Arts & Culture

The first-ever Tacoma Poetry Festival brings local, regional and national poets together

Poet David Wagoner will be keynote speaker at the first Tacoma Poetry Festival Friday (Oct. 16) and Saturday.
Poet David Wagoner will be keynote speaker at the first Tacoma Poetry Festival Friday (Oct. 16) and Saturday. Courtesy

New Orleans has jazz, and Tacoma has ... poetry? That’s the inspiration behind the Tacoma Poetry Festival, which sees its first-ever incarnation Friday (Oct. 16) and Saturday at the Tacoma Public Utilities building. Bringing in national poets like David Wagoner and Nate Marshall, and Tacoma poets like Kevin Miller, Lucas Smiraldo and current laureate Cathy Nguyen, the festival also celebrates the 25th anniversary of festival sponsor the Puget Sound Poetry Connection.

But the person responsible for both the idea and the venue is the perfect symbol for Tacoma’s mix of utility and literary: Dale King, superintendent of Tacoma Rail who writes haiku on the side.

“I was in New Orleans on New Year’s Eve in 2012,” explains King, of how he first thought of a poetry festival for Tacoma. “I thought, Tacoma has everything New Orleans has: the physical attributes, the beauty. What makes it different? The jazz. And the open-container laws, of course. I thought, Tacoma needs a hook — but what?”

King’s answer came a year or so later when, on a flight home from Texas, he happened to sit next to the president of the Austin Poetry Society. They got talking, and King found what could be Tacoma’s “hook”: poetry.

Tacoma’s definitely not short of poets. With a city-sponsored poet laureate program running for seven years now, several anthologies and many published poets, and literary groups ranging from the recent Creative Colloquy to the Poetry Connection, the city has a vibrant poetry scene that ranges from university professors to spoken word artists.

This weekend, King and his team aim to bring them all together. The event begins Friday with a daytime workshop for local school students, followed by an evening featuring key speaker Wagoner, an award-winning Northwest poet, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and former editor of Poetry Northwest. Friday night also includes Marshall, a Chicago poet and star of the documentary “Louder than a Bomb,” Tacoma poet laureate Nguyen and many of the previous poets laureate. Mayor Marilyn Strickland will open the event — possibly with a poem, says King.

On Saturday, nine workshops include Thomas Lux focusing on detail and revision (via Skype), Kay Mullen and actress Pamela Reed discussing the poetry program at Catherine Place women’s center, Kevin Miller on Tacoma poetry and Lucas Smiraldo collecting poems for the Laureate Listening Project, an aural online anthology. Paul Nelson will talk about “Personal Myth, Genius, Loci”; Emilie Rommel-Shimkus will workshop performance techniques; Christopher Luna focuses on the poet as engaged citizen and Tanya McDonald talks haiku.

The day concludes with a one-hour open mic. Food is available, and vendors will be selling poetry books.

For Connie Walle, who founded the Puget Sound Poetry Connection 25 years ago and still directs it, the festival is an exciting offshoot of the recent development of the local poetry scene.

“I’m really excited about it,” Walle said. “We’re really lucky to get David Wagoner pull these big names in. Up until about three or four years ago we were the only (poetry) group in Tacoma...Now we’ve increased our membership and there are other groups around too.”

Walle also notes that poetry groups around Washington are collaborating more, with the Poetry Connection supporting groups in Auburn and Steilacoom, and republishing newsletters from other groups.

“It makes poetry much stronger than it used to be,” she says.

And Tacoma’s festival, says King, is “the only annual poetry festival in the Northwest,” with the Skagit festival every other year and the Cascadia festival moving north to Vancouver, British Columbia. He’s hoping that with enough interest, the festival could move to a bigger location next year.

And King himself? He’s started writing haiku, often about trains, and has four in the Laureate Listening Project.

“It’s a great stress reliever at work,” he says.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568



When: 6-10 p.m. Friday (Oct. 16) and 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Tacoma Public Utilities, 3628 S. 35th St., Tacoma.

Cost: $15-$35.