Native American writer

Elizabeth Woody, Oregon’s voice

The state's new poet laureate talks about writing, poverty, salmon, dams, race, family, and the keeping of a way of life

Elizabeth Woody walked into a Southeast Portland coffee shop two minutes behind me, just long enough for me to have snagged the only free table among a crowd of isolated laptop jockeys, and we sat down. She didn’t bother with coffee: she’d had a press of meetings and interviews since the day before, when her appointment to be Oregon’s eighth poet laureate was announced, and more coffee wasn’t in the cards. Plus, she was getting over a lingering bug.

She smiled, warmly, and we began to talk. About writing, and philanthropy, and poverty, and salmon, and dams, and racial violence, and friendships, and family. “I was brought up in a family that believes in public service,” she said at one point. “The house was always open to people from all over Oregon. People were always welcome.”

When word came from the Oregon Cultural Trust that Gov. Kate Brown had appointed Woody to succeed Peter Sears for a two-year term as poet laureate, I thought it seemed an inspired choice. I didn’t know her, though I knew several people who did, including her aunt, the artist Lillian Pitt. But I’d been familiar with her work for a long time, and knew her to be both a bridge-builder and a master of the difficult art of elevated plain speech, an approach to language that draws people in rather than shutting them out. Both traits seem key to the role of poet laureate, who is something of an ambassador-at-large for language, culture, and connection. They are qualities that helped Billy Collins, whose work is otherwise very different from Woody’s, become such a successful national poet laureate in the early 2000s.

Elizabeth Woody. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust.

Elizabeth Woody. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust.

Woody, who was born in the Navajo Nation town of Ganado, Arizona, and is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, is fifty-six years old, and she wears them well, like someone who’s made sure they fit. She’s one of those people who seem present. She embraces situations, concentrating directly on what and who are in front of her, and like a lot of writers she exudes both a comfort with new situations and a protective reserve: a desire to engage the world, and also a determination to safeguard her solitude. Her conversation rambles like a river, and the water’s clear.

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