Originally published by Washington State Arts Commission.
In conjunction with National Poetry Month, poet Rena Priest has been appointed Washington State Poet Laureate by Gov. Jay Inslee.
A member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation, Priest will be the first Indigenous poet to assume the role. Priest’s literary debut, Patriarchy Blues, was honored with the 2018 American Book Award, and her most recent work is Sublime Subliminal. The two-year term officially begins on April 15. She will succeed Claudia Castro Luna, the current poet laureate.
“I am incredibly excited and honored to take on this role,” said Priest. “I’m fascinated by the way people come together around poetry. I am always delighted by how they gather in quiet rooms and let themselves be drawn in, lit up, and transformed by the words of other people. It’s a powerful way of connecting.”
The Washington State Poet Laureate program is jointly sponsored by Humanities Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA). Poets laureate work to build awareness and appreciation of poetry through public readings, workshops, lectures, and presentations in communities throughout the state.
“The position of Poet Laureate in our state is so much more than ceremonial,” Humanities Washington CEO Julie Ziegler said. “It’s a dedicated outreach position where you meet with thousands of people each year, using poetry and language as a starting point for connection.”
Laureates are selected through an application and panel review process that evaluates candidates’ writing acumen, commitment to reaching diverse communities, and experience promoting poetry.
Priest will focus on two primary goals during her term: celebrating poetry in Washington’s tribal communities; and using poetry to increase appreciation of the natural world and the threats facing it.
“There are 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington, composed of 140,714 tribal citizens,” said Priest. “I’m sad to say that in the hundreds of poetry readings I’ve attended over the years, I’ve only met a handful of Native poets. I know that this is not because we don’t exist, but because we don’t have the same access to writing communities as people living in cities and towns.”
Priest has received the Allied Arts Foundation 2020 Professional Poets Award, and residency fellowships from Hawthornden Castle, Hedgebrook, and Mineral School. She is also the recipient of the 2020 Vadon Foundation Fellowship. She is a National Geographic Explorer and a 2019 Jack Straw Writer. She has taught Comparative Cultural Studies and Contemporary American Issues at Western Washington University and Native American Literature at Northwest Indian College. Priest holds a BA in English from Western Washington University and an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in Bellingham, Washington.
“Poetry is a gift,” said Priest. “This is my approach to it and my belief about it: I’m very lucky to have it. We all are.”