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Tami Haaland
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One of Governor Bullock’s assistants called me on the July 22 to ask if I was still interested in becoming the next poet laureate of Montana. I said yes, and I agreed to keep it quiet until the first of August when the news was due to surface. Once it became public, good wishes came in, many more than I expected. I thought maybe no one would notice, but people notice, and then there were a few local interviews, and I signed an oath of office to promote poetry in the state of Montana for the next two years. Previous Laureates were Sandra Alcosser (2005-07), Greg Pape (2007-09), Henry Real Bird (2009-11), and Sheryl Noethe (2011-13). Since there is no salary associated with the job, Humanities Montana supports travel and will offer me a small stipend through its Speakers' Bureau, a great outreach program that allows scholars, writers, and performers to share their presentations with people across the state. Montana Arts Council sponsors the laureateship and maintains the offical web page. The state is large in terms of driving, and our population is only about one million, so anyone’s capacity to provide outreach is complicated by time and distance between communities. I am especially happy to be traveling during the next two years, but I also know that one person can only do so much. For this reason I’m interested in working with existing programs and investigating ways to develop resources. It would be great if writers had more contact with communities around the state. Obviously this will take some planning and the skill of many, but I’ve begun by starting conversations with individuals and organizations who I think will be helpful. In the meantime, here is just a small sample of organizations and groups that promote poetry and literature in Montana. Aerie International is a youth literary magazine at Missoula Big Sky High School. It wins national awards and receives submissions from across the globe. Guided by teacher, Lorilee Evans-Lynn, Aerie is also a great training ground for the next generation. Arts without Boundaries coordinates with school districts to bring professional musicians, writers and artists into classrooms and to offer music and art lessons to students in Billings, Bozeman, and other locations. Billings YMCA Writers’ Voice is one of the first Writers’ Voice programs in the country. It sponsors the High Plains BookFest each year and hosts readings in Billings and surrounding areas. Big Sky Writing Workshops is a new organization of professional writers who provide community workshops in Billings. High Plains Book Awards are sponsored by the Billings Public Library Many Voices Press, located at Flathead Valley Community College, has published Poems Across the Big Sky, New Poets of the American West, and other volumes. Missoula Writing Collaborative is a well-established and very successful organization that offers writing instruction in Missoula schools and beyond. Montana Book Award celebrates literary excellence with annual awards. The Montana Office of Public Instruction has just published Birthright: Born to Poetry—A Collection of... Continue reading
Posted Sep 13, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
When I was a girl growing up in north-central Montana, I spent many hours exploring the prairie and the coulees surrounding the Marias River. Meriwether Lewis named it “Maria’s” River after his cousin who said “no” to his marriage proposal. I’ve always wondered if he chose the name because this river was a “dead end” in terms of the expedition’s search for a Northwest Passage. But now we pronounce it with a long “i” as if there is an “s” at the end Mariah. An expert told me the Blackfeet were probably the former inhabitants of the teepee rings, the circles of stones, that my cousins and friends and I used to walk among. There are whole villages, groups of two or three rings connected, and occasionally a very large ring at the top of a hill set apart from the others. Many doorways and remnants of fire rings are still present. Often I went with neighbors and cousins, but as I grew older, I liked to wander by myself. The prairie was a good place for the imagination to develop, and it has shaped my perceptions in many ways. It provided me with the solitude to sing, pray, dance. I would stop at the edge of a pond or a quiet spot in the river and become as still as I could be, so the animals would learn to ignore me, the minnows would return, and the dragonflies would forget that I wasn’t part of the surrounding reeds or cattails. I loved looking for prairie asters, sweet peas, or bluebells in acres of dry grass. Town was twenty miles away. My class consisted of four girls, my K-12 school of 60-80 kids depending on the year, and the town, Inverness, had a few hundred people. The school is now abandoned, the windows broken, the wooden floors warped. I can vividly remember walking to the lunch room, performing scenes from South Pacific and West Side Story in the gymnasium with members of our music classes, lying on the floor in the back of the small library reading biographies of Mozart and Van Gogh and Janis Joplin. There are many abandoned schools on the Hi Line in north-central Montana, where railroad towns appear every few miles with names like Glasgow, Malta, Kremlin, and Havre. Chester was the location of the Liberty County Arts Council when I was a girl. My family went to most of the events this group sponsored. I saw my first didgeridoo there, my first cowboy singer, and my first opera. The Calgary Opera performed La Traviata, or at least scenes from it, on the high school stage, and of all the programs I saw, this is one that I remember most because I was interested in voice. Shortly afterward, my cousin applied to a youth choir that toured in Europe, and since she applied, I applied too when I was old enough. Maybe the influence of this outreach, alongside a good music teacher, allowed us to believe... Continue reading
Posted Sep 12, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
A few years ago, when I was researching the early writers of Montana, I happened upon Dorothe Bendon’s small volume, Mirror Images. Born and raised in eastern Montana, Bendon moved to California in her youth to attend a Normal School and later, Mills College for “only a year or two.” From there, “she went abroad in search of inspiration and further culture.” She mailed her manuscript to Gertrude Atherton, a San Francisco fiction writer, who helped her find a publisher. Atherton then wrote the forward to her small volume of poems, beginning with this sentence: “Dorothe Bendon hails from Glendive, Montana, hardly a poetic background.” She goes on to marvel at Bendon’s character, commenting on her small physical size, her presence on stage at poetry readings and as Ariel in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, her refusal to accept a patron’s offer to pay her tuition because “she preferred to be independent.” Atherton quotes one of Bendon’s teachers who says, “I have always felt that her roots were deep in the soil of decent and sane living, however lacking in background her early conditions may have been” (“A Forward” in Mirror Images). Mirror Images received a short review in The Frontier, a regional journal published at the University of Montana. Its editor, H. G. Merriam, praises her “fine sense of phrase and . . . image,” then says, “one feels, however, that she writes too infrequently out of realized experience.” He indicates that she was influenced by the “unseeing ideas” of people such as Atherton to “see beauty in acquired information, about Dionysius, classical music, Chillon, and the conventional paraphernalia of ‘culture’ rather than in rooted life experience” (Frontier 12.1). I imagine young Dorothe Bendon caught in the cross-fire between Atherton and Merriam, with Merriam criticizing her work maybe not so much for what she wrote but because of Atherton’s sense of superiority. Merriam, himself, wrote poetry about Greek mythology in the early volumes of The Frontier, though maybe by 1931 he had changed his mind about its relevance. What he says, however, gives insight into the “write what you know” mantra and raises the questions, what does it mean to “know” and how do we know what we know? Merriam asserts that “rooted life experience” is more relevant for a writer than “cultural” experiences such as travel, education, and reading. But the interior, the imagination, our reading and learning lives must certainly be part of what we know, along with the way we match what we’ve read to what we experience, and how we learn to see differently because of the way art, poetry, reading, music or any other cultural experience has affected our perceptions. I’m not sure why a hierarchy between exterior and interior experience would have value, when balance seems a far better approach. To quote Stevens, “The poetry of a work of the imagination constantly illustrates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact” (from his “Prose Statement on the Poetry of War”). When Bendon writes about “Sunday... Continue reading
Posted Sep 11, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
A month ago I traveled to Jackson, Wyoming, to participate in a conference devoted to art and patronage. My job? To provide a brief overview and discussion of ekphrasis, the practice of writing about visual art. Sponsored by Arts Without Boundaries, the conference focused on representational art and featured four top-notch artists, Clyde Aspevig, Jacob Collins, T Allen Lawson, and Tucker Smith, all considered “representational” or “realistic” artists. Featured speakers included Peter Trippi, editor of Fine Art Connoisseur, who spoke about collecting and patronage with an overview of contemporary realists, and Adam Duncan Harris, curator of the National Wildlife Museum in Jackson, who hosted the event and spoke about wildlife art as well as a George Catlin exhibit on loan from the Smithsonian. I listened, watched, and wrote notes as quickly as I could. It was a kid-in-a-candy-store experience for me to get an inside scoop on the artists’ world. There are plenty of parallels to writing, but because of my limited knowledge, the medium seems magical. For example, I learned about a kind of paint casually referred to as “stringy white.” It’s no longer available but apparently just the right thing for the crest of waves, and as I listened, I was thinking about the rhythm and sound of the words, "stringy white." Then it was my turn. I had never spoken before an audience of artists and other art experts, and I was pretty nervous. My examples came from the same broad category of realistic or representational art. I read Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” various responses to Brueghel, Madeline DeFrees’ response to “Vermeer’s A Woman Holding a Balance,” and Greg Pape’s “American Flamingo,” a poem written about Audubon’s painting by the same name. I relied on John Hollander’s substantial book, The Gazer’s Spirit, for definitions and read the poems with interspersed discussions about the limitations of language and visual art. In language, we work in image but can’t literally create image. Visual art works with movement, depth and narrative, though literally it’s impossible to create these elements on a static, flat surface. What’s fascinating to me is how the imagination allows us to reach beyond the limitation and how the artists and writers create illusion and rely on gesture to facilitate the work of the imagination. The artist/writer offers, and the viewer/reader reaches, and if all goes well, somewhere in the middle things become clear. Recent developments in neuroscience are equally fascinating for what they have added to our understanding of this process. The brain can rely on the information provided in a given medium and respond with specific mirror neurons that would be involved with the direct experience of an action or image. For example, an image or a word-picture of someone drinking tea will tip off the specific part of the brain associated with this action. We identify with the action, then fill in the gaps with our imagination. One misconception about landscape painting, I learned, is that the artist simply arrives at the perfect... Continue reading
Posted Sep 10, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Recently I spent a day hiking in the Beartooth Wilderness near my home in Billings, Montana. I chose a favorite route that begins in a canyon. The Stillwater River moves so swiftly over massive boulders that it seems to boil. This time of year it appears almost harmless because of low water, but in the spring the passage is dizzying, made more intense by the cacophony of water pounding against granite. It’s an entrance to a different kind of world from the prairie below, and the trail, bordered by a canyon wall on one side and the torrent of water on the other, is narrow with little margin for error. Above, the canyon opens into a valley and the stream grows quieter. It was mid-week. There were only four other cars in the parking lot when I arrived and as I continued my journey up to Sioux Charlie Lake and beyond, I met four groups coming down the trail. Eventually, I knew that I was the only one around for at least a few miles on every side. I was grateful for this. The world I came from in northern Montana was sparsely populated, and I learned early to hike alone and appreciate solitude. I stopped briefly along the way at an aspen grove where the undergrowth was thick and the white-barked trees, each a manifestation of an ancient root system below, offered contrast to the surrounding lodgepole pines that border much of the path. Later, I paused beside an Engelmann spruce, which is wide and singular compared to the colonies of aspen or the repetitive lodgepole. I put one small cone in my pocket. After four or five miles, my turning point was a wooden bridge over the Stillwater. I stretched out on the ground to contemplate the clouds and thought of circumference. In that moment I was the pivot of the compass or Stevens’ jar, and the wilderness rose up all around. But soon the horseflies found me and drove me off, and it was getting late enough in the afternoon that heading back down the trail seemed like the best idea. Three deer, several species of butterflies, bright yellow and black caterpillars, five garter snakes, two chipmunks, and a red-shafted flicker crossed my path that day, but there were no more humans until I neared the trailhead. I had Stevens’ The Palm at the End of the Mind in my backpack, and I intended to reread “Credences of Summer” during my journey. “Green’s green apogee” is what I remember best, but on the way down the idea of resting on rocks a few feet out into the lake or the stream seemed more appealing than opening the worn pages. The water sailed around me, sun glinting off ripples. If I turned my back to the nearest shore it seemed like I might be farther towards the middle. Had I stayed longer and settled into a camping spot for the night, I would have read the poem there,... Continue reading
Posted Sep 9, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Sep 6, 2013