Poet Laureates Around the Nation:
Poet Laureate, Wyoming
On Writing: I was always interested in reading and read before starting school but I didn’t have any particular interest in writing. I loved art and studied music—I still work as a musician. I loved painting and took classes in drawing and painting and wondered if maybe I could be a painter. In college I began to try to write with some seriousness of purpose and I have now slowly backed into discovering how powerful literature is and how deep is my commitment to writing.
Inspirations: My writing arises from trying to understand the collisions between our personal lives—domestic activities, family, friends—and larger social and spiritual issues. Politics often enters my work. And nature—I live at the base of the Bighorn Mountains in northern Wyoming in a small town. I spend a lot of time running, bicycling, skiing. It is when I’m in the woods or at a lake or prairie that I feel most alive and most happy. It’s impossible to feel connected to nature and not end up examining the way our political system is serving to accelerate the human destructive impact on the plants and animals, the air and water that give us birth and nurture us.
Challenges: The biggest challenge I’ve faced is rejection. To work as an artist means to live in the world of criticism. I hope that I make art from a belief that I serve more as a vehicle for something much bigger than my individual being. I want to make art that has some social value, that can lead another human being to a deeper understanding of life, and that can also provide some happiness to that person. At the same time, I recognize that I also make art out of a need to be approved of, to be liked.
Turning Points: When my father died was the first time I could say aloud that I was a writer. My father felt that writing was useless if it didn’t make money. I’ve been mostly a poet and even in the best of times I’ve made little or no money from the selling of poems. I’ve thought deeply about the relationship between art and money and about the risks that come from either making art a handmaiden of money or denying art’s con nection to money entirely.
Mentors: The first poet who inspired me was Kenneth O. Hanson who taught at Reed College where I was an undergraduate. Hanson wrote mostly short, etched portraits of ancient China, of Greece, of travel. Later at Reed, Kathleen Fraser took me under her wing and was the first person to suggest that I give my life to writing. I studied at the Iowa Writers’ workshop and there the poet Sandra McPherson helped me more than I could say. In an environment in which I felt dismissed (though I now think that was not the fault of anyone at Iowa), Sandra helped me to move forward. She treated me as both a student and as a fellow writer.
Favorite books/poems: The first poem I found on my own and loved was Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I love the work of Adrian C. Louis, Phil Levine, William Stafford, Pablo Neruda, and many others.
Advice to youth: Would a literary agent help to launch their career?
My advice is to allow writing to be a path toward full realization, to awakening. A poet probably needs no agent and a writer who writes only poetry would be hard pressed to find an agent. The current literary business scene is governed by global corporations with little or no institutional commitment to art. A fiction writer, songwriter, playwright can be helped immensely by having an agent to advance that writer’s work in the marketplace.
How do you go about finding one?
It’s now rather rare for writers to get agents by writing to them with query letters. Writers will sometimes tell their agents about a fellow writer whose work is worthy of being represented. A writer may publish a great deal but if it’s in the “wrong” magazines, agents and editors will never know about that writer. So if one’s goal is getting representation, one must find out what the agents and editors want to represent and write that.