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Originally published Saturday, July 16, 2011 at 7:02 PM

Poetry Northwest journal revived at Everett Community College

Poetry journal founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carolyn Kizer is back in the Northwest, where it belongs.

Seattle Times book editor

On the Internet

Poetry Northwest: www.poetrynorthwest.org.

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Poet Carolyn Kizer has led an extraordinary life. She won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for her poetry volume, "Yin." She was the first director of literature programs at the National Endowment for the Arts. A translator of Urdu, Chinese and Japanese poetry, she taught poetry at a series of prestigious institutions: the University of Iowa, Washington University, Stanford University.

She isn't writing poetry now; at 86, her health is frail, says her son-in-law David Rigsbee. But recently Kizer was presented with a gift that represented a resurrection of sorts: the latest issue of Poetry Northwest, the poetry journal she co-founded in 1959.

The revival of Poetry Northwest is the latest reincarnation of a journal that put the Pacific Northwest on the map of the poetry planet. After a tumultuous tenure at the University of Washington, suspension of publication for three years and a move to Portland, Poetry Northwest is back in the Puget Sound area, with offices at Everett Community College.

Kevin Craft, a poet and Everett Community College professor, engineered its return. "The idea of being involved in such a long literary tradition was irresistible," said Craft. The latest issue is a tribute to Kizer's work. As a woman poet of the mid-20th century, "she was overlooked. She struggled so much, even in a group that recognized her talents," said Craft.

Born and raised in Spokane, Kizer studied under Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington in the 1950s; other Roethke students of that era included poets Jack Gilbert, Richard Hugo and David Wagoner (the tart-tongued Kizer once called her fellow male poets "a nest of singing chauvinists.") Divorced from Stimson Bullitt, mother of three children, Kizer wrote poems that were brilliant formal compositions, but their intimate knowledge of a woman's predicament blazed through. Portions of her poem "Pro Femina" crystallized feminist discontent:

Knitting booties and brows, tartars or termagants, ancient

Fertility symbols, chained to our cycle, released

Only in part by devices of hygiene and personal daintiness,

Strapped into our girdles, held down, yet uplifted by man's

Ingenious constructions, holding coiffures in a breeze... ,

... Our masks, always in peril of smearing or cracking,

In need of continuous check in the mirror or silverware,

Keep us in thrall to ourselves, concerned with our surfaces.

Her reputation as a poet widened, but she continued editing Poetry Northwest until 1965, when she left to take the NEA job. She turned the reins over to University of Washington English professor David Wagoner.

Wagoner would edit Poetry Northwest for 36 years. It achieved a national reputation — according to a 2002 Seattle Post-Intelligencer story by PI book critic John Marshall, it fielded 15,000 annual submissions. It published Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Dillard, Raymond Carver, Ted Kooser, James Dickey, Robert Pinsky, Richard Wilbur, Wendell Berry, Charles Baxter, Mary Oliver, Edward Hirsch, Jorie Graham, Michael Harper and Mark Strand. The journal was supported by the University of Washington College of Arts & Sciences, but it ran annual deficits in the thousands of dollars.

Eventually the university balked at underwriting it and tried to get Wagoner and his supporters to pursue a more sustainable financial structure, Craft says. Those efforts were unsuccessful and in 2002, after 43 years of continuous publication, the journal shut down.

But in 2005, Poetry Northwest was revived — by moving to Portland. The Attic Writer's Workshop (now the Attic Institute) agreed to publish it — editor David Biespiel mixed poetry and prose; added reviews, essays, and special issues, as in an issue where poets wrote about music."I asked the guy who wrote the screenplay for 'Walk the Line' to write about Johnny Cash's voice. We did interviews with artists who weren't poets" — Seattle photographer Jock Sturgess, Seattle conceptual artist Trimpin.

All along, Biespiel hoped to hand it off to someone — that someone turned out to be Craft, whom Biespiel had known when they were both at the University of Maryland. Craft, chair of the English department at the community college, approached his dean about underwriting the magazine — the college agreed, providing it with an office space and making its editorship part of Craft's job. "The college thought it would be a natural fit," said Craft. For students with majors such as written arts, photography, graphic arts or fine arts working on the magazine is a "capstone experience," he said.

Craft has published three issues. The magazine has a dignified literary design, but it parts company with the original in that it publishes works of prose as well as poetry. It claims 700 subscribers, 600 copies in newsstand sales and 6,000 monthly web hits (www.poetrynorthwest.org).

The latest tribute to Kizer has her portrait on the cover. There are appreciations of her work. There's a 1959 letter written by Kizer to Theodore Roethke during his stay in a Seattle sanitarium. It's vivid, witty and insightful: She recounts her conversation with Richard Hugo about the uses of self-contempt in writing poetry, and passes on gossip about a colleague who has remarried — for the fifth time.

And there's a previously unpublished Kizer poem, "Jill's Toes." The Jill in the poem, one of Kizer's children, is Rigsbee's wife, the painter Jill Bullitt. They found it, printed in typescript, while going through Kizer's papers. Last month they showed Kizer a copy of the tribute edition. She suffers some symptoms of dementia; they watched her "pore over the issue," Rigsbee wrote in an email. "Jill asked her if it felt funny to see herself referred to in the third person so much. She didn't answer, but seemed engrossed in the issue."

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com.

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