Friday, November 25, 2016

Olympia’s First Poet Laureate: Amy Solomon-Minarchi

Above: Amy Leah Solomon-Minarchi was selected to be Olympia's first poet laureate. About the position, Solomon-Minarchi says, “It’s not about me - it’s about uniting people in Olympia. I can do this because I care about Olympia and people’s stories….” 

In an interview with Little Hollywood, Solomon-Minarchi explores her role, youth and military life voices, current events, and the culture of Olympia

By Janine Gates

The City of Olympia now has its first poet laureate, Amy Leah Solomon-Minarchi.

Based upon the recommendation of a city arts selection committee, the Olympia city council appointed Solomon-Minarchi to the new position on Tuesday. 

Solomon-Minarchi sat down with Little Hollywood on Friday to speak about the position, and share her thoughts about the meaning and purpose of poetry, youth and other voices that are not often heard, and the changing culture of Olympia. 

Even in an interview, Solomon-Minarchi’s words are eloquent, well-chosen, and quietly spoken, capturing powerful images. 

Solomon-Minarchi, an English, creative writing, and philosophy teacher for 11th and 12th graders at North Thurston High School, is also the advisor for the school’s “Write Club,” and advisor and publisher of the school’s literary magazine, “The Art of Words.”

She is also a choreographer at the school, designing and implementing dances with students for the school musical and Spring Arts Showcase productions. 

A member and student of the Richard Hugo House in Seattle, Solomon-Minarchi received her undergraduate degree from Rutgers University, and received her master’s in teaching degree from The Evergreen State College in 2010. She has won many honors and awards.

Solomon-Minarchi grew up in New Jersey and has lived in Olympia for eight years. She is expected to fulfill her duties for two years and will receive a $1,000 stipend per year.

“Olympia’s diverse populations are at a serious crossroads in which no one dare cross the road. Let poetry be the place where we enter the crosswalk,” Solomon-Minarchi said in her application. 

She proposed a program called, “I Hear Olympia Singing,” in which she says she will build community through poetry, offering literary arts workshops with the schools that have the least resources and highest need for art programs and enrichment.

She also envisions writing contests and readings with outreach to Community Youth Services and Olympians at large to elevate perception and engagement in the growing downtown arts core. 

Her Writing the City program would hold open calls for short poems, a semi-annual public art display, and a monthly walking tour and writing series that will take students to rotating spaces around the city to practice capturing sensory imagery and sound.

Ultimately, at the end of her term, Solomon-Minarchi says she would work toward editing an anthology of poems that captures Olympia “in all its burgeoning flux that will celebrate the local and rich working history of Olympia and the new, five-story culture of artist lofts, convention centers and Seattle transplants buying property in cash, who look with wide wonder at the eclectic promise of growing roots here.”

Solomon-Minarchi was chosen out of 10 applicants by a committee of five individuals who met for one and a half hours to discuss the applications. Little Hollywood was at the October 27 meeting to observe the selection process.

When they arrived at their decision, they said Solomon-Minarchi, “….has an energy that sets her apart from the others…she’s youth focused and very approachable and accessible. Her poetry is so place-based….She’s someone who will grow the (poet laureate) program and engage us….good presence….Her Writing the City program is so cool….”

The suggestion to have a city poet laureate arose out of a committee referral in 2015 and proceeded through the city’s arts advisory committee to promote poetry as an art form and contribute to a sense of place. 

Stephanie Johnson, city parks, arts and recreation program staff, facilitated the nomination selection and recommendation process. Applicants were referred to by number, not name, while they watched submitted video presentations and evaluated application strengths and weaknesses. The applicants were winnowed down to Solomon-Minarchi and her alternate, Cecily Markham.

Johnson and the committee looked at the selection process paved by other cities such as Tacoma, Fresno, and Reno. Outreach was done through the city website, the city’s Arts Digest email list, the Olympia Poetry Network, and the Old Growth Poetry Network. 

Solomon-Minarchi’s poem, Suburban Danger, was one of the poems she submitted to the arts committee for consideration.

It was inspired, she said, by a brief brush with a speeding car while walking a baby and big dog through the crosswalk at 7th Avenue SE and Boundary, in Olympia’s eastside neighborhood.

Suburban Danger

Cars speed past pedestrians in crosswalks
while babies stain Snugglies, dogs strain leashes
drivers yell, 900 points, and mean it.

Mount Rainier so majestic, could we climb it if
the tsunami hits? Better yet seek the water tower
pack the power bars, guzzle Powerade

and wait to be saved. Or if it erupts
could we outrun the lava flow in our
Prius? Would we run out of gas mid-flee?

If only my mother were here. We could
be generations until the white waves
Wash us out to sea, or the red hand claims us.

Above: Chum salmon make their journey back to spawn last week at McLane Creek Nature Trail in Olympia. Stream Team salmon stewards explained how baby salmon imprint on the water in their home stream. When they migrate back from their stay in the ocean, biologists believe they recognize the smell of McLane Creek by its distinctive smell.

Solomon-Minarchi was asked what she feels South Sound youth need to express, and what poetry might mean to them.

“Young people have a lot to share. They have a treasure trove of stories to tell. Poetry is an efficient way to get out their emotions. Students are working on how their voices have meaning, because, as they are growing and developing, at 16 - 17, this is the time they are playing with their voice. They are saying, ‘What does this mean?’ And once they graduate, they are just like little fish in a huge ocean. 

What poetry might mean to them is finding a way to look around themselves, ground themselves, and face the emotions they are feeling and chronicle the new experiences they are having, whether it is college, a job, relationships…it’s all funny, strange, and new.

“They are also figuring out when to tell their stories, what’s relevant, and how much to share. You know, you’ve got students that just want to tell you every little thing, and others hold it all in and lock it up in a box. 

The role of poetry, or a teacher of writing, is to give them space to be able to sort out those emotions together. They are in a community. They are not alone. Storytelling is powerful and the cultures that last have stories to tell, pass on, and are meaningful. Then there’s the question of how to tell the story. There’s not just one way….”

Asked what local or national poetry she appreciates, Solomon-Minarchi mentioned the art of Elizabeth Austen, a recent Washington State Poet Laureate, who wrote the chapbook, Every Dress a Decision, a finalist for the 2012 Washington State Book Award in poetry. 

She also mentioned the poetry of Brian Turner, a noncommissioned officer in the Iraq War.

Solomon-Minarchi says she will capture the voices of veterans, not because she is one, but because her husband is, and she wants to honor them with an open heart.

“For those who care for veterans, it’s not an easy job – there’s heartache, longing, uncertainty. I’d like to provide a counterpoint voice to say, ‘Hey, this is what it was like back home….”’

There’s also a place for Walt Whitman. “When I ask students to read his poetry, I get groans,” she laughed. “They ask, ‘How do I relate to him? Solomon-Minarchi says that is a valid response.

“I know that my love of poetry comes from the generative process of writing, and writing together with people, being able to see the same thing – going to Percival Landing and looking out onto the Sound. 

My poem might be very, very different from the person sitting next to me, and yet we both share that experience and that brings us together. Part of what I want to do is have open-mic at the Olympia Farmer’s Market. It takes courage to say it in front of others and celebrate our voice in the moment.”

Briefly touching upon the city’s current events, Solomon-Minarchi said she was watching Tuesday evening’s city council meeting from home, and heard Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts’ comments about the Port of Olympia and the recent rail blockade of a Union Pacific train by protesters in downtown Olympia.

“Being in this position right now will be very interesting. We have stories, but we are also making stories together. There is fear in the unknown, and what kind of direction Olympia is going to go in….We see the tall buildings going up and we’re missing our small town….

The culture will change, and there’s a lot of emotion about that, whether it’s anxiety about how that will play out, and whether we’ll be able to keep the things that make us different, like being able to go down to the railroad track at 4:00 a.m. and say, ‘This is not ok.’ This is real. Over the next two years, we want, through poetry, to capture the identity of Olympia, the changing of Olympia, and what brings us together.”

Above: Children and parent volunteers from Roosevelt Elementary School observe the salmon run at McLane Creek Nature Trail last Thursday afternoon in Olympia. A group of older children from North Thurston High School were also on the trail, and were being encouraged by a teacher to “....zoom out and sketch the greater ecosystem....