Poet laureate seeks to celebrate natural world through poetry

Rena Priest
Humanities Washington

SPOKANE, Wash. — Rena Priest, the first Native American appointed as Washington state poet laureate, plans to celebrate poetry in Tribal communities and the natural world throughout Washington state and promote an environmentally-friendly sensibility in people.

Throughout her two-year term, the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation member plans to celebrate poetry in Tribal communities by visiting Tribal schools and libraries, as well as community centers and museums, throughout the state to bring communities together through open mics and community anthologies.

Julie Ziegler, CEO of Humanities Washington and had a role in the selection process, said that Priest is a compelling voice in a pivotal time for the country, planet, local communities and relationships with tribes and has an effective voice for poetry in the state for the next couple years.

“Rena has a lot to say on Native American issues, particularly how the environment is impacting the way of life for Native American people and that the degradation of the environment is impacting that,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler is glad that Priest is willing to give herself in this way for the next couple years and she will highlight a viewpoint that hasn’t been given as big of a microphone in the past as it should have.

“This position requires talent, but it also requires a generosity of spirit as our poet laureate travels around the state and works with a lot of different communities, so she certainly has both of those things in spades,” Ziegler said.

One of the projects Priest proposed and will start right away, when she takes the post on April 15, is place poetry in beautiful places throughout Washington state as an interpretive exhibit or placard that celebrates the natural world and promotes environmentally-friendly sensibility in people.

“I would love to see poetry celebrated in these places so that people can feel that strong human connection to the place and maybe have some reverence for it, or a deepened feeling of connection to the place, and then, hopefully, want to do what they can to protect it,” she said.

Another project she wants to do is create an anthology consisting of poems across the state that celebrate salmon. She was inspired to create the project after she attended an endangered species coalition meeting, where a presenter quoted another individual that the Salish Sea bioregion is defined by everywhere that a salmon can reach.

This touched Priest because she comes from a fishing family several generations back and the fish is very important to them and Lummi culture and community. She added that the salmon are facing obstacles with the river dams and having to compete with hatchery fish for resources out in the ocean. She thinks that bringing focus to them through poetry is another way she can use her position to benefit the region and orcas who depend on the chinook for food.

“Poetry, for me, has been a source of strength and solace, and I love to share poetry with people and I love to have people share their poetry with me,” Priest said. “For me, it’s [poetry] kind of been a part of how I’ve gotten by in life, how I’ve survived hard times, how I’ve celebrated happy times, how I’ve commemorated important times, and it’s always there for me; the music that we make just with our human voice.”

In celebration of Priest’s appointment, a passing of the laurel event will be held online on Wednesday, April 14 from 6-7 p.m., hosted by members of the Lummi Nation, Humanities Washington, the Washington State Arts Commission and the Washington Center for the Book. The event is free and registration is on Humanities Washington’s website.