Words are just words, until they transcend the pale and become the marrow of your life.
Washington’s Poet Laureate Tod Marshall is currently living that dream as his day-to-day reality.
Marshall was dubbed the poet laureate of Washington in February, and in the interim he has made more than 100 presentations across the state in an effort to break down the imagined barriers that prevent too many people from enjoying the many life affirming virtues of poetry.
On Thursday evening, Marshall visited Centralia College in order to read poetry and answer questions from the assembled crowd of seekers and wordsmiths.
Earlier in the day, Marshall visited Onalaska High School in order to talk poetry, life, the universe and everything with the Loggers.
“At first, I think they were like, ‘Whoa, what the heck is this all about?’ But then I kind of met them halfway,” said Marshall. “I think I impressed enough of them with my two ’69 Camaros and I can talk my way around a small block.”
By the end of the session, Marshall and the Onalaska students were more or less on the level and freely exchanging ideas. He noted that a few of the students from the first class even signed up for a voluntary poetry session later in the day and marked the occasion as at least “a minor success.”
Finding that common ground is precisely what Marshall believes poetry is for. He sees poetry as a chance to create a safe and comfortable place between divergent populations where they can attempt to relate to one another. For Marshall, there is an inherent magic that occurs when strangers are “hearing poems and getting caught in the magical rhythm of spells that poems can cast.”
On Thursday night, he captured the attention of the crowd at Centralia College by reading works from his favorite poet, W.B. Yeats, as well as a fifth-grade girl who gave him her poem, and a smattering of his own works that covered topics ranging from birthdays to bowhunting and sodomy.
“The interpretation is always going to be up to the audience no matter what I hope for,” wrote Marshall in a clarifying email. “I strive, though, to create a space where my words will meet their lives, and they can, if I’ve done my job, meet something in that space that connects with them and shows them a moment, an event, an emotion, or maybe even another human sensibility trying to figure out a way in the world.”
Marshall is such a fan of Yeats that he is attempting to memorize one his poems, “Easter, 1916,” in honor of its 100th anniversary. He is so committed to the task that he has a tattoo on his forearm to help him along on his poetic journey.
“The words are polite, meaningless words and a reminder not to do that,” explained Marshall.
In order to spread his message, Marshall, in addition to his frequent public appearances, also pens a regular editorial column that runs in newspapers around the state and maintains a reluctant presence on Twitter, as required by his position.
When Marshall was asked by a member of the audience at Centralia College on Thursday about his preferred time to write, he jokingly replied, “When the Poet Laureate term is over.”
In all seriousness though, Marshall explained that he prefers to write in the mornings, but noted that each person is bound to have a their own creative tendencies.
“I am a morning person as far as creativity goes. Like many of you, the day sort of gets to me and leaves too many things bumping around in my head,” said Marshall.
He added that on occasion he will force himself to employ various exercises intended to stretch his creativity and expand his command of language. He once wrote poems using the Periodic Table of Elements as inspiration. Sometimes the results are silly. Sometimes they are transcendent. In any case, Marshall insisted that, “The important thing is that writing happens.”
“I think that the barrier between folks and poetry is the same as the barrier between many people and the arts, in general. Realizing that poetry is not a school subject (although it can be) but a primary way that people have explored who we are and what it is to be human lets people explore and find poems that matter to them,” wrote Marshall in his email. “No one is judging you when an encounter with art happens — whether it be at a museum or at the moment you take pen to paper in order to make something.”
If a person is encumbered by a case of wretched writers block, he suggested borrowing one of the following lines in order to break the spell by getting something on the page: “I saw a yellow balloon tied to an old cedar bench” … or, “I was sad when my mother lugged the box down from the shelf …” or, “Zebras moved into my room, / and I couldn’t say why….”
Marshall describes his youth as one of various delinquent behavior and corresponding penance, where he was locked up more often than being creative. Eventually, he was offered an opportunity to play soccer at a small private school, where he fell under the strict supervision of a group of Dominican nuns. Marshall says the experience changed his life and filled him with his first breath of inspiration.
“They told me that I have a voice that matters,” said Marshall.
Marshall’s tour of Lewis County will wrap up on Saturday with readings at the Salkum Timberland Library and the Mineral School. The presentation in Salkum will begin at 2 p.m. and the Mineral School presentation, which will include readings from Mineral School board member Nicole Harry, will begin at 6:30 p.m.
Poetry Project, Washington 129
Part of Marshall’s mission at Poet Laureate is to create a book of poems, gathered from Washingtonian poets, that will be released in March 2017 in advance of National Poetry Month.
Marshall is currently soliciting submissions, of which he has many hundreds already. The book will include 129 poems in order to mark each of the years of Washington’s statehood, through 2018. The poems will also be released in an online e-book.
“The project will include work form experienced poets and newcomers to the art, young students and lifetime learners,” read a release signed by Marshall. “During the last several months of my term, I will travel throughout the state, revisiting many of the place where I previously held workshops, and invite poets in both publications to join me in celebratory readings from the anthology.”
Marshall noted that all types of poetry are welcome from poets of all ages and experience levels. Additionally, poems do not have to deal directly with Washington’s geography, imagery, or culture, but those that do will be given preferential treatment. However, previously published poems will not be accepted.
The deadline for submissions is Jan. 31, 2017. Submissions can be emailed to email@example.com, or sent in by postal carrier to; WA 120, Submission care of Tod Marshall, English Department, Gonzaga University, 502 E. Boone Ave., Spokane, WA 99258.