2014 Skagit River Poetry Festival – A Must-Attend Event!

Robert Hass

Robert Hass


In the long winter nights, a farmer’s dreams are narrow.
Over and over, he enters the furrow.

Robert Hass (1941 – ) from Time and Materials, Ecco Press, 2007

Patrick Lane - Photo by Rafel Gerszak for the Globe and Mail

Patrick Lane – Photo by Rafel Gerszak for the Globe and Mail

When I Sleep

When I sleep the birds come to the garden
With their gifts of seeds out of ice.
Last year’s leaves of grass lift into night.
All my songs have been one song.
The palm of my hand and the sole of my foot
remember everything I have forgotten.
The old lantern by the pond has always been there.
Now is the time to light it.

Patrick Lane (1939 – ) from the Collected Poems, Harbour Publishing, 2011

It’s even! Yes, this year 2014 is even numbered. And that means the biennial Skagit River Poetry Festival will strut its poetic stuff again in May (15th to 18th) down in La Conner, Washington, less than two hours south of the Canadian border! This is a must-see event! The two epigraph poems above are by two head liners for the event – American Robert Hass and Canadian Patrick Lane.

The festival (click here for details) has another great line-up of American and Canadian poets and writers including  Hass, Lane, Mark Doty, Alexie Sherman, Tom Robbins, Evelyn Lau, Rachel Rose, Michael McGriff,  Kwame Dawes and many more. Within the full line-up are winners of almost every major literary prize in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.

And something new this year has a serendipitous Canadian flavour! Last year the Skagit River Poetry Festival Foundation  announced the inaugural Phyllis L. Ennes Poetry Contest. The organizers of the contest , which was adjudicated by American poet Ellen Bass (click here to see my recent post on Bass), declared the winner a few days ago. It was none other than  Patrick Lane who has been featured at the festival previously and now, thanks to this award, will be there again this year.

Lane has published more than twenty five books of poetry as well as his best-selling non-fiction memoir There Is A Season. His writing, which spans more than fifty years, has garnered him many honours especially during this past year when he received two honorary doctorates, the Queen’s Jubilee medal and the designation of Officer of the Order of the Canada.

Lane’s convocation address at UBC Okanagan was reprinted in the Globe and Mail. (Click here for Richard’s blog post that features the address).His address this past November at the Convocation for the University of Victoria was published by the Victoria Times-Colonist (15,000 hits on the T-C website) and broadcast across Canada on CBC radio – Michael Enright’s Sunday Morning program.

I have been lucky enough to attend this festival since 2002. It is well organized, well attended and the quality of the featured poets is first rate. During the last festival there was a strong contingent of Canadian participants, most of whom were fellow poets I knew from the Vancouver Island poetry community – from Victoria to Port Alberni. I hope there will be even more of us there in 2014! Accommodation space is limited in La Conner and one of the largest hotels in La Conner is already booked so if you are thinking about attending book soon. The Wild Iris and Blue Heron are great B&B choices and the restored heritage hotel, The Planter, is another great choice and it has the benefit of being a stone’s throw from the main festival venue.

As a taster here are two additional poems written by festival participants, American Mark Doty and Canadian Evelyn Lau.

Doty, who was the first non-U.K. winner of the T.S. Eliot prize and who also won the American National Book Award in 2008, was a 2013 judge for the prestigious 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize. The poem of his included below is a great example of taking something ordinary and transforming it into something numinous and extraordinary: we sweat the mark/ of our presence onto the cloth.// Here is some halo/ the living made together.

Lau has lived about five lifetimes in just more than forty years. Her poetry was first published when she was twelve and after she spent a few harrowing years on the streets of Vancouver ( which included suicide attempts, prostitution and drug abuse) she published her acclaimed memoir, Runaway when she was eighteen. Since 2011she has been Poet Laureate of Vancouver. Knowing Lau’s background there is even more force to the end of her poem Living Under Plastic: Come out into the cracked/ and flooding world. A great line and visceral reminder of what we are called to do in this crazy, tragic and wonderful world.

Mark Doty

Mark Doty

At the Gym

This salt-stain spot
marks the place where men
lay down their heads,
back to the bench,

and hoist nothing
that need be lifted
but some burden they’ve chosen
this time: more reps,

more weight, the upward shove
of it leaving, collectively,
this sign of where we’ve been:
shroud-stain, negative

flashed onto the vinyl
where we push something
unyielding skyward,
gaining some power

at least over flesh,
which goads with desire,
and terrifies with frailty.
Who could say who’s

added his heat to the nimbus
of our intent, here where
we make ourselves:
something difficult

lifted, pressed or curled,
Power over beauty,
power over power!
Though there’s something more

tender, beneath our vanity,
our will to become objects
of desire: we sweat the mark
of our presence onto the cloth.

Here is some halo
the living made together.

Mark Doty (1953 – ), from  Fire to Fire – New & Selected Poems, HarperCollins Publishers, 2008

Evelyn Lau

Evelyn Lau



The building across the lane from me
is a leaky condo. At daybreak the workers’ shouts
score the air, their calls no more like birdsong
than traffic is like ocean surf. At night
the tower resembles a paper lantern,
its owners sealed inside a shroud
of white, the lights in their living rooms
giving off a ghostly glow that says
they are still there. For a year
or more they will live under plastic
with their green aquariums and plasma TVs,
breathing weakly in the underwater
toxic light, mould spores and dust mites
dancing in their lungs.
The faintest gleam from their suites,
flickering like the pulse on a monitor,
signalling life. My uncle whose wife
died three years ago hasn’t left their house since
except to buy groceries. He calls once a year,
his voice fading, says he may not survive
the winter. Rambles about Jesus and aliens,
says he’s working on a thesis that will save
the world—the answer is there somewhere
in the Scriptures and the science magazines,
the answer like a face he recognizes
but can’t put a name to, like a word
on the tip of his tongue. He spends his days
reading, deciphering the code that will bring
this planet back from the brink, admits it’s easy
to love humanity when you live in isolation. Says
his life ended when she died. I want
to say no, you do not have to do this,
you do not have to nail yourself to this cross
under the flaming sky, wait for the vultures
to pluck out your eyes. Just open the door
and leave this house where she lay dying
in the back room with her diapers and Decadron,
come out into the yard with its cherry tree
chopped down, come out into the wild and frayed air,
the salt slap of the storm that lifts
branches and plastic bags and flowerpots
up into the sky, that tears through the shroud
of the leaky condo with the sound
of a ripping sail on a savage sea,
the storm that makes even garbage rise.
Come out into the cracked
and flooding world.

Evelyn Lau (1971 – ) from TheTyee.ca, Oct. 27th, 2010.


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