One of the most meaningful connections we can experience is to connect with others on a deeper level and using our words is one of the best ways to do it.
Recently Minnesota State University, Mankato professor, Gwen Westerman, was awarded the title of Minnesota’s Poet Laureate. The poet laureate is expected to elevate the arts through several education-oriented events at schools and public libraries across the state. For Westerman, she wants to encourage as many voices as possible to engage in poetry outside of the Twin Cities.
“Artists move to Minnesota because they know how strongly supported the arts are,” said Westerman. “When we get away from the metro area, there are just as many poets and writers and artists who don’t necessarily get that kind of attention just because they’re not in the city.”
The journey to receiving this award started in March 2020.
Westerman received two nominations: one from MNSU English professor Geoff Herbach, and the other from a Minneapolis poet, Heid Erdrich.
Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, Westerman was not interviewed by Governor Tim Walz until July 2021 as one of three finalists to earn the title.
“It was about another month before I got a call from the governor and he let me know how excited he was to have me serve as the next poet laureate,” said Westerman. “I was at a loss for words, which doesn’t happen often.”
After the announcement on Sept. 9, Westerman was asked to speak at the 9/11 memorial at the Minnesota State Capitol. Before reading Billy Collins poem, titled “The Names” she prefaced that a poet’s work is purely observation.
“[Poetry] is finding a way to put into words what’s in the hearts and minds of the people,” said Westerman. “I think that my job is to talk to as many people as I can and to encourage people to be artistic and celebrate with words.”
Westerman believes one of the causes of her nominations is in part of her poetry themes. She writes about her relationship with the land while incorporating her native Dakota language, a subject dear to her heart. While not knowing what the reader will take out of her poetry, she hopes her readers will take away what they need to hear from it.
“I write about what it means to me to be in this place where my father’s family and my Dakota ancestors have been for generations beyond generations,” said Westerman. “We can write about our everyday lives and make a connection with somebody who can see themselves in that writing.”
Westerman has left her mark not only on the state of Minnesota, but through her teaching in the classroom.
David Tack, a first year master of english literature student, was impacted by Westerman’s ability to create spaces of safe discomfort through learning that pushed him out of his comfort zone.
“She creates rich spaces for students to work through challenges posed by the curriculum and offers insight not only from years of study but also from experience,” said Tack. “She is the true teacher-scholar in practice.”
For Westerman, this is an honor of a lifetime. While not something she was anticipating, she is excited to help elevate poetry throughout Minnesota.
“To be acknowledged for my work as a poet at the state level is just a gift,” said Westerman. “We all do things that we love, but to be recognized for doing something that I value and treasure is just an honor that means a lot.”