Whenever Rena Priest leaves her home state of Washington, she carries her love for the region’s coastline with her.  

“I actually have a book coming out about beaches in May,” she says. “I visited more than 29 beaches, from Semiahmoo all the way down to Coos Bay, Oregon, and wrote about all of these different, beautiful nuances and details.” 

“Northwest Know-How: Beaches” was officially released on May 3, 2022. This “celebratory guide” to the PNW coast is one among many projects Priest has undertaken as poet laureate of Washington state.  

Priest’s term as poet laureate runs from April 14, 2021, to March 31, 2023, and as a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Tribe, she is the first-ever Indigenous poet to be awarded the title. Her writing is observant, vivid, oft-humorous, and– especially in the case of her newest work– deeply rooted in the ecology and culture of the Pacific Northwest. 

Previous Collections 

“Northwest Know-How: Beaches” is Priest’s third book, and it is preceded by two poetry collections, “Patriarchy Blues” (2017) and “Sublime Subliminal” (2018).  

Her poems don’t shy away from life’s complexities, and she offers clear-eyed observations on subjects ranging from gender politics to her own Native identity. Even so, these themes are conveyed through musical wordplay, clever imagery, and an unwaveringly keen sense of wit. 

“Sublime Subliminal” is particularly noteworthy for its playful use of language, incorporating phrases ranging from Latin proverbs to contemporary slang. Priest notes that the collection was inspired by Arizona poet Jim Simmerman’s “20 Little Poetry Projects,” an invented form that lends itself particularly well to playfulness.  

“‘Sublime Subliminal’ was really an intentional effort to bring a feeling of celebration– and celebration of language– back into my work,” she says. 

The thought of picking up a poetry book might be intimidating to some, but Priest wants people to know that the medium doesn’t always have to be serious. 

“You want your craft to be really good, but also, I go to it for play,” Priest says. “I go to it to understand things about the world, and about myself, to make playful comments on the world, and just bring some levity into my life. And also to address things that bother me sometimes, or that I feel like need more attention out in the world.” 

Poetry and Integrity 

Even when dealing with darker topics, Priest’s craft is ultimately rooted in joy. The inability to express one’s thoughts often leads to anxiety and sadness– but making art can be the antidote.  

“I think that a creative practice is really good for maintaining happiness,” she says. “Because when you really get down to the root of your being, there’s joy there, right? To be alive and to be human is a joyful thing at its root.” 

Priest also uses her poetry to challenge audience expectations, namely in regards to how she expresses her own Indigenous identity.  

“It’s as though there are other people legitimizing your identity based on what you write, and I think that’s really unfair,” she says. “I work against that simply by always trying to be true to my own voice.” 

With that said, Priest notes that her newest work is directly tied to her culture and heritage. Living in her home region has prompted thoughts about the Pacific Northwest in relation to the climate crisis, as well as her own daughter’s future here. 

“The work I’m doing now really celebrates this region, and the natural beauty of the region, while also reflecting on how my tribal community has been impacted by changes over the years and loss of the fishery,” Priest says.  

On Community 

Priest has several goals going into her second year as poet laureate, including putting together an anthology about salmon. As ambassador for the state’s thriving poetry community, her first year was a whirlwind of interviews, readings, workshops, and other events. 

“Washington state is just really rich with poetry; we’re very lucky. But Bellingham in particular, coming from here and knowing most of the poets in this area, I just feel like we all are very supportive of one another’s work,” Priest says. “We like to celebrate each other’s work and to celebrate poetry together.” 

This celebration extends beyond the page; for example, another of Priest’s term goals is to place poem placards in parks alongside historical and scientific markers. No matter the setting, her poems shine when experienced communally.  

“I think that there’s a way that poetry connects people. It’s very special– it’s like a soul connection, but it’s not invasive in any way,” she says. “The way that it works is subtle. It’s gentle, but it’s deep and profound.” Bellingham, renapriest.com