Dr. Gwen Westerman Q&A

January 18, 2022
Dr. Gwen Westerman is the poet laureate of Minnesota.

“Poetry is about observation. Walking along a river or through the woods and listening to the sounds, observing the color and light, feeling a breeze — there are a million possible poems there. Poems don’t have to be long or lofty. They can be about hearing a bird sing in the trees or the surprise of seeing a mouse run among the leaves.” 

What was the moment like when you were named the first Native American poet laureate in MN?

It was a beautiful day. With so many amazing poets in our state, it is an incredible honor to be named poet laureate of Minnesota.

You’re a two-time Minnesota Book Award winner for your volumes about the Dakota people. Who are Dakota authors who inspire you?

Historically, the first two Dakota writers who made an impact on me are Charles Eastman and Ella Cara Deloria for their remarkable stories that document a Dakota way of life in a time of significant transition from the 19th to 20th centuries. I teach literature and am constantly reading, so I am inspired and influenced by a whole host of Indigenous writers who are amazing storytellers, including Linda Hogan, Louise Erdrich, Eric Gansworth, and Linda LeGarde Grover, to name only a few. 

You’re also a fiber artist. How do the creative satisfactions compare?

In my mind, poetry and fiber art are two strands of the same creative process. Each form involves combining small pieces into a larger image that tells a story. Both are labor intensive, in different ways. Sometimes I have to “rip out” the seams of a poem or a quilt to get the just-right combination of colors or words to achieve an impact. 

How has teaching poetry changed since you started at Minnesota State Mankato in 1992? 

The availability of published poetry by diverse writers is a quantum leap from where it was 20 years ago. That is especially important for today’s students to be able to see someone like themselves in our poetry anthologies and other materials, and to know there is more to American poetry than Robert Frost and Walt Whitman, who is one of my favorite poets. 

You’ve said that poetry is song and learning poems is no different than memorizing song lyrics. I bet that cracks poetry open for people.

Absolutely. Students can’t say I don’t like poetry when they can recite the lyrics of their favorite songs from memory.

What is one of your goals for your tenure as poet laureate?

One goal is to engage young Minnesotans in getting outside and listening to and writing about the land. We live in an amazing place and it’s important that we reconnect with our outside environment. Poetry is about observation. Walking along a river or through the woods and listening to the sounds, observing the color and light, feeling a breeze — there are a million possible poems there. Poems don’t have to be long or lofty. They can be about hearing a bird sing in the trees or the surprise of seeing a mouse run among the leaves. 

Are you working on a new book?

Yes, I have two writing projects in their final stages, both poetry collections. One should be out by the end of this year.

Photo by Melanie Zacek