Inspired by growing up near the Hanford Nuclear Site and her own everyday life events, Kathleen Flenniken became not just any poet but a poet devoted to expanding the understanding of poetry throughout the state.
This Washington State Poet Laureate will share her passion for poetry with Whidbey Island Tuesday, Oct. 23 through Thursday, Oct. 25.
Flenniken described her position as Poet Laureate as an “ambassador” for poetry around the state. She applied for the position and serves from 2012 to 2014. The program is funded by private and federal funds and overseen by Humanities Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission.
Over her three-day visit, Flenniken will spend most of the time holding workshops for Oak Harbor, Coupeville and South Whidbey schools and she will hold two public readings, the first at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 23 at the Coupeville Library and the second at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24 at the Freeland Library.
As Poet Laureate, Flenniken said one of her priorities is teaching in classrooms, especially to third- through fifth-grade students.
“I think the most important thing I can convey to them is that poetry can be fun and language is a great tool for creation,” Flenniken said. In an effort to introduce people to other voices in poetry, Flenniken likes to share poems by other Washington poets, too.
“We are very excited about Washington State Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken’s visit to Olympic View Elementary. As an educator, I hope to build an audience for poetry and encourage future poets through her presentation,” said Amy Coleman, Olympic View Elementary School fourth-grade teacher.
“Reading is the cornerstone of student success in all content areas across K-12 education. New Common Core Reading Standards for kindergarten through fifth grade currently under consideration across the nation and in Washington state define literature as stories, drama and poetry. As an elementary teacher, I can tell you that students love both reading and writing poetry,” Coleman continued. “Many of us are familiar with Carl Sandburg’s famous poem ‘Fog’ and its very accessible use of metaphor, ‘The fog comes on little cat feet.’ Students quickly respond to these images, or pictures in their heads, that poetry can create. The use of figurative language requires readers to use higher level thinking skills when they read and write poetry.”
Flenniken will also hold a workshop for middle and high school teachers.
“One of our big pushes is real world application and real world writing and having a published author is obviously a very exciting thing for us,” said Erik Christensen, Oak Harbor High School teacher. “We’re looking forward to getting some poetry instruction we can use with kids.”
Those attending the public readings can enjoy Flenniken’s published poetry as well as a taste of her new work.
“This is a real honor to have Kathleen present in our schools and our community.
I would encourage anyone — poets and wanna-be poets — to attend for an evening of poetry you will not forget. Thanks to Molly Cook, Michele Coleman and the Whidbey Island Arts Council for bringing our Washington State Poet Laureate to Whidbey Island,” said Leslie Franzen, Coupeville Library branch manager.
The examined life
For Flenniken, “poetry is a way of understanding my life.” After a career as a civil engineer, Flenniken didn’t discover poetry until she was in her thirties.
“I took a night class in poetry and fell in love with it,” Flenniken said. When she quit work to stay home with her young children, she took up writing poetry.
Flenniken published her first book of poetry, “Famous,” after eight years of work. She described the topics of her poetry as “raising children and parents passing away — domestic life.”
“Famous” earned her the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association.
In her second book, “Plume,” Flenniken takes a look at growing up in Richland near the Hanford Nuclear Site. She began by writing about her memories of growing up in Richland and a friend whose dad died from radiation illness.
“Then from those personal poems, I moved to doing research about the Hanford Site and wrote a series of poems based on the research, then from there, I moved on to what I thought about this,” Flenniken said.
“I think we’re always looking for ourselves in art, for ways of finding and expressing our experiences through art. Poetry is a wonderful way of expressing what’s going on in our lives,” Flenniken said.
Currently, she’s working on a book of poetry paralleling marriage with her relationship to her country.
Another goal Flenniken set for herself as Poet Laureate is to visit all 39 counties in the state. So far, she has made it to about 14 counties.
“I’m really looking forward to this visit to Whidbey,” Flenniken said. She visited Whidbey once before to read at the Burning Word Poetry Festival at the Greenbank Farm. “I’m very excited. I know there’s a very great poetry community on Whidbey and I know they’re a cohesive group and very supportive of each other.”
Poet Laureate public readings
7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 23 at the Coupeville Library.
Location: 788 NW Alexander St.; 678-4911.
7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24 at the Freeland Library.
Location: 5495 Harbor Ave.; 331-7323.
For more information, visit sno-isle.org.