Washington Poet Laureate Elizabeth Austen Says Goodbye To The Job

Jan 13, 2016

Elizabeth Austen hadn't given much thought to the state poet laureate job until a few years ago.

That changed after several friends urged Austen, a poet and KUOW's literary producer, to seek the post. She found out quickly she could make the position her own.

"The whole idea is that each poet will design programs that suit their skill set and their interests," she explains.

Austen was named poet laureate in 2014. She decided to travel to all 39 counties in Washington; she offered free poetry workshops in each one. She also made the workshop available online.

Many people attended those workshops, from aspiring writers to people who needed an outlet to express traumatic events in their lives. Austen says the experience of meeting and teaching these people has had a profound impact on her own writing.

"My relationship to silence has been changed," Austen says. "Poetry to me comes from silence, I require silence to write. But the other thing is, silence has become a much bigger part of my poems in the last two years."

The next poet laureate, Washington state's fourth, is Gonzaga University professor Tod Marshall. He'll take the official laurel from Austen at a reading Feb. 9 at Richard Hugo House in Seattle.

The governor appoints the poet laureate based on a recommendation by a committee organized by the Washington State Arts Commission and Humanities Washington. Each poet laureate serves a two-year term.

Elizabeth Austen says the past two years have been life-changing. People have opened their homes to her and made her feel welcome wherever she's gone.

"My sense of the idea that there's this red and blue state divide has really been complicated by knowing those people." Austen says. "I know people, and those are not abstractions anymore."