Montana Poet Laureate Supporting the Poetic Arts

Photo of Mark Gibbonns, Montana's Poet Laureate

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By KATHLEEN MULROY

Montana’s Poet Laureate has quite an impressive responsibility: to advance and support the poetic arts in the state. Each laureate helps to accomplish this mission by reading their works out loud in public venues, mentoring upcoming writers, and judging the national student recitation competition, called Poetry Out Loud.

Montana residents nominate individuals for this two-year, honorary position, created in 2005. A selection committee composed of members of the state’s literary community then chooses finalists from the nominations. These finalists are submitted to the Montana Arts Council (MAC) board for review and approval, and the governor selects the new Poet Laureate from the pool of finalists. 

2021-2022 Montana Poet Laureate Mark Gibbons

Montana native Mark Gibbons holds a BA in English and Psychology and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. 

A poetry teacher for three decades, Gibbons has written 11 volumes of poetry and is the editor of FootHills Publishing’s Montana Poets Series. 

He is the 2013 recipient of the MAC’s Artist Innovation Award and has served as a writing mentor and judge for Poetry Out Loud. 

Gibbons’ solo collections include Something Inside Us; Circling Home; Connemara Moonshine; Blue Horizon; War, Madness, & Love; Mauvaises Herbes (Weeds); Forgotten Dreams; Shadowboxing; The Imitation Blues; Mostly Cloudy; and In the Weeds.

Gibbons says poetry matters, especially in our current times. 

“Poetry is living, it’s ongoing, and when we share poetry as we do at funerals, weddings, and other sacred gatherings, it brings us together. That’s something we always need as a culture and society, and maybe now more than ever.”

2019-2020 Poet Laureates  ML Smoker and Melissa Kwasny

From 2019-2020, ML Smoker served as Montana’s co-Poet Laureate, along with Melissa Kwasny. Smoker holds an MFA from the University of Montana in Missoula, where she was the recipient of the Richard Hugo Fellowship. She is a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana and served as the Director of Indian Education for the state of Montana for almost 10 years. In 2015 she was named the Indian Educator of the Year by the National Indian Education Association. 

President Barack Obama appointed Smoker to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education. She now works at Education Northwest as a practice expert in Indian Education. 

Hangling Loose Press published Smoker’s first collection of poems, Another Attempt at Rescue, in 2005. In 2009, she co-edited (with Melissa Kwasny) an anthology of human rights poetry, entitled I Go to the Ruined Place. Smoker received a regional Emmy award for her work as a writer and consultant on the PBS Television documentary Indian Relay. In 2021, she was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow.

Melissa Kwasny shared the position of Montana Poet Laureate with M.L. Smoker. Kwasny earned an MFA in Poetry and an MA in Literature from the University of Montana, Missoula. She teaches in Lesley University’s Integrated Teaching through the Arts MEd Program. 

Kwasny wrote a collection of essays entitled Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision and is the author of several collections of poetry, including Where Outside the Body Is the Soul Today, Pictograph, The Nine Senses, Reading Novalis in Montana, Thistle, and The Archival Birds. 

She also wrote the novels Trees Call for What They Need (1993) and Modern Daughters of the Outlaw West (1990). 

Kwasny was the editor of Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800-1950 and co-editor with ML Smoker of I Go to the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poets in Defense of Global Human Rights. 

She was the recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s Cecil Hemley and Alice Fay di Castognola Awards and was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate in 2021.

Previous Montana Poet Laureates included Lowell Jaeger (2017-2019), Michael Earl Craig (2015-2017), Tami Haaland (2013-2015), Sheryl Noethe (2011-2013), Henry Real Bird (2009-2011), Greg Pape (2007-2009), and the first laureate Sandra Alcosser (2005-2007). MSN

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