poets Award in 2020. For Priest, poetry has always been a part of her life, but she didn’t fully dedicate herself to it until later, initially planning to major in theater.

“I’ve loved poetry my whole life, but I think it didn’t really start to play a big part in my life until I was in undergrad,” Priest said. “Once I started off in the English department, then writing altogether, it just kind of became it for me.” 

Priest’s books, Patriarchy Blues and Sublime Subliminal, while wildly different, both pay homage to specific times in her life. 

Patriarchy Blues — those poems were mostly written in New York and reflect a feeling of being very much in a man’s world. And just kind of trying to navigate that,” Priest said. “And then my second book, Sublime Subliminal, was really [me] wanting to just celebrate language. Kind of feeling like I was coming back to myself and coming back to poetry. I left my job in grant writing [and] I felt like I had all of this extra energy to write my own work and then language felt alive again and fresh and full.”

And now Priest, currently working on her third book, has found a deep admiration and connection to the natural world, an appreciation she credits to her time in New York. 

Joy Harjo talks about poets as being truth-tellers because we’re required to talk about what we see. And I think that is pretty true in my own work. It just kind of happens that whatever I’m concerning myself with at a particular time or whatever seems to be right in front of me is what I end up writing about,” Priest said. “So having spent a year following the story of the southern resident killer whales and salmon runs going extinct or dwindling really put a lot of different things at the front of my attention that wouldn’t normally have been there. And I think it really skewed my writing towards wanting to have justice for the natural world.”

This desire to write about and discuss the natural world is mirrored in her plans for her two-year term as poet laureate. Priest aims to connect people to the environment around them. 

“I’m hoping that I’ll be able to visit tribal communities a lot and celebrate poetry and tribal communities and maybe do some mini anthologies, community-based anthologies,” Priest said. “I also want to do an anthology on salmon poetry focusing on what the salmon mean to this bioregion, because they’re a keystone species. There’s a lot of species that rely on them, including upriver species that rely on marine-derived nutrients, flora, and fauna, and whatnot, so that they bring that nutrition from the ocean back inland. And when they die, after they’ve completed their cycle of life, their bodies become nutrients for bugs and trees and all these other animals upstream. So they’re just amazing. And I want to celebrate them and poetry.”

The celebration of the earth and the ecosystems that exist in our state is a pillar of Priest’s plans. She also hopes that those conversations will help create an increased awareness of the issues taking place with our wildlife. 

“If you go to [poetry] and you read it, it can give you information. It’s kind of like a salmon, you know — it’s dense, it’s rich, it’s nutrient-rich, and it can nurture a lot of different aspects of our psyche. And I feel like celebrating a particular subject does raise awareness of it. And it does more than that even; it raises a deep desire to preserve it or to support the health of the ecosystem when you have something that speaks to another little aspect of this position. I’m hoping that [people] have a feeling stirred in them to act on behalf of the ecology of our state,” Priest said. “I feel like poetry is wonderfully sneaky like that.”

During these discussions of ecosystems and the land we live on, Priest also hopes to destigmatize poetry. 

“I think that poetry is sometimes viewed by the world at large as somewhat frivolous. What I hope to accomplish is to raise the value of poetry in people’s eyes as being a real, legitimate, beautiful thing that we have as people. It’s a gift,” Priest said. “Poetry [is] sometimes taught [by] breaking it down and trying to understand it. Which I think is totally legitimate and I love that too, but I also think that it’s important to recognize that it’s just music and words and human expression and that it doesn’t have to be so serious. And I think I want to bring some of that playfulness back.”

And through this greater acceptance of poetry, Priest believes community will also be fostered for those who attend her events. 

“I’m hoping that they’ll gain a deeper appreciation for poetry and literature and maybe a sense of community,” Priest said. “I think that people who gather around poetry just naturally form these really beautiful communities in my experience. There’s a feeling of belonging because really since free verse broke everything open, there are really no rules in poetry. So it’s a sense of exploration and acceptance that comes together with writing poetry and reading poetry. And I think that it just has this great potential for building community that way.”

And while connection and awareness are the main aspects of this role, the poet laureate position also represents an opportunity for Priest to do what she loves most. 

“I’ve been a job skills instructor for the last three years, and that has been very rewarding in its own way to see people working towards their own vision and their own goals and having some fulfillment in their career path. That was really nice to be a part of that,” Priest said.” And I just kind of feel like now, here I am and I get to have some fulfillment in my career path, and it just feels really rewarding, and I’m looking forward to being able to focus on poetry, community, and the environment in this position. It’s just perfect.”

Chamidae Ford is a recent journalism graduate of the University of Washington. Born and raised in Western Washington, she has a passion for providing a voice to the communities around her. She has written for The Daily, GRAY Magazine, and Capitol Hill Seattle. Reach her on IG/Twitter: @chamidaeford.

📸 Featured Image: Rena Priest was appointed Washington State’s Poet Laureate on April 15, 2020. A member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation, Priest is the state’s first Indigenous poet laureate. (Photo: Lela Childs)

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