Celebrate Local Poetry at First Ever Laureate Fest

By Molly Walsh

On September 21, all five past and present Washington State Poets Laureate will gather for a day of poetry-centered conversation and celebration at Laureate Fest. Organized by the Olympia Poetry Network, Laureate Fest is the first event of its kind in the state and the first time all five Washington State Poets Laureate will read on one stage. At Laureate Fest, a day of activities will explore the current state of poetry and the art of the written word.

The Washington State Poet Laureate is an ambassador to the poetic craft. Each poet laureate serves a two-year term, traveling throughout the state to participate in readings, workshops and public discussions relating to poetry. Sponsored by both the Washington State Arts Commission and Humanities Washington, a joint panel selects each poet laureate based on their body of work, their advocacy for poetry and their goals for the position.

Previous poets laureate include Sam Green from 2007-2009, Kathleen Flenniken from 2012-2014, Elizabeth Austen from 2014-2016 and Tod Marshall from 2016-2018. Claudia Castro Luna is the current Washington State Poet Laureate and will hold the position until January 2020.

Castro Luna, a poet and teacher based in Seattle, authored the chapbook, This City and the poetry collection Killing Marias. In addition, she served as Seattle’s first Civic Poet, where she created the Seattle Poetic Grid, a web-based interactive map that charts poems about various landmarks throughout the city.

These [poets] are not only people who craft poetry, but know poetry, so they can speak to a lot of different things that influence them and what you bring to it.Patrick Dixon, Olympia Poetry Network board member

The oldest poetry organization in the Olympia region, the Olympia Poetry Network, has been in operation for almost three decades. Supporting poetic efforts throughout the South Sound, the network organizes poetry readings the third Wednesday of every month at Traditions Café in downtown Olympia. In addition, the Olympia Poetry Network also hosts regular workshops that explore poetic genres.

The idea for Laureate Fest was conceived at a poetry retreat in the summer of 2018. Three members of the Olympia Poetry Network board, Patrick Dixon, Terri Cohlene and Nathalie Kuroiwa-Lewis volunteered to coordinate the event. Intended as a celebration of poetry, the members of the Olympia Poetry Network also wanted their organization to take a higher profile in the Thurston County community.

The free festival takes place at the Norman Worthington Conference Center at St. Martin’s University. Kuroiwa-Lewis, a writing faculty at St. Martin’s University, worked closely with college leadership, including president Roy Heynderickx, as well as provost and vice president of academic affairs, Kathleen M. Boyle, to host the event at the university.

At the festival itself, all five past and present poets laureate will participate, traveling from the San Juan Islands, Spokane and Seattle to attend. Consisting of two companion events, the day will feature an afternoon panel and an evening poetry reading.

“These [poets] are not only people who craft poetry, but know poetry, so they can speak to a lot of different things that influence them and what you bring to it,” said Patrick Dixon, Olympia Poetry Network board member and co-organizer of Laureate Fest. “And so, even if you’re just a beginner, I think you’ll be fascinated by what they have to say. Their poetry and what they have to say about it.”

The panel discussion begins at 1 p.m. September 21. All five Washington State Poets Laureate will share their experience as poets, their current projects and their writing process. Other topics include poetry genres, modern day poetry and additional questions from the audience.  

“I’m really curious to know how they view the state of contemporary poetry today and how we can make it accessible to people,” said ​Nathalie Kuroiwa-Lewis, board secretary for the Olympia Poetry Network and co-organizer of Laureate Fest. “How can we help people identify and relate to poetry?”

At 7 p.m., the poetry reading will begin. Sady Sparks, Olympia’s second poet laureate, will open the program, reciting work from her own repertoire. Each Washington State Poet Laureate will then take the stage, reading their own work and the work of others that speak to them as a poet.

Sady Sparks, Olympia’s current poet laureate

Orca Books will also be present at the event, hosting a table encouraging attendees to purchase books authored by the poets laureate, with opportunities throughout the day for book signings by each poet.

At Laureate Fest, both during the panel discussion and during the reading, the universality of poetry will be explored. Not strictly centered around art, poetry can touch upon broader life questions. Poetry can connect disciplines and bridge the gap between art, science, politics, history and current events and this melting pot will be present in the work and experiences of the poets laureate.

Kathleen Flenniken connected poetry and natural science based on her experience growing up in Richland, Washington near the Hanford nuclear production site in her second collection of poetry, Plume. Sam Green weaves historical and current events while writing about his experience as a solider during the Vietnam War.

Since writing can be a means to explore heavy and complex topics, Laureate Fest is an invitation to probe the art form at a deeper level. Laureate Fest is an opportunity to see the wide range of topics and projects that are possible with the written word and how this type of art from can resonate with anyone.

“It’s a nice catharsis, too. It’s a nice emotional outlet,” said Kuroiwa-Lewis. “You know, I think you can find consolation in poetry, a release when you’re able to articulate sometimes very difficult things, so there’s something kind of healing about that.”


2019 Laureate Fest


Saturday, September 21, 2019;

Panel Discussion from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.;

Readings 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.


The Norman Worthington Conference Center at St. Martin’s University, 5300 Pacific Ave SE, Lacey, WA 98503

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