The Living Poetry of Rena Priest
Washington Poet Laureate Rena Priest recently talked with students about writing and the rewards of poetry.
Rena Priest keeps a postcard in her office. On the postcard is a castle. The castle is in Scotland and Priest got to stay there for a month. “It was for a residency program,” she said. “They [the staff] fed you the best food, and you got dessert after dinner every night and I was there with amazing writers.”
Priest, who is in the midst of her term as Washington's Poet Laureate, bought the postcard at the castle gift shop. “I wrote myself a little note and mailed it home to myself,” she said. “On the back it says, ‘When things are hard, just remember that you lived like a princess for a month and got dessert every night.”
Priest’s message to herself is a reminder that the life of a professional writer isn’t predictable. Some writers thrive and others struggle, while many go through prolonged periods of success and setback. “If you don’t love it, do something else for sure, because the work has to be the reward,” she said. “Otherwise, it can be thankless for many years.”
Priest talked about her life and her work during an event on campus June 3. UW Tacoma Associate Professor Danica Miller invited Priest to come to campus, “I wanted to honor Rena’s work, her achievements as Poet Laureate, and give our students the opportunity to hear poetry reflecting their own lived experiences.”
The Bellingham-based Priest is Washington’s sixth Poet Laureate and the first Indigenous person to hold the honor. Priest is a member of the Lummi Nation whose ancestral homeland stretches from the San Juan Islands to the foothills of the Nooksack River watershed in present day Whatcom County.
Priest developed an interest in poetry — and writing in general — at an early age. “I’ve always loved poetry and the sound of language,” she said. “I also write nonfiction but poetry is what I go to most commonly. It’s a lens through which I understand the world.”
This passion for writing lead Priest to complete a bachelor’s degree in English at Western Washington University followed by a Master of Fine Arts in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. “My thinking about education is rooted in that traditional value of feeling the opportunity to receive an education is a gift,” she said. “The fact that I have been able to get it, I just feel so lucky, because it’s a hard thing for a person who has a background of limited means and access. It hasn’t been easy. I really fought for it.”
Priest has published three collections of poetry. Her first book, “Patriarchy Blues” received an American Book Award. She is currently serving a two-year appointment (2021-2023) as Poet Laureate. The University of Washington Libraries recently named Priest a Maxine Cushing Gray Distinguished Writing Fellow.
Priest’s success is the result of hard work and persistence. At various points she’s served as an adjunct instructor as well as a grant writer for the Lummi Nation. “As a grant writer I spent a lot of time immersed in federal documents,” she said. “I was stuck in a really negative mind cycle and you can’t really do anything good when you’re in that head space. I feel like things shifted when I got a really wonderful position with my tribe where I worked as a job skills instructor and got to work with our community in a very personal way.”
A Found Poem on Deadman's Point
There’s this haunting piece of “found poetry” that Priest wrote. The original text is from a 1919 Bellingham Herald newspaper article. The article describes work by the Great Northern Railway company, work that destroyed an ancient Native American burial ground. Priest kept the original language but put the words into stanzas and inserted breaks at varying intervals. The result is a piece that packs an emotional punch and shows the power of poetry. “Poetry is a living thing, it’s flexible,” she said. “Poetry is also profoundly useful for tackling difficult subjects like history and identity.”