Monday, April 26, 2010

Monday Muse: Wyoming's Poet Laureate

Wyoming's official poet is David Romtvedt. The state's fourth Poet Laureate, Romtvedt started his term August 15, 2004.

Established by Executive Order 1981-1, the position is filled by the governor, who selects an appointee from a list of recommendations submitted by a nominating committee formed by the state arts council. The incumbent serves a term concurrent with that of the governor.

The position is honorary and without compensation, and "invites" the appointee to "submit writings for selected historic occasions" of choice.

Romtvedt succeeded Robert Roripaugh (1995-2002), who followed Charles L. Levendosky (1988-1995), and Peggy Simpson Curry (January 14, 1981 - January 20, 1987).  

* * * * *
The thing is that poetry must not only help us feel good
 but make us squirm.*
~ David Romtvedt 

Wyoming Poet Laureate David Romtvedt has published Powder River Breaks: A Cowboy's Introduction to American Poetry and the collection Some Church (Milkweed Editions, 2005), Certainty (White Pine Press, 1996), A Flower Whose Name I Do Not Know (National Poetry Series; Copper Canyon Press, 1992 ), How Many Horses (Ion Books, 1988 ), and  Moon (Bieler Press, 1984). The latter, Romtvedt's first book-length collection is illustrated with three scratch board drawings by R.W. Scholes.

Romvedt's poems — many of which I came to like very much after rounds of  readings and listenings — use stripped down, unadorned language to create wonderfully realized and perhaps even familiar narratives of relationships, as here in this excerpt from "Arrested", where the narrator recounts his decision to go to college:

. . . I picked this place in Oregon
called Reed, applied, was admitted but didn't tell
my father because he would say I couldn't
He thought college was a waste of time. . . .
. . . On the day before I left home
I told him about college. He said, "No. You can't go."
I said, "Yes, I can." And drove three days to Portland.
My father called the Arizona state police
and reported me as a runaway. . . .

With help, the father eventually is persuaded to allow his "working class kid" to stay in college. Years later, confident that "college was the most powerful thing / that happened to me, that it changed my life," the son comes to another realization of just what his going away meant to his father, of how deep the loss and of the understanding of loss of protection were:

. . . But now my father is dead
and it occurs to me, after so long, and you'd think a smart boy
like me could have figured this out way quicker, that my father
knew this and feared that my change meant I would be lost forever
to the world that gave me birth, his world. And so, with no other tools
that would do the job, he gave up and tried to have me arrested.

In its seeming simplicity, Romtvedt's poetry sets a powerful scene in just a few lines:

It was the dry season and the hills burned.
In the night, the fires flowed up the slopes
like rivers of gold flowing against gravity.
Some things refused to panic. . .
. . . Good, I thought, we're still following the laws
of the physical universe. . . .
~ From "Fire by the Lake" in Some Church

Electricity—even in a cafe alone I can feel it,
the blood of the city coursing after the power goes out.
~From "Ultimate Nightingale" in Certainty

The country's full of flies. I hang a bag of pesticide
from a tree so that the cow can walk back and forth and rub. . . .
~ From "Science" in Some Church

Romtvedt has a particularly wonderful ability to go to the essence of a thing or person he's describing in his poems; his narratives can be intimate and all of the world at the same time, reflecting the familiar and the unknown, the ways our cultural, political, social, and spiritual selves influence each other and also sometimes collide, dreams lost in a moment's act.

And sheep are led to the shearing shed.
They tumble out, shivering, bleeding. What good to tell them,
"look toward the blades, not away."
~ "Spring in the Country" in Rattle, No. 30, Winter 2008

Strangers do not wish to hear of a stranger's life.
Houses have walls to keep them apart. . . .
~ From "Welcome" in Certainty

When I was a boy the neighbor 
across the street built a bomb shelter
for three thousand dollars. . . 
He said in a nuclear war all of us
would come running to him, begging
to be let into his shelter. But he'd be firm.
There was room for only his family. If others
tried to force their way in, he'd shoot them. . . .

. . . I listened. My father said nothing.
Like others, he wanted to protect his family.
But who could tell if a hole in the ground would?
. . . .

. . . Time passed and we forgot our precautions. One day
the water and canned soups were gone. But even now
when I sit on the toilet I see that stuff. And when I hear
a sharp noise, it's the neighbor shooting the stars.
~ From "Shelter" in A Flower Whose Name I Do Not Know

Those of us who grew up in the 1950s immediately recall our memory of air raid drills, in school and out, during the Cold War period, the stocking of the pantry, the pervading sense of fear that accompanied talk of missile strikes and communist bogeymen we couldn't see. Yet those last lines, with their "neighbor shooting the stars", speak equally well of how we live today, when suicide bombers, instead of a neighbor firing his rifle "at the stars", are the ones to take away our dreams. 

There's humor, too, in Romtvedt's poems, though that humor is juxtaposed with the serious, setting us up to be jerked backed to attention to the lives we lead, as here:

I'm waiting for the phone to ring.
It's not a cell phone but advanced
technology all the same. When I answer,
I'll be on a conference call, business
as usual. . .
It's like death, which we'd rather avoid
but can't. . . 
. . . The phone rings and the noise startles
me. I jerk in my chair and bang my elbow
on the corner of the desk. I don't know why
it's called the funny bone. On the wires
nothing moves. It may be there is a balance
in nature, but the same cannot be said
of human life. There's the phone ringing
again. I grab the receiver and shout hello,
hoping that nothing bad will happen.
~ From "Business as Usual" in Some Church

Poetry by Romtvedt has been published in numerous literary magazines, including American Poetry Review, Georgia Review, Ploughshares, The Drunken Boat, The Sun, and Paris Review

Romtvedt also writes essays, fiction, histories, and nonfiction. Among Romtvedt's other books are the anthology he edited, Wyoming Fence Lines (Wyoming Humanities Council, 2007), Windmill: Essays from Four Mile Ranch (Red Crane Books, 1997), Crossing Wyoming (White Pine Press, 1992), and Free and Compulsory for All: Tales (Graywolf Press, 1984).

A member of the faculty of the University of Wyoming's M.F.A. creative writing program for writers, Romtvedt has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Wyomings Arts Council. He has been awarded the Pushcart Prize, a Wyoming Governor's Arts Award, and the Wyoming Music Educators Association Distinguished Service to Music Education Award.

Romtvedt is the founder and a board member of Worlds of Music, a foundation that provides opportunities to participate in music-making involving cultures all around the world. His series on traditional music of the American Southwest aired on Montana National Public Radio.


All excerpts © David Romtvedt.

* Quoted from "Speaking of Ancient China" in Some Church.

Excerpts from and reviews of a selection of Romtvedt's books are here. To hear Romtvedt read some of his poetry, go here. (He's a wonderful reader.) Romtvedt also reads a "Wyoming poem" and his poem "On Broadway" at the Wyoming Arts Summit (2007).

The poem "Still" is read aloud and its text made available here.

Romtvedt's University of Wyoming Web page is informative.

An e-interview with Romtvedt is here.

Go here for the Author's Preface to Powder River Breaks and here for some selections from the book.

A selection from an excellent essay by Romtvedt, "Red Politics and Blue in Wyoming", is here.

Romtvedt participates in "Blue Poets in Red States", a project in which poets write 10 lines each and link their verses together. pages for Wyoming.

Check Open Library for the availability of Romtvedt's books.

Romtvedt's Fireants, a creole dance music group, has performed in the Southwest and Mexico and has released a number of recordings, including Bury My Clothes. The Fireants My Space page, with audio sselections, is here.


Louise Gallagher said...

Great find! I love the mixing of the natural with the normal with the everyday in his poetry -- "I don't know why they call it the funny bone"...

Ami Mattison said...

Thanks, Maureen, for introducing me to this fantastic poet. I really like his work--a depth dressed in a conversational style. Nice!

Joyce Wycoff said...

Maureen ... thanks once again for expanding my world.