Just after the election, I visited Yakima, and the skies were clear, and the hills offered a brown backdrop to blue sky, white clouds, and the last colorful leaves. A walk along the river (deer grazing on the far bank) allowed one to forget about the turbulent world for just a little while.
During my visit, I met many talented writers, including at YVC where Mark Fuzie, a fine poet, had assigned my work to his students. We chatted in class about the violence and suffering at the heart of so many of those poems and how dark themes often find their way into art. The students were thoughtful, sharing challenging questions with me about images and details; we talked about poetry, about what mattered in art and life. We listened, and then one student — perhaps feeling as if the world had gone off kilter and we were just sitting around talking trifles — blurted, “But what use is poetry?”
Michael Longley, a poet from Belfast who directly experienced troubled times of division and bloodshed, offers this great answer to that question. He says — emphatically — that poetry is useless; it has no utility, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value, and what’s so important about that distinction is that value can be bestowed by us. To put it another way, we, as a culture, decide both the values of our communities and what’s valuable within our communities.
Later that evening in Yakima, I helped host an open mic poetry event at The Seasons — a church turned into a performance hall where a hallowed hush still permeates the place in the best sort of way. If you haven’t been to one of these CoffeeHouse Poets gatherings, they embody community: Writers share works, and everyone is supportive and attentive, tuned in to others’ voices. Such gatherings are important as we try to figure out what matters most, what is of value to us in our neighborhoods, cities, counties, state, and country where we are all — no matter for whom we voted — going to live.
And there were other ways that it was apparent that Yakima valued the arts — from cool installations in the windows of downtown shops to the wonderful small bookstore, Inklings; from the fantastic small press work of Blue Begonia and Cave Moon to the fine artisanal baked goods at Essencia. I hope that the efforts continue to integrate arts — to show their value — into the city’s future, and I hope that those efforts include as many demographics as possible — bringing people together for bilingual readings and intergenerational events, for example.
I don’t have any sense of what 2017 will bring for our state, for Yakima, for my hometown of Spokane, for our divided nation, but I know that listening will be important, both for creating solidarity against that which may threaten the most vulnerable and for trying to gain insight into the individuals with whom we disagree. I also know that to value poetry recognizes the importance of ambiguities that don’t have simple answers.
The holiday season is upon us: for some, this might be a festive occasion; for others, it might be a time of anxiety and fear. People with both sets of beliefs are our neighbors, and to be part of a community with them — let alone “love them,” as many religious traditions assert — we might try first to listen, a first step toward empathy and a gesture that values words and, one can hope, each other.
• From 2016-18, Tod Marshall is serving as the Washington Poet Laureate, a program sponsored by Humanities Washington and Arts Washington.