Remembering Seattle poet and teacher Judith Roche, who led Bumbershoot’s literary arts program

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enlightened life

Judith Roche lived her life fascinated and immersed in the power of writing.

As a lifelong poet, she has published several collections of works, including Wisdom of the Body, which won an American Book Award in 2007. As longtime director of Bumbershoot’s literary arts program under One Reel, she has brought countless nationally-known authors to Seattle and has also raised the voices of local writers through magazines and other publications. As a teacher of writing – at numerous institutions including Hugo House, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle University, Antioch University Seattle, and universities and poetry centers nationwide – she has inspired her students with the possibilities respectful and infinite of words.

“My basic thing is that poetry approaches the sacred and it’s a translation of the sacred and it says the unspeakable,” Roche said. in a 2015 interview. “It is an impossible task that you undertake to say the unspeakable. Approaching these feelings of the sacred and trying to put them into language, but that is the project of poetry.

A memorial service for Ms Roche, who died aged 78 on November 14 of complications from a stroke, will be held at Jack Straw Cultural Center, 4261 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle, at 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 5. All are invited to attend; several local writers will share memories of Ms. Roche, as well as poems written by her or inspired by her.

A second commemoration will take place at Hugo House Sunday, February 23 at 3 p.m.; again, all are invited to attend and share poems by or about Ms. Roche. (In a final act of generosity, Mrs. Roche left her vast personal library of books by North West poets and writers to Hugo House.)

Friends speak of Mrs. Roche as a warm and benevolent woman; a natural unifier with a ready laugh. “She really had a talent for bringing out the best in people and helping them use writing as a way to process the events that happened in their lives,” said her daughter, Tari Roche.

“She was free-spirited and bold,” said friend and former One Reel colleague Louise DiLenge. “She was great. She just took life by the teeth and made it do what she wanted it to do. It’s hard to find people like that. A lot of people talk, but they don’t live that life, and Judith did.

Originally from Detroit, Ms. Roche moved west in her 20s and as a young woman worked on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline before settling in the Seattle area. In the 1970s, her friend Sibyl James recalled, Ms. Roche “was a flagman on I-90 when they widened it. She would be standing there with the flag reading a book.

Hired by One Reel to run its literary program in 1986, Ms. Roche and DiLenge “brought that program back to life,” DiLenge said — raising funds, publishing anthologies, bringing well-known authors to town, creating programs for local schools. These education programs, DiLenge said, encouraged struggling students to write from the heart, “as opposed to punctuation and structure,” and put words to paper.

Tree Swenson, now executive director of Hugo House, recalled how Ms Roche revitalized the Bumbershoot book fair, turning it into a lively gathering of small publishers. “It really helped create camaraderie between presses from various parts of the North West – we all saw each other every year at Bumbershoot,” she said. “That was Judith’s greatest gift – she was very good at bringing people together.”

Ms. Roche worked for Bumbershoot until 2005. In 2007, One Reel presented her with its Golden Umbrella Award for Achievement in the Arts, citing among her accomplishments co-publishing the anthology “First Fish, First People” (winner of the ‘American Book Award in 1998) and edition of Bumbershoot’s annual literary magazine, Ergo!, from 1985 to 1994. “Judith’s support of local writers and artists is unparalleled,” One Reel wrote in its announcement, ” and his good spirit was not only an integral part of the One Reel community, but of the artistic community of the city and the country.

During her lifetime, Ms. Roche was a passionate ecologist, particularly interested in fish. (You can hear her voice while reading her series of poems”Salmon Suiteduring an installation at Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Ballard.) She was a member of the Black Earth Institute, a group of artists and scholars who have focused on social justice, environmental issues, and the spiritual dimensions of the human condition in their art and work. She was a founding member of Red Sky Poetry Theatre, a long-running local open-mic poetry series. And she has spent a lot of time with young people – teaching students of all ages, working with young people in detention centers and sick children in hospitals. “I think she helped each of them deepen their understanding of themselves through the work they did with her,” her daughter said.

Besides her daughter Tari, Ms. Roche is survived by her son, Robin, who is deaf and has Down syndrome. Through him, said Tari Roche, Ms. Roche became deeply involved in local Deaf and disabled communities. Other survivors include her granddaughters, Sahara and Gabriella Suval, her sisters, Lori Johnson and Marilyn Pramstaller, and their families.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to Seattle Arka non-profit organization that supports and provides community for people with developmental disabilities.

Ms. Roche’s poem “Metaphors of Dust”, published in Journal About Place de l’Institut de la Terre Noireconcluded with these lines:

But it’s so old

this great story often told –

that we are dust and return to dust —

We are a star instance in history

of rocks, glaciers, carbon-based creatures, stars.

We become the metaphor

and in this metaphor

we are all old

souls, substance of ancient stars

sing our story

and whatever he says

of our mixture of spirit and dust.

We are the metaphor of history

old souls whirling in the wind tunnel of time,

spirit and star and dust.

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