State poet laureate credits her civil engineering background

Catching up with Kathleen Flenniken, ’88, a civil engineer turned poet. Recently she was appointed Washington State Poet Laureate for 2012–2014.

Kathleen Flenniken, the state’s second-ever Poet Laureate, took a winding path to poetry. After earning a master’s degree in civil engineering from the UW in 1988, she went to work as an engineer.

“My engineering education taught me how to learn. You develop the habit of studying and reading and that serves me well as a writer.”

“I didn’t always have a passion for poetry.” As an adult, Flenniken read part of a Walt Whitman poem in the liner notes of a music album and tracked down the original.

“There was something empowering about deciding what to read and what I liked and didn’t like. Find the voices and poets that speak to you.”

Improvisational jazz and handwriting analysis were two of the night classes she took after her children were born. But poetry, her third class, was the most comfortable fit.

“It was a ‘Where have you been all my life?’ feeling.” In 2007, she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing.

Her childhood had a Norman Rockwell sheen in the shadow of Hanford. She grew up in Richland, where her father worked at the Hanford site that processed plutonium for nuclear weapons. “I rode my bike to school, came home for lunch, and my parents had a cow bell they rang when it was time to come home. Nobody talked about the work or what our fathers did.”

“It felt like learning a secret handshake.” Flenniken worked as an engineer at Hanford, which is now one of the nation’s most contaminated nuclear sites. “I lived next to it my entire life, but never went to the site because it was off-limits. It was interesting to finally be welcomed into that universe.”

“Who am I as an American? It’s an important question for me.” Flenniken’s second book of poetry, Plume, focuses on her Hanford experiences, the consequences of the radiation contamination and the government’s complicity.

“For me, the moral of the story is that secrets are bad for a democracy and the enemy of good science.”

“I remember stirring a pot on the stove with a baby on one hip and a piece of paper beside me as I jotted down poem ideas. When I started, I could write anywhere. I just had the bug.”

“Poet Laureate is a working position.” During her two-year term, Flenniken plans to visit the state’s 39 counties and excite elementary kids about poetry.

“You need somebody out there advocating and creating a new audience for poetry. I want to demonstrate that playing with language can be fun.”

“Poetry is all about humanity. You see what it means to be in someone else’s shoes for a while and that experience can make you a better person. Who doesn’t want that?”