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‘Everybody has a voice’: Clark County’s poet laureate Susan Dingle promotes poetry

Washougal resident has published two books of poetry

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 18, 2024, 6:02am
6 Photos
Susan Dingle, the 2024 Clark County poet laureate, recites poems at the Attic Gallery April 5 in Camas.
Susan Dingle, the 2024 Clark County poet laureate, recites poems at the Attic Gallery April 5 in Camas. (James Rexroad/for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL — When she was a kid in school, Susan Dingle detested poetry.

“I didn’t understand it. It made me mad. It was a world I felt like I was excluded from,” she said.

That changed when one high school English teacher introduced her to “Ulalume,” a dark, visionary dreamworld by Edgar Allen Poe.

“I was completely hooked,” Dingle said. “On the sound. On the music. On the images. What she really showed me was how to pay attention. That’s all the great teachers of poetry are doing, showing us how to pay attention.”

At the wildlife refuge in Ridgefield

on a pond near sunset

ten thousand swans rise in bright glory,

a field of purple lilies above a town

named for a flower, Camas,

whose root once fed Chinook and Cowlitz people,

near a place they named Washougal,

for the sound of water rushing over rocks.

The poetry of this land was here long before us,

and lives now in how we listen, celebrate each voice:

children on playing fields, families cheering in the stands,

so many teams season after season even in the rain

at night when the lights come on, still they run

and we cheer them on, see poetry in how they grow,

poetry in the joy we feel joy as choirs of students sing

at recitals, present exhibits at science fairs,

and teach us the humility of age.

— excerpt from “For Clark County in April” by Susan Dingle

As Clark County’s new poet laureate, Dingle wants to devote attention both to practicing and potential Clark County poets and readers. The Washougal resident is eager to bring poetry writing workshops and readings to groups of all sorts, from schools to congregations to club meetings. She’s especially keen to boost local voices that don’t get enough attention, she said.

“I’m committed to the voices of people who feel ‘less than,’ ” she said. “There are a lot of people who don’t even know they have a voice. Everybody has a voice.”

She’s even thinking about how to bring poetry to the Clark County Fair, she said.

“It has everything else you can think of,” she said. “It’s got horses and cows and goats. The only thing it doesn’t have is poetry.”

Cheering poetry

Dingle grew up in New Jersey and Baltimore, Md. She studied creative writing at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois in the late 1960s, when a woman in the male field of academic literary studies still felt like a rarity, she said.

Dingle had no female peers at school, she said, and women’s poetic voices weren’t taken seriously. From Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot to Robert Frost, all the canonical “great poets” were white men, while figures like Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath were thought of as minor, confessional writers, she said.

Dingle wrote poetry and taught, then went back to school with a different focus in the early 2000s, earning a master’s degree in social work and certification as an alcohol and substance abuse counselor. By then she was married to a jazz pianist, raising a family and living in east Long Island, N.Y.

An observant Christian who loves to sing, Dingle was drawn to an annual gospel music event and then into the local Black church community.

“I made friends who I wouldn’t have made otherwise,” she said.

She wound up attending theological seminary and preaching in the First Baptist Church of Riverhead, where she was painfully aware of being “a white lady facing a sea of Black faces” but didn’t let that stop her, she said.

When Dingle attended racially diverse poetry open mics in Manhattan, she said, she discovered a similar spirit to the Black church: positive, welcoming, even boisterous.

“People were cheering the poetry like it was a basketball game,” she said.

Dingle took that feeling back to Long Island with her, partnering with Robert A. Brown, a prominent local Black poet, to launch a monthly event called Poetry Street that aimed to draw diverse peoples back to the faltering downtown.

She also brought poetry into her therapeutic social work, collaborating on “The Poetry of Well-Being,” a package of writing prompts and exercises for people recovering from substance abuse, suicidal ideation and other dark patches in life.

“I’ve been in recovery from substance abuse for 43 years,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of work, and that’s what motivates me to honor the voices of those who are marginalized or just starting over in life.”

Along the way, Dingle published two books of poetry: “In Pilgrim Drag” and “Parting Gifts.” Both grapple, in part, with her husband’s illness and decline. She said they had “a very long and unique marriage.” He died in 2019.

Dingle moved to Washougal in late 2020 to be near her son and his family. She still works part-time as a therapist. She also hosts her own poetry reading series, Poetry Street PNW, at 6:30 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday of each month at the Camas Public Library. She’s also working toward a master’s of fine arts in creative writing at Pacific University in Seattle.

As Clark County poet laureate, a position appointed by the Clark County Arts Commission, she’ll spend a two-year term serving as public ambassador for poetry.

“I’m so excited to be poet laureate,” Dingle said. “I think it’s the ideal job that I’ve secretly been preparing for, all my life.”

Still showing off

While Dingle’s Christian faith runs deep, she said, she said she’s “ecumenical” toward other religions.

“The God of this universe does not carry any brand ID,” she said.

While the Pacific Northwest is a lot whiter than where Dingle came from, there’s also much greater Indigenous presence, history and spirituality here, she said. That’s new to her, she acknowledged, and something she approaches with respect.

“I’m learning about the poetry that was already here,” she said.

She pointed to the name of her new hometown, Washougal, which is said to be derived from a Chinook term for “water rushing on rocks.”

Dingle joked about the culture shock she felt as a longtime New Yorker relocated to the hipster Pacific Northwest.

“I’m someone who doesn’t camp,” she said. “I don’t have any tattoos. I don’t even have any dogs. How did they let me in the gate?”

While she’s not a hiker either (“Call me a ‘timid future hiker,’” she said), Dingle has driven back and forth through the scenic Columbia River Gorge just enough to discover a whole different kind of poetry in the landscape out there.

“God is not done with creation out here,” she said. “God is still showing off.”

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