Rhymes with Everett finds the words that speak to us

When Kathleen Flenniken was a graduate student at the University of Washington, she happened on a poem by Theodore Roethke.

She was studying engineering, not poetry. That poem, “Dolor,” was in the campus newspaper, not a textbook.

“It was printed in the UW Daily. I tore it out and put it in my drawer,” Flenniken said Tuesday. “Something in that poem really spoke to me.”

The Seattle woman said she has picked Roethke’s poem to read aloud at the Everett Public Library tonight. Rhymes with Everett: The Favorite Poem Project is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the downtown library auditorium. Members of the public have been invited to share poems and to hear the favorites of area poets Kevin Craft and Ed Skoog.

Flenniken, 51, worked as a civil engineer at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where her father spent his career. She is an award-winning poet. And in February, she was named Washington State Poet Laureate for 2012-14.

In “Plume,” her collection published this year by University of Washington Press, Flenniken uses the language of poetry to delve into the Hanford story. After a childhood in Richland, she came to understand the high price paid by workers who fueled the atomic age.

“It’s trying to make sense of my personal history,” she said. “I had a friend whose father died of a radiation illness. At the same time, they were declassifying tens of thousands of documents.”

In one poem in “Plume,” she wrote of now seeing Hanford through knowing eyes:

“one box contains my childhood

the other contains his death

if one is true

how can the other be true?”

Verse doesn’t simply spring from the minds of poets sitting in solitude. Flenniken did extensive research and visited the B Reactor at Hanford. That historic place was the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor. There, plutonium was produced for the “Fat Man” bomb, dropped over Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, ending World War II.

Flenniken earned her bachelor’s degree in engineering at Washington State University and her master’s at UW. Engineering and poetry seem at opposite ends of the career spectrum, yet Flenniken said her first profession enhanced her literary art.

“It’s good to have other interests rather than just poetry. Then you have a voice, a point of view,” she said. Precise language is key in both fields.

It was after becoming a mother — Flenniken has two sons and a daughter, ages 23, 20 and 16 — that she began to explore poetry.

“When my second son was born, I decided to quit work awhile. I needed something to occupy my mind,” she said. That something was a night class in poetry writing. “It felt like something I needed to be,” she said.

Flenniken applied to become Washington’s poet laureate. “Forty states have poet laureates. In some, it’s an honorific. In Washington, it’s really a working position,” she said.

The title comes with a $10,000 annual stipend, plus $3,000 annually for travel. Flenniken plans to visit all 39 counties in Washington, and work with other poets and schoolchildren.

Washington’s poet laureate program began in 2007, but is no longer funded by the state. Through the nonprofit Humanities Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission, Flenniken said, the program is paid for by private and federal funding.

Flenniken’s first book, “Famous,” was published in 2006 and won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and was a Washington State Book Award finalist. She teaches poetry through Seattle’s Writers in the Schools program.

It’s been about 25 years since she tore out “Dolor,” the Roethke poem, and tucked it away.

“The irony of it, it’s all about the tedium of the office. And here I was preparing myself for an office job. This poem was saying something to me,” Flenniken said.

She once thought of poetry as schoolwork, but no more.

“I remember checking out an anthology, looking for things that spoke to me rather than what I was supposed to like,” she said. “All of a sudden, you get why poetry matters — finding that poet, that other voice that says things you need to hear.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Favorite poems

Rhymes with Everett, a favorite poem program, is scheduled for 7 tonight at the Everett Public Library auditorium, 2702 Hoyt Ave. Washington state Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken, area poets and members of the public will read favorite poems. To participate, sign up in advance and arrive by 6:30 p.m. Send your name and title and author of the poem to: libref@ci.everett.wa.us or call 425-257-8013. Information: http: www.epls.org/rhymeswitheverett.

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