Poet. Teacher. Mother. Community activist. Tacoma’s new Poet Laureate, Abby E. Murray, is a dynamic presence, a fierce poet, and above all, unafraid to stand up for what she believes in and ask people to look hard at the world around us.
When you think of the term “poet,” you might think of someone tucked away in an ivory tower, totally detached from the real world. But the role of Poet Laureate actually celebrates this vital art form by bringing an established local poet into our community to share the expressive power of words through readings, workshops and other on-the-ground projects. Founded in 2011, the Poet Laureate program is now run by the City of Tacoma, and allows each poet to stamp their unique mark on the program over the course of two years. Outgoing Poet Laureate Kellie Richardson used the role to empower Tacoma residents of all ages, and Murray will no doubt follow suit.
Abby currently teaches creative writing at School of the Arts (SOTA), Tacoma’s first public magnet high school. She also teaches military/academic argumentation writing for military personnel on fellowship to the University of Washington from the Army War College. And she volunteers to teach poetry at the Selma Carson Home, working with undocumented boys ages 12-17 who have been detained and are going through immigration proceedings. Across language, literacy, trauma and other issues, her hope by offering writing workshops is to offer some sense of voice to detained teenagers who are literally silenced right here in our area. Sometimes they share a happy memory of home and get to express themselves in writing when it seems no one is listening or cares, giving them hope for another day amidst uncertain futures.
“This work has changed me as a person,” Murray says. “Not just how it hit me emotionally, but feeling the need to do something about it.”
She says she feels poetry has the power to open up spaces that ordinary language can’t always get at in helping people express a truth of their life.
Murray brings her more than 10 years of teaching background and a notable list of publications to the table. So far, she has taught poetry at community colleges and universities in Colorado, Georgia, New York and Washington. She earned a master’s degree in poetry from Pacific University and her Ph.D. from Binghamton University. She has published several chapbooks of poems, including How to Be Married After Iraq and her most recent full-length collection, the prize-winning Hail and Farewell, which will be released this fall. (Read samples of her recent poems here.)
Born in Puyallup, Abby lived all around the country with her husband Tom, who is active duty military, before they returned to Tacoma when he was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. As the wife of an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and the mother of a five-year-old, themes of reckoning with the impact of war figure heavily in her work, and she has done extensive teaching work with veterans. As Abby says, “Most of my poetry has been looking at the hard stuff.”
Abby also volunteers as the editor of the creative writing journal Collateral, a Northwest-based publication that shares creative writing by those whose lives have been impacted by violent conflict and military service “beyond the combat zone,” including the voices of spouses, family members and others whose voices are not always heard. She encourages writers with a story to share to submit to the journal.
While she is not afraid to look – and through her words, ask others to look – into some of the hardest issues facing our area, including PTSD for veterans and children’s detention, she also has a brightness of spirit and a slightly irreverent sense of humor in her approach to life. She has a generous smile and is incredibly down to earth. She makes a mean pumpkin muffin, loves her cats and goes jogging. “I write down the best part of my day, every day,” she says. “And when I get too anxious to write, I bake.”
What are some of her plans as the new Poet Laureate? She will be teaching open workshops around the community starting this summer. She has been working with the Tacoma Refugee Choir to set music to a poem. She will continue her work at Selma Carson and also hold workshops for trauma survivors on post. She also hopes to collaborate with the current Olympia Poet Laureate, Sady Sparks. And she is open to more opportunities that arise, providing new ways to connect poetry into the community.
When asked what she would most like to share about her work in the community, she says it’s that we all have the power to create a change in the world around us. “Making change goes beyond institutions…we can all affect change.” As she puts it in one of her poems, as a poet she “lights tiny fires” in the world around us: fires that illuminate and reflect back to us what we need to see.
So keep an eye out for Abby Murray at poetry events around Pierce County, as her passion, light-a-spark-in-you energy, and creativity help bring the words beyond the page. Learn more about the role of Tacoma Poet Laureate here and find Abby’s books here.