Melissa Kwasny is the author of six books of poetry, including Where Outside the Body is the Soul Today (University of Washington Press, 2017). M.L. Smoker was the recipient of the Richard Hugo Fellowship and is the author of Another Attempt at Rescue (Hanging Loose Press, 2005). In 2021, Kwasny and Smoker received an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship to partner with seven Montana art and historical museums, selecting individual works, writing ekphrastic poems in response, and holding workshops on site at the museums for area youth to learn to write their own ekphrastic poems. The project, which builds on the success of a previous collaboration with the Missoula Art Museum, will culminate in a webinar on ekphrastic poetry through the museums’ websites and Humanities Montana’s Speakers in the Schools program.
Poets.org: What do you hope for the future of poetry in Montana and what support do you hope future poets laureate in Montana have?
Montana already has a vibrant, if far-flung, literary community, anchored by an annual, statewide book festival, a community-oriented network of libraries that sponsor readings and workshops, local arts centers, and a renowned creative writing program at the University of Montana. Our hope is that these resources are made more and more available to those who are marginalized, such as Indigenous, LGBTQ, young, and rural writers.
The Montana Poet Laureate position was created by the state legislature in 2005; however, no money was appropriated for it. Thankfully, Humanities Montana/Montana Center for the Book, is an essential support for laureates, serving as a portal to connect communities, schools, and poets, and providing a small stipend and travel expenses for our events. We hope that future laureates continue to visit the great, diverse landscape of Montana—in large and small communities across our state—from farming towns to First Peoples reservations to our urban centers and border towns. By doing so, we promote poetry to all who show up to listen. We extend our stories, our interior selves, to audiences who may not look like us always, who might have different political opinions, but who might see a spark and feel connected to something larger.
Poets.org: How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?
We were the first Montana poets laureate who asked to share the position. Our intention was to serve as an example of people working together, creatively and collaboratively, across generations and cultures, toward common goals. Mandy is a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of Fort Peck reservation. Melissa is a lesbian. Twenty years separate us. Most people, as Mandy says, think they don’t know anyone like either of us. In our public role, as we offer workshops and readings that include poetry from diverse perspectives, we hope to enlarge the current understandings of the American West.
As recipients of the Academy of American Poets Poet Laureate fellowship, we chose to further this goal by designing a project that involves identifying seven Montana art or historical museums, viewing their collections, and writing poems in response to a specific artwork or object, a form of poetry called “ekphrastic.” We also schedule ekphrastic poetry workshops for area youth on site at the museums. Working with Humanities Montana, we have created a website that features museum images, our poems, prompts, student work, and an essay on the origins of ekphrastic poetry by a professor at U of M, as well as links to the resources at Poets.org. Most of these museums are so far from each other—over three thousand miles—that their collections are often unknown or unavailable to many. We see our project as one that can expand the audience for these museums, helping them engage with their communities and sparking statewide interest in their collections, both online and on site. Most importantly, we believe our project will make museum-going more welcoming, more inclusive, and more creative for everyone. And best of all, the students love it!
Poets.org: Has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing in any way?
Kwasny: Many poets are introverts; I am. Embracing a public role has, consequently, made me more aware of the audience. I am more intentional in what I choose to share and what I want to convey. I am working toward increasing clarity, I hope. This does not mean becoming less complicated or difficult.
Smoker: Because of my demanding full-time job as an educator, it can be hard to connect to poetry at times. This laureateship with Melissa has been a joy, a way to remember and connect back to that part of myself. And to do it with a good friend and share in the experience adds to it all because I’m able to spend time with a wonderful poet who inspires me.
Poets.org: What part of your project were you most excited about?
All of it! Traveling to museums together across our beautiful state, viewing the permanent collections, going down into basements and vaults containing art and artifacts. Talking with one another about the art afterward. Working with high school students as their area museums open up to them imaginatively in ways they hadn’t anticipated or thought of before. Finding ways together to make the project more impactful. Writing the poems, of course.
Poets.org: What obstacles, if any, did you experience when first starting your project?
The pandemic. We had to wait for many museums to open again. We had to use Zoom to connect with some classes of students, choosing images from the museums beforehand, procuring them electronically, and creating PowerPoints with our sample poems, images, and prompts.
Poets.org: From your experience with this current project and your previous collaboration with the Missoula Art Museum, has pairing different mediums of expression made it easier for young writers to understand poetry? Has it made them more excited about poetry as an art form and tool for self-expression?
Everyone knows the terror of the blank page, especially students who are often given an assigned topic or theme and required to write. What to write about? Does what I have to say matter? Ekphrastic poetry takes care of that. They can use their senses to walk farther and farther into the painting or sculpture or object. We give them permission to gaze, and to do so from their interior space, the thoughts and feelings and ideas they hold as individuals. Name three things they see. What do they hear? What smells are imagined? Is there something happening outside the frame that we can’t see? How does the artwork connect with their lives? We are firm believers in pairing reading and writing, and art is an extra bonus. The sample poems along with the images serve as inspiration, illustration, and analysis. Everywhere we went—from the Museum of the Plains Indian on the Blackfeet reservation to the Museum of the Beartooths with its full-size stage coach and Model T—students were eager to write and share their poems.
Poets.org: How were the individual art works at the seven art and historical museums selected? Could you tell us a little about them and why they were selected for these projects to inspire Montana youth?
As you note, our project was conceived because of a collaboration with the Missoula Art Museum, which has one of the largest and best collections of contemporary American Indian art in the West. Together, we chose a vintage Forest Service Map of the area, which was overlaid with beads by the Lakota artist Molly Murphy Adams. Small, red beaded circles indicated where an Indigenous woman was murdered, assaulted, or went missing. There were so many of them, along with traditional beaded floral patterns. Because a lot of people in Montana are affected in so many ways by these tragedies, the poems we wrote in response generated powerful reactions—and discussions—with students who came to the museum. When students are able to visit the various museums themselves, we let them choose their own images. “Go to what is calling you,” we say. Ownership of one’s responses is key in the writing of poetry, right? As Montana poet Richard Hugo said, “I am not in love with things; I am in love with my responses to things.” If we have to offer images we select them ahead of time. Because we are having to use Zoom, we try to emphasize objects and artwork by Native peoples in an effort to widen students’ perspectives. Here in Montana, we have seven First Peoples reservations, twelve tribal nations, and many, many prominent Native artists. Yet, most students are not familiar with their work.
Poets.org: Is there a poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work in Montana, particularly when it comes to ekphrastic poems? How?
We use Wisława Symborska’s “Two Monkeys by Brueghel” in our initial handouts and PowerPoints, along with an image of the painting. The poem makes an immediate connection to their lives as the narrator imagines the monkeys in a window (how absurd yet believable!) while she is taking a school exam.