Bookmark: Meet Gwen Westerman, our new poet laureate

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Minnesota Third Poet Laureate Gwen Westerman is a quilt maker, scholar, Dakota speaker, poet, memorialist, mentor. But if things had turned out a little differently, she might have been a chemist.

Westerman is a professor in the English department at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and a member of Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate through his father. She is also a citizen of the Cherokee Nation through her mother, whose family is from the Flint District.

We met her shortly after the announcement of her new honor: she will be the third state poet laureate and the first Indigenous to hold this position.

Question: How did you find out that you had been selected?

A: I am honored that Heid E. Erdrich and Geoff Herbach, both extraordinary writers, nominated me for this honor. The governor called me in mid-August to tell me that I had been selected, and I was almost speechless. Anyone who knows me knows that this does not happen very often! We had to keep the news a secret until the announcement on September 9 at the governor’s press conference.

Question: What does it mean to you to be a poet laureate? What do you plan to do in this capacity?

A: It is a huge honor for me. We are fortunate to have many great poets and artists in Minnesota, and I would love to help shine a light on all the wonderful poetry that is being created here.

Land is a dominant theme in my writing, so students can be encouraged to observe and write about the landscape and our large state parks. Another priority is to make the voices of youth across the state heard in communities that may be underserved. These are just my preliminary thoughts and I will be working with the Minnesota Humanities Center to better understand the responsibilities and expectations of the Poet Laureate.

Question: Why is having a poet laureate good for the state?

A: A Poet Laureate can help educate Minnesota residents – students, communities, and leaders – about the value and importance of poetry and creative expression. Companies are looking for candidates with the Five Cs: Creativity, Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Global Citizenship. Poetry involves all of these skills! Our state strongly supports the arts, and a poet laureate can help send the message that the arts are an important part of everyone’s life.

Question: You are the third poet laureate in our history, after Robert Bly and Joyce Sutphen. Bly saw it as a symbolic role, but Sutphen was quite active. How will your time as a Poet Laureate be different from theirs?

A: It’s too early for me to know how different my time will be, but I see this as an opportunity to engage with people across Minnesota. I was honored that Joyce Sutphen contacted me immediately after the announcement, and I look forward to speaking with her about her perspective on the position and its possibilities.

Question: Some of your poems are written in both English and the Dakota language. Did you grow up in a Dakota speaking household?

A: Neither of my parents spoke English when they were sent to residential schools at a young age, and were not [Dakota] adult speakers. They met at the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kan., And got married in 1954. As a teenager, I lived for a while with my grandmother, who spoke a mother tongue, and she told me : “You should learn English and learn it. good so you can be successful. ”And then I left for college. Honors in English wasn’t even on my radar at the time.

I moved to Mankato in 1991 and over the years every time I met a Dakota parent who was a speaker I would bring a little gift and ask them how to say something specific, something that would help me get along. to present. I will learn this language for the rest of my life.

My husband, Glenn Wasicuna, is a Dakota native speaker and teacher. So I am fortunate to live in a Dakota speaking home.

It is important for me to write in both languages ​​because Dakota is the language of this land and marks this land in the names of rivers, towns and monuments. It is the language of my ancestors and my grandparents, and it is a living language. Anything I can write in English I can write in Dakota including stellar nucleosynthesis or see camels in a pasture along the Oklahoma highway!

It is important for others to know that as indigenous peoples we cherish and use our native languages ​​every day across the country, as well as everyone whenever they use the place names that come from our countries. languages.

Question: You also make quilts – and they are gorgeous! I don’t even have a question about them, I just wanted to tell you.

A: My grandmother made quilts and would never have called herself an “artist” but she did a great job, all by hand. I was 40 years old before I made my first quilt, then I quickly realized that they could tell a story as well as words.

Question: Please talk about the importance of poetry in everyday life.

A: When I read the poem “The Names” by Billy Collins at the 9/11 commemoration at the State Capitol, I prefaced it by saying that a poet’s job is observation, then how put words to what is in the hearts of people. I can’t imagine a day without some form of poetry, whether it’s an advertising jingle, the lyrics of a song, a poem printed on the sidewalk or wearing the colors of a graffiti artist. Poetry is everywhere around us. He can speak to us, even speak for us when we are at a loss for words in times of the deepest joy and sadness.

Q: What is the first poem that you learned by heart?

A: This is a difficult question because the first things that come to mind are the songs, which are poetry on a melody, or the lyrics from Dr. Seuss books. The answer should be Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride”. I had to memorize it and then recite it in front of Mrs. Brownfield’s English class in eighth grade.

Q: I’m fascinated that you studied chemistry in college until your final year – when did you start writing poetry?

A: Some of my earliest memories are scribbling in a book and telling my mom I was “writing”. I probably still have some mushy teenage poems hidden somewhere (I should probably find them and throw them away!). I wrote a lot of letters and my friends would tell me they loved reading them because they were so well written. So writing, descriptive writing, has been something that I have been doing for most of my life.

When I changed my major to English, I took technical writing and literature courses. Combining words in a sequence to achieve an effect isn’t much different, in my mind, than formulas and equations, which I liked about math and science. I wrote a poem or a sonnet here or there, but nothing serious until I was in my mid-thirties. Most of my writing so far has been prose, and I still write essays and stories.

Question: What didn’t I ask you that I should have? What else would you like to say?

A: I am currently working on a series of poems on the experiences through time of mothers of war, of women whose children went to war. My son Travis Griffin graduated from MSU Mankato and then served in the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines with two combat missions in Iraq. After more than 10 years, I am finally in a place where I can write. My daughter Erin Griffin is also a graduate of MSU and is enrolled in the Hawaiian and Indigenous Languages ​​and Cultures Revitalization PhD Program and teaches the Dakota language. We are working together on a number of Dakota language and culture projects.

Laurie Hertzel is the editor of the Star Tribune books. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.


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