If everything had gone according to plan, Saturday would have been a big day for Paisley Rekdal, Utah’s poet laureate. Hundreds of people — including a couple hundred teachers — would have gathered at the University of Utah for the April 18 Utah Poetry Festival, a day filled with readings and classes and panels.
After uncounted hours spent envisioning and arranging the event, Rekdal and the other organizers were forced to cancel by the coronavirus pandemic. And, while she was quick to point out that it doesn’t compare with the suffering of COVID-19 patients and their families, it was still a tough loss to swallow.
“It’s hard, but I would very much prefer to do nothing than be dead,” she said with a laugh. “I have a pretty low bar, but that’s pretty much it. And you can quote me on that.”
Rekdal was looking forward to the chance to “help K through 12 educators bring poetry into their classrooms and have people talk about their experience teaching poetry, offer exercises, poems to teach.
“... There has been kind of a lot of personal disappointment and a sense of sadness about this, because one of the things that I have learned as Utah’s poet laureate is how hungry teachers are to find out how to present poems to their students in a way that makes poetry exciting and accessible.”
And the festival wasn’t going to be confined to the U. campus, where Rekdal teaches poetry. (She was appointed Utah’s poet laureate — an unpaid position — by Gov. Gary Herbert in 2017.)
“We had a whole series of activities related to poetry going on all around the state,” she said. “We had people who were going to be doing pop-up poetry events in St. George and book-making workshops and poetry workshops in Price and in Helper. And we had teenage poetry workshops that were going to be offered up in Logan and slam poetry workshops down in Herriman. And now it’s all disappeared.”
With one exception. A year ago, Rekdal received a $100,000 grant from the Academy of American Poets, and she’s been using that money to help fund the Utah Poetry Festival and the website Mapping Literary Utah, which will feature videos, poems and prose excerpts by writers who reside or have resided in Utah.
“The one good thing that we’re still going forward with is that,” she said. “So there is still a celebration of Utah arts and letters. And, luckily, it will take place in the safest possible way — on your computer screen, in your own living room.”
The website is still scheduled to launch on April 18, the day the poetry festival was to take place.
“Teachers can access it and have their students look at the site and do research on it,” said Rekdal, who’s looking at moving other resources online.
“What this [pandemic] taught me was to have something online so that students and teachers can access it very quickly. Because as we’re forced to work remotely more and more, and we don’t know when that’s going to stop, this should be helpful, I think, for a lot of people.”
And she’s leaving options open for the Utah Poetry Festival. It could be rescheduled sometime this fall, or — in what is, hopefully, the worst-case scenario — take place in the spring of 2021.
“So what I don’t spend this year does carry over,” Rekdal said. “I’m disappointed this year only in the sense of all the work that was lost. But the money is still there. And it’s still going to happen, even if it’s next year.”
As the state’s poet laureate, she’s had requests to share a video of herself reading inspirational poetry. Which she’s not going to do — Rekdal recently tweeted, “This may be a bad time to admit this, but I’ve always secretly hated inspirational poems.”
“I’m a bad poet laureate,” she said with a laugh.
But Rekdal does have some poetry recommendations for readers at home:
• “I take a lot of solace in the work of Robert Hass. Pretty much any of his poetry collections,” she said, specifically mentioning “Summer Snow” and “The Apple Trees at Olema.”
• She also recommended Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, “who is both accessible but always surprising. Get ‘View With a Grain of Sand.’”
• “Chilean poet Raul Zurita is tremendous, and he’s accessible too. Maybe ‘About love, suffering, and the new millennium’ is a good place to start.”
• “Everyone loves haiku, even if they don’t love haiku. You just haven’t read the right one yet," Rekdal said. "A delightful place to start is ‘The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson and Issa’ … or ‘Asian Figures’ by W.S. Merwin.”
• “And finally, one of my very favorite poets is the Danish poet Inger Christensen. ‘Alphabet’ is an amazing book.”
Rekdal said she supports suggestions that Utahns quarantined in their homes do something useful with their time, whether it’s exercise, cook better meals and get healthy, or produce art.
“But at the same time, I also feel that a lot of times we approach art as this thing that’s supposed to be morally or spiritually enriching. And I think that’s why people are resistant to it,” she said.
“And if we treat poetry as this thing that we’re supposed to do because we’re in quarantine and we should make ourselves better humans, it’ll turn a lot of people off to it. And I know that’s probably the kind of advice you would not expect a poet laureate to give.”
For anyone interested, she suggested checking out poetryfoundation.org and poetry.org “and find out what you do like.” But if you’re not interested, “don’t beat yourself up about it. You don’t have to turn to poetry just because you’re locked in the house,” she said with a laugh.
“We have this tendency to treat poetry like it’s very important. That it says something about you if you can’t appreciate poetry. And if you don’t treat it with some sort of intellectual seriousness, there’s something wrong with you.”
Some poetry is serious and intellectual, “but there’s a lot of poems that are playful and fun. That are about history. There’s a lot of poems that are also just thinking about what that poet ate for dinner. And I think sometimes we suck all the fun out of poetry because we treat it as a big, great, moral, spiritual and endeavor that’s really intimidating.
“So I would just say to people, if you want to do this — go for it. But if you weren’t interested in poetry before, you don’t have to be interested in poetry now.”