Tacoma Poet Laureate Lydia K. Valentine says 'this is my town'
Updated: May 2, 2022
Photo by Mark White, Dignity City
Lydia K. Valentine directs a rehearsal for the upcoming production of “Luck of the Irish”
LYDIA K. VALENTINE
Tacoma’s Lydia K. Valentine is an educator, playwright and poet originally from Alquippa, Pennsylvania, whose poetry gives a shout-out to the marginalized people in Tacoma. Her work has appeared Angels Flight, Literary West, the Pitkin Review, Shout! An Anthology of Resistance Poetry and Short Fiction and HowlRound.
By Michelle Matlock
Dignity City arts contributor
So tell me a little bit about how you got the Poet Laureate, like the process. How long have you been Poet Laureate? Give me a little background.
So, it's not a long story; but I'll start a little ways back. I took the year, 2016-2017, off from teaching to be a full-time student and mom, and I had decided to — if I was going to do this writing thing — I really needed to give it a shot. And so I enrolled in an MFA program at Goddard College. And even though I chose playwriting, I was continually sending out poetry because I'm a poet.
And the reason I chose playwriting, [is initially] I wanted to do graphic-novel writing because I'm a huge Blerd [Black nerd], and loved comics. But that teacher was in Vermont, and so dramatic writing is, scriptwriting is close. And I really wanted direct instruction on something I hadn't done before, whereas I had been writing poetry for a long time, but not really ever sending it out.
And so I started sending things out, and that year I applied for Poet Laureate of Tacoma and didn't get it, and it's a two-year cycle. So, the next time it came around in 2019, I applied again, and I didn't get it, and I said I wasn't going to try again; I just wasn't. I didn't want to do that to myself again, but friends and family kept encouraging me to try it again, and so I did, and I was very happy to receive the honor.
I came into the role in April 2021, and I go out in April 2023. So I still have a bit of time. And it's been very exciting; I mean, over those years from 2017 to 2021, my writing did improve, my culture writing improved significantly, I think. Because, and a lot of it was committing the time to sit down and write, and write, and submit, and submit and get feedback — those types of things.
Cool. So, with that position as Poet Laureate of Tacoma, did you have a theme or mission, or something that you wanted to achieve?
Yes, so there's a whole application process, and I'm going to pull up my applications because my memory is not the best memory in the world. But there's a whole application process in which you indicate some things that you are interested in doing to promote literary arts in your city.
We were in the midst of COVID, not quite where we are now, but we were still heavily quarantined during the application process. I wanted to do more things to bring people together, and I also thought about it in terms of being able to do more outreach because even though Zoom can be tiresome, it also can reach people that would never come to a reading or a workshop in person.
So, that was pretty cool to think about. And then also I was thinking a lot about the businesses that had taken a hit from COVID and maybe doing some things that would benefit some smaller organizations that do arts. Things like Write 253.
But using this office to kind of promote their events was something that is really important to me. I've done some work with Eastside Community Center, and I love doing work with grassroots organizations that are doing good work for youths. Something that I really do want to do is to partner with another city, one of our sister cities [through] the sister city program.
And do a writing exchange with youth and young adults from our city, and youths and young adults from one of our sister cities, or maybe a couple of sister cities. And a big dream is to put together an anthology that could maybe fund a trip when the world opens up to get the two groups together. That would be pretty fantastic.
One of the other former poet laureates, Kellie Richardson said, “You shoot for the moon in the application. Do not feel like you are obligated to do all of the things that you talked about.”
Another thing that I really wanted to do was, my mom passed away of breast cancer and we spent a lot of time with her and her team when she was going through chemo. Chemo was like a long day.
They had a knitting group, and people would come in and just knit and chat. I really wanted to do some type of writing workshop with people while they were in chemo, to be able to get those ideas and thoughts down, to take their mind off of what can sometimes be very boring, sometimes painful, sometimes sad.
To have a group of people that came together to do writing every week. You grow a community, and it gives you something to look forward to. I think that it's so important for them, for people who are really ill to write.Writing is healing. But also it gives you something that people have of you, even if something bad were to happen.
So, I haven't given up on that. With COVID protocols, that's a group that is very immunocompromised. So it's not possible for me to get in there, and the setting up of Zoom, it just kind of requires a lot more hoops to jump through. But, I still have that on my list of things to do.
I was going to ask you since you got this office in 2021, in the middle of this COVID, how challenging has that been? Has there been anything that happened in spite of COVID with the position?
Right. Well, it was really cool: The passing the torch event, we were on Zoom, and we were able to have all of the previous Tacoma Poet Laureates speak to me, do a reading, … so that was really fantastic.
But my very first in-person reading as the Tacoma Poet Laureate was this summer at a pride event, and even though I'm a homebody — I'm autistic — I very much like to stay in my house. It was so wonderful to have the energy of interacting with people, and for it to be that event: the Love Wins event [A July 2021 family centered celebration of the Tacoma LGBTQ community].
Yes. I was like is she talking about the event?
I was so excited, and it was almost like really taking on the role. Like being there with people and with community, it just felt so much like, “Oh now, I'm the poet laureate.” Even though I have been doing things for months, being able to connect and celebrate in community was just awesome.
And the piece that I wrote for that — it was fun. I think it was meant to be inspiring. And I think it was. But it was also funny. It was a little snarky. And when I talked about people saying “thank you” for others holding the door for you. I don't know why that is a thing here in Tacoma. Just say “thank you.”
But yes, so that was really special to me. And there was another. Just last week — just this past Friday, actually — I have a couple of poems and an anthology that came out from Blue Cactus Press. It's called, “We Need A Reckoning.” And we had a reading at a Seattle Town Hall. And again, I had friends and family watching through Zoom because it was live and recorded — I mean live and streamed.
And I had friends texting me saying, “You look so dynamic, you're doing such a dynamic job like you look like you're in your element.” And public speaking and performance, that is something that is not in my wheelhouse. Laurie, my sister, is an actor, and she just did this amazing two-person show in Lakewood, and I get tongue-tied and nervous. But a friend of mine said about six months ago, when I was nervous about doing a reading, he said, "You're a teacher, treat it like teaching.” And I was like, "Oh, I hadn't thought about that.” But, stepping into my teacher role, I don't get nervous at that.
So, ever since he said that, that has really helped. And again, getting the energy back from not only the crowd, but the other wonderful women that were there reading as well… Because it's an anthology by women and non-binary people from the Tacoma area. And so reppin' our town, our city in Seattle, was so much fun.
I missed that. I bought the ticket to go be there, and then I couldn't be there. I couldn't even get online.
I actually sent a message to my sister saying how much I was missing having them there, and they responded back, "We're trying to log in, but we haven’t.” And so I had to go out and get the link, and a lot of people were saying that they had a lot of trouble, unfortunately. Thankfully, it is recorded and available on the Town Hall YouTube. I'm going to get a link and put it on my website as well.
So do you feel like there's a movement happening, with women? I mean, there's always amazing women writers and both, but I just feel like here in our city, there seems to be this movement? How do you feel like it's affecting visibility, DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion], all the stuff that came out of 2020? How are you feeling about that with all the things you're doing?
Right. I do feel like women, and BIPOC and/or global majority people is who we are. Like global majority people, we are not waiting anymore. I also feel like people have always made our way, right?
And we've always figured it out, and we've always tried to be part of other organizations and get our name out there. Now, it's like we're getting our name out there among ourselves and doing what we need to do, what we want to do, without waiting. Just knowing that the audience will come or the people who need this will hear it — we'll find it in some way.
I think social media definitely helps us to connect and to make things happen. Also, I said this at the reading: We're always looking — global majority people in the Pacific Northwest — where there are a lot of predominantly white institutions that we are involved with, we're always looking for one another. And some of that is going away because of ability to connect to say, “You know what? Let's make our own organization with this. How can we do this?”
Some of that, I think, is having a little bit more undesignated time when we weren't all shuffling with commutes and getting kids back and forth and those types of things. It made us say, "OK, we're in a pandemic. What's important to me, and how can I, regardless of this, take a big chunk out of my finances and time in a different way?" But this is so important that I have to do it. To live now, I have to do this one thing, and so people are coming together with that.
I have two more questions, one just spin-off what you just said. One is, Lydia K Valentine what is important to you?
Peace. When my mind is all over the place, I know I haven't written enough, and I need to write. Writing is definitely a way to connect with myself. To make sense of things. To question things. To see things in a different way. I feel like people are standing in their truth in a different way. We've been talking about intersectionality, right? But, now people are being really vulnerable. I found out late in my life that I'm autistic. It was like, “Oh my gosh, of course, that makes sense.” So I'm able, I say, “Hey, you might experience me in this way, and it's because I'm autistic.” So people aren't seeing me through their lens, and that would be the entire wrong lens to look through to experience who I am, or to know me.
So anyway, peace is important. Being my authentic self without apology is important, and I don't know any other way to be.
When I moved out here in 2004, my sisters — we all moved out here — we looked at a map to see where we were willing to live or would like to live. My two sisters moved out here. My brother moved out here; it's been a year now, since he, the youngest of us, moved here.
Our other two brothers — one is in Germany and has been there for decades — he's not coming back to the states. And the other has a large family that's grounded in our hometown, so he's set there.
What's your hometown?
Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. It is about 35 minutes north of Pittsburgh. A former steel mill town. There's a documentary coming out called, "The Quips.” Our football team is the Quips. Red and black. That's my team forever. The Quips have had a lot of people in the NFL.
Football was very much seen as a way out, a way to get education, be able to go to college. And actually, my first play that I wrote when I was in grad school, it's called “Aliquippa,” and it's about a family that lives in Aliquippa.
Great. So you made me throw another one in there.
So what was it about Tacoma that attracted you all? Then twofold: What do you love about Tacoma now that you've lived here for a few years?
So, I have a sun allergy, it developed when I was 10 years old, and we couldn't figure out what was going on with me. I'd just be head-to-toe hives and dizzy and sick. I was a cheerleader. Again, football is huge — so cheerleading is also huge.
My mom was like, “Did you get into something, walking [to] practice?”
This was a time in like the ’80s and swatch watches, those ginormous ones … but one day, I was broken out, and I was getting ready. My mom's like, “Just get in a cold shower to try to cool your skin down.” And I took off the watch, and that skin was normal. And my mom had been putting it together and she's like, “It's the sun!"
So, I have always known that Pacific Northwest, with its gray days, would be a good place to live; but, the other thing that I was looking for, or that made me want to be here [is] it’s not just the amount of rain and gray days, but also the fact that when it does rain, it doesn't stop life here. People still hike. They still play with the dogs. Whereas, the rain is heavy and hard when it comes down in Pennsylvania, and so that would stop the day.
But the other thing that, as adults, we were looking at is the demographics are fairly similar to the Pittsburgh area. It is the gritty city, which is very true of Pittsburgh and definitely our Aliquippa. So we felt a kinship to everything that we were reading and researching, finding out.
My older sister, Lynette, worked in development and advertising, so she could work any place where they had a market, and so I started interviewing. And when the school that I ended up working at for 12 years, Charles Wright Academy, when they flew me out for the interview, they also flew my daughter out, who was getting ready to be going into first grade.
That said a lot to me about family. Family was important to them, and that's what we were looking for: A place where family was really important and people understood and supported you in your endeavors as a family. And then, what keeps us here? I mean, it's funny. I work in Seattle now, and people ask me if I'm going to move there, and I'm like, “No.”
There's nothing wrong — no shade to Seattle, for sure. But I am a Tacoma girl. Like I vibe with Tacoma. My kids were raised in Tacoma. I moved here on purpose. This is my town. I've made connections to this town through various organizations, through church, through just meeting people in the market and getting to be friends with them.
And when people say Tacoma is on the come up, and there are people who move down here for its affordability — or up from California — I love that people are appreciating Tacoma. I wasn't born and raised here, but I think that when people want to come here to be able to afford to live and have their business with a cheaper rent.
Some of the shifts and changes are difficult. But, as a person who feels like this is my home, I feel like there are those of us who are working really hard to keep it affordable. My daughter is really worried. She's graduated college and came back, and she was like, “Mom, I don't think I can afford to live in Tacoma.”
And her entire college career, she's just like coming back to Tacoma, blah blah blah, and it's really sad to think that she feels like she won't be able to make a home here because she just can't afford it. Even though this is where she always imagined she would sit.
Yes, that is crazy. Well, thank you for that. So my final question: What’s next? I mean, like, what's the next for you as the poet laureate? And in anything that you want the readers to know that I didn't ask you?
Wow. That is a great question. Well, I'm directing a show. I'm involved with two shows that are going to be at the end of Tacoma Little Theatre's season. I'm the dramaturg, and assistant director for “The Happiest Song Plays Last," which opens in April.
And then the play that I'm directing is called “Luck of The Irish,” opens in June. It actually runs June 3 through 19, and it's really cool that the last performance is on Juneteenth. So we're going to have a celebration at the end of that. This will be my first time directing on my own, in person; I've done some things over Zoom. I love being a dramaturg and assistant director, but I'm really excited about this next play that I got to pick.
It is by a playwright named Kirsten Greenidge, and the play investigates race, class, family, gender dynamics in the United States. And so often, even plays that have us in mind, and that are written by global majority people, can still have that feeling of, “This is an issue play, right?”
And this is a play that investigates issues of race and class, but the Black people aren't the downtrodden people; they're the wealthy family. So it looks at class with lens that we don't often get to see. And it also demonstrates some, as always, as we know, we're people that go through the same issues and problems that everybody else does. So, I really like this play for those reasons.
And that's going up in June, you said?
It's going up in June. [If] you’re an actor or a theater professional, reach out; we might still have some things that we're looking for.
And then in terms of writing, just doing more events. The city of Tacoma has a Poet Laureate page, and they do a really great job of posting things when I remember to send them things that I'm doing. My website, I'm not so great about it, my Instagram, [@LyderaryInk] I’m really great at posting things.
Nice. You got a lot going on.
Yes, a lot going on, but I love it.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.