In states like Nebraska, Oklahoma, Montana, and Wyoming, poet laureates work to include rural in all duties of the office, from their poems, to their poetry workshops, to poetry readings in small-town libraries. (Nick Fewings/Unsplash)
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Recently, Barbara Smith’s son Jason was playing a game of pool with his buddies in Wyoming when he abruptly left the game to attend his mother’s poetry reading.

“The other men came with him and they were surprised and I think happy to be there,” Smith recalls. “I don’t think they had been at a poetry reading before.”

As Wyoming’s poet laureate, it’s Smith’s mission to bring poetry to communities throughout the state, especially to those for whom poetry seems least accessible.

She thinks that’s especially important in rural communities that want to preserve their collective past.

“I like to go into places in small communities such as libraries where people can come together and talk about their experiences, and I encourage them to write their experiences, and about finding a home here — to tell their story — the real history of America that can be written.”

Wyoming Poet Laureate Barbara Smith. (Photo provided)

Appointed last October by an executive order from Gov. Mark Gordon, Smith is one of 46 state poet laureates, or State Poets, throughout the U.S. who are appointed according to legislative directives. In most cases, including Wyoming, the state’s Arts and Humanities Council collects nominations from the public, then makes recommendations for gubernatorial appointment. Most serve two-year terms though some serve longer. All serve at the pleasure of the governor.

While most state poet laureates conduct occasion-specific readings of their work at special sessions of the State Legislature, appear at literary festivals, lead poetry workshops, and write poems for commemorative and other special events around the state, each poet laureate creates their own agenda after accepting the appointment.

For Nebraska State Poet Matt Mason, that means traveling to schools all over the state demonstrating that students — and their teachers — can be poets, too.

“I visit the largest schools in the state and the smallest rural ones, too and the kids and their teachers can’t imagine writing their own poetry, so I tell them that if they write a poem and put it in a drawer then go back five years later, if they have the same feeling [when the wrote it], then they have done it,” says Mason who was appointed to his position in 2019 by then Gov. John Ricketts. “In rural communities especially I want to get people to see that poetry and the rest of the arts are normal.”

Nebraska Poet Laureate Matt Mason. (Photo provided)

In fact that’s the mission of many poet laureates from largely rural states, even though these states have oft-unrecognized rich literary histories.

Nebraska has been naming State Poets since 1921, according to Erika Hamilton, director of literary programs for the nonprofit organization Humanities Nebraska. Two years later, Oklahoma became the seventh state to name a poet laureate.

More recently, Wyoming’s first poet laureate was named in January 1981, and Montana appointed its first poet laureate in 2005.

A rural poet laureate is fundamental to reminding residents of rural communities of the culture that they share, says Rachel Clifton, executive director of the Wyoming Arts Council.

For example, Wyoming is the least populated state in the country but we have a lot of shared experiences,” Clifton says. “Putting [rural communities] in forefront gives [those experiences] a different lens and understanding.”

That’s why Oklahoma poet laureate Jay Snider makes sure that every one of his presentations includes a history lesson, too.

Oklahoma Poet Laureate Jay Snider. (Photo provided)

For the past 20 years, Snider has been writing and publicly reading what he calls “Cowboy Poetry,” rhymed and metered ballads that men driving cattle on the Chisholm Trail from Texas through the Oklahoma Territory to Kansas would recite to the herd.

On the cattle drives they learned that the cattle would settle down if they sang or recited poetry because the last thing you wanted was a stampede,” Snyder explains. “They wrote about their work, their horses, the cattle and ranching — about their lives — and that’s what I’ve been going to schools and museums to encourage kids to do. It’s all about the stories.”

In Montana, poet laureate Chris La Tray travels the state’s vast distances sharing stories and poetry with students from elementary school through college, groups of adults, and seniors. His poetry addresses issues of cultural identity, nature and what the future looks like in Montana.

I may be in front of an audience for an hour and only read three poems [because] it’s about storytelling,” said La Tray, who is a member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. “Ultimately a poet’s job is to speak truth to power.”

Montana Poet Laureate Chris La Tray. (Photo provided)

According to Smith, that’s especially important in rural areas of Wyoming where communities grapple with recent attention from outsiders that will almost certainly bring change.

Among them are Bill Gates, who plans to build the Terra-Power Natrium nuclear power plant near Kemmerer.

People will be moving in the area to build and support the plant all with the expected impact on the cost of real estate,” Smith said. “My mission is to engage people to explore what’s happening in their communities by means of poetry.”

Meanwhile, Jay Snider believes that promoting poetry and encouraging young poets is crucial no matter where people live.I still write cowboy poetry, but I’ve read and studied classical poetry as well,” Snider says.”I want to bring that to the forefront too, because if we don’t keep that alive we’re going to lose the whole genre in one generation.”

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Pat Raia is a contributing reporter to the Daily Yonder.

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  1. Usually my biologist husband is sharing with me some morsel from the Pedrodiniz to chew on, but when this article about poets appeared I gobbled it all up for myself. How refreshing to hear that poets are alive, well, and thriving in Wyoming and other mountain states. Pablo Neruda was right when he said that poetry, like bread, is for everyone! It is one more precious thing we mustn’t lose. Thanks to you and these poets for keeping the poetry fires burning (I always knew my love poem entitled “Roadkill” was worth it;).