PROMOTING POETRY IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE – Student Poet Laureate Octavia Prosser, an Oak Harbor high school senior, does what poets do best: make the magic of poetry appear before the eyes of the public. She is chalking a Langston Hughes poem, a timely reminder that the past is never past. She copied and quoted “What happens to a dream deferred?”                                                                                                                                                                                                       – Photo courtesy of Octavia Prosser
PROMOTING POETRY IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE – Student Poet Laureate Octavia Prosser, an Oak Harbor high school senior, does what poets do best: make the magic of poetry appear before the eyes of the public. She is chalking a Langston Hughes poem, a timely reminder that the past is never past. She copied and quoted “What happens to a dream deferred?” – Photo courtesy of Octavia Prosser

If you’re looking for poets next weekend, don’t come to Maple Hall. 

Or the Methodist Church. Or the Seafood and Prime Rib House. Or the Tavern. Or the La Conner Country Inn. Or any of the usual haunts that would ordinarily be teeming with poets and poetry lovers. 

With the Skagit River Poetry Festival postponed for at least a year, the only place you will find poets is in school. 

Online, of course. 

When schools closed unexpectedly last March, the Skagit River Poetry Foundation’s Poets in the Schools program quickly pivoted. 

Instead of planning weeklong residencies, poets pre-recorded video lessons and developed handouts for teachers thrust into online teaching. 

While looking at a camera instead of student faces was challenging, poet Daemond Arrindell said that “asynchronous learning” offered some advantages. 

Students could take as much time as they needed to do his exercises and could be more open and vulnerable. “They weren’t in the spotlight, surrounded by peers,” he said. 

On the whole, though, he prefers live, interactive classes. That is the plan, says SRPF executive director Molly McNulty. 

After meeting with superintendents, including Rich Stewart of La Conner Schools, McNulty says she is “90 percent certain that all eight districts plus (Skagit Valley) College will commit to whatever we can do.” For now, that means virtual learning. As restrictions ease, small, in-person classes with five or so students may be possible. 

Either way, Skagit River poets will continue to change students’ lives. 

Classes by Arrindell and other poets “got me started with poetry,” says Anacortes High School junior Lucy Shainin. 

“It was this completely new thing that I hadn’t really known about before, and anyone could do it,” she said. “I thought poetry was strict, full of rules and very difficult. It was really cool that there was this whole new form of writing that I could do.” 

Shainin is one of the Foundation’s first-ever Student Poet Laureates. With senior Octavia Prosser of Oak Harbor and junior Olivia Elias of Sedro-Woolley, she is charged with bringing poetry to the community and representing the Foundation at events. 

With no events on anyone’s schedule, the three young women are posting their favorite poems on their Instagram page, @srpfstudentlaureates.

“We’re hoping that we’ll be able to share poems from the community as well,” said Lucy. “We might reach more people this way than we might have otherwise.” 

This summer, Prosser chalked works by James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and other African-American poets on the walkways of her local park. She wanted “to share poetry with kids and have them do neat arts and crafts related to the poems.” 

Being a Student Laureate has made Elias take “a more professional look” at her writing. She’s disappointed that the biennial Festival scheduled for October 1-4 has been postponed to 2021 or 2022, because she was looking forward to learning more about the poetry community. 

Cancelled fundraisers and a postponed Festival have challenged the Foundation. So has the loss of spring fees from Skagit school districts, an important part of the Foundation’s revenue. 

“We will have poetry back in La Conner at some point,” said McNulty. 

This month, the Foundation will host an online reading, interview and craft talk featuring poet Terrance Hayes and former Washington State poet laureate Elizabeth Austen. And McNulty and her board welcome donations to support lifelong literacy and cultural diversity through the writing, reading, performing and teaching of poetry in Northwest Washington schools. 

The Foundation’s poets remain committed to this mission. 

“My main goal going into this school year is not necessarily about craft or specific skills,” said Arrindell. “It’s about providing a platform and community for students to share whatever it is that they need to share and help them express as a coping mechanism what it is that they are facing, because none of this normal. 

“In the ways that we have been isolated, art becomes an even more vital tool for connecting us.”