Nice sweater, poet!
Nice sweater, Tod Marshall, new poet laureate for Washington State! Amy Sinisterra

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Governor Jay Inlsee, Humanities Washington, and the Washington Arts Commission have laid the laurels upon the head of Tod Marshall, author most recently of Bugle, a fine book of poems that came out a few years back on Canarium. The book won the Washington State Book Award for Poetry, and I heaped praises on it over at Poetry Northwest's blog.

Because I am a giant nerd for poetic structures, I geek out on Marshall's ability to update certain old-timey forms—the sonnet, the Greater Romantic Lyric, the epic-simile-as-poem—for contemporary audiences. Other pleasures include his laid-back brand of dark humor, his ability to describe in fresh ways the problems plaguing rural populations (drugs, environmental disasters), and his rattlebag soundplay.

Marshall, a creative writing professor at Gonzaga and the first poet laureate to reside in eastern Washington, will take the reins from current laureate Elizabeth Austen at the beginning of February. But where's he gonna take the horse? WHO KNOWS. Only Marshall. So I asked him a couple questions about what he plans to do as the new laureate of this fine state.

What are you going to do as a poet laureate that no other poet laureate has done before?

Make five consecutive three-point jumpers in a competitive one-on-one basketball game versus my friend Jess Walter. Listen to all of side one of Rush’s 2112 while driving around the state. Insist upon going fishing when I know that I should be doing something else. Read a poem that quotes Starland Vocal Band. Talk about the etymology of “Rock Chalk Jayhawk.” [Eds. note: GO KU!] Live in a neighborhood called Peaceful Valley. And some other stuff.

But really I think that all three of the previous Washington poet laureates did a great job of celebrating the art of poetry—both through trying to connect people with poems and by encouraging people to explore their own creativity. In fact, all three of them set difficult benchmarks to reach.

I’ll merely try to continue their good work—and add some of my own energies and passions. I plan on gathering—as part of my two-year project—an anthology of poems (one for every year of Washington statehood: POP QUIZ MOMENT: HOW MANY POEMS WOULD THAT BE?) written by poets from all over the state (more on that soon); the book will be published in the second year of my term, and will include a range of poets’ works—from some of our well-practiced writers to people for whom the art is somewhat new.

Cool. Do you have any particular poet laureate role models?

The three Washington laureates have done “role model”-level work. Probably Robert Southey is my greatest influence as a laureate role model. Or not. I guess I don’t have a good answer for this question.

Auden said to dead Yeats in a poem: "...Poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper." Do you agree or disagree or something in-between?

Curious. I just listened to Auden reading this poem—twice. Those lines are certainly trotted out a lot—and perhaps rightfully so. I understand the suspicion that poetry can be a rather insular pursuit; the same can be said of most arts—and I’d add that “executives” are probably not going to feel at home in the valleys of painting’s making, sculpture’s making, or the dells and groves where dance and drama originate.

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But Auden wrote that poem at a time when the furies of the First World War were fermenting in the furies of the second: Yeats’s “Second Coming” had come and gone, and a new rough beast was about to ravish Europe, and so I understand despairing a bit that the art of the decades between the war hadn’t really brought much change—to Ireland, to Europe, to the awful chain of how humans hurt humans.

And yet that line in the poem isn’t the last line. The poem continues and Auden tips his hand: The despair of that moment—that poetry “makes nothing happen”—isn’t his final sentiment. The poem ends by calling upon the poet’s voice (Yeats’s or some shade of Willy B.) to bring about change and renewal: "With your unconstraining voice / Still persuade us to rejoice” and "In the deserts of the heart / Let the healing fountain start, / In the prison of his days /Teach the free man how to praise."

Roundabout way to getting to an answer: I disagree with that moment in Auden’s poem, and, instead, hold out hope for the vision of the end of the poem.

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