Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary
11. Laura Jensen 1948–
Although Laura Jensen is principally a poet, she is represented on this site by her essay "Stars and Streetlights," first published as part of the small book Northwest Variety: Personal Essays by 14 Regional Authors (1987:86-92). Jensen's essay appears in our site because it adds an important note. Often, Northwestern writers are featured as near-natural outgrowths of the region's remarkable scenery, but Jensen, who may or may not be outdoorsy, writes mostly about what's in town. Jensen was born in the Old Town portion of Tacoma, Washington, to a family of the region's Scandinavian settlers. She discovered poetry while in high school, working in the library, shelving books. There she found David Wagoner's Staying Alive and, on reading that Wagoner taught at the University of Washington, set out to study with him. At the U.W., Wagoner and Mark Strand were her first mentors and she followed Strand to the University of Iowa for her Master of Fine Arts, where she also became friends with the Port Angeles-born Tess Gallagher.
One could say Laura Jensen represents something about the original Northwest. She is a poet of the settler's primary hopes—a house, a nearby family, a livelihood, a school, and a hometown. A poet of the pioneers' dreams, she is the poet-to-come who would stay where she began. Jensen has placed herself precisely in Tacoma, an early logging and railroad settlement, where the most important things for her are a house and its complicated insides and the changing views from its windows—views to watch as they change with the hour, with the weather, from different chairs, or during a walk across the room. Jensen looks closely at towns and houses and the light and materials around them.
Northwesterners may gaze at, dress for, sleep out in, ski down, or climb up the outdoors. Jensen may too, but she gets her views from books, from indoors, from walking around town and looking at buildings, boats in the bay, merchandise, and the ways trees or power poles move about and shadow each other as she walks. In "The Ajax Samples," a poem about delivering samples of that product to places in Tacoma, one reads Jensen's delight at being alive, quick and on her home sidewalks. She is, as Tess Gallagher says, the "Einstein of the Ordinary." Though she writes of dime stores, of her beloved children's author Laura Ingalls Wilder, and of the Puyallup Fair, Jensen is not an ordinary writer at all. She bridges with unusual verbal architecture from image to image. She takes to the usual an unusual set of eyes.
Like Annie Dillard, who taught for a time in Bellingham and wrote several remarkable books while in the Northwest, Jensen makes nature part of the city. Dillard's A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a naturalist's notebook, even though Tinker Creek ran through town. In this site's selection, Jensen sees stars in Tacoma. Whatever anxiety or cold drives her to the fire of writing, she assures her reader to see the world around as the place of wonder.
Laura Jensen, "Stars and Streetlights," in Northwest Variety: Personal Essays by 14 Regional Authors, ed. Runciman, Lex and Steven Sher. Corvallis: Arrow Books, 1987.
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