Spreading the word
While it is relatively easy to be a passive recipient of poetry, Rebecca Meredith says it is much more difficult to get someone to be an active participant.
Whether they’re too embarrassed to express their emotions or too intimidated to write them down, it is Meredith’s job to show people that poetry is not as silly or scary as they think. As poet laureate for Redmond, Meredith goes around town, teaching in classrooms, opening for various shows and productions and giving talks for local organizations — all in an effort to promote the literary arts.
Meredith said the position was created by Redmond’s Arts Commission after members realized they were paying a large amount of attention to the visual arts, but were neglecting the literary arts. The two-year poet laureate position is meant to address this. As the city’s first-ever poet laureate, Meredith said she was “nerve-cited” — a combination of nervousness and excitement — when she was selected in January.
“None of us knew how it was going to turn out,” she said regarding the new position.
Jean Rice, who is filling in for Redmond Art Coordinator Mary Yelanjian while she is on leave, said the objective of the poet laureate position is to “broaden the awareness of poetry, express the spirit of Redmond culture through poetry and raise the level of discourse during discussions and debates in the city.”
“The Arts Commission recently listened to Rebecca report of her progress and were excited on the progress this new program has had,” Rice said. “As the new year approaches, we hope to expand our outreach in the schools and incorporate poetry into other park projects as appropriate.”
With almost half her term complete, some of the things Meredith has done include having a booth at Derby Days, leading workshops, teaching lessons in classrooms and most recently, speaking at a First Friday Coffee Chat at the Redmond Senior Center on Nov. 5.
Program coordinator Karen Phillips said First Friday Chats began last fall to give the public an opportunity to learn and gain insight about different city entities including the poet laureate, mayor’s office, police department, judicial systems and historical society. The chats are usually run as hour-long question-and-answer sessions, allowing participants to speak with city organizers face to face.
“It’s been received very well,” Phillips said. “It’s just a nice forum for some that interchange.”
She added attendance ranges from four or five to about 20, depending on the topic. The chat with Meredith brought in about a half-dozen. Phillips said the senior center had been trying to get Meredith to come in and speak for a while because they knew people would be curious about Meredith’s role, but it was just a matter of scheduling.
While her role does include many similar speaking engagements, Meredith also leads sessions in which audience participant is highly encouraged. One challenge she faces is getting people to write without being self-conscious, which she calls “killing the editor.” This can be difficult sometimes because people often want to revise their work, she said.
“You can turn that part off by doing exercises that put you in the moment,” Meredith said. “There are lots and lots of really good exercises.”
So far, Meredith has done a lot of work with school-aged students and seniors, but not much in between.
“The people in the middle (age group) have not approached me,” she said. “That’s something we need to work on.”
Meredith, who grew up in New Orleans and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, lives in Seattle but was a Redmond resident for 25 years. She learned about the poet laureate position through the Redmond Association of Spokenword (RASP), where her husband is a board member. Meredith is no longer part of the organization but was involved in its founding. She also has a chapbook called “Intergenerational Delta Blues,” which was published by Pudding House Press in 2006 and contains poems representing her time growing up in New Orleans.
PROMOTING POETRY, ARTS
Although she no longer lives in Redmond, Meredith felt she had spent a significant enough amount of time in Redmond to be able to represent it well as poet laureate. She said the application process was about six months long and included interviews and work submissions.
Rice said Meredith was selected from a field of five applicants.
As poet laureate, Meredith receives a $5,000 stipend for her two-year term from the city’s arts activity fund, which also funds arts events, visual arts and performing arts in the city, Rice said.
“Even in hard economic times, the development of arts and culture within the city is important,” she said. “Many of our art events are free and provide educational outreach to many that may not have the opportunity to engage in enrichment activities.”
Although she has a day job working as a psychotherapist with her own private practice in Seattle, Meredith said writing poetry has always been as natural to her as breathing, adding that this is quite common for most poets.
“We have a kind of mental illness,” Meredith said. “I don’t have a lot of choice with being a poet or writer. It’s part of me. It’s like saying I have hands.”