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State's Poet Laureate linked to Whidbey
Washingtons State’s first poet laureate, Sam Green, is generally described by critics as a small, quiet man with round spectacles.
At last Thursday’s poetry reading at the Oak Harbor Library, Green added another adjective to the depiction: “Man in Black.”
He appeared in a Johnny Cash-style suit (his go-to outfit on the road) and began by reading five somber poems back-to-back, filling in the transitions with jokes and anecdotes. In her introduction, librarian Mary Campbell described Green’s reading as “sexy.”
“He is a nice, ordinary man, but when he speaks, you think ‘whoa.’ You can just tell poetry is an essential part of who he is,” Campbell said.
Among the crowd of 30, scheduled during the Friends of the Library meeting, were Green’s aunt and father. Although he’s lived near the area for much of his life, it was his first time in the Oak Harbor limelight.
Appointed poet laureate by Gov. Chris Gregoire last December, Green has spent his time holding readings and visiting schools and libraries. With his two-year title and a $10,000 stipend, his mission is to promote poetry and advocate for Washington poets.
“I’ve been bouncing around the state like a sand flea,” he said.
Since January, Green said he’s slept in his bed only 83 times.
He lives with his wife Sally on Waldron, a 4 1/2 square-mile island in the San Juans with no public electricity or running water. There is a tiny school, a tiny post office, few stores and a population of about 90. The couple lived in an army tent for three years while they hand-built a log cabin.
“We moved there to spend all of our time with poetry,” Green said.
But before living in Thoreau-like isolation, much of Green’s early life was spent near Whidbey Island.
He was raised in Anacortes and his grandparents on his father’s side lived at the end of Green Road from the 1930s until they died in 1969 and 1986, respectively. Two of his uncles and a pair of cousins live in Oak Harbor today.
“Oak Harbor is near and dear to my heart,” Green said. “My grandma lived at the end of Green Road and some of the happiest times of my life were spent there.”
At Thursday’s reading he shared a poem about his grandma and early memories of skinning rabbits on the farm. From his book, “The Grace of Necessity,” he read poems about recently burying a close friend and neighbor, explaining to a wife why her mother is dying and the death of a young woman.
Green describes much of his work as “serious,” and he draws inspiration from his life on Waldron. He’ll often let a poem sit inside him for a while to see if there is a poem there, or just an anecdote.
“I want to answer, where is the poem inside the story? What’s in it for anyone else? We don’t write just to satisfy ourselves but for our audience,” Green said.
Before his official title as state poet, Green wrote 10 volumes of poetry widely read nationally and created a small publishing company called Brooding Heron Press. He currently works as a college professor. One quarter a year, Green teaches a poetry class at Seattle University, and he sees teaching as a real human connection.
Thursday morning, Green visited Oak Harbor High School and read to three classes.
“I try to encourage students that poetry is a larger thing than you think. Some people don’t think it’s for them, because they have limited views of what it is. In public schools, they’re treated as an intellectual exercise that can’t be solved. Others see them as simplistic stories and verse, but it’s bigger than that,” Green said. “Poetry is like a big rubric with different variables, and I’m excited about all of those.”
As part of his work as an advocate, Green ends his readings by sharing poems from other Washington writers, such as Stryker brigade soldier-poet Brian Turner and Pulitzer Prize nominee Bill Ransom.
Green said he often likes to play connect-the-dots and introduce poets to each other.
And although he’s pioneering the position of Washington’s poet laureate, he remained modest during the libraries’ Q and A.
“It’s not important that I have this position, its important that we have it,” Green said. “You’re not king of the world for a day, you’re an advocate.”