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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Utah’s poet laureate helps communities celebrate National Poetry Month

Apr 22, 2021 08:33AM ● By Josh Wood

Paisley Rekdal’s works, including the collection “Nightingale,” are widely available. (Joshua Wood/City Journals)

By Joshua Wood | [email protected]

Utah has a thriving literary community, and the state’s poet laureate has worked to let people know about it. Paisley Rekdal, a distinguished professor at the University of Utah, has built a website featuring over 200 Utah writers, and she has helped organize activities for National Poetry Month this April.

Mapping Literary Utah is a website that encourages readers to discover Utah authors and their connections to places in Utah. The site lists novelists, poets, playwrights and nonfiction writers by region so readers can learn more about them and how their work connects to their part of Utah.

“I remember when I was growing up in Seattle and none of the poetry anthologies had something from the Pacific Northwest,” Rekdal said. “I think Utah suffers from the same mental blind spot. There is a very vibrant group of writers in this place.”

Rekdal hopes the Map of Literary Utah helps connect writers, build readership, and show that Utah has a strong literary culture. She also hopes the site will inspire budding writers in the state.

“Seeing it, someone might say, ‘I can do this too, I can also be a novelist or a poet or a playwright,’” Rekdal said.

Rekdal has also worked with others to mark National Poetry Month this April. This will include online poetry readings and regular social media posts featuring poets of all ages.

National Poetry Month will also feature the Utah Poetry Festival, a virtual event this year from April 16-18. People can register on the festival’s website and view events on the Utah Humanities YouTube channel. The event will provide materials for educators, showcase poetry in the pandemic, and more.

Rekdal has published several collections of poetry. She has also written nonfiction, including the book “The Broken Country: On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam.” With her literary versatility, she has long gravitated to poetry.

“I think poetry is private,” Rekdal said. “I like it because it’s quiet, meditative, and slows things down.”

Part of Utah’s literary community is its local bookstores. Aaron Cance regularly features local authors at his bookstore, The Printed Garden in Sandy, and he maintains a substantial poetry section.

“Poetry enriches lives in a lot of different ways, and I think that poetry enriches not just a reader’s life but also a writer’s life,” Cance said. “Even people who are unpublished, their lives will be enriched by the act of writing poetry, in the act of trying to find a new way to describe or perceive the world around them. Any kind of writing like that is very satisfying and enriching whether you wind up getting published or not.”

The Printed Garden regularly hosts the 15 Bytes poetry awards each year in November, and Cance hopes to resume the tradition after the pandemic prevented it in 2020.

“I think the best poets are poets who can get you to see the world in ways that you didn’t see it before,” Cance said. “That to me is the primary function of poetry.”

What better source for advice on writing poetry than the state’s poet laureate. Rekdal has a straightforward formula for writers. “You have to read a ton,” she said. “You can judge what is more urgent, see trends in poetry, and see the larger conversation in poetry, what makes a poem work and what makes it less successful.”

Finding subject matter can be different for each writer. Utah’s poet laureate doesn’t necessarily search for subject matter for her poems. “I think largely the subject matter chooses you; you don’t choose the subject matter,” Rekdal said.

From the recent soaring success of Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, to an already steady rise in poetry readership, Rekdal sees Utah’s literary community growing. As for those who might think poetry is beyond them, Rekdal thinks there’s enough variety for everybody.

“There’s so many different types of poems out there,” Rekdal said. “I think it’s sad when people say poetry isn’t for me. That’s like saying food isn’t for me.”