Minnesota's third poet laureate, Gwen Westerman, is a quilter, a scholar, a Dakota speaker, a poet, a memoirist, a mentor. But if things had turned out just a little differently, she could have been a chemist.
Westerman is a professor in the English department at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and an enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate through her father. She is also a citizen of the Cherokee Nation through her mother, whose family is from the Flint District.
We caught up with her shortly after the announcement of her new honor — she will be the state's third poet laureate, and the first Native person to hold that position.
Q: How did you get the news that you had been selected?
A: I'm humbled that Heid E. Erdrich and Geoff Herbach, both amazing writers, nominated me for this honor. The governor called in mid-August to tell me that I had been selected, and I was almost speechless. Anyone who knows me knows that doesn't happen very often! We had to keep the news under wraps until the announcement on Sept. 9 at the governor's press conference.
Q: What does it mean to you to be poet laureate? What do you plan to do in this capacity?
A: It is a tremendous honor for me. We are blessed to have many great poets and artists in Minnesota, and I would like to help shine a spotlight on all the wonderful poetry that is being created here.
The land is a dominant theme in my writing, so encouraging students to observe and write about the landscape and our great state parks is a possibility. Another priority is to lift up the voices of young people across the state from those communities that may be underserved. These are just my preliminary thoughts and I will be working with the Minnesota Humanities Center to get a better understanding of the responsibilities and expectations of the poet laureate.
Q: Why is having a poet laureate a good thing for the state?
A: A poet laureate can help educate Minnesotans — students, communities and leaders — about the value and importance of poetry and creative expression. Businesses look for applicants with the five C's: creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thinking and global citizenship. Poetry involves all those skills! Our state strongly supports the arts, and a poet laureate can help spread the message that the arts are an important part of everyone's lives.
Q: You are the third poet laureate in our history, after Robert Bly and Joyce Sutphen. Bly saw it as a symbolic role, but Sutphen was quite active. How will your time as poet laureate be different from theirs?
A: It's too early for me to know how my time will be different, but I do see this as an opportunity to engage with people across Minnesota. I was honored that Joyce Sutphen reached out to me right after the announcement was made, and I look forward to talking with her about her insights on the position and its possibilities.
Q: Some of your poetry is written both in English and in the Dakota language. Did you grow up in a Dakota-speaking household?
A: Neither of my parents spoke English when they were sent to boarding schools at a young age, and were not [Dakota] speakers as adults. They met at Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kan., and married in 1954. As a teenager, I lived for a while with my grandma, who was a first-language speaker, and she told me, "You should learn English and learn it well so you can be successful." And then I left for college. Majoring in English was not even on my radar at that time.
I moved to Mankato in 1991 and over the years, whenever I met a Dakota relative who was a speaker, I would bring a small gift and ask them how to say something specific, something that would help me introduce myself. I will be learning this language for the rest of my life.
My husband, Glenn Wasicuna, is a fluent first-language Dakota speaker and teacher, so I am very fortunate to live in a Dakota-speaking household.
It is important for me to write in both languages because Dakota is the language of this land and marks this land in the names of rivers, cities and landmarks. It is the language of my ancestors and my grandparents, and it is a living language. Anything I can write about in English, I can write about in Dakota, including stellar nucleosynthesis or seeing camels in a pasture along the interstate in Oklahoma!
It is important for other people to know that as Native Nations peoples, we treasure and we use our Native languages every day across this country, and so does everyone else whenever they use the place names that come from our languages.
Q: You also make quilts — and they are beautiful! I don't even have a question about them, just wanted to tell you that.
A: My grandma made quilts and never would have called herself an "artist" but she did beautiful work, all by hand. I was 40 before I made my first quilt, and then quickly realized that they could tell a story just as well as words.
Q: Please speak to the importance of poetry in everyday life.
A: When I read Billy Collins' poem "The Names" at the Sept. 11th Commemoration at the State Capitol, I prefaced it by saying that the work of a poet is observation and then figuring out how to put into words what is in the hearts of the people. I can't imagine a day without some form of poetry, whether it is an advertising jingle, the lyrics of a song, a poem imprinted in the sidewalk or emblazoned in the colors of a graffiti artist. Poetry is all around us. It can speak to us, even speak for us when we are at a loss for words in times of joy and of deepest sorrow.
Q: What's the first poem you learned by heart?
A: That's a tough question because the first things that come to mind are songs, which are poetry set to a melody, or the words of Dr. Seuss books. The answer would have to be Longfellow's poem "Paul Revere's Ride." I had to memorize and then recite it in front of Mrs. Brownfield's English class in the eighth grade.
Q: I'm fascinated that you were a chemistry major in college until senior year — when did you start writing poetry?
A: Some of my earliest memories are of scribbling in a book and telling my mother that I was "writing." I probably still have some mushy teenage poems hidden away somewhere (I should probably find them and throw them out!). I used to write a lot of letters, and my friends would tell me that they loved reading them because they were so beautifully written. So writing, descriptive writing, has been something I've done for most of my life.
When I changed my major to English, I took classes in technical writing and in literature. Combining words in a sequence for effect is not much different, in my mind, than formulas and equations, which is what I loved about math and science. I wrote an occasional poem or sonnet here or there, but nothing serious until I was in my mid-30s. Most of my writing up to then was prose, and I still write essays and stories.
Q: What haven't I asked you that I should have? What else would like to say?
A: I am currently working on a series of poems about the experiences across time of War Mothers, women whose children went to war. My son Travis Griffin graduated from MSU Mankato and then served in the 1st Battalion 7th Marines with two combat tours in Iraq. After more than 10 years, I am finally at a place where I can write about it. My daughter Erin Griffin also graduated from MSU, and is in the Hawaiian and Indigenous Language and Culture Revitalization doctoral program and teaches Dakota language. We work together on a number of Dakota language and culture projects.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's senior editor for books. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.