Gailmarie Pahmeier
is the author of several books, including Of BoneOf Ash, Of Ordinary SaintsA Nevada Gospel (WSC Press, 2020), which was nominated for the High Plains Book Award. Pahmeier is the recipient of three artists’ fellowships from the Nevada Arts Council, including the Major Project Fellowship. She has also been awarded the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts from the state of Nevada, served the city of Reno as its first poet laureate, and has been inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame In 2022, Pahmeier received an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship. Pahmeier will launch “Nevadan to Nevadan: What I Need to Tell You,” an epistolary poetry project for Nevadans to write letters to other people and places in the state. The project invites participants of all ages, including students in grades K–12, and aims to have both statewide and nationwide reach. What do you hope for the future of poetry in Nevada, and what support do you hope future poets laureate have?

Gailmarie Pahmeier: My hope for the future of poetry in Nevada is that it continues to be the vital artform that it is in our state. One of Nevada’s optional license plates reads: Rich in Art. The urban centers of Washoe and Clark counties have lively and active literary communities where one can find a reading at capacity. But the large landscape of our state also includes engaged and engaging poets in our rural counties and on tribal lands. I recently attended the thirty-eighth Annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, and the thousands of people who attended found their days and nights full of poetry, storytelling, and music. A particular treat at this year’s event was hearing Joy Harjo give the keynote address. And poems are being made elsewhere too, of course, from Pahrump to West Wendover, from Winnemucca to Carson City…

I do hope that future poets laureate have continued support from state agencies, media, and from citizens throughout the state, whatever their laureate projects might be. And I’m eager to see what future projects laureates create. How has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing?


GM: Well, one thing I’ve had to learn to do is write on commission. I’m a slow worker, one who often troubles a line or a phrase for much too long as I attempt to make conversation between speakers and readers. A challenge for me was being asked to write for a specific occasion, most recently a piece I made for the new governor’s inauguration. This piece needed to be celebratory, given the occasion, but it also needed to be honest; it needed to address issues we cannot ignore, such as our limited resources, our relationship to union representation, healthcare, etc. This assignment was unlike my usual work and approach, and I worried about it quite a bit. But I haven’t had anyone throw tomatoes yet, so I guess I’m okay. How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?

GM: This is a big question which deserves a much longer response than I’m about to give. Poetry is community. Poetry gives us mirrors and windows, lets us see ourselves and others through a vulnerable, and yet, powerful medium: language. Image. Metaphor. Music. I think the most meaningful comment I receive after a reading is from someone who says, essentially, “That’s my story too.” Way back in my grad school days, I had an esteemed professor who claimed that all good literature was about three things: love, death, and faith. My much younger self thought this most simplistic. But now? Isn’t everyone trying with every breath to be loved, to give love? Aren’t grief and fear communal? Aren’t we all struggling to be understood, to find some validation for what we want to believe? I now think this trinity has substance. I also think these topics can be both dangerous and wondrous. Sharing poems and encouraging others to write them are ways we acknowledge our being alive, being present, being essential threads in the tapestry of our communities. Poetry reminds us that, although we are sometimes lonely, we are not alone. What part of your epistolary project were you most excited about?

GM: I’m excited about all aspects of this project. But a few things I might specifically mention: we’ve had over one hundred poems submitted to this project, from all over the state. Some of the writers who’ve participated in this are from Nevada’s established literary communities, such as city and county laureates, state fellowship recipients, and MFA students and faculty. But some are writing, submitting, and publishing their very first poems, and these writers include public school students and senior citizens.

 I’m also delighted, and profoundly grateful, for the additional funding and support from the Academy of American Poets. This support allowed me to do a couple things I could not have done without it. First, I was able to engage several poets from around the state and compensate them for their time spent promoting the project and offering workshops that encouraged submissions. Without these selfless colleagues, I’m not sure we’d be  close to one hundred submissions.

 This support also allowed me to commission a playwright and theater artist. We are writing a script, a sort of collage, using lines and images from every poem that’s been submitted to date. We will be presenting a theatrical performance of a poetry reading of this work in early summer, at an arts venue in rural Nevada—Oats Park Art Center. We have a terrific group of readers lined up, people representing education, various arts disciplines, politics, and reservation communities. Again, without the support of the Academy of American Poets, these components of the project may not have been realized. Thank you! What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project? 

GM: One obstacle I experienced was fear. I’m the first appointee in decades to serve as Nevada’s poet laureate. We haven’t had an active program for about fifty years. We (and when I say we, I’m acknowledging the staff at the Nevada Arts Council, without whom so much could not happen!) are learning as we go, trying to figure out what Nevadans want this position to be and how it can matter. I was afraid that my project might fall flat; that I’d be scrambling to find people willing to submit original material, but the response has been gratifying. The epistolary poem is an intimate form. It may also be considered an archival work that marks itself in a particular time and space. What do you hope Nevadans communicate to one another through this project? What do you hope they discover through poems?

GM: What I hope Nevadans will communicate to one another is their worry and their wonder, their recognition that they live in a state that’s beautiful, but complicated. There’s much to appreciate here—our big sky, the mysteries of our desert landscapes, our imposing mountain ranges, bristlecone pines, and Joshua trees, even the haunting beckon of neon, our official state element. But there’s also much to worry about—our limited resources, particularly water, our rapidly growing population which requires significant attention, social programs, and decent, affordable housing, our teacher shortage…So much to consider. I hope that Nevadans will pause, pay attention to their specific communities and the larger needs and dreams of those throughout the state. Poetry does ask writers and readers to slow down a bit, listen, see, touch. I also hope that those who participate in the project will know that they are being heard and seen, that each voice matters. Is there a poem on that inspires you and your work in Nevada, particularly when thinking of the epistolary form? How so?

GM: There are so many poems and poets on that inspire me and my work.  And I do think that all poems are essentially letters, language made to communicate, although not always directly or simply. Let me first mention two poets whose work has inspired me, poets I consider personal saints: Richard Hugo and Lisel Mueller. Hugo’s Triggering Town and 31 Letters and 13 Dreams are books I keep close. His “Degrees of Gray at Phillipsburg” haunts, and I consider it a sort of letter, one that asks the reader to become part of a place they aren’t from, to feel its hurt and delicacy and last shreds of hope and spirit. Lisel Mueller was one of the first “local” (I went to college in Illinois) women poets I was exposed to in an English class, and I was enamored by her work. On, Rita Dove says of Mueller’s work that it is “the disingenuous lyric whose darker undertones reverberate long after we have floated on its sunlit surface.” I think this is one thing I aspire to do, to create a sunlit surface” but one that, if read carefully, reveals its “darker undertones.”

 But you asked for a single poem, and that’s a tough choice. But today, and at this moment, I’d say Lee Herrick’s “My California,” a poem I’ve admired and returned to often, especially when I imagined my project and the possibility of Nevadans speaking their truths. Herrick’s poem is honest and hopeful and richly detailed. It’s one that will inspire others to possess their place, and to do so with love and grace.