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7 Seattle-area poets to help make sense of the world

When all is quiet in our lives, we may be more likely to turn to quiet pursuits, like poetry, whether reading or writing. According to Poets.org, the leading poet-centric website, there has been a 30% increase in people seeking a daily poem from the site during our COVID-19 year than in The Before Times.

In this, our second National Poetry Month of the pandemic, consider these Seattle-area poets to help you contemplate life as we move into a 'new normal'.

Quenton Baker

  • The Basics: 35, Seattle native, Seattle University grad, living in the Rainier Valley; most recent book: "This Glittering Republic" (Willow Books; 2016)

COVID may have given some poets more fodder for work, but Baker says it’s made writing harder for him. “I feel like I spend most of my energy trying to make the world make sense in my head on a very basic level, and I never quite reach the point where I'm ready to make some kind of sense of the world on the page.” Baker recommends the poetry of Patricia Smith, Anne Sexton, Pablo Neruda and Tim Seibles to readers who may be new to poetry. “They're all deeply inventive, sonically engaging poets who offer many different ways into their work, but whose work also has depth that can stand up to repeated close readings.”

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Sharyn Skeeter

  • The Basics: Native New Yorker, 5 years in Seattle; most recent poetry: five poems in "Our Black Sons Matter", (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016) and a novel, "Dancing with Langston" (Green Writers Press, 2019, the 2019 Foreword Indies Gold Award in Multicultural Adult Fiction)

While some people find poetry hard to fathom, Skeeter says, “sometimes the best thing to do to honor the poem is simply to read it slowly and let the poem itself speak to you. Listen to its sounds, its line breaks. Can you visualize its images? How do you feel when you actually experience the poem and not look for what it’s about?” Black poets she recommends include Elizabeth Alexander, Tracy K. Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa, Kevin Young, Terrance Hayes, Rita Dove, Jericho Brown, Ethelbert Miller, and Natasha Tretheway.

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Shin Yu Pai

  • The Basics: 45, Seattle area resident since 2012. Graduate work in writing, poetics, and translation at both Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and the Art Institute of Chicago. Most recent work: "ENSO" (Entre Rios Books, 2020), a 20-year-long survey of work across creative disciplines, including poetry, personal essay, photography, installation, and performance

Pai’s current poetry reading list includes the work of Port Townsend poet Gary Copeland Lilley, recently interviewed for the four-episode podcast Lyric World, through Town Hall’s In The Moment series, and former Washington State Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken. While the pandemic has reduced the quantity of time she spends writing, she is still composing new poems and has assembled a new manuscript that she hopes will be published soon. “Reading a poem [aloud] can bring it alive and into the space of the body and the breath. Poetry can be about much more than narrative and story. Sometimes, it's about musicality and lyricism, image, and symbol. Don't spin your wheels. There's a kind of poetry out there for everyone.”

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Janée J. Baugher

The basics: 4th generation Seattlite, currently making her home in Renton. Most recent book, an academic work, "The Ekphrastic Writer: Creating Art-Influenced Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction" (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2020), and poems in (among others) "A Walk In Nature: Poetic Encounters Anthology", DASH Lit. Journal, Green Mountains Review, Tin House, and forthcoming in On the Seawall.

“Creative writers, which includes poets, work from their imaginations. Do you watch a ballet and ask, ‘what's the point?’ Art isn’t about anything; art cannot be reduced or summarized. The best way to engage with imagined work is to set aside your intellect, abandon conscious intent, and enjoy the experience. Poetry is not a code to be broken. Only when you’re receptive to poetry (or any art form, for that matter) will poetry touch you.” Baugher loves local poet Judith Skillman (featured below), noting her work is “rooted in both realism and surrealism, with an attention to the elasticity and the poetic possibilities of English."

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Judith Skillman

“In fourth grade, a teacher gave us an assignment to write a poem about the assassination of Kennedy, and I [fell] in love with poetry. Of course, as an adolescent, I wrote awful stuff but was lucky to get encouragement from a neighbor rather than a cold shoulder.”

Skillman recommends poetry newbies start with poets like Elizabeth Bishop, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, and William Carlos Williams. “Some poets are more accessible than others — Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, for instance, can be easier to understand than TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. But it’s important to remember that just because one doesn’t understand something on the face of it doesn’t mean it isn’t meant to be read. One learns to understand poetry by taking little dips in, just as we learn a foreign language step by step.” Current great poetry on her nightstand includes "Poemas de Amor/Love Poems" by Uruguayan poet Idea Vilarino and Bill Yake’s "Waymaking By Moonlight: New & Selected". Locally, she loves to David Wagoner, Carolyne Wright, Janée Baugher (see above), and Anne Pitkin. “I feel fortunate that there are venues for poetry in this area and truly appreciate the artistic culture of Seattle and environs,” she says, adding, “I feel it’s a shame that Americans are more attracted to sport than art.”

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Katerina Canyon

  • The Basics: 52, originally from Los Angeles, a Seattle resident since 2018. Most recent work "Changing the Lines" (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1st edition, 2017), and a new book, "Surviving Home", due out in October. Host of a weekly poetry reading on Zoom called The Canyon Poets.

“I used to carry a diary as a girl, and I would write about my father's abuses in it. He found my diary and read it, and to say the least...he wasn't happy. That's when I started writing poetry in earnest. I saw it as my secret code.”

Poetry is varied, says Canyon. “There are so many types of poetry, and many people are moved by different things. Some people are moved by the works of Poe and Shakespeare, while others are moved by Haiku poets like Basho. The best advice I think I can offer is to look around and decide what style works best for you.” On her must-read list now is the upcoming "Dialogues with Rising Tides" by Kelli Russell Agodon. “That woman is one of the fiercest poets I know.”

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Paul Nelson

“Our culture is designed for ‘easy in’ poetry. But that is often the most forgettable. The fear is that you aren’t in on some hidden meaning. But not all poetry has to be understood.” Nelson is currently enamored of the works of Andrew Schelling, Holly Hughes, and Bill Yake.

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