Tod Marshall, Washington’s Poetry Road Warrior
Written by Alison Highberger
His travel schedule is brutal—long days crisscrossing Washington’s 71,303 square miles by car and by plane, being away from home several days a week, laughable pay. But it’s all in the service of poetry, and being poet laureate of Washington for 2016 through 2018 is one of the best gigs Tod Marshall, 49, has ever had.
As the fourth poet laureate in Washington history, and the first from the eastern part of the state, Marshall’s job is to build awareness and appreciation of poetry—including Washington’s legacy of poetry—through public readings, workshops, lectures and presentations around the state. That’s on top of his job as an English professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane.
“It’s been wonderful. It’s an honor, and it’s a mission, is how I look at it. I want to get to every place that wants to hear about poetry, and that wants to share poetry,” Marshall said. “Serving as poet laureate has reinforced my beliefs about the power of poetry and the importance of finding words that matter. It’s something I believe very profoundly in.”
By the time his term ends on January 31, 2018, Marshall said he’ll have participated in nearly 400 events, and put more than 25,000 miles on his car doing poetry readings, writing workshops, talks in libraries, youth centers, senior centers, museums, primary school classrooms, college campuses, bookstores, coffee shops, bars and correctional facilities. “I did one hike-and-write,” Marshall said. “I want to do more of those.”
During his travels over the past year, Marshall occasionally encountered people who didn’t like poetry, but they were the exception. “I’ve been introduced a few times by teachers saying, ‘You guys know I don’t like poetry, but that’s why he’s here to talk about it!’ But I think we do like poetry. Children love poems. Children love books in verse. I think it’s stunning the number of adults I encounter at events that say, ‘I didn’t think I liked poetry, but wow—this particular poem just blew me away,’” Marshall said.
When he’s not teaching or writing his own poetry and essays at home in Spokane’s eclectic urban Peaceful Valley neighborhood along the Spokane River, Marshall and his wife, photographer and high school photography teacher Amy Sinisterra, are empty-nesters who find time for backpacking, camping and fishing.
Marshall, born in Buffalo, New York, and raised in Wichita, Kansas, is the author of three collections of poetry, Dare Say (2002), The Tangled Line(2009), and Bugle (2014). He attended Siena Heights University, earned an M.F.A. degree from Eastern Washington University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas.
In the past year, Marshall held “Poetry for All” in Washington several times, “designed to engage participants’ imaginations, life histories and sense of empathy through language.” After a close reading of a few contemporary poems, participants used one as a model for writing the first draft of a poem. No previous writing experience is needed for any of Marshall’s poetry workshops, and all are welcome. “There’s no judging here, and no sharing needed,” Marshall reassured those feeling timid at a poetry writing workshop at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture last fall. “Just making something can be liberating,” he reassured the group, adding, “As James Joyce wrote, ‘Writing is done in silence, exile and cunning!’”
Everywhere he goes, Marshall encourages people to memorize a poem or a passage from a novel, or other words that resonate.
“One of my mantras as poet laureate is, ‘Find words that matter to you and carry them around in your heart.’ Many other things will try to claim that word space—advertising jingles, movie dialogue. I want us to put words inside us that aren’t connected to turning us into consumers, or making us part of banal pop culture,” he said. “Find words that help to figure out what it is to be human. I’m as moved by the student that’s interested in memorizing the Gettysburg Address as I am someone who wants to memorize Emily Dickinson. That’s a great thing. That’s way better than memorizing the keycodes for Zelda.”
Marshall plans his own schedule, and tries to accept every invitation he gets through wapoetlaureate.org. He enjoyed holding workshops at Spokane’s Airway Heights Correctional Facility, and wants to talk to inmates at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell and Forks Correctional Facility on the Olympic Peninsula.
“I think it’s an easily overlooked community. The men that signed up for the visit I did at Airway Heights really wanted to be there. They chose poetry as their recreational activity, and I think that’s important outreach,” Marshall said.
Julie Ziegler, executive director of Humanities Washington, is proud of the work Marshall has done to publicize the power of poetry. “Tod has more than exceeded any expectations we have for someone who holds this position—and our expectations are high! His generosity of spirit continues to impress me,” she said. “Washington state has such a rich tradition of poetry, and poetry has the potential to be a strong community builder. In our fast-paced world, it’s a gift to be able to slow down, contemplate and write. Poetry encourages this. It is also a form of writing that is meant to be shared. Residents of states without a poet laureate miss out on these valuable opportunities for connection.”
Many states have poet laureate programs. Washington’s is co-sponsored by Humanities Washington (funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities), and the Washington State Arts Commission, funded by the Washington state legislature. They provide a $10,000 per year stipend, along with a $2,000 annual program budget, and $1,500 to help defray travel costs. Marshall used his program budget to pay for the printing of WA129, a book of poetry he produced this spring.
It’s an anthology of 129 poems that includes work from experienced poets and novices. Marshall sifted through 2,300 entries to find one poem for every year of Washington statehood (1889) up to 2018, the end of Marshall’s term as poet laureate. During the last third of his term, Marshall plans to set up readings for poets who are in the WA129 anthology. In the meantime, it’s back on the road for poet Tod Marshall.
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