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Poetry's Road Warrior

Sam Green, Washington's first Poet Laureate, is the state's advocate for literacy of the heart

By Mary Lane Gallagher | Window editor

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Poetry reading: Sam Green (‘73, ‘81) talks with students and others gathered recently in the Wilson Library Skybridge. Being the Poet Laureate, he says, is like being the union rep for all of the state’s poets. | Photo by Josie Liming

Sidebar: Tulip Field, MacLean Road, Skagit Valley

Tulip Field, MacLean Road, Skagit Valley

Sidebar: Postcard: October 18/01, NYC

Postcard: October 18/01, NYC

Watch Sam Green read and explain his poetry

Videos of Washington state Poet Laureate Sam Green reading and explaining his poetry are available in the videos section.

Reading his poetry in the sunlit Skybridge in Western’s Wilson Library, Washington State Poet Laureate Sam Green (’73, ’81) touches his words as they enter the room.

Some words he taps in the air with his forefinger, as if gently touching the forehead of a child. Others he slices with his hand, pinky first, demarcating the before and after. He swings some aside with the crisp wag of a finger, snapping them into place.

Since becoming the state’s poetic road-warrior-in-chief in 2007, Green, 60, has logged hundreds of miles to appear in readings like this, crisscrossing the state promoting poetry in schools, universities, hospitals, Rotary clubs, libraries, book clubs, arts festivals, government meetings and public events.

The state’s first-ever Poet Laureate coaxes verse out of giggly school children and shy teenagers and talks to community groups about the importance of literacy – not just literacy of language, he says, but literacy of the heart.

“How do you speak about who you are,” he asks, “without the tools of language?”

It would be too presumptuous to insist, Green says, that everyone should read poetry. But he’ll tell you what you’re missing if you don’t: It’s not just that you’d miss the poems that speak to you, that help you understand the perspective of another human. You’d also miss the poems that speak for you, that reach inside you and communicate exactly what you’re feeling, even if you haven’t – or couldn’t – organize your thoughts yourself.

Green loved poetry by the time he was 4, listening to the poems and ballads his father recited in their home in Skagit County. But when Green read W.B. Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” the youngster understood Yeats’ longing to run away and live on an island somewhere.

“I thought, this guy’s reading my mind. And he’s been dead since 1939.”

But though he was an advanced reader as a child, Green was no scholar. He was the bored kid who acted up in class, he says. When he finally focused enough to apply to college – encouraged in part by nearly 15 months with the Coast Guard in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and a crushed leg from a motorcycle accident – Western turned him down because of his lackluster grades. But he transferred after almost two years of study at Highline Community College and went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from Western.

It was at Western in the 1970s where Green became certain he wanted to be a poet. As editor of “Jeopardy,” Western’s literary magazine, Green says he became initiated into the community of writers.

“I began to understand,” he says, “that writers were people living a life, trying to publish their work. I liked feeling a part of that family.”

He studied with English Professor Robert Huff, a “fine poet,” Green says, who taught him that becoming a poet was “a life choice, not an academic choice.”

Green has lived that life choice for decades, mostly in obscurity. He’s split his time between teaching as a visiting poet in public schools and various colleges and universities (he has been at Seattle University since 2001) and living on Waldron Island in a log cabin whose Douglas fir logs Green stripped by hand.

He works alongside his wife, Sally, at their Brooding Heron Press, whose mechanical heart is a 100-year-old letter press in their living room. Sally sets the lead type; Green hand-binds the cloth-covered books. They accept manuscripts from poets all over.

It’s an austere life, says Chuck Luckmann (’96), an English instructor at Skagit Valley College who works with Green through the Skagit River Poetry Festival.

Green’s work finds the sacred in the everyday, Luckmann says, from the act of killing a wasp’s nest to watching the light transform the wing of a dragonfly.

“His poems are a blessing to the ordinary,” Luckmann says, “and the extraordinary here in the Northwest.”