Arts and Culture

Gwen Nell Westerman is the new Minnesota poet laureate

A person speaks at a podium with two people behind her.
Minnesota State University, Mankato, English professor Gwen Nell Westerman speaks at a press conference after being named Minnesota's poet laureate by Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan at the Minnesota Humanities Center in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday. Westerman, who is Dakota, is the first Native person to hold the position.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Gwen Nell Westerman, a professor in the English Department at Minnesota State University, Mankato, was named Minnesota’s poet laureate Thursday by Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. 

Westerman is the first Native American to be Minnesota’s poet laureate. 

She has won two Minnesota Book Awards for her work about Dakota people, “Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota.” Her first poetry book “Follow the Blackbirds” was written in English and Dakota, and her poems and essays have been widely published. 

In addition, Westerman’ is a quilt artist whose work is part of the permanent collection of the Minnesota Historical Society and other museums.

“It is an honor to serve as the poet laureate and help elevate poetry across the state,” said Westerman, who has taught at Minnesota State, Mankato since 1992. “I am excited for the opportunity to share the beauty of poetry and to engage and celebrate the voices of all Minnesotans.”

A woman watches another speak.
During a Thursday press conference, Westerman listens as Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan reads a poem Westerman wrote for her after her election to office.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Westerman said she’s been promoting poetry to her students for years.

“Poetry is song,” she said. “And I remind them that they know the lyrics to a thousand songs. So, they know a thousand poems, at least. In this role, I think it will be my responsibility to help sing the stories of all the people of Minnesota.”

Westerman replaces Joyce Sutphen, who resigned earlier this year from the post that she held since 2011. Robert Bly was the state’s first poet laureate beginning in 2008

The Minnesota Humanities Center is responsible for the nominating process for the poet laureate and makes recommendations to the governor.

According to a statement from the governor’s office, the poet laureate is expected to attend and participate in events, engage marginalized voices and young people in poetry and “celebrate the state’s rich and vibrant cultural heritage,” among other duties.

“I’ve got a wide range of experience with all age groups, and I’m really excited about being able to bring some inspiration that anybody can write poetry and everyone knows poems,” Westerman said.