Women’s History Month Poetry Extravaganza features WA state poet laureate

Local poets create crown of sonnets to celebrate women of the valley


Jordyn Rossmeisl

Nan Doolittle wrote her sonnet about Ethel Craven-Sweet’s mother.

Jordyn Rossmeisl, Staff Reporter

The chilly evening air spilled into the packed gallery, mixing with the palpable excitement of people chatting over the lively piano while weaving through the crowd to grab a glass of wine or admire some art for the First Friday Art Walk. The energetic crowd gathered around the staircase to admire a different kind of art, one woven of words. 

The Ellensburg Arts Commission and the Ellensburg Poet Laureate Marie Marchand hosted the Poetry Extravaganza event in the Gallery One Visual Arts Center to celebrate Women’s History Month on March 3.

The event began with a land acknowledgment statement by Marchand and an opening reading by Washington State Poet Laureate Rena Priest from her book Patriarchy Blues, including a poem about what nail polish shade matches best with patriarchal oppression. 

Priest encouraged young artists, and said: “Any kind of art is the expression of our humanity, and being human is messy and hard and not always pretty, and so what makes it to the canvas or what makes it to the page and then finds its way out into the public is a blessing for whoever you share that with, no matter what. So don’t be hard on yourself, and just keep doing it and find joy in it.”

Following Priest’s opening, seven local and regional poets presented a crown of sonnets titled “She Lives On” in honor of eight historical women of the Kittitas Valley. A crown of sonnets typically features seven different poets, and each sonnet’s last line is the same or similar to the next sonnet’s first line, and the last sonnet’s last line is the first sonnet’s first line, so they all link together. Following the performance of the crown, local poets read some of their original work.

The focus of the event started as a small idea to celebrate women at a brainstorming session four months ago between three local writers: Jampa Dorje, The Observer Lead Editor Katherine Camarata and the first Poet Laureate of Ellensburg, Marchand. 

“As we started talking more and brainstorming more, these amazing ideas came up to write poems honoring the women of the past, from the Kittitas Valley,” Marchand said. 

Although it started off small, Marchand said the idea quickly picked up speed, and another local poet, Joanna Thomas, proposed the idea for a crown of sonnets. 

“It is a great metaphor for connection and things being intertwined,” Marchand said.

According to Marchand, the whole event was about creating connections; connecting our past and present by having the women of today honor the women of our past, and connecting the downtown community with the university.

Nan Doolittle, director of the local nonprofit Northwest Expressive Arts Response, suggested the readers make physical crowns to present to the descendants of the historical women to whom the sonnets were dedicated. 

The seven poets each researched the significant woman they chose to honor with their sonnets, read in this order: The Observer Lead Editor Katherine Camarata for Ida Nason Aronica, Sarita Dasgupta for Donna Nylander, Nan Doolittle for Ethel Craven, Cory Eberhart for Rachel Page, Marie Marchand for Irene Rinehart, Katherine Whitcomb for Sarah Spurgeon and Maya Jewell Zeller for the Olmstead sisters, Leta May and Clareta Olmstead Smith. The poets collaborated on writing and tracking down the descendants of their chosen women.

“The seven poets chose the one woman they were wanting to write about because that woman spoke to them and inspired them,” Marchand said. “For me, Irene Rinehart really inspires me and the more I learned about her, the more I was inspired. I am an anti-nuclear activist and that was part of what she did on the city council during her sixteen-year run. And then Sarita, another poet, wrote about Donna Nylander, and they both wrote plays for children. So they were connected in that way.”

Local women read a crown of sonnets featuring historical women of the valley. (Jordyn Rossmeisl)

Marchand highlighted the similarities between the modern women who read poetry at the event and the women of the past who were honored. 

“We are trailblazers too, and maybe we won’t realize it for 80 years or 100 years from now, the trail that we are blazing, because we still live in a society that is misogynistic,” Marchand said. “Women make approximately 86 cents for every dollar that a man makes. So we have a lot of change to still make.”

One of the descendants who attended the event, Ethel Craven-Sweet, the daughter of Ethel Craven (to whom Nan Dolittle dedicated her sonnet), came all the way from Auburn on a bus to attend the event. 

“It’s wonderful and refreshing that they are honoring poetry now, and I love poetry,”  Craven-Sweet said. “My mother had 13 children. She had nine straight girls, and I am the ninth and last girl, so she named me after her.” 

According to Craven-Sweet, her mother would have loved the event. 

“Oh mama is smiling from heaven, mama is smiling,” Craven-Sweet said. “She didn’t get to finish high school or anything, but she made sure we got some school and she said how important it was, and I encouraged all my sons to do the same thing. My mother was a very tough woman. Very tough. She taught us to work hard because she didn’t want to see us going astray.” 

CWU senior and English major Anna Baldwin was moved to tears by some of the poetry. 

“I cried a lot,” Baldwin said. “I really loved it. It made me feel really good about being a woman. I wish we had more. I feel like in my life, as a woman, I have not felt appreciated enough for just being a female and I have a large inferiority complex really related to that. And so, being uplifted as a woman is really, really important.”