San Juan Islands inspire book of poetry by Gary Thompson

Digging into the rich history of the islands fertilizes the poetry of San Juan Island poet Gary Thompson.

Thompson has been writing poetry since he was a kid, but when he moved to the San Juans in 2007 — after previously living in Montana and California — his poetry style changed. He became fascinated with the islands’ local history, which led to his book, “Broken by Water: Salish Sea Years.”

Thompson’s sixth book describes the multitudes of Pacific Northwest history.

“Once I moved to Northwest, I just realized I was starting to write different kinds of poems,” he said. “I continued to really focus my work on locations and the history of the Salish Sea, which was controversial. Back then, whether there was actually going to become an official name, the waters around us here. And in the process. I was kind of learning about where we had moved to.”

What particularly inspired Thompson was when the Europeans established their position on the islands and how it affected the Indigenous population. In his book, a section can be found called Northwest Likeliness, which focuses on a man named James G. Swan. Swan was an American Indian agent in Washington. He lived among the Makah tribal group and wrote the first ethnography about them. Interspersed through the book are stories, details, and biographies about the Native Americans who lived in the islands.

Thompson had a lot of experience with poetry before he became the poet he is today.

One of his earliest influences was Theodore Roethke, who taught at the University of Washington. Roethke won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954. When Thompson attended the University of Montana for graduate school, he studied with Richard Hugo who was a student of Roethke.

“One of the reasons I went to Montana was that I was so fascinated with the work that Roethke was doing. I just kind of wanted to get some insight from his students,” he said.

Since then, Thompson’s created many poems, of which he can’t choose a favorite because it is like “choosing his favorite child,” he said.

But when it comes down to it, he said one that has grown on him is “After Vandalism,” which he wrote 10 years ago.

After all the segments that led him to move to the island 14 years ago, Thompson has found another niche of poets like himself amongst the island. He teaches a group of about 10 poets with whom he meets once a month. They call themselves “the winter poets.” They currently do not have adequate space to expand the group.

One of Thompson’s favorite things about poetry is that it is such a personal experience for everyone and that he never knows how someone might interpret a poem of his. One thing he does hope readers keep in mind is to slow down enough to hear the rhythm and sounds of the language, along with the history entrailed in it.

“I would say the most important idea that I would hope to convey is that every place but particularly the places in these homes are layered with history. And so, you know, in order to understand a place or even in order to grow comfortable with a place, you have to start peeling away those layers of history and incorporate that in your feelings about the place,” he said. “It’s a good place to be a writer.”

“Broken by Water: Salish Sea Years” is currently available from Amazon.