Ending the Plague with Poetry

Alum Rena Priest’s poetry depicts a world gravely endangered yet poised for renewal
Story by Frances Badgett

Read 'The Coined Phrase' by Rena Priest

Here in the twilight of the pandemic, many of us are coming out of our homes and blinking into the bright light of crowded cafes, busy grocery stores, and bustling beaches. Masks, becoming optional, slip from our chins. Despite the shadow of COVID variants, we are ready to gather, celebrate, hug, sing, and find joy.

Poetry, too, is seeing a renewal, an awakening. Amanda Gorman’s recitation of the inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,”

That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious

gave poetry a more public face, a broader appreciation and an understanding of how effectively poetry can address both our current state, and our hope for the future. Poems have a way of making sense of the trauma, sifting through pain, and delivering catharsis.

And in that spirit, Rena Priest—2005 English alumna and author of the 2018 American Book Award-winning “Patriarchy Blues” and a subsequent collection, “Sublime Subliminal”—is celebrated widely as the state’s 2021 Poet Laureate, conferred by the Washington State Arts Commission and Humanities Washington. The first Indigenous person to serve in the role, Priest is also the state’s first Poet Laureate to serve in the last gasp of a major global pandemic. Writers and poets all over the state rejoiced, but none so loudly as her hometown friends and fellow poets, the community she hopes to return to in-person soon.

The life of a Poet Laureate is busy and frenetic, somewhat in conflict with the quiet, contemplative life of writing poetry. With speaking engagements, appearances, and readings several times a week, Priest is in high demand. She has traveled the state, visiting the Spokane Reservation, Olympia, and three high schools where she delivered commencement addresses.

Both of Priest’s collections were published before COVID-19 began its spread, but her work is especially finely tuned to address overwhelming issues like struggles within the patriarchy, Native American identity, the environment, and global pandemics and bring them into a personal light.

“In the poetry I’m writing now, I am committed to writing about the beauty and hard truth of the natural world,” Priest says. Typical of Priest’s complex perspective, the natural world is personal, identity-focused, gravely endangered, and equally poised for survival and renewal.

“I’m working with this concept of ‘solastalgia’ from philosopher Glenn Albrecht, which is the distress caused by environmental change. Solastalgia is a feeling of dread for the disappearance of recognizable spaces and associations of home,” Priest says. “In tribal communities, we lost access to our usual and accustomed fishing grounds, our harvesting grounds, and we see our natural places paved over and turned into non-producing spaces. I’m haunted by this from my own tribal culture and also talking about how things used to be. We talk about how something is lost and how we can, or can’t, get back to it.”

Not only has her focus shifted for her third book, so, too, has her process. “The audience is more involved in my poems. I’m inviting the public into my work, doing the work, and presenting it. There’s an audience determining how the work happens,” Priest says. Among her many public poems, she was commissioned by Bellingham nonprofit RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. “Guests at their annual event submitted a line, and I made a poem from the lines.” Priest is both a direct and plainspoken poet

It’s midnight.
The neighbors are fighting again.
there is the sound of something precious

and a poet of playful, elliptical language and wild juxtapositions.

The bridge is cerebral and phrenic—
a mysterious reflex.
When you put it to your lips,
it is lexical

What becomes clear in reading Priest is that she embraces difficult subjects with a great deal of joy as a counterbalance. Each poem is both a celebration and a reckoning.

The super-sacred ceremony
requires a night dentist
to extract the dark tooth
and replace it with gold.
This is my real Indian poem,
the one the admissions board
and a certain readership
have been waiting for.

“The work I’m doing now is very different from my two previous collections,” she says. “The audience is involved in my writing.”

Even with a packed schedule, Priest is carving out time to write, and is working on a collection of nature-inspired poetry. Her particular interest is the resilience and fortitude of salmon, who fight against incredible obstacles to return home. Priest herself faced challenges when leaving and returning home.

“I went to Western and I loved my time there,” Priest says. After Western, she attended Sarah Lawrence College near New York City where she attained her MFA in poetry.

“New York was awesome in a lot of ways and hard in a lot of ways,” she says. “There’s a sexualized culture of leering men, billboards of sexualized women, catcalling, a visual landscape that took its toll and informed the way women were treated, undermined, and it was very tiring after a while.”

Partly from that exhaustion and disconnection, and partly from her experience raising a daughter made keenly aware of social justice through Bellingham Girls Rock Camp, which was founded by Fairhaven alum Morgan Paris Lanza, ’15, B.A., Fairhaven interdisciplinary concentration, Priest wrote her collection “Patriarchy Blues.”

After New York, Priest taught at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies and Northwest Indian College. Coming home was challenging, but soon she unearthed a supportive, vibrant writing community that she treasures to this day. “I discovered Kitchen Sessions,” she says.

Kitchen Sessions is a gathering of local poets hosted by creative writing graduates Dee Dee Chapman, ’16, and Elizabeth Vignali, ’14; Vignali co-authored “Your Body A Bullet” with WWU senior instructor Kami Westhoff, and wrote “House of the Silverfish,” both from Unsolicited Press. Area poets and writers gather and read their work, offer kinship and community, and inspire each other.

“Kitchen Sessions was a big part of my renewal as a poet. They encouraged me to write new things,” Priest says. One of the “rules” is that writers present new work that hasn’t been revised. “Inspired by them, I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and wrote 50,000 words in 30 days.”

Priest has also tried her hand at non-fiction. She attended the Mineral School arts residency at Mount Rainier, initially to write a memoir, but she returned to poetry. “Poetry was a way to cope with stuff I wasn’t ready to write about in a memoir,” she says. A preternaturally joyful person, Priest had trouble with the heft of writing directly about trauma. What she treasures most is to bring a sense of fun, joy, and celebration to her role as Poet Laureate.

“I want us all to come out of the pandemic a little wild,” she says. “I’m thinking a lot about the Beat poets and other times when we were culturally free and reckless and fun. I want us to be rowdy, wild, playful, celebratory, and profane. We’ve all been so stifled.”

Priest also sees tremendous beauty in the mistakes of that rowdiness, the glory in flaws. “People feel they have to be so right and correct in the public sphere, but I want to see mishaps and mistakes. I want everyone to loosen up and get weird.”

Poetry excerpts:

  • “The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country,” by Amanda Gorman (Viking Books, 2021).
  • “Vinegar,” by Rena Priest, from “Patriarchy Blues” (Moonpath Press, 2017).
  • “Sublime Subliminal Liminal,” by Rena Priest, from “Sublime Subliminal” (Floating Bridge Press, 2018).
Profile photo of Rena Priest

, assistant director of Marketing and Communication for University Advancement, has published short stories, poems, and essays in various literary journals and is the fiction editor of Contrary Magazine.

Title photo by Mahreen Sohail, Profile photo by Lela Childs