“It is the lives of the poets that make me say I want to be myself, whatever that has to be, to write poems from my own life and imagination.”
—Laura Jensen, “Stars and Streetlights”
As a high school student, Laura Jensen worked at the McCormick branch of the Tacoma, Washington Public Library. For two years she handled basic administrative duties—shelving books, locating check-out records, and recording fines. At that time, it would have been absurd to think that this reserved Tacoma native would ever be called "one of our very best living poets," but Jensen’s life was just beginning its series of unpredictable twists. In an everyday moment that turned out to be momentous, Jensen shelved a book of poems by University of Washington professor David Wagoner. She was transfixed—not only was he a real live poet writing amazing poems, but he lived less than an hour away in Seattle. Soon after this revelation, Jensen packed her belongings into her mother's car and left home for the first time, traveling 40 miles north to Seattle, where she began her life's work as a poet.
Forty years and three highly regarded collections of poetry later, Jensen has invited me to visit her at the main branch of the Tacoma Public Library for a reading from In Tahoma’s Shadow, an anthology of poetry by Tacoma poets. The anthology includes one of Jensen’s new poems, a fact that might confound the contemporary poets and bloggers who have made her into a Salinger-like cult figure. After publishing her last collection, Shelter, in 1985, Jensen largely disappeared from the national poetry scene. Her work from that time still gets passed around from reader to reader like a secret recipe, but most people don't know she continues to write and publish. She does, just not how or where one might expect.
I walk into the utilitarian main room of the library and recognize Jensen immediately. Her hair’s a bit shorter, and she has bifocals now, but she looks very much like her author photos from the 1980s: pale and serious in a no-nonsense Scandinavian sort of way, her kind eyes seeming preoccupied with something off in the distance. She folds her paper, stands slowly, and asks, “Where would you like to go?”
When I first contacted Jensen about spending a day in Tacoma with her, she replied by e-mail: “Some good sense tells me the work I did in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s has transitioned into more. In those years I felt I was applying a lot of energy, and my way is different now.”
Jensen got an undergraduate English degree at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied with Wagoner, Mark Strand, and Galway Kinnell (Wagoner has since said of Jensen: “Whatever the literary ingredients may be, she has used them to make magical, permanent poems”). She then went on to the University of Iowa to study poetry at the Writers’ Workshop with Norman Dubie, Donald Justice, and Marvin Bell.
After she graduated, Jensen published two chapbooks, After I Have Voted and Anxiety and Ashes. Ecco Press published her first full-length book of poems, Bad Boats, in 1977 as part of the American Poetry Series. She also published the chapbook Tapwater (1978), and two more books, Memory (1982) and Shelter (1985). Since then, she’s published individual poems and essays in the Iowa Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry Northwest, among other places, but she has so far resisted the urge to return to the poetry fold in full. Carnegie Mellon reissued Memory in 2006, and in the introduction Kevin Prufer says, “Memory has been a lost book for too many years. It’s time it reached the audience it richly deserves.”
Jensen has been called a descendant of Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop. Her language is exact and quietly fierce. She weaves memories of childhood with visceral, everyday activities in a vivid present tense. She portrays the pain of mental illness and isolation in oblique ways, never veering into confessional territory. “Things are so beautiful,” she said in an interview. “I think that’s the impetus for my poems. . . . I see and I think it matters.”
She returned to Tacoma after receiving her MFA in 1974, and has been there ever since. She now lives eight blocks away from the library, near historic Wright Park, a 27-acre green space that’s been a fixture in downtown Tacoma since 1886. “In the 1970s there was low-income housing, so I saw that it was possible for me to keep working here,” she says. “The expense of housing has a big effect on what we see as possible.”
Jensen has moved from place to place throughout Tacoma, though never far from the neighborhood where she grew up. She has received some money for her books and poems, but has largely had to scrape by as best she can. Over the years she’s found various ways, whether through grants (from the NEA, the Washington State Arts Commission, and others), a Guggenheim fellowship, or stipends for speaking and teaching, to build a life for herself and her poetry in her hometown.
“I appreciate the beauty of nature and trees,” she says with some reserve as we walk through the children’s section of the library. “I’m happy in my way to be here.”
With about an hour to kill before the reading, Jensen and I explore the library’s various rooms. In the reference section we bump into Connie Walle, one of the poets from the anthology, who’s arrived a bit early and is sitting at one of the tables, reading. Walle and Jensen talk for a few minutes about the anthology. When I tell Walle that I’m writing about Jensen, she nods and says, “Laura has done a lot for the poetry down here.”
It’s one more indication that Jensen is a fixture of the community. She’s a subtle and private public figure, connecting to her neighborhood in a very urban way through reading groups at the library, the local farmers’ market, and lunchtime concerts at the First Lutheran Church.
For the next stop on the tour, Jensen offers to show me the Northwest Room and Special Collections. As we walk up the white marble staircase, she tells me this is part of the Carnegie section, the original part of the library, built in 1903.
She pulls a book off the shelf. It’s a collection of broadsides from the Distinguished Poets Series, a monthly series of readings she curated from 1993 to 1996. She turns to a page and shows me one of her sketches.
We stand under the copper-clad dome and talk about her Swedish grandmother. This room is where Jensen does her genealogical research and archiving (“a very peaceful experience,” she says).
Family history has been a key focus for Jensen for the past 20 years. In 1990, she received a grant to travel to Sweden, Denmark, and Finland to connect with relatives; while traveling, she kept a journal and sketchbook. She also transcribed 100 pages of audiocassettes that her dad left behind. In the mid-’90s she translated six dozen Swedish folk songs that had been performed by a choir her mother had directed in her younger years, then performed them around Tacoma using a Yamaha recorder.
“It has been important to me,” she says of this work. “It is a very different kind of pursuit from poetry, because poetry isn’t history. Family history isn’t history either, but poetry definitely isn’t history.”
When asked how her family research has affected her poetry, she talks about how it helped her become an avid computer user. She took a basic computer class in 2000 at Tacoma Community College because she wanted to be able to do genealogical research online. It was the first class she’d taken since Iowa.
“I went right from studying poetry as an undergraduate on to graduate school,” she says. “That had been my education.”
When the Tacoma Public Library put in a new computer lab, she bought one of their surplus computers, which had basic word processing software. She types prose poems at home in the morning, then walks or buses to the library in the afternoon to read her e-mail, check in with Facebook, and update her blog, Spice Drawer Mouse, which she started in March 2007.
“It’s something to perk me up,” she says. “Something interesting to do. It’s demanding in a way that’s different from other things.”
When asked how it’s demanding, she responds characteristically: “I don’t know. It’s mysterious.”
Learning to use a computer gave her a chance to connect with pro-transit organizations, Swedish and Finnish friends, relatives, cultural groups, and other poets. It’s also given her a means of publishing: she’s published several poems and essays online over the past few years, mostly at the Salt River Review.
As we are talking, she conveys a sense of not quite regret, but possibly disappointment, about how well she was educated to write poetry, and yet how little she was prepared for other aspects of living.
“At Iowa, people are deeply engaged in their work. Their attachment to their writing and work is very thick,” she says. “They are unaware of other things about reality.”
I ask her if she was like that when she was there.
“Yes,” she says. “The spirit there is consistent.”
Whenever I ask questions directly about her work, she changes the subject. I can’t tell if she doesn’t like to talk about poetry, or if I’m asking the wrong questions.
In our conversation, and as we continued to communicate over the next few weeks online, Jensen remained a bit mysterious, but she was consistently generous and kind. Her kindness is manifold—both in her writing online and in person.
Her demeanor is reserved, and she seems frail at times, which made it all the more surprising when, later, she started running past me down 12th Street, a steep hill, encouraging me to run along so I wouldn’t miss my bus.
When it comes time for the reading, we get situated in the large conference room in one of the library’s remotest sections. Jensen hands me a copy of the anthology so I can read along. Tacoma poet Steven Jaech kneels down next to Jensen and asks her to sign his copy of the anthology.
“I was talking to my wife’s friend,” Jaech tells her, out of range of the other poets. “She said, ‘You’re living in Tacoma? Did you know that one of the best poets in the country lives there?’ She was talking about you.” Laura smiles quietly, humbly, focused on signing. He comments on her beautiful handwriting and takes his seat. A few other poets recognize her and stop by to say hello.
“Hey, Laura Jensen! Are you reading?”
“No,” she says politely. She just came to watch.