photo (c) C. Nelson
Judith Roche recently added a fourth poetry collection to her many accomplishments entitled All Fire All Water. Her third collection, Wisdom of the Body, won an American Book Award and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has published widely in various journals and magazines, and has poems installed on several Seattle area public arts projects. She has written extensively about Pacific Northwest native salmon and edited First Fish First People: Salmon Tales of the North Pacific Rim, for which she also received an American Book Award. Several of her salmon poems have been installed at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle. She has taught at numerous universities and currently teaches at the Richard Hugo House Literary Center. In addition, Judith has conducted poetry workshops around the country. She is also a fellow in the Black Earth Institute, a progressive think tank exploring the links between nature, spirit, and social justice. We sat down with Seattle’s own Poet of the Ecology to discuss her latest work and sustaining a life-long career in the Arts.
DP: Let’s start off by talking about All Fire All Water.
JR: This new book has Cranes on the cover and there is a big Crane poem. And, I traveled to Nebraska to the Platte River to see them. It was so thrilling to me! I get so thrilled about things that are not my home territory, but yet the thrill of the wild is incredible for me!
The second section is called, “A Bird Caught in the Throat,” which is my horror at the atrocities of our time. It’s about the awful things; the wars that go on and the cruelty that people have for each other. There is so much horror that goes on in the world. I don’t know what to say about it…I guess I don’t need it to say anything more because the poems say it.
I get excited about my books, but so much of the books are not appropriate for public art, like the whole section about the husbands, which is the story of my life pretty much and my life and love- including the children. It is useful for many people to read, especially women.
The last section of the book, “We are Stardust,” is also about questioning identity and questioning this thing of communication of understanding each other and translation- that so much is a translation from one thing to another. I think they are important questions to ask and things to think about.
DP: Tell me about your involvement with Poetics of Place.
JR: I have been teaching sections of poetry of place at Hugo House in Seattle and around the state of Washington as part of a Washington state arts commission project. I call it ‘Poetics of Place.’
I’m encouraging people to write of their own place-their home place, the place of their heart. It is especially useful for all the migrant populations we have in Seattle. Like people who come from various African countries or Southeast Asia or various other countries. It isn’t about writing about the place that they are in, but rather the place that they come from-where their heart is. One of the really great classes I had was mostly Japanese women who wrote about the internment. You know they were only small children who were interned during World War II. And that seemed very useful to them and it’s been great.
And I’ve been writing about Michigan, which is my childhood home and a lot of ways the place of my heart. And also here Washington state. And, I’m writing about the Skagit River…and the wolves coming back to Washington, which I just love! Because it just thrills me that we are rewilding of our forests here; we aren’t- the wolves are doing it. It’s wonderful and it just thrills me! Poetry for me is an approach to the holy or an approach to the sacred. So, all these things they are deep, deep within my heart, which are land-based and are important to me. The task is always to be able translate it into words and language and to have it as language. Poetry is an attempt to say the unsayable. So, that’s a pretty hard thing to do. But that’s the task that I am doing with it and I love doing it!
DP: Tell me about the salmon project.
JR: The salmon project started back when I was at One Reel and One Reel was also concerned about the endangerment of our salmon. The loss that would be…because salmon are the totem of our land here in Northwest Washington and in Seattle. It is the totem of the heart of our land here. So when the salmon, especially the Chinook, were declared endangered, it was shocking and One Reel wanted to do something about it and got a number of grants to do the book that I edited, which is First Fish First People, Salmon Tales of the North Pacific Rim. And, I found a number of writers who were native to various different places on the Pacific Rim. So, indigenous people-not only northwest Washington people are indigenous or first people from Canada, but also from Alaska, Japan, and Russia-salmon cultures on the Pacific Rim.
That was an incredible project and I learned so much about the salmon. I learned even more about the salmon and I made it a real research project to learn about the salmon and wrote these poems that were installed at the Seattle Locks in auditory form. I recorded them.
You go to the window of the salmon ladder, where you see the fish swimming through the window and you press a button and you hear the poem. They were up for 13 years and are currently down because they are in the process of upgrading the recordings and I hope they will be back up again soon. The salmon poems are not only in a book, but they are also in the visitor’s center in form of a big poster. So, I just kept writing about salmon and I am still interested in working with them in any way I can- including collaborating with them on a new project or redoing the poems. That’s something I am definitely interested in!
DP: Let’s talk about some of the other community art you have been involved in like The Talking Wall.
JR: That was a project I did with visual artist Maggie Smith who was doing a visual art project and wanted words on the wall. So, that was in collaboration with a bunch of kids from Chief Seath High School. We took a bunch of kids downtown to an approach to the bus tunnel. They went back to the classroom and wrote some and then I wove their words into a text, which is on that wall there. It is a bunch of urban thoughts in this very urban place.
So, there is that and the Tukwila Project, which is outside of a pump station. That, I wrote a text about just what happened on that spot in geological times and what happened with the glaciers and native time, and pioneer time, and farming time, and more modern time. That land all around it was pretty much taken over by Southcenter shopping mall and it was all farm land. Last year, that artwork was redone. I got to work on it again and redo it, so it is refurbished and new and beautiful again because it was getting kind of funky looking-it was just old.
DP: And then there is The Brightwater Treatment Plant…
JR: I was asked to write a poem about the biosolids-a blessing for the water and a blessing for the biosolids. I always say, “I am probably the only poet in history that got paid actual arts commissioned money for writing a poem about poop!” Those poems, plus another one, are in the newest book All Fire All Water.
That was another great project. I have loved working on public art projects. I think that’s the way to get to a lot of people. More people see my poems in the public art projects, than ever see the books-unfortunately. But, I believe you put it out in the universe and the people that need to hear it will hear it or see it or read it. But, just putting it out into the universe is what I can do-it’s what I can do. I can’t make tons of people come to buy poetry books, but I can put it out in the universe-that’s the part I can do.
DP: How does it feel to do a public art project and see it come to fruition?
JR: It just feels great! It feels like I’ve done what I am supposed to do. And, it is very important to me and it’s all about the environment. All of these projects are all about the environment and I feel like I have done what I am supposed to do about it. This is the voice I have been given to sing in and I sing in the voice I was given. Other people do it differently, but that’s the voice I was given to sing in.
DP: You have been an artist for a long time and have been successful at making it your career. What is your perspective of the Seattle art scene then and now?
JR: I’ve managed to make my living as an artist if we count the Bumbershoot job, which I got because I was a poet and was involved in all the poetry circles and knew everybody at the time, which I don’t anymore because I am out of the loop. But now I am an elder and I get to be.
What we did at Bumbershoot during the time I was there is we made a scene-we made something. We were influencing each other and we were sparking off of each other’s art-the visual artists and the poets and all the theatre people. People who were working on that level-we were sparking off of each other. I think there was something important happening at that time in Seattle that was pretty wonderful and Bumbershoot was definitely a matrix of it, which was pretty cool to be there and be doing that. Other things happen and other times and it’s probably… see I don’t know what it is now, but I’m sure young artists are sparking off of each other in the same way now, but I can’t speak to it. It’s a different festival than when I was there.
DP: I would imagine it is cyclical-just like everything else in this world.
JR: Absolutely! The time for what we were doing was probably cyclically over with and a new thing happened. And a new thing and a different place-not Bumbershoot but a different place here, there or whichever venue it is happening at in Seattle or around. Things change and that’s good-that’s the nature of it. Things flourish and then change!
DP: What is the first experience that comes to your mind of the Seattle art scene back in the day?
JR: Going to the then…the Red Sky poetry theatre and learning about that and hearing people read poetry alive and seeing these people around and realizing that I’m doing that too. That was pretty heady in those days and that was early 80’s…very early 80’s…maybe late 70’s.
DP: Do you think it was easier or harder to tap into making a living as an artist back then compared to now?
JR: I don’t know. It depends on exactly on where you are. Nobody ever makes a living on just doing poetry-or at least at this level. I didn’t- I worked at Bumbershoot. But, I got the job because I was a poet involved in the scene here. But, visual artists who get grants can make a living. The other thing is there was the Artist in Residence and you could make a living by teaching. However, everything I have done has been art related. I have teaching credentials, but the teaching was also art related. There are less Artist in Residence gigs. I don’t know if there are fewer grants. So, I think it may be harder now. The Artist in Residence gigs was really great for people and for artists of all genres.
DP: How would you summarize what you represent you are doing with your art?
JR: My basic thing is that poetry is approaching the holy and it’s a translation of the sacred and it says the unsayable. It’s an impossible task you take on saying the unsayable. To approach those feelings of sacred and try to bring them into language, but that’s the project of poetry.
Poems © Judith Roche
Story and Variations
Did I leave him for a Classics professor
from Chapel Hill or did he leave me for a Plain
Jane of a girl? Wind-chill became a factor.
There were children involved. The Classics professor
lasted about a minute. The plain girl pined
at the window a long time. He flew to the wild blue.
We continued to pass children back and forth. I found
a man with a rose between his teeth. Classic. But he
didn’t know the Classics. I left the man with the rose
after our tango frazzled, my slit skirt crumpled,
classically. The man with the rose tangoed himself
to a tangle of fatal temptations. But my pilot
and I remained snarled in a skein of tangled strands.
In time he left the girl who pined and flew
ever higher until even the children didn’t ground him.
We kept missing each other at assigned assignations.
Georgian Bay, lichens living on rock–how could they be
nourished? Puerto Rico, paella in the café and tears flourished.
Ocean beaches where we walked so far we lost our car.
A motorcycle trip of wind and rain, dangerous. Rain
hits your face like little pellets of shot at 60 mph. We learned
to lean into the turns, then forgot. The girl who pined
at the window ended up alone.
And so did he, flying solo. Then sick. Oh sick.
Grounded so solidly, slipping away in increments,
urgent and painful decline
then gone. Connection severed, but somehow
still twisted in knotted lines of entanglement.
The children grew the best they could, considering.
We should have plotted out the story
before we passed through. We should
have watched where we were going.
Fishtown, Lower Skagit
from a long canoe with 18 paddlers
“Language burned in us. We were wild with ideas… “ Bob Rose
Water rocks under us.
Water pours over us from a slate sky.
Water collects in the bottom of the boat,
drips off our hat brims, soaks through clothes.
Purple larkspur shows vivid against rain-blackened
rock faces. Columbine in niches clings in shallow soil,
saxifrage shines white on succulent stems.
A red tail hawk drifts above, looking for dinner.
We rock in the river’s current, “Paddles ready,”
then “all paddles ahead,” and “Paddles rest,”
shouted from the back of the boat. A mean
wind arrives from the south. We’re pilgrims searching
the ghost of Fishtown hovering in this Skagit
rain, but most shacks have been torn down,
the land logged, leaving bare bones, or nothing but low greenery .
The hopeful artists and scholars of the estuary
scattered, mostly still around the valley, still making art.
all in our sixties and seventies now.
Some have passed, a life lived for art –as ephemeral as a dance–
but many leave a trail of poems and paintings behind.
None can leave behind the life lived on the Skagit,
the youthful hope and dedication. The river
moves and changes. Shacks, landmarks and channels gone.
But Rivers have memories, says Bob Rose. Restless, they adjust
in their beds. Robert Sund is gone but his tight little cabin
is a refuge from the rain today. We huddle inside
and crowd around the wood stove, drink tea and listen
to Tim McNulty read Sund’s poems of this place. Water,
water, herons, rain, swallows, mud, and rain again.
Even a former resident of Fishtown can’t find
what was there. The river has changed channels
and Fishtown has become a state of mind.
(published in Windfall, 2013)