Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Gwen Westerman reflects on three years as state’s poet laureate

woman standing on gravel road holding quilt
Gwen Westerman is Minnesota poet laureate as well as an essayist, historian, teacher and quilter.
Melanie Zacek for QuiltFolk

Tuesday is the last day of National Poetry Month, and Minnesota Now marked the occasion by talking to the state’s very own poet laureate, Professor Gwen Westerman. She was appointed by Gov. Tim Walz in 2021, and is the third poet to hold the title in Minnesota.

Preceding her was Joyce Sutphen, appointed in 2011, and Robert Bly, who started things off in 2008. Westerman teaches English and Humanities at Minnesota State University Mankato, and she's published two poetry collections, “Songs, Blood Deep,” and “Follow the Blackbirds.”

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

EMILY BRIGHT: This is Minnesota Now. I'm Emily Bright in for Cathy Wurzer. It is the last day of National Poetry month, which does not mean we have to stop talking about poetry after today, but it does give us an excellent reason to talk to our state's very own Poet Laureate, Professor Gwen Westerman. She was appointed by Governor Walz in 2021, and is the third poet to hold the title in Minnesota.

Preceding her was Joyce Sutphen, appointed in 2011, and Robert Bly started things off in 2008. Westerman teaches English and Humanities at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and she's published two poetry collections, "Songs, Blood Deep," and "Follow the Blackbirds." Thank you so much for joining us, professor.

GWEN WESTERMAN: Thank you for the opportunity to share more about poetry.

EMILY BRIGHT: Always So three years in, what have you been up to as poet laureate?

GWEN WESTERMAN: Oh my.

EMILY BRIGHT: I think a lot of people don't know what the poet laureate does. So this is great to hear.

GWEN WESTERMAN: Well, the poet laureate job in Minnesota is to champion poetry and spoken word across the state. So I've been everywhere from Duluth to Worthington to Rochester, and all over the metro area and everywhere in between. So it's been a busy time.

EMILY BRIGHT: I imagine. I heard you were just in Rochester for a Poetry Sparks workshop working with young people. Tell me about that.

GWEN WESTERMAN: Yes. Yes. Poetry Sparks is our brand that it sparks imagination, it sparks creativity. And in conjunction with the Minnesota Humanities Center, we've been putting on events across the state.

And in Rochester, we set out for an audience of young people to come and do magnetic poetry and write and create. And we had a lot of adults who participated and had just as much fun as the kids.

EMILY BRIGHT: What do you like about working with youth to explore poetry?

GWEN WESTERMAN: They aren't afraid of poetry. Sometimes when you work with older students or adults, they're like, well, I'm not a poet. And then you find out that, yes, they really are because they love music, they love the sound of words, and they have lots of great observations about the world around them.

EMILY BRIGHT: What draws you into writing a poem? Are you drawn to an image or the musicality of the line or certain language?

GWEN WESTERMAN: Yes.

EMILY BRIGHT: Awesome. All of the above.

GWEN WESTERMAN: All of the above. It really just depends. I make notes constantly in the margins of my calendar, in a journal. I pay attention to the changing seasons. And yesterday I found a little Robin's egg in the grass. So I set it aside and I'm going to have to have something to say about that. But just in conversation with the land and the people.

EMILY BRIGHT: I remember back in 2021 you read "The Names" by Billy Collins, whose work I like, for the 20th anniversary of 9/11. That was your first reading as a poet laureate, right?

GWEN WESTERMAN: Yes And what an awesome and humbling event to start off my poet laureateship with. That was an incredibly moving event. They asked me to write a poem, but I thought Billy Collins' peaced "The Names," witnessed and recorded by someone who was actually involved would be much more powerful than anything I could have written. So that's why I chose that poem.

EMILY BRIGHT: What is it about poetry that allows us to speak into situations of chaos or hurt? I feel like poetry has that permission that other written forms don't always.

GWEN WESTERMAN: It might also have something to do with the compactness. Many times of poetry, it's not an essay, it's not a research paper, a newspaper article or anything like that. And poetry is not as intimidating, I think, when it comes to those kinds of situations.

EMILY BRIGHT: GWEN WESTERMAN, you're also the first Native person to hold the title of poet laureate in Minnesota. What does that mean to you?

GWEN WESTERMAN: It means a lot because it provides an opportunity to elevate an Indigenous perspective to art, to events around us, And for all of those other people across the state who think, well, I couldn't do that because I'm in a wheelchair or I didn't go to college or my family immigrated here, it means a lot that I can help raise those kinds of voices as well.

EMILY BRIGHT: I know many states have poet laureates, even some cities, and an appreciation for the arts. What makes Minnesota poetry scene stand out for you?

GWEN WESTERMAN: The land.

EMILY BRIGHT: Tell me more. I'm with you.

GWEN WESTERMAN: We have such a beautiful state that encompasses not only tallgrass prairie, but tall pines and lakes and rivers. It's such a diverse landscape and has seasons. That's why I love it.

EMILY BRIGHT: You have to appreciate each one as you get it.

GWEN WESTERMAN: Yes, even if winter comes in spring.

EMILY BRIGHT: Why not? Of course it will. I understand that you prepared a poem to read for us, and I'm very excited for this. Could you introduce it for us?

GWEN WESTERMAN: Yes. I've spent a lot of time at Fort Snelling State Park and a lot of state parks across Minnesota. But for us as Dakota people, that place where the two rivers come together is especially significant place.

So what I brought for everyone today is called "Bdote, on the edge of Spring." Rush through this place, a grey-brown world where winter still clenches broken branches, bark chewed from fallen trees.

Watermarks high on trunks mark floods from years before. White plastic buckets under blue taps are ready for the sap to flow. Cardinal splashes red among the gray branches, red buds bursting, red. tobacco ties waving. Green sprouts among last year's leaves. Pale yellow woodchips glint in the sun where beavers cut trees near the river. Then above the ridge, a single bird calls, wet too, wet too, and it is almost spring.

EMILY BRIGHT: I think poetry gives us permission to slow down and look. That poem certainly does.

GWEN WESTERMAN: Yes, I would agree with that.

EMILY BRIGHT: Well, thank you for sharing that with us today and for all the work you're doing to share poetry across the state.

GWEN WESTERMAN: You're welcome. It's an honor and a privilege to serve as an advocate and champion for poetry.

EMILY BRIGHT: Thanks. Professor Gwen Westerman is the poet laureate of Minnesota.

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