Imagine: It is May in La Conner, Washington. Downtown streets are filled with high school students chattering, comparing notes, and deciding whom to see next. They are not talking about last week’s date or ball game; they are discussing poetry. And why not? Since September, their teachers and their Skagit River Poetry Foundation resident poets have prepared them for this day.
U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins uses the scoreboard in the La Conner High School gym to create an impromptu haiku and in the intimate upstairs mezzanine of the Next Chapter Bookstore he discusses poetry with area high school seniors. Jimmy Santiago Baca, National Hispanic Heritage Award winning poet and HBO scriptwriter, tells stories of dead bodies in car trunks and his experiences with inmates in Southwest prisons. Ekiwah Adler-Belendez, an eighteen-year-old Mexican-born poet with cerebral palsy, agrees to sing one of his poems if a Mount Vernon High School musician/poet will accompany him.
This is magic, this poetry we hear and make in our Poets in the Schools program and at the biennial Skagit River Poetry Festival. The organization’s board, made up of school and community volunteers, has honed activities that infuse diverse voices into area classrooms from September through May. We bring poetic voices to our rural community that reflect diverse multi-ethnic and multi-generational populations, viewpoints, and history.
The Skagit River Poetry Foundation took root in 1998, the result of a conversation between leaders from seven rural school districts in Skagit County, Washington. These leaders hoped to create a project that would support our high literacy standards with the arts; poetry was the natural vehicle. From 1998 to the present, more than 50 Skagit County teachers a year have hosted resident poets. More than 10,000 local students have had the experience of playing with words while reading and writing poetry one-on-one with experts. Our professional poets have modeled instructional strategies for teachers and prepared a bank of poetry lessons.
The culminating event for this in-class work is the biennial Skagit River Poetry Festival, which started in 2000 and is held every other year.