Washington names its first Indigenous state poet laureate

Rena Priest is Wash-ington’s newest Poet Laureate.

SEATTLE — On the first day of National Poetry Month, Washington state’s new poet laureate was announced: Bellingham resident Rena Priest, whose debut poetry collection “Patriarchy Blues” won an American Book Award in 2018.

Priest, a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation, is the first Indigenous poet to hold the position. Her term begins today. Previous state poet laureates are Claudia Castro Luna (2018-20), Tod Marshall (2016-18), Elizabeth Austen (2014-16), Kathleen Flenniken (2012-14), and Sam Green (2007-09).

A graduate of Western Washington University (B.A. in English) and Sarah Lawrence College (M.F.A. in writing), Priest has received the Allied Arts Foundation 2020 Professional Poets Award and fellowships from Hawthornden Castle, Hedgebrook, Mineral School and the Vadon Foundation. Her work has appeared in Poetry Northwest, Pontoon Poetry, Verse Daily, Poem-a-Day at Poets.org and elsewhere, and she has taught cultural studies and Native American literature at Western Washington University and Northwest Indian College. Her most recent poetry collection is “Sublime Subliminal.”

The state poet laureate, sponsored by Humanities Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA), is charged with building awareness and appreciation of poetry throughout the state. The selection process involves applications and panel review, with attention paid to candidates’ writing skills, commitment to reaching diverse communities, and experience promoting poetry.

Priest’s primary goals during her term, according to a news release announcing her appointment, will be to celebrate poetry in Washington’s tribal communities, and to use poetry to increase appreciation of the natural world and the threats facing it.