Utah’s poet laureate receives $100,000 grant to fund her literary Mapping Utah project and poetry festival

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) University of Utah poet and professor Paisley Rekdal has received a $100,000 award and been named an Academy of American Poets laureate fellow.

Utah’s poet laureate has received a $100,000 award and been named an Academy of American Poets laureate fellow.

Paisley Rekdal, who was appointed to the unpaid position by Gov. Gary Herbert in May 2017, is one of 13 state or local poets laureate to be honored by the academy. And she was taken aback by the announcement.

“It’s a shocking amount of money,” Rekdal said with a laugh. “An amazing amount of money.”

The award recognizes literary merit and is designed to support civic programs — Rekdal is the creator and managing editor of Mapping Salt Lake City (mappingslc.org), and she’s planning a statewide website, Mapping Utah, which will feature videos, poems and prose excerpts by writers who reside or have resided in Utah.

“The thing that was holding me back with the Mapping Utah project was trying to figure out who would host it and what it would look like,” Rekdal said. “The state of Utah has been really generous with its artists, but they just don’t have a huge budget for the poet laureate’s project.”

The grant will pay for a web producer and a research assistant, and allow Rekdal to “devote some of my time to going around and doing the archival research, and interviewing the poets, and [arranging copyright permissions] to their work so I can put it on the site.”

She’s also planning to spend some of the money on a statewide poetry event. The first Utah Poetry Festival, scheduled for Saturday at Westminster College, got support from the Utah Humanities Council and the Utah Division of Arts and Museums. But Rekdal is hoping to make it an annual event that will both celebrate the state’s poets and provide a resource for public school teachers.

“One of the things I learned as the poet laureate is, I go into a lot of classrooms and some people feel very comfortable teaching poetry and a lot of teachers don’t feel comfortable,” she said. “With this program, teachers will feel like they have a resource behind them.”

An English professor at the University of Utah, Rekdal has authored five books of poetry, “A Crash of Rhinos,” “Six Girls Without Pants,” “The Invention of the Kaleidoscope,” “Animal Eye” and “Imaginary Vessels”; a book of essays, “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee”; a photo-text memoir, “Intimate”; and a book-length essay, “The Broken Country: On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam," which won the 2016 Association of Writers & Writing Programs Nonfiction Prize.

Her newest book of poems, “Nightingale,” will be published in May.

Rekdal was also commissioned to write a poem to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad — which turned into a multimedia project titled “West: A Translation.”

I knew it was going to be a long poem,” Rekdal said, “but I didn’t realize it was going to end up being book-length. I spent literally a whole year just researching everything I could about the transcontinental and I became more interested in, not the building of it on a day-to-day level, but on its cultural impact and its meaning in America both before it was actually created and then afterward.

“The railroad transformed almost everything. It had a huge impact on labor laws and immigration laws. It had a huge impact on gender and ideas about race. It certainly had a huge impact on Native American communities.”

She will present “West: A Translation” before performances of “The Dance and the Railroad” at Salt Lake Acting Company on May 6 and 7.

Rekdal has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Village Voice Writers on the Verge Award, an NEA Fellowship, Pushcart Prizes, the University of Georgia Press’ Contemporary Poetry Series Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, and her work has been included in the Best American Poetry series in 2012, 2013, 2017, 2018 and 2019.