Paisley Rekdal said she thinks of her title, poet laureate for the state of Utah, as “an ambassador of poetry …, a person who tries to make poetry more accessible to the community at large.”
After five years, the ambassador is finishing her tour of duty — and she considers her term a success.
The biggest project on Rekdal’s agenda is the Utah Poetry Festival, which has been going on throughout April in venues around the state, coinciding with National Poetry Month. Rekdal — along with writers Lisa Bickmore, Kimberly Johnson, Natasha Sajé, and Jennifer Tonge — started the first festival in 2019. For 2021, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event went virtual.
One downside of going to an online format, Rekdal said, was not seeing schoolkids around the state in person. “Many of the most memorable moments have been working with really young kids who have this incredible talent for poetry that they didn’t even know they had, and being able to sort of nurture that a little bit,” she said.
One of the centerpiece events of the festival happens this weekend. Rekdal will host a reading over Zoom, Friday at 7 p.m., featuring Utah poets Jay Hopler, Kimberly Johnson and Nan Seymour. That’s followed by a day of online workshops and conversations on Saturday — ending with another reading at 7 p.m. with Utah poets Danielle Dubrasky, Nancy Takacs, and John Belk. Registration is available at the festival’s website.
Another project Rekdal spearheaded over her term is Mapping Literary Utah. She described it as “a web archive of all the Utah writers past and present” that allows people to research and find Utah writers.
Rekdal also worked on “West: A Translation” which she was commissioned to write in advance of the May 2019 statewide celebration of the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, when the “Golden Spike” was driven at Promontory, Utah, in 1869.
She called “West” essentially “a digital poem that thinks about the cultural impact of the Transcontinental Railroad, both on our state and on our nation.”
Rekdal said the key to the work is a Chinese poem, where “every character that I’ve chosen opens up into another sort of story about the railroad or one of the railroad workers.” It’s a response to a Chinese elegy that was carved into the walls of Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco, where Chinese migrants were detained as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
“No one knows who wrote the poem, but the poem elegizes a fellow detainee who committed suicide,” she said. “I wanted to use that poem as a lens into thinking about so many of the workers’ lives, the ways that the Transcontinental [Railroad] really shaped American immigration law, labor law ideas about race, gender and culture.”
Rekdal recommended all Utahns to get involved with poetry — by being good audience members, by sharing the poetry festival with others, and by letting museums and other organizations that stage poetry events know that they’re appreciated.
Utah’s poetry community, Rekdal said, is “diverse, and it’s kind of wild and wonderful. We have people writing all different kinds and types of poems, and they approach poetry with so many different lenses. … One of the things that I really loved about being part of this poetry community is that all the poets that I’ve met have just had such goodwill for each other, and they reach out to each other.”
And while Rekdal said “there are no Utah poems” — in that there are no poems that sum up all the facets of the state — she did list three poems, whose writers were in or from Utah, that she particularly loves:
“Feel Me” by May Swenson • “I just love the way she twists and turns this opening phrase to reconsider feeling and intimacy.”
“The Two Trees” by Larry Lewis • “I simply adore Larry Levis, and the way he’s able to balance the personal and the philosophical so perfectly.”
“Topaz, Utah” by Toto Suyemoto • “If there is such a thing as an actual ‘Utah’ poem — a poem that could only have been written in Utah — then it was forged in Topaz, where we incarcerated Japanese Americans during WWII and thus altered both the course of Utah’s literature and Asian American literary culture as well.”
Rekdal said she participated in some 60 events in 2021, so she’s looking to take a vacation when her term is over. She will continue to write and be involved with poetry. For her, she said, “it’s a very practical thing, physical, almost daily.”
A spokesperson for the Utah Division of Arts & Museums, which has overseen the poet laureate program since it began in 1997, said the selection committee to find Rekdal’s successor was convened last week. The division will forward a list of candidates to Gov. Spencer Cox, who will make the final choice.
Poetry is not dead, Rekdal said. “If anything, it never died,” she said. “Now, it’s flourishing.”
Poetry, Rekdal said, “is a way we take stock of ourselves. … Poetry for me means a human record. If poetry cannot necessarily affect any great social or political change on its own, what it does is suggest the activation of certain values in readers that choose to live the values that they find in the poems that they read.”
Poetry evolves with technology, she said — citing the example of the sound poets from the 1910s, just before World War I, who didn’t have clear written language.
“We’re expanding this notion of poetry again to include more voices and include more ways of accessing what poetry finally is, which is an expression of a sort of deep human feeling in a moment of time,” Rekdal said. “And there’s nothing that says that has to be written as a sonnet.”
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