Washougal woman named Clark County’s poet laureate

Susan Dingle says poetry is ‘a form of navigating through life’

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Susan Dingle believes poetry has the ability to help people stay present in the moment and appreciate the small things many others might take for granted.

This philosophy is apparent in the Washougal poet’s own work, in which she writes about the “gift” of going to the Washougal Post Office when it’s at its busiest and about a person who went to Costco for one or two small things, but wound up bringing home several baskets filled with goodies they just couldn’t live without.

In Dingle’s poetry, the mundane takes on a joyful quality.

“I love stuff like that because they are experiences that everybody shares,” Dingle explained. “Everybody knows what that’s like. It gives me so much joy when I notice that something from my experience resonates for other people. The specifics of our background and other stuff don’t matter. What matters is that we have this experience that everyone can relate to.”

Now, Dingle will be able to share her poetry with a much larger audience.

The Clark County Arts Commission (CCAC) recently named Dingle as Clark County’s new poet laureate — a position that will allow the Washougal poet to promote poetry as an art form, expand access to the literary arts throughout Clark County, and encourage poetry as a regional voice that contributes to a sense of place, according to CCAC President Deborah Nagano.

Dingle’s three-year term as Clark County’s poet laureate began April 1.

“It’s basically a dream come true,” Dingle said. “My husband died in 2019. I moved out here in 2020 (from New York), and I kind of had to reinvent myself. I was kind of like, ‘Where can I belong here?’”

In New York, Dingle found joy in being a part of her community.

“I was all about the community, but I didn’t know how to get situated here,” Dingle said. “Being a poet laureate is perfect because now I can reach out to all the different communities to give everybody an opportunity for their voice to be heard and to be heard by each other.”

Washougal resident Yvonne Gee, a member of the CCAC, introduced Dingle to the Washougal City Council on April 1 to celebrate the start of National Poetry Month, introduced in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets as a way to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States.

“Susan’s accomplishments in fostering creative community involvement are wildly diverse and far too numerous to list,” Gee told the Council. “Her events help participants mine the therapeutic value of writing and create new communities that are all pulled together with the power of words written down and spoken aloud.”

Nagano said that she was “delighted” by Dingle’s selection.

“Susan is a connector of people, deeply committed to fostering creative community involvement,” Nagano said. “She has a million ideas for what she would like to achieve as poet laureate, and I’m quite certain she will accomplish them all. Her experience working with wildly diverse groups is very impressive. … We all have a story. We all have a point of view. We all have a voice that we can share with others to inform, to inspire, to empower and to even transform. Susan agrees that we are all poets, and that (belief), along with her incredible dedication and energy, will guarantee her success as the poet laureate.”

On March 10, the CCAC held a “passing of the pen” celebration, which culminated with Dingle’s predecessor, Armin Tolentino, presenting her with a traditional laurel wreath.

“(Past poet laureates) Christopher Luna and Gwendolyn Morgan and Armin have done really great spadework, getting workshops going in different places. I’m going to be continuing some of those workshops and starting some others,” Dingle said. “But I would like to take it to the next level, which is (creating events) to allow people to share their poetry with others. It would be just really wonderful to do separate things in all parts of the county and then provide opportunities for people to come together, because honestly, the whole thing that poetry makes possible is community building on a level of the spirit.”

Dingle grew up on the East Coast and earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has written poetry that has been published in several collections, as well as two books — “In Pilgram Drag,” published by Finishing Line Press, and “Parting Gifts,” published by Local Gems.

“I’ve been writing poems since I was 17,” she said. “When I was a teenager, probably like every teenager, I felt completely misunderstood by everyone. I started writing poetry, keeping a journal about my feelings. I was always feeling stuff and always writing it down.”

Dingle said she wanted to figure out what was going on with herself and with the world around her. Poetry helped cut through the fog of the unknown.

“It’s a little bit like if you are going out on the water, you need to have navigation. You need to know how deep the water is,” Dingle said. “Poetry, for me, is like a form of navigating through life.”

Dingle, who earned a master of social work degree at State University of New York-Stony Brook, works as a licensed clinical social worker and an alcohol and substance abuse counselor at Discover Recovery in Camas. She said that she “combines the therapeutic and the creative,” which tie together “automatically because there’s a healing aspect to poetry.”

“I do a writing workshop once a week because I believe that writing can help people stay sober and can help them learn to manage their emotions,” Dingle said. “The thing that I love the most is they don’t really know who they are because they’ve always been drinking, and now they’re sober, and they discover they have a voice that they never knew they had. They have a sober voice. I’ve met people in that workshop (who said), ‘I don’t want to write,’ but then they do, and they’re surprised that they actually have something to say, and that they’re saying it in a way that other people think is really interesting.”

Prior to moving to Clark County, Dingle created a public arts project called Poetry Street, an open-mic event to foster diversity and inclusion in Riverhead, New York, “a historically segregated community,” according to a news release.

“Dingle and a poet from the town’s African American community created monthly reading events,” the news release stated. “For her efforts, Dingle was awarded the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Meritorious Award from First Baptist Church in Riverhead in addition to being recognized by the Town of Riverhead.”

Dingle also hosts Poetry Street PNW, an open-mic event held monthly at the Camas Public Library, and poetry workshops at the Attic Gallery in downtown Camas.

“I’m very interested in the performance of poetry, the reading, because that’s how we have the immediate experience of really ‘getting it,’” Dingle said. “That sense of every voice being heard is essential to what I’m bringing to the picture. It isn’t about one person. It’s about, ‘We all have this, and we all get to share it.’ The thing that’s cool is that there have been people who have come back, and we actually can really feel their growth. Their poetry keeps getting better and better.”

Dingle is planning to kick off her poet laureate term with a variety of poetry related projects, including workshops with senior citizens at Knights of Pythias Active Retirement Community in Vancouver, with an LGBTQ+ group at the Vancouver Heights United Methodist Church; and with a reading at the La Center Arts Fair on May 11.

She also would like to launch a reading series in Battle Ground and a poetry event at the Clark County Fair.

“I would like to invite poets to come to the fair and write poems about the fair, and then have a big reading on the stage, in between the bands and the entertainment,” Dingle said. “I like that idea because a lot of different voices can be heard.”