Our August Poet in Residence, Edward Harkness, found his way to poetry the way so many poets did: a high school English teacher led the way. The teacher introduced Harkness to the work of Emily Dickinson and, most importantly, the poem ("Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell,, which inspired "an immediate visceral reaction" in him.
Harkness has lived in the Seattle area for his whole life, and he considers himself very much a part of "Seattle tradition of literature." He writes beautifully about the region in his work, of course, and he participates in the literary community as a reader. But Harkness has an even more direct tie to the region's history of literature. "My mentor was Richard Hugo," he says. You can't get much more into the Seattle literary scene than learning at the feet of the Hugo House's namesake.
In fact, Harkness's biography is basically made up of a who's who of Northwestern poetry history. He attended the University of Washington "right after the death of Theodore Roethke, and his ghost was everywhere around the campus," and he attended one of Tess Gallagher's very first public poetry readings. It was no less a talent than Madeline DeFrees who saw something in Harkness and encouraged him to go to University of Montana to study under Hugo.
Hugo's tutelage was "the game changer for me," Harkness says. He'd loved poetry for years, but Hugo in performance was the thing that pushed Harkness toward the idea of poetry as a vocation. "I'll never forget hearing [Hugo]. I'd never heard a voice like that, and it just boomed out of him — it was kind of scary how powerful his voice was. And I just said, 'okay, that's what I want to do.'"
One name that Harkness believes doesn't get enough attention in Northwest poetry history is Nelson Bentley, a poet who was one of Roethke's contemporaries and who lived, by Harkness's estimation, "in Roethke's shadow." Bentley was "a very fine poet and an incredible teacher — students just worshipped him. He was genial and approachable and never, ever threatening or intimidating, in the way that I think Roethke could be."
As a teacher at Shoreline Community College, Harkness inspired a whole new generation of regional poets. "I think I've done my best" to pass on the lineage of Hugo, he says. But Harkness isn't slavishly devoted to past masters. He brings his own elements to poetry: "I am much more narrative driven" than most Northwest poets, he says. "I tend to be conversational. I think I learned something about humor from de Frees."
And maybe most of all, Harkness says, "I see myself as being a more political, in my work." He has written poems that directly address his own white privilege, which is certainly not something you can find in Hugo or Roethke's work. So what makes a good political poem? "It has to be nuanced, maybe. Nuance and subtlety and suggestibility are all necessary."
Harkness is now hard at work on composing a "new and selected" collection of his poetry. "I'm barely starting on it," he says, "going through my three books and putting them together with a sampling of new stuff." Now that he's learned from the Mount Rushmore of Northwestern poetry, it's time for Harkness to carve out his own place in Seattle's story.