Bellingham poet Robert Lashley recently said, “There is a human need to see a bit of ourselves in our reality in charged and precise speech that creates something other than a statement.”
And, he said, a public event centered on poetry fills that need by highlighting different people reading quality work. On Wednesday, May 24, the annual Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest awards ceremony will take place at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal for just that purpose.
The contest, founded in 2006, is a part of the Whatcom Poetry Series, a nonprofit organization. It is named after Sue Crocker Boynton, an early resident of Whatcom County who came to Bellingham as a bride in 1906. Although she did not consider herself more than an amateur poet, she poured her emotions and thoughts into verse and inspired others to write.
Boynton’s last public reading was in July 1976 at age 95 when she read a message from President Gerald Ford, along with one of her poems for the bicentennial program at Bellingham’s Old City Hall. She died in 1981. The story of her life is told in “The Sue Boynton Story” by Dorothy Koert, published in 1982 by the Whatcom County Historical Society.
The contest is named for Sue Crocker Boynton, an early resident of Whatcom County who came to Bellingham in 1906. Although she did not consider herself more than an amateur poet, she poured her emotions and thoughts into verse and inspired others to write. She died in 1981. (Photo courtesy of the Sue. C. Boynton Poetry Contest)
The contest is open to all residents of Whatcom County for submissions every year throughout the month of March. Submissions are judged by two respected Washington poets, and 20 poems are selected as winners. For 2023’s contest, the judges were Caitlin Scarano and Leslie Wharton.
This year there were 235 poems entered into the contest. All poets, winning and otherwise, are invited to the free public awards ceremony, when the winning poets read their poems and the public gets to see placards with artwork by local artists illustrating each poem.
Some time after the awards ceremony, the Walk Award poems are posted for a year on the Sue C. Boynton Poetry Walk in front of the downtown Bellingham Public Library, 210 Central Ave. The poetry placards are placed in WTA buses throughout the county, and the poems are featured at other venues, such as local libraries.
Judy Kleinberg, who was a contest committee member from 2009–12, including as committee chair for part of that time, and was also a Walk Award winner in 2008, is the founder and continuing near-daily blogger for The Boynton Blog, now known as The Poetry Department. The winning poems will be posted on The Poetry Department’s website.
Lashley, who was a judge for the contest in 2021, said a good “winning” poem makes him “feel something complex, and is written with eloquence and brevity.”
Kleinberg said the contest embodies the expansive character of Whatcom County.
“It embraces people of all ages and all levels of writing experience, including none previous,” she said. “It honors the voice of the individual, without any of the expectations that might be attached to academic journals and other publications.”
Scarano said she believes poetry is a meaningful act, whether it’s an individual or collective one. She said it allows people to better engage without their inner worlds and connect with others who may relate to their experiences.
For this contest, Scarano said she was interested in poems that “took risks, experimented and were strange or surprising … I was particularly drawn to poems that were complex and interested in ambiguity. I also looked for diversity in types of poetry, topics and voices.”
Walk Award placards displaying the winning poems from last year's contest line the flower bed in front of the Bellingham Public Library's central branch. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)
Flannery White, a contest winner in 2022 who’s now on the contest committee, said that currently, people are a little more isolated, between working from home, not going out as much and being on social media.
“Public events like this generally offer us a chance to get out and connect with people, but poetry public events in particular offer a chance at deeper connections, because poetry is intrinsically about the deeper parts of human experience,” she said.
Matt Stuckey, who’s also on the committee, agreed, noting that “sharing and listening to each other as we express ourselves through art can help to strengthen the bonds of our community.”
Each year, the contest committee encourages teachers to involve their students in the contest. Kleinberg said some amazing Whatcom County teachers prioritize the contest and make poetry lovers (and contest winners) out of their students year after year. This year, 19 schools responded with poems.
Committee member Sarah King was the contact for the schools this year, and she emailed every school in Whatcom County, including secretaries, librarians and English teachers.
“It's so powerful to have kids' voices be heard and encourage this outlet and creativity,” King said.
Wharton believes that “poetry is a means for a child, youth, to express themselves. No rules, no judgment, an outlet for swirling thoughts. If taught well, writing is a skill that can help a person during difficult times in life. It’s always there, like a friend that listens.”
White said Bellingham’s poetry community is thriving, pointing to Village Books’ prominent displays of poetry — where the store often places poetry in front of the books of fiction. She also drew attention to the various poetry readings and open mics around town, including at Village Books, Honey Moon Mead & Cider, and Make.Shift Art Space.
Stuckey summed it up well: “Poetry, like music and song, gives us an opportunity to share our hearts and voices. Sharing and listening to each other as we express ourselves through art can help to strengthen the bonds of our community.”
The Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest Awards Ceremony takes place at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 24, at Bellingham Cruise Terminal, 355 Harris Ave. Admission is free. Doors open at 6:45 p.m. Light refreshments will be served. Info: thepoetrydepartment.wordpress.com.