Our March Poet in Residence, Martha Silano, can recall the exact moment that she fell in love with poetry. "When I was seven," she explains, "I had an amazing second-grade teacher who read us a poem from Robert Louis Stevenson and a Poe poem."
But what happened next was the real strike of thunder. "And then when she read Emily Dickinson, it was sort of like the one-two punch. It was just a short poem — 'the rose is out of town' — but I was just absolutely enthralled."
From then on, Silano knew that poetry would be important to her. When she was nine, she recalls, "I told my mother I really needed a notebook," and that began a long history of cramming journals full of writing.
In ninth grade, Silano's appreciation saw a evolutionary leap forward when another beloved teacher insisted that her class go to see Robert Bly read when he was in town. This was her first time seeing a poet read their own work, and it resonated deeply with her: "it was the seventies and he was putting on masks and talking out against the Vietnam War. And I came home just all jazzed up." Bly's reading crystallized something in her: "I want to be a rebel," she realized that night: "I want to be a poet."
Silano went to school in Iowa and the University of Oregon, but she eventually wound up in the MFA program at the University of Washington. On her first night in Seattle, she almost attended a show from a popular new local band called Nirvana.
Since then, Seattle has been her home. "I never left," she says. So does Silano think of herself as a Seattle poet? "Not many of my poems are about Seattle," she demurs. "There was a special Seattle Magazine contest to write a poem about Seattle and I couldn't do it. I love living here, but I don't write poems about Mount Rainier."
Of course, Silano has a direct lineage that can be traced through the tradition of modern Seattle poetry. At UW, she studied under Theodore Roethke's most famous student, David Wagoner. Almost immediately, Wagoner started pulling one of her poems apart. "he said to me at the very beginning, 'if you would just figure out the music, the rhythm, the metrics, all your problems will be solved.' I went home and wrote my first sonnet because I was determined to show him I could get a handle on the metrics."
"I will always say David Wagoner was the teacher who changed everything. He rearranged my brain," Silano says, laughing that even though she's "such a feminist," she's so closely aligned in her educational history with white men — "the patriarchy." To clarify, she adds, "Heather McHugh was there, too and she was really, really important. And Linda Bierds was there, and she was important, too. I mean, I got the trifecta."
A lot of poets know how to kick off a poem with a memorable first line. But Silano's poems stand apart from the crowd because she is fantastic at writing a grabby last line — the kind of closing that leaves the reader with wind whistling in her ears. "I am never ever sure how the poem is going to end" when it begins, Silano says. "There are poems where I have worked on the ending for years, and there are ones where I get them fast — a total trance situation."
"It was Molly Tenenbaum who taught me how to tiptoe out of a poem," Silano clarifies. Tenenbaum, who was in a writing group with Silano for years, taught her that "you didn't have to put a big bow on it. My bows were just too big, and then I got more brave. I unlearned the big-bow ending." Silano has been in poetry writing and writing generation groups with some of the biggest names in Seattle poetry: Kary Wayson, Rebecca Hoogs, Kelli Russell Agodon, Erin Malone. Each of these poets has taught Silano something important about craft, and added to her experience in the Seattle poetry tradition.
It's that brilliant collection of Seattle poets who taught Silano how to expand her poetry horizons and experiment with form. She has written sonnets and pantoums. She notes with pride that she recently perfected a ghazal. "I'm following where the poem leads me," she says. "When I start to write a poem, I have to be prepared that it might not want to be free verse." And then, after a thoughtful pause, Silano adds, "but what a relief when it wants to be free verse!"