Poetry as a metaphor for life

Former poet laureate Elizabeth Austen at Write on the Sound, free library event
By Brian Soergel | Oct 05, 2017
Courtesy of: Elizabeth Austen Former state poet laureate Elizabeth Austen reads new poems Oct. 6 at the Edmonds Library. She will also lead a class for Write on the Sound.Photo courtesy

Is poetry relevant in this hurly-burly age? Or are its stanzas disappearing down a road less traveled by?

Elizabeth Austen is a poet, a good one, so you’d expect her to sing its grandeur, its shining light on universal truths. She does. But this, too: You may not immediately grasp it, she says, but poetry underlies everything we do as we grind out our daily existence.

And that has made all the difference.

Let us go then, you and I, as Austen reads new poems and discusses the writing process in a presentation Friday, Oct. 6, at the Edmonds Library. It’s one of three free events associated with the Write on the Sound writers conference this weekend, a gathering of like-minded literary folks who eagerly await the always-sold-out event each fall.

Austen is an inspired choice to kick off the Edmonds Arts Commission’s 32nd annual conference, as she served as Washington’s poet laureate from 2014 to 2016 and is the author of “Every Dress a Decision,” a poetry collection published in 2011.

“One of the things people sometimes forget is how much we use metaphor to connect with each other,” said Austen, 52, who lives in West Seattle with her husband. “The thing about poetry is, it uses metaphor to take known into the unknown. It’s one of the ways we connect to people. We can empathize with experiences we may not have had yet.

“Poems communicate across differences and across time in ways that connect us to our own humanity and humanity of others. Metaphor is deeply rooted in our language, and it’s so hard to express ourselves without it. It’s so much of how we talk. ”

An example: Austen describes an immunotherapy doctor using metaphors to explain deeply complex procedures. That could mean turning to the old Pac-Man game to show how certain good cells can gobble up cancer cells.

It’s a real-life description: Austen works part-time in the marketing department at Seattle Children’s Hospital (she is a poet, after all), where she also leads monthly poetry and reflective writing sessions for hospital staff. “People find it useful in dealing with stuff that might be hard to compartmentalize in order to get their work done,” she said.

In Edmonds, her library talk is titled “Walking the Borderline.”

“My new poems are largely concerned with thinking about what does it mean to be connected to the people around me in this very unsettled moment that we’re living in,” Austen said. “What does it mean to be a daughter to aging parents? What does it mean to be a citizen in a deeply divided country?

“What does it mean to be spiritual without religion? There are different kinds of connections we have as people, and how do we live with the contradiction of those connections? And how do we find hope?”

At Write on the Sound 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7, Austen will lead a workshop titled “Demystifying the Line Break.”

“It’s the fact that the right margin in the poem isn’t dictated by the edge of the page, and is one of those things that makes poems work differently than other types of literature,” she said. “Both for readers and writing, understanding how we can work with the line break and the effects of those choices is really important in enjoying our poetry.”

Austen has certainly turned many on to the beauty of poetry. She’s interviewed poets and produced poetry segments for KUOW, Seattle’s NPR radio station, since 2001. She began as an intern while in graduate school for a master’s in creative poetry at Antioch University, Los Angeles.

The session, typically airing once a month, spotlights the work of Pacific Northwest poets, most recently Jamaica Baldwin, Tara Hardy and, earlier this year, current Washington poet laureate Tod Marshall.

Marshall succeeded Austen, who says that the position, which includes a stipend, is a competitive one requiring an application.

“In our state, it’s very much an activist position. The application process includes how you would serve the state,” she said. “I had ideas about wanting to get out into rural areas to teach poetry workshops open to anyone. I also did some online video writing prompts that can be useful to those writing or homeschooling kids.”

She says her previous acting experience – with Book-It Repertory Theatre and the Seattle Shakespeare Festival, to name a few – helps to bring life to her poetry readings.

So I bring that actor’s sensibility to reading aloud. It’s a huge part of what I offer. I have been really fortunate to have this life as a poet, and it’s more important now than ever as we try to contemplate how we’re going to bridge the differences between us.”

 

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