Meet Rena Priest
The best guidebooks can lead travelers to life-changing discoveries. But whenever Rena Priest seeks a deeper understanding of the evergreen tree–covered landscapes and marine habitats of her Pacific Northwest home, she turns to poetry.
In April, the Bellingham-based poet became Washington State’s poet laureate, tasked by the government to both celebrate and promote poetry from within the state over the next two years. As a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation, Priest is the first Native American to hold the position. She recently collaborated with TV personality and guidebook author Rick Steves, who in recent months has been exploring his own backyard of Washington State. On October 20, Steves launches the final episode of a three-part video series on the seaside city of Bellingham, in partnership with the Seattle Times Content Studio. The episode focuses on the thriving creative community there—and Priest takes the spotlight with a recitation of a poem inspired by the region.
Priest was born in Bellingham and raised on the Lummi Reservation, located on a peninsula to the east of Lummi Island, and she returned to Bellingham in 2010 after living in New York City. She’s the author of Patriarchy Blues (MoonPath Press, 2018) and Sublime Subliminal (Floating Bridge Press, 2018); her forthcoming Northwest Know-How: Beaches (Sasquatch Books, May 2022) features poetry inspired by 29 beaches she visited in the Pacific Northwest.
We recently caught up with Priest to talk about creativity in the Pacific Northwest, her favorite places in Bellingham, and how poetry can enhance our travels. —Jennifer Flowers, contributing editor
Questions—and answers—about poetry, history, and the Pacific Northwest
What is your mission as Washington State poet laureate?
My aim has been to really focus on poetry that celebrates the beauty of the natural world and how precious it is and to hopefully be able to inspire in others a wish to preserve it. I also just want to celebrate Washington State poets whose work reflects those values of wanting to steward and care for the land.
What is the unique power of poetry to inspire people to preserve and care for the land?
Poetry is how we share our experiences and understanding of the world. It’s a powerful way to share beauty. It’s connected to our breath and to the human voice and the natural rhythms of our speaking. But it’s also connected to music and image and intangible concepts. It can weave all of these things together and really connect to a person’s heart space in a way that prose or music might not quite be able to, although those things are connectors in their own right, and in their own way. Poetry just has a unique set of tools that are really effective in being able to convey image and feeling for places and other beings.
You’re the first Native American poet laureate of the state. What personal significance does that hold for you?
I think that it’s important in terms of representation. A lot of people in my community feel that Indigenous voices and Indigenous concerns are not highlighted enough, and there’s a feeling of invisibility and not enough representation. We’re here, we’re contemporary, we do cool things, we matter. But we just don’t get the platform or the time or the microphone in the same way that other people do. It also gives me a chance to share some of our Indigenous worldviews, which in my thinking are more in resonance with caring for the land, which is really what the planet needs right now. It’s a set of values that is more based on the health and well-being of all, rather than advancement towards the top of a hierarchy through making money or establishing position.
Do you have any places that are special to you in Bellingham?
Marine Park has always spoken to me as a place to sit quietly and look out at the landscape and just enjoy what I’m seeing and experiencing. But I learned recently that it was the site of an Indigenous cemetery, and when they were building the railroad, they plowed it all and used the land for fillers. There were no measures taken to relocate or reinter the bodies; they just put it all under the railroad tracks. Maybe something was speaking to me about that, like an ancestral memory—that it was a place where you went and were quiet and you sat and you just were connected to the space. And so, I think that now knowing this history, I feel even a deeper connection to that park. It’s a special place to me.
Do you have a poem that’s connected to Marine Park?
I did create a found poem [see below] from a news article about it from 1909, and I just added line breaks to the article. There’s an organization here called the Bellinghistory with the Good Time Girls, and they’re a society that gives historic tours of Bellingham. They often pull news articles from the Bellingham Herald archives and post them on social media, and for this article, the headline was, “Deadman’s Point Is Now Nothing But a Memory,” and it was all about finishing leveling the hill there for the railway. I felt like nothing would say it better than the actual history and the actual tone that was used that I can’t recreate because there was such cruelty in it. It was celebrating the destruction of a Lummi graveyard in the name of progress for the railroad.
Through my poetry I try to bring these things out gently so that there isn’t resistance to them, and [I try to] share them in a way where people can receive them and think about them and maybe not have any immediate kinds of judgments. Now more than ever, I believe that poetry is going to have a place in these kinds of conversations because it can help the reader reflect on these things and think about them deeply without judgment.
What are some of the projects you’re working on?
One of the projects I want to undertake as Washington State’s poet laureate is to put poetry in beautiful places within Washington, along trails and in parks. You know how when you go to a park, you can see interpretive exhibits about the flora and fauna, but you never really see anything with the humanities? Well, I was coming across Highway 20 one time and there was a little sign that said scenic viewpoint, so I turned off and I drove up the switchbacks. At the very top, there was a poem by William Stafford, the highest point on the highway right there at the overlook, with this gorgeous view of the Cascades. It was just another layer of beauty on top of beauty, a way to celebrate our humanity in this place. I want other people to have similar experiences. People who don’t normally encounter poetry could encounter it in a place where they were already feeling good about the world and feeling good about the landscape and the flora and fauna around them.
Tell me about “Songs on the Salmon Scale,” the poem you read on the Rick Steves segment.
It was inspired by the journey of a salmon. I was thinking about the marine-derived nutrients that salmon bring back from their journey into the deep ocean waters, and how nutrient-rich their flesh is when they return to their home stream. After they spawn, most of them die. So, the salmon goes and it has this adventure and it comes home, and its final act is to regenerate and then to feed everybody: the trees, the fungus and the soil, the insects will take their piece, and the animals. Everything benefits from that journey. I was thinking about the hero’s journey, which is something writers think about a lot as storytellers. The hero can be anybody, but the salmon is not celebrated as the hero that it really is for this region. I hope that when people visit this area, they’ll go away with a feeling of reverence and awe for this place and a wish to preserve what we have left of the integrity of the Salish Sea bioregion.
How does travel inspire your own creativity?
Leaving home and having experiences outside of my regular daily routine is hugely beneficial for my creative process. I write a lot more when I’m traveling. I write a lot of little notes in a notebook usually, and then they become things later. It just is really so beneficial to the creative process to step outside of your regular environment and to experience new landscapes and new things. I was recently in Toronto, where I got to see my husband’s family, and they have all these different animals and sounds and things that I’m not used to, so I ended up writing a lot about what I was seeing and experiencing.
I feel like when a lot of people travel, they might think, well, what am I going to do when I get there? There has to be an agenda and itinerary. I think we should engage more in the landscape in a way that is a little bit more slow and intentional. When I was writing the beaches book, for example, I just went to these places and sat. You don’t really need much more than that.
How can we discover more Pacific Northwest poets?
There are a lot of presses that are doing a lot for poetry regionally. Empty Bowl and Copper Canyon are both Northwest presses, and the publisher of my first book, MoonPath Press, publishes only poets from the Cascadia region. Floating Bridge Press is also regional. The only way to be published by Floating Bridge Press is to either win or be a finalist in their chapbook competition. Two poets I really love right now are Laura Da’ and Arianne True.
Bellingham Herald, July 25 1919
“Literature is news that stays news.” —Ezra Pound
Priest’s found poem, inspired by—and named for—a newspaper article from the early 1900s.
ancient Indian burial ground,
is now but a memory.
It has been washed and dumped into the sea.
The last shovelful of earth from the point
was scooped up by the Great Northern’s
steam shovel Wednesday,
thus completing a demolition
that started about 1890,
when a cut was made
at the point for Harris Avenue.
about 200,000 cubic yards of earth
have been removed from the point.
The last excavation, made
by the Great Northern to get material
for filling in its trestles,
removed about 40,000 yards.
The second attack on Deadman’s Point
was made in 1901 by the Great Northern
when it put through its right of way.
Subsequently onslaughts were made
by the Pacific American Fisheries,
the Bellingham Canning Company,
and the Fairhaven Land Company.
The latter concern washed a big portion
into the sea to make room for
George Hackett’s Cold Storage plant,
since acquired by the Pacific American Fisheries
and converted to other uses.
From time to time during the excavations
Indian skulls and skeletons were unearthed.
Early this week an Indian skull
that was almost flat from the forehead back
was found. The Great Northern still lacks
earth to fill in all its trestles in this vicinity
and it will now remove 20,000 yards
from a point south of McKenzie Avenue.”