Tacoma, this industrial port city of 250,000, has an official poet. Abby E. Murray is the eighth such poet, chosen by the City of Tacoma’s Arts Program.
Find the six words he wrote
on a yellow post-it:
I love you. See you soon.
Deployment, Day One lists the everyday tasks that a spouse undertakes while her Army husband is deployed overseas. Some are coping mechanisms and others are rote activity completed because they must be.
Those words are written by Tacoma’s official poet, Abby E. Murray. The Poet Laureat, as chosen by the City of Tacoma’s Arts Program, is the eighth in Tacoma’s history, and is occupied by a military spouse who writes of seemingly simple chores, but traverses far more complex nuances beneath the surface.
Murray explores those tasks during one of her husband’s deployments to a combat zone. Her poetry is not a distraction from the separation from her loved one in day-to-day life, but a deep look into how someone deals with the potential loss of their partner at any moment.
“Poetry and community have given me the chance to look at what deployments means to our community, what war means, what loss means. Because of that I am able to keep going. I’m looking more closely at what’s going on in our country with what I’m doing, rather than keeping myself busy.”
It is fitting that a military spouse is Tacoma’s current Poet Laureate. Our city and the South Sound have been home to active duty service members since the United States settled the area.
Murray grew up in the South Sound. Like so many in the Army and Air Force, Joint Base Lewis-McChord is a dream assignment. For Abby, it means she can be near family, continue teaching, and now use her gift for words to share stanzas about military life, Tacoma, and loss.
Murray occupies a few different spaces, and she is both a participant and outsider in all of them. She is not only a professor for Army War College students at UW-Tacoma, but also an artist. She questions her role in both in all that she does. Her poetry serves as the path to finding answers.
“I’m a walking contradiction. I work with the military community and with the artistic community and I’m questioning them both. I hope in my writing that I hold up a mirror not just to the communities around me, but myself as well and ask, ‘what are you doing and why are you doing it? How are you doing this?’ I think it is important that we question military communities. I think we question civil communities. We need to question our actions and thoughts and the way we treat others. I don’t think communities are immune to criticism, nor should they be. That’s pretty toxic. But it is awkward, because I’m questioning all of these communities, so I don’t organically fit in any of them.”
Expanding boundaries and community is part of what Abby wants to do via the Poet Laureate program. One of her goals is to bring poetry from downtown Tacoma and the vibrant arts scene and share it with South and East Tacoma. People with busy lives still need the inspiration and exploration of a reading, or the community of a writer’s workshop.
“I was thinking about the people who live in South Tacoma and East Tacoma and have children and jobs; it is hard to get to downtown. Being able to go to readings and workshops is a luxury for a lot of people. It’s not something that is naturally built into their day. I wanted to make sure that the opportunities were coming to them more often. I’ve been hosting workshops in South Tacoma and East Tacoma.”
Between teaching downtown, hosting readings throughout the city, her husband at JBLM, and a family in Puyallup, Murray knows she is “spread a little bit thin.”
It’s important to her to still find gaps in that hectic schedule to write. To ensure consistency, Murray shares a poem with a group of friends every Friday.
Her most recent book, Hail and Farewell, released just last September. It is “is a bold examination of the intimate relationship between a soldier and a pacifist, bound together by choice.” That outsider-insider dynamic is again a primary theme.
Being both within and without started at a young age. During her youth, her mom took the family to the North Sound near Bellingham. When they arrived, all of the girls’ softball teams were full. Murray and one of her sisters became baseball players, a rarity in the league at the time.
Up in Bellingham she watched Mariners legends Ken Griffey, Jr. and Edgar Martinez in their earliest years with the organization. In the year 2020, you may bump into her at Cheney Stadium catching a Rainiers game when she can spare a warm evening.
“Baseball is my sport. That’s the one that I will always make time for.”
Tacoma offers that. Mostly, what Tacoma offers Murray is what it offers all of us – a beautiful mountain, communities where outsiders are insiders, distinct neighborhoods where people say hello, and coffeeshops where writers gather to tell their stories.
“I’m really enamored with Tacoma. My daughter is five. When we moved out here, she was two. She started going to this preschool in Tacoma and every time we came up over the freeway, we would say ‘Helllloooo Tacoma.’ I love the city.”
Murray is outside and inside Tacoma as well. She’s questioning it, while at the same time representing the city as the Poet Laureate.
More about Abby E. Murray and Tacoma’s Poet Laureate project: