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Tod Marshall presentation

Distinguished poet and lecturer emphasizes the importance of empathy and openness

Photo credit: Mike Hipple

Tod Marshall, Washington state poet laureate, visited Walla Walla University on Tuesday, Nov. 7. Marshall spoke on the importance of cultivating those things in our lives that are difficult to understand—of comfortably being uncomfortable. He urged his listeners to avoid the familiar in conversation—the small talk and the rehearsed opinions—and to listen, to truly communicate. This strategy is uncomfortable and takes energy, but it also builds empathy and openness. Marshall explained that the true value of poetry is not in its meter, style, or meaning, but rather it is in its subtle ability to invite empathy. The enemy of empathy is fear, and art is the counter-energy to fear. The humanities are important, Marshall stated, because they create the kind of people who ask questions—who embrace the unknown and learn to be comfortable around the alien and the other, and who have the strength to stand against fear when the time comes. Marshall specifically related this concept to his study of the Holocaust and those who were brave enough to risk their lives to protect the persecuted.

Marshall—a professor of English at Gonzaga University—reflected on his two years of service as poet laureate. As he removed the whiteboard pens from his breast pocket that he used in a class at Gonzaga earlier that day, he said that he had left Spokane for College Place immediately after teaching his last class. “That has been my life for the last 21 months,” he said. Serving as Washington state's poet laureate has put an extra 42,000 miles on his car and has sent him to every corner of the state. True to his philosophy of conversing off of the beaten path, Marshall has asked hard questions at every stop. He especially enjoyed visiting small towns, where he always received an ebullient welcome.

Marshall has been writing poetry for 31 years and is the author of numerous books and collections of poetry. His most recent collection, Bugle—winner of the 2015 Washington state book award—features poems that are true to the title: loud, powerful, and rousing. “[It is] one of the gutsiest books I've ever read,” says Dan Lamberton, WWU professor of English.

Posted Nov. 9, 2017

Last update on November 23, 2015