State poet laureate to speak at Ghost Town Poetry event

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



If You Go

What: Ghost Town Poetry open mic with special guest Washington state poet laureate Tod Marshall.

More special guests?: All “WA129” poets are invited to read their contributions.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday (open mic sign-ups begin at 6:30 p.m. and close at 7).

Where: Angst Gallery, 1015 Main St., Vancouver.

Admission: Free

On the web:;;

When he picked up the phone, Tod Marshall didn’t project the serenity and gravity of the wise, all-seeing poet. He was stressed. He’d stepped outside his comfort zone and published an opinion piece in the Seattle Times, but he hadn’t run it past his government sponsors first; now he was experiencing a little bureaucratic blowback, he said.

“The president devalues language, abuses truth and leeches the meaning from words,” the poet laureate of Washington State had declared, in straightforward prose, in that morning’s paper. “The president has promoted a culture of anger and division.”

Later that day, during a telephone interview with The Columbian, Marshall said that any controversy about the piece was nothing much. The president’s fiery language was the subject of the piece; language is Marshall’s job.

The task of a poet laureate — or any poet — “is to find language that speaks to our moment,” he said. “It’s really important to find words that matter to us, and to find ways to talk with others who disagree with us.”

Marshall will visit Vancouver on Thursday to participate in the long-running Ghost Town Poetry open-microphone reading series that was launched years ago, and still hosted by, Clark County poet laureate Christopher Luna. Marshall, who is finishing up his two-year tenure as poet laureate by publicizing a new volume he edited of Washington state poetry, hopes any of the local poets included in the book will turn up at Ghost Town to join in the reading.

“WA129” is an anthology of works by famous poets and writers as well as some getting published for the first time, Marshall said. The title refers to the years Washington has been a state, reflected in the number of poems in the book.

He accepted 129 poems for publication but read a total of something like 2,400 submissions, he said. “It was stunning to receive that many poems” — about one-quarter of which blasted in during the final two hours the window was open, he added.

“It’s an amazing cross section of Washington poetry,” he said. “There are MacArthur Fellows and Pulitzer Prize winners, and there are poets finding print for the first time. There are poets in their older years and there are teenagers. There are poems from rural areas and poems from cities. I tried to represent as many demographics as possible.”

Some renowned writers didn’t even get in, he said. Others did — including, he noted, popular novelists Tom Robbins and Sherman Alexie. “And then there are amateur writers who are absolutely thrilled to share pages with the likes of them,” he said.

Laureate life

Marshall was born in New York State but moved around a lot with his family and did much of his growing up in Kansas, he said. He’s lived in Washington State since 1999, he said; his regular gig is teaching at Gonzaga University.

“I feel incredibly bonded to Washington” in all its diversity, he said. “So many topographies, so many cultures. I drive around the state pretty constantly” since becoming the state poet laureate in 2016. He said he meets all kinds of people and is always learning new lessons about reaching out.

“I share lots of poems in left-wing communities, in right-wing communities, in middle-of-the-road communities,” he said. “It’s fascinating how we can share a poem. We can talk about the ambiguities as human beings. I wonder if the humanities and the arts are the place where conversations can start to happen. We can recognize our shared ambiguities and understandings that aren’t on the table when we’re engaged in political rhetoric.”

If there’s any downside to attaining the grand station of poet laureate, he said, it’s being too darned busy.

“I have no time to write,” he said. “I realized that this was a service position when I took it on. It’s not about penning my poems in my private grotto. It’s about sharing works of literature and talking about this divided moment. It’s an outreach position.”

And since an early proposal of the incoming Trump administration was defunding the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, he said, outreach is sorely needed. The state poet laureate position is sponsored by Humanities Washington and ArtsWA, with funding coming from those national endowments.

“When a nation or state’s cultural and art organizations start to wither, we are in dire times,” Marshall said.