Faces of SAL: Lauri Conner, SAL Board President
July 15, 2021
By Gabriela Denise Frank
“Writing for me had become this thing where I didn’t have to fit into anybody’s box, except for the one I created,” poet and educator Lauri Conner said. We were discussing the ways in which creative writing and WITS open up possibilities for both students and teachers.
This month, Conner—recently named the Head of School at Lake Washington Middle School—became president of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Board of Directors. Her relationship with youth education, writing, and SAL stretches back decades to when she was a WITS Writer-in-Residence.
“SAL gives people space to understand their voice,” she said.
Our conversation, which touched on Conner’s early influences—parents, teachers, books—and the power of creative space, made me think of how WITS intern Akshaya Ajith described her first WITS classroom experience in middle school:
“It was one of my first experiences making my own poetry,” Akshaya said. “That wasn’t really stuff we did in school, being independently creative. It was a chance to write in different ways I hadn’t thought of… it was immersive, the art of poetry and creative writing. It was a formative experience.”
Bitaniya Giday, the 2020/21 Seattle Youth Poet Laureate and author of Motherland, described how poetry and creative writing helped her voice the struggles she was feeling inside.
“I grappled with the idea of being Ethiopian but also American—and my culpability, and why my voice is necessary in speaking out against [war] while understanding the privilege I have, being in America and not experiencing conflict,” Bitaniya said. “Identity has so much duality in it, so much intersectionality and, sometimes, they’re conflicting.”
Bitaniya’s poem, “Hyphenated Identity Crisis” addresses this conflict like Akshaya’s poem, “Imperfect,” served as a starting point for exploring her cultural identity and “filtering the chaos I was seeing around me.” Both poems were created through the WITS program, which is often the sole connection to creative writing public school students have—if they have one at all.
“We don’t talk to students about intersectionality until they’re about to go to college. Maybe not even then,” Conner said. “We don’t talk about the historical implications of intersectionality. We don’t talk about what complication looks like. We should be doing it in education, providing folks a space to write about the things that they’re trying to navigate.”
Over the past year, I’ve taught adult writing classes and found the same to be true, if not more so. By the time we reach middle age, our intersectionalities can become rather tangled if we’ve never paused to reflect on the knots. Writing it out always helps, but we may not have someone to encourage or guide us to do so.
This is why WITS is so important. The creative writing practices young people learn become a lifelong reflection to build on. While writing doesn’t dissolve problems instantly (oh, were it so!), creative expression, which includes reading, provides a portal through which one can study the self over time. A port hole becomes a window becomes a threshold that we step through to more deeply consider our relationships to identity, family, community, history, and the cosmos.
“Reading is a community act,” Conner said. “We all buy this one book, and then I say, Song of Solomon, and you’re like, ‘Yes, I know what you’re talking about.’ It is a way to build community. It’s a way for folks to feel like home, like there’s some home somewhere.”
The metaphor of home was threaded throughout our interview, from Conner’s childhood home, a welcoming place where her friends and those of her siblings flocked, to the idea of books as home, and SAL as a home for creativity, community, comfort, and inspiration.
“We’re an arts organization, and we’re not going away. People depend on the programs that we provide. [SAL] fills the soul in so many ways.”
Our conversation brought my other SAL interviews full circle: the art we make enlivens and connects us, it wakes us up and helps us live more fully—and that is simply not optional. Not an elective or a luxury. Space to explore the human condition in all its empathy and brutality is how we create more engaged citizens, more engaged humans, and—as someone said to me recently—how we begin to identify as earthlings. Naming our planetary provenance alters the way we connect to the environment we’re destroying. (Channeling Robin Wall Kimmerer here, think of how this could realign our relationship with all other planetary beings!)
Connection and intersection are the essence of our greatest stories, the ones that touch us and remain for a lifetime. Someone else may have written them, yet they help us understand who we are in this vast universe. For Conner, a touchstone is Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.
“I could go on forever on the last line,” Conner said. “If you surrender to the air, you can ride it. Something in that line gets me every time. That we move through the world so forcefully. We’re told we have to get to college. Then, when you get to college, you have to get a job. Then when you get your job, you have to get promoted—and you have to do this, and you have to have that, and life is passing us by, right? We’re not taking into consideration all the people who came before. No one says, hey, reflect for a moment on the giants whose back you stand on. That book forces you to do so.”
Perhaps that’s what it means to find a home, whether a book, a family, a house, or a planet: home is a living architecture of memory, revelation, and belonging—a network of meeting points where our story holds hands with a myriad of others—including the confounding and infinitely gorgeous crossroads we contain within ourselves.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
Gabriela Frank: Were you a reader and a writer from a young age?
Lauri Conner: No. [Laughs]
Gabriela: Juicy! Tell me more.
Conner: I hated reading, gosh, until… I read The Color Purple.
Gabriela: I love that book.
Conner: I can’t even remember how old I was—when did that book come out? [1982.] I couldn’t put it down. And I was like, Oh, this is what books can do. Okay. Then I started reading way more.
Reading was always a punishment—it was like, we’re gonna have you read this for comprehension. It wasn’t that place where my PhD lands me, which is trying to communicate something larger rather than just to ‘get it’ for a test. I figured that out with The Color Purple. I was like, Oh, shit, this is what it is.
Gabriela: How did that book come to you?
Conner: It’s likely that my sister had it lying around. I would always read things that were way older than I was. I wasn’t in high school yet, maybe seventh grade.
Gabriela: I was intrigued by this quote that’s part of your SAL bio about your English teacher, Carol Tipton: “Don’t be less than what your parents raised you to be.” What does that mean for you?
Conner: My parents, both born in 1931, both from Mississippi, knew each other since they were four or five years old. To grow up in the South, in Mississippi in particular—my grandfather was strung up by Klansmen, and he survived because of my phenomenal grandmother—to be raised in the time they grew up, and then to tell their three children to accept people for who they are, and when they tell you who they are, believe them—it’s crazy-making, right?
They had every reason to say, “You should not trust…” like, you can walk the world afraid of folks, of people… and they didn’t. They both raised us, my brother and sister, to create community. My house was the house where, at any given time, we would have my brother’s friends who got kicked out of their house or who weren’t being supported at home or, you know, the girl from up the street whose stepfather was beating her or sexually assaulting [her]—like, all of those folks at some point were living at our house.
Gabriela: Your house was the safe house.
Conner: It was the safe house—that’s right. They always said to create that for other people. Space for other people to breathe is how my mother used to put it.
I decided—I don’t know if it was a conscious decision—but I was a jerk from ninth grade to eleventh grade. I was a jerk for no other reason than no one told me not to [be], which sounds like a cop-out, but it’s true. I had this view of education like, alright, teach me something. I went to a big public high school, I was a basketball player, and I was a state-level track athlete, and [it was] like, we’re gonna do what we’re gonna do because there’s so many of you. Carol Tipton stopped me, and she said, “What are you doing? I know you are being less than your parents are raising you up to be.”
She had seen me in eighth grade, and I was a completely different kid then. She said that and I was like, okay, somebody is watching me. She said, “No one has challenged you—and I knew your mother. She was fierce. So you have to be fierce.”
It was a great conversation, and that was it for me. It was like, alright, let’s do this thing. I used to go back to St. Louis more often, and I would look her up as often as I could.
Gabriela: Do you find yourself giving similar advice to students?
Conner: Oh, I use that line all the time—all the time. Sometimes for me it comes out like, “I know your mama.” [Laughs] Like, “I have no problem calling your parents [to say] what kind of jerk you’re being—or, you know, what kind of great moment you’ve had.”
The great thing about teaching, especially high school, is that I get to tell parents who their kids are because they don’t get to see that anymore. I get to share with them pieces of their kid that they normally wouldn’t get.
Gabriela: I’d like to ask about another line from your bio: “When Connor is emperor of the world, her biggest accomplishment will be making everyone literate, and she’ll make all of her loyal subjects read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.” How does Song of Solomon find its way into your work with students?
Conner: Outside of the ones I make read it? [Laughs] First of all, I could go on forever on the last line: If you surrender to the air, you can ride it. Something in that line gets me every time. That we move through the world so forcefully. We’re told we have to get to college. Then, when you get to college, you have to get a job. Then when you get your job, you have to get promoted—and you have to do this, and you have to have that, and life is passing us by, right? We’re not taking into consideration all the people who came before. No one says, hey, reflect for a moment on the giants whose back you stand on. That book forces you to do so.
It talks about how you build family. It talks about having conversations to understand, really, everything. Like, I have to have conversations with my folks to understand who I am because who I am is rooted not in just who they were, but who my grandparents were or weren’t, and how they move through the world. It’s a great moment of also knowing that I am bigger than this moment in time.
If you can get kids to understand your actions have repercussions that are bigger than you, and people see you in a way that you will never understand…. I remember walking through an airport, and somebody said, “Excuse me, is Shirley Conner your mom?” And I was like, what? I said, “Yeah.” She goes, “Well, I’m glad you are because I would feel stupid having approached you, but you look like her. It’s the way you carry yourself.” And I’m like, wait—what? This notion of [being] so much more than we know, and who I am speaks volumes to who my parents were—it goes down the line, right?
I didn’t understand until I got my master’s how important it was to my parents for me to have a college education. My father who became a hospital administrator on a GED—we don’t hear those stories anymore. Super, super important for them. Super important that, out of three kids, I was the only one—we’re all doing great things in the world—but I was the one that got the college education, which for folks born in the ‘30s, especially Black folks, that’s huge. My bachelor’s degree is actually theirs. My master’s is mine because that’s on writing, and my PhD is my daughter’s because that moves us forward differently in the world.
Gabriela: Did you go to college knowing you’d major in English lit? Or, was that an evolution after you got there?
Conner: When I started at the University of Kansas, I was a triple major, and I was going to be a lawyer. English was just for the writing; I was about philosophy and political science. I enjoyed the first two years of college a lot because that’s what you do. That’s what it’s there for! [Laughs] I had this professor, Cheryl Lester, who was my college version of Carol Tipton, and she was like, “What are you doing?”
I was like….? [shrugs]
She said, Well, what do you want to do?” I said, “I’m going to be a lawyer.” She goes, “Well, why?” And I was like, “I’d rather that a guilty man goes free than an innocent man goes to jail.” She goes, “Right, right. Why do you want to be a lawyer?” I said, “They get paid.” She’s like, “No really. Why?” And I was like, “I think the way I see the world can alter how people think.” She goes, “Sounds like you want to be a teacher.”
I took a year off of school to grow up, and I came back a single major in English to do just that.
Gabriela: Then you made your way to Seattle, to the University of Washington.
Conner: Made my way to Seattle, and did my master’s in creative writing with poetry, and studied with Colleen McElroy, Linda Bierds, and Heather McHugh. I was actually a slam poet before I went to grad school. I applied and didn’t get in the first time, and moved here anyway. I got into the slam, was the grand slam winner in ‘93, and then reapplied and got in [at UW] and started the focus.
Gabriela: Did you become a WITS writer around this time?
Conner: My WITS stuff came after I graduated. I worked with Kip [Robinson Greenthal, who started the Writers in the Schools program at Seattle Arts & Lectures], and was one of the first writers in the schools. It was amazing.
Gabriela: Was that your first classroom experience with young people?
Conner: It wasn’t, but it was in the way that it played out. She had me in a kindergarten classroom at one point, which is awesome.
Gabriela: Aw! What do you do with the little fries?
Conner: You just get them to play with words and sound. The musicality of it all. The WITS program allowed me to see that there was a place for me to be a writer in education.
Gabriela: Say more about that.
Conner: When you think education—and I was always going to be a college teacher because that’s where you have the space to do all the things you want to do, and the writing, and all of that—[but WITS] allowed me to see, oh, wait, I get to share this with young people. I get to see aha! moments all the time.
The students, they see the power of language, sometimes for the first time. The other teachers are doing the case management, they’re doing the teaching of the other stuff, and it’s just a lot. In the WITS program, you have the space to create a program to give teachers a space to learn as well as me a space to give voice and to hone my craft [working with] other people’s children—it’s pretty amazing.
Gabriela: It must have a profound effect on students, to engage with creative writers in the classroom.
Conner: Yes. I mean, it has to, right? It makes people accessible. It doesn’t feel like, I can’t do that, because I haven’t seen someone else. It’s like, oh, that could be me. That’s pretty cool.
Gabriela: Growing up, my parents had me convinced I couldn’t be a writer. We didn’t know any writers—there was no relatable model to point to.
Conner: I think I broke my father’s heart, telling him I wanted to be a poet. I was like, “Yeah, dad, a poet.”
Gabriela: How did you work with students?
Conner: I used to do this thing with words and emotion and musicality. I would have students pick a word or an emotion and then find a word that connected to that emotion. It would be like fire and anger, anger/fire, and then we would make this sound poem where if I pointed—I was a choir director—and if I pointed to them, they would have to say their word. So, it would be like anger—fire, anger—fire, and I would set a rhythm. Then I would say, okay, keep it going, and I would add kids in, and it was this beautiful sound. It didn’t mean anything, but the sound connected them. It was fun. Writing has to be fun.
Gabriela: What you said makes me think about my favorite English teacher who spoke about emotions in everything we read. But emotions can be left out of teaching; we never talked about emotions in math or science class.
Conner: I learned quickly how angry kids can be at the world, themselves, or their friends and parents. How cool is it to hear somebody say, “You can be angry, and it’s okay. Matter of fact, you can write about it.” I use to let kids curse. For some kids, that was the only way they knew how to say what they needed to say. Then we would go into a conversation.
I remember a young boy [who] used the term bitch in his poem. The classroom teacher was like, “Ah, you shouldn’t use that,” and I said, “No—this is the first time he wrote. Are you kidding me? He can use whatever he wants to.” Then he and I had a conversation: okay, you can’t really call young ladies bitches and this is why. I won’t tolerate that. But, man, that’s a powerful piece. What other word could you use instead of bitch? And so we’re working with revision without calling it that, right?
Sometimes we name things, then the naming of it becomes a barrier, especially for kids. They’re playing because it feels like a puzzle, and I’m like, “Look at that, you guys wrote a song!” It’s like that moment where a kid is walking for the first time. When the parent gets excited, suddenly the kid gets excited and then falls, right? That’s what it’s like. They get excited, then they fall because someone says, okay, now you have to fit into this box.
The great thing about creative writing, or any kind of writing really, is that you don’t have to fit into a box. Maybe it’s the first time you don’t have to fit into a box. Our entire lives, we’re told, Fit into this box. Writing for me had become this thing where I didn’t have to fit into anybody’s box, except for the one I created for myself. To be able to teach that to other people has been hands-down my life’s work.
Gabriela: How do we connect students with experiences like that—which are not “nice to have”—but essential to wellbeing, mental and emotional development, and the human spirit?
Conner: How do we make it better? We train teachers. This is true of even myself as an educator: you shy away from things you don’t know how to do. Some teachers shy away from creative writing because they think it’s some kind of mystery. We don’t put a value on it because we don’t know how to do it; we don’t know how to do it because we don’t give them room to say, you can do this. It goes back to that box, right?
We tell teachers, These are the standards you have to use, and this is the curriculum, instead of, Create a curriculum that is dynamic where you can differentiate and do all of those things. The only places doing that, unfortunately, are in private education for a mostly white population. Again, going back to that dynamic.
I think how you make it better is you move away from these standards. You allow people to do things in multiple ways. I can ask you to write a poem about how you feel about a historical moment. That could be a form of assessment. But we don’t allow teachers to think outside of the box. They have boxes they have to check.
Gabriela: It’s a good reminder, what teachers are being asked to do. It makes people nervous, the idea of messiness, experimentation, or failure in education.
Conner: People shy away from hard conversations. To your earlier question, I can teach all dead white guys and be just fine on the cultural piece because I understand who’s in front of me. If I have a Cambodian kid in front of me, and we’re reading The Odyssey, I can connect that to genocide. Imagine a group of people trying to figure out where they’re going to land, they go through the hero’s journey, and then talk about it so that kids connect it.
It’s about knowing who’s in front of you. It’s not always what you’re reading. Back to Tony Morrison: if I can talk about what it means to understand where your name came from and to understand the giants you stand on—man, what kind of person are you going to be? Some of my homework assignments [to students] are to go out and notice people in the world. Say hello to the barista and see if you don’t get better service. Song of Solomon teaches you to see people, right? That whole novel is about people being seen, being valued, being heard.
Gabriela: What it’s like to engage with young people in education today?
Conner: My wife and I were having a conversation, and it got me to have conversations with the kids, because she’s like, “They have so much language, this generation, and sometimes that language gets in the way.” And I’m like, “Look, if I say I’m going to raise a building, what am I talking about? Am I talking about building it? Or am I talking about leveling it?” Doesn’t matter that it’s a term that’s spelled differently, right? If we’re having a conversation, and I say, “I’m about to raise a building,” you have no idea what I’m talking about.
They have that kind of language. Which is why we as older folks get so caught up in, “What do you mean, I have to say they/them?” Sometimes that language is just as limiting, right? If not more. But it’s that notion of, if we want them to pay attention, they want us to do better—and they don’t see us doing better.
No one tells them this stuff is complicated. We don’t tell them. We don’t talk to them about intersectionality until they’re about to go to college. Maybe not even then. We don’t talk about the historical implications of intersectionality. We don’t talk about how—whether folks said it out loud or not—there was this push for Black women to choose: you’re either going to fight for the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment], or you’re gonna fight for civil rights, but you can’t do both. We don’t talk about what that complication looks like, and they don’t find it out until they’ve been damaged. That’s our fault. We should be doing it. We should be doing it in education. Providing folks a space to write about the things that they are trying to navigate—I think it’s a gift.
Gabriela: WITS intern Akshaya Ajith spoke about this during our interview earlier this year. We talked about the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, and she said, “My generation is surprised when things like that happen, but we’re not shocked.” Like you said, they’re not seeing us do better. Greta Thunberg warns, “We’re going to outlive you, we’re going to hold you responsible, and we’re going to write about what you failed to do.”
Conner: There’s also being part of a generation. My mother was in tears last summer because she did a whole lot of work in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, and she’s like, “We’re still in the same spot. We thought we were doing better because look: your father and I came out of poverty. Look: you have this nice college education. Look: you fought for gay rights and now—?” But we’re still the same.
Gabriela: What breaks us out of that orbit, at least, in education?
Conner: I think things like breaking schools up a little more. Like, let’s not have schools that have 3,000 students in them. The commentary on what your next step is after you graduate from high school—that you have to go to college—are you kidding me? Plumbers and electricians make more than some people I know, many people I know. Seems to me, if you’re good with your hands, you should try some of that. We’re holding higher ed as the pinnacle of, you’ve made it. Yeah—no. We don’t provide options. We just say that college is the only option you have when you graduate, and if you haven’t gone to college, then you’re a loser. That’s what we say. And it’s not the truth.
Gabriela: Is this part of what led you to youth education and to SAL?
Conner: With SAL, Ruth Dickey came a’knockin’. [Laughs] It was great because my understanding of boards was, I need to have money to write a big check, and she’s like, “That’s not it. That’s not what we’re interested in. We’re interested in perspective. We’re interested in the things you are doing in the world and in navigating and having these conversations.” I said, “Great. I’ll sign up.”
It’s been awesome. That was six years ago, and my life is a little different now. I can write a small check. [Laughs] But how great to have lived in the cycle of this organization: to have been a WITS writer, living paycheck to paycheck, to this: being a chair of the board. It’s pretty amazing.
Gabriela: What have you learned along the way?
Conner: So much patience.
Gabriela: In agreeing on direction or priorities or—?
Conner: Patience and being willing to sit in the uncomfortable. The gray area—to be able to sit in the gray. To have hard conversations and know that sometimes hard conversation doesn’t go anywhere. What I’ve learned is, SAL is the epitome of the community. It’s that moment, going back to my parents, of building community. Reading is a community act. We all buy this one book, and then I say, Song of Solomon, and you’re like, “Yes, I know what you’re talking about.” It is a way to build community. It’s a way for folks to feel like home, like there’s some home somewhere. I have been really lucky in having it be home for me in so many different ways.
Gabriela: In my conversation with Rebecca Hoogs, who is serving as Interim Executive Director, she touched on something Ruth Dickey said: that SAL is more than one person, that it will carry on. Where would you like to see SAL go? Are there places you’re hoping SAL will lean into or explore anew?
Conner: I think she is spot on. Ruth had to come in and rebuild this house—Ruth put in some time—and if life is a house, to carry the metaphor forward, we are going to be just fine because Ruth helped us remodel and build additions. I think there is opportunity in finding someone not to fill her shoes but to continue the path she was walking. I think that’s really important.
You’re trying to find someone who is willing to walk down the same path and maybe go further or in another direction but you’re not trying to fill somebody’s shoes. To Rebecca’s point, Ruth built a house, and we are so lucky. I am honored to have Rebecca as someone who is going to continue that path until we find the full-time person. It’s pretty amazing to have her. We couldn’t ask for a better interim director.
Gabriela: I was excited to learn more about Rebecca from our recent conversation. She’s a treasure, and SAL is indeed in excellent hands. What are some qualities that you think would make a good executive director for SAL going into the next chapter?
Conner: Going back to that idea of being seen, valued, and heard: that people see that they’re valued and that they’re heard, both on the donor level and on the artist level. And engaging with the community. I said it as kind of a joke, but if SAL is a house, it is home for a lot of people. People depend on the programs that we provide. It fills the soul in so many ways. The new person coming in has to be willing to be a part of that community, has to be willing to get in the muck with that community and that family—what I’m going to call family—and be willing to hear some of the hard things and do the work. That’s the thing about family, right? You hear the hard stuff, and somehow you keep moving forward.
Gabriela: What excites you about what’s to come?
Conner: Our ability to expand what community looks like. One of the things that COVID has done for us is put people on our radar and put us on other people’s radar. We’ve been able to touch more people, and that really starts to dive into the access issue. Like, who gets to access us? It’s not just someone who can afford a ticket now, right? You can be in Spokane and access us. You can be in Yakima. You can be in Tacoma, and we’re still there. We’re not going away. We’re an arts organization, and we’re not going away. That’s what I look forward to. SAL gives people space to understand their voice.
Gabriela: What is bringing you delight these days?
Conner: My fourteen-year-old kid. My grandbaby. Writing again is bringing me joy.
Gabriela: What are you writing?
Conner: Poems. Just poems. My father passed in 2019, and I’ve been working on a collection of firsts without my father. I have the title as A Book of Firsts, and just realizing that I have more access to him in ways than I didn’t think. I thought it was about grief, and now it’s about joy. It’s this amazing shift.
Gabriela Denise Frank is a writer, editor, and creative writing instructor. Her essays and fiction have been published in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, Pembroke, The Normal School, and The Rumpus. A Jack Straw Writer and Artist Trust EDGE alumna, Gabriela’s work is supported by 4Culture, Centrum, Mineral School, Vermont Studio Center, Invoking the Pause, and the Civita Institute. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com.