Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Auburn’s new poet laureate strips away the varnish

by Matt Rosenberg December 30th, 2011

The city of Auburn, Wash. sits 28 miles south of Seattle astride major highways, riven with burger joints, casinos, and the exhaust fumes of sixteen-wheel rigs. Yet here too in the long shadow of Tahoma are rushing rivers, broad pastures of livestock and horses, caring neighbors, a highly-regarded local symphony, and a community of artists and writers such as Richard Brugger who next Tuesday will be appointed Auburn’s first Poet Laureate by the Mayor Pete Lewis at a meeting of the city council.

Originally from Pennsylvania, Brugger, 82, served as a Franciscan priest on Vancouver, B.C.’s skid row starting in 1973 but left the priesthood in 1976 to marry his wife Lela. They landed for a few months in Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill neighborhood, and then settled in Auburn, where they raised two children and he took a job for the next 21 years heading Auburn Youth Resources. Brugger said that with his beard, and a then-unconventional, more family-focused approach to counseling troubled youth, “I was seen as a little weird,” especially among the coats and ties at the local Kiwanis Club meetings he regularly attended.

Auburn's first Poet Laureate Richard Brugger/Richard Brugger

But Brugger and Auburn acclimated to each other, and though he was no poet at the time, he says, he began writing poems anyway, for each birthday and anniversaries of his clients at the youth and family counseling center. When he retired in 1997, Brugger began honing his poetry skills in earnest with several years of classes at the University of Washington.

According to PoetsWest Directory, Brugger’s poetry has appeared in the self-published Do Something & Other Poems, and in “the Plateau Area Writer’s Association Quarterly, the Doylestown Intelligencer (Pennsylvania) and Poets West Literary Journal. His prose has appeared in Heart of the Matter and in Plateau Area Writer’s Association Anthologies, and he was a second place winner (in the) performance poet category at the Washington Poets Association annual meeting in Spring 2003 in Tacoma.”

The city council paved the way for its Poet Laureate selection process by passing an ordinance in October which included the desired qualities: excellent poetry samples; an exemplary history of publication, honors, awards and other recognition; and a history of advancing poetry in Auburn with the local literary community through public events and special publication projects. Brugger was nominated by the Striped Water Poets, a group that meets weekly in Auburn City Hall. It includes poets from Seattle, Tacoma, Kent, and Auburn, and is led by the Poet Laureate of neighboring Pacific, Wash., Gerald McBreen.

Brugger’s role as Poet Laureate, according to the enabling ordinance, is to “encourage the appreciation of poetry and literary life in Auburn.” He says one thing he’d like to do is work with the local school district to “get kids more interested in poetry. Everybody can be a poet, an artist. We have so much beauty around us.” Other than that, right now, says Brugger, “I don’t know exactly what I’m gonna do. But I know damn well I’m gonna have an impact.”

If Brugger’s direct and accessible poetry is any indication, he’ll be well equipped to show the intersection of art with community, nature, and the sometimes gritty substrate of existence. Three among the samples he submitted to the city in his winning Poet Laureate bid accent his aptitude.

Auburn” celebrates locals like “Joe Nishomoto who tilled the Green Valley’s fertile earth,” and “Helen Shaunessy–whose love for Auburn last five days shy of one hundred years…”

In his poem “Nature” Brugger asks, why gild the lily?

I have a friend
who understands nature
holistically. Tells you about the seasons
soils, forests, streams, animal life,
all that God has given us, rationally
relationally, in semi-scientific terms. My mother
knew nature with Oohs and Ahs
and Dear God, Richard look at that!

Don’t ask me
the name of that tree, the hybrid of flower
the composition of rock, the whys
and wherefores of the tides
the cause of monumental landslides

I’ll tell you though the feel of a gentle wind
the vastness of the open sea, the pleasure I get
at looking at California Oaks on golden
brown hill slopes. My mother’s in me.

381 East Cordova Street” is an unflinching look at the downscale denizens of his mid-70s Vancouver flock. It reads, in part:

Whispers prevail and a fog off Burrard Inlet
settles in at four o’clock as the Sisters’ Sandwich Line wraps
itself halfway around the block to the back alley
where wine, urine, vanilla extract and after-shave commingle
into sickly stench. Men and women in their twenties, thirties
forties and fifties have a sameness of pallor and age,
share needles, jugs and sex.

A half-crazed, rheumy-eyed woman
knocks on my parish door insisting I exorcise her.
I protest with words she can’t comprehend
like, “needing the archbishop’s permission,” and “needing the holiness I do not have.”
Nothing I say matters. In frustration I give her my blessing….
the one I’d bestow on a child, a rosary, a holy card.
She thanks me. I watch her step out of my door,
walk down the steps to the sidewalk
belt across Cordova Street, not looking east or west,
oblivious to swirling traffic. She makes it. I wonder how.

Mike Hickey, who continues to serve as the City of Seattle’s official Poet Populist since winning election to the post in late 2008, is a writing instructor at South Seattle Community College and taught Brugger at the UW’s Experimental College. Hickey says, “I like his sense of description and using sensory imagery. He really gets the cardinal rule of writing, ’show, don’t tell.’” In a time when many poets are less of afraid of being misunderstood than of being understood, Hickey adds, Brugger’s storytelling skates on the right side of the line between ambiguity, which readers should welcome, versus the intentional obscurity of many poets which can marginalize the art form.

Brugger will serve as Auburn’s Poet laureate for three years, with no stipend.

Poetry provided by the artist and used with his permission.

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