For the first time ever, Montana has two Poets Laureate.
Gov. Steve Bullock appointed Basin poet and Carroll College professor Melissa Kwasny and Helena resident Mandy Smoker Broaddus to serve as Montana's Poets Laureate until 2021. Created by the Montana Legislature, the position recognizes and honors poets of exceptional talent and accomplishment and also encourages appreciation of poetry and literary life in Montana, according to the Montana Arts Council.
Kwasny and Smoker Broaddus hope to use their new position to bridge division and enhance the voices of marginalized communities. Their appointment is the first time two people have held the poet laureate position at the same time, an unusual arrangement the women hope will bring vitality to their two-year term.
While both women draw on different poetic traditions, they share a mentor in Patricia Goedicke, a poet who taught both Smoker Broaddus and Kwasny at the University of Montana's Master of Fine Arts program and connected the two of them as friends.
"It's really because of Patricia we're friends and colleagues," Smoker Broaddus said. "She brought us together."
Even before they found each other, the love of poetry was embedded deep in both. Kwasny remembers as a sophomore in high school hearing Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" recited in Middle English by her teacher. The man had a doctorate in Chaucer studies and had the pronunciation down pat, Kwasny said.
"It was such a beautiful sound, like magic speak," she said. "I was entranced and I was hooked."
Kwasny's early love of poetry continued throughout her academic career. She found herself attracted to the Imagist poets of the 19th century and especially Rainer Maria Rilke, the German poet Kwasny said she adores for his "visionary qualities."
Kwasny is a poet with range. She's edited anthologies of prose on poetry, written books of free and open verse and even put together a book of prose poems influenced by the French poet René Char.
"(Montana poet Richard) Hugo, of course, was an influence," Kwasny said, but the feminist movement of poetry in the 1970s and 1980s broadened her thinking, and feminist poets like Adrienne Rich and Susan Griffin strongly affected her work.
For Smoker Broaddus, the path to poetry began in journalism.
"It was a really wonderful experience, the first time I got to find and use my voice," Smoker Broaddus said.
"Granted it was in journalism, but it was still a really important experience."
Smoker Broaddus went on to study journalism in college, but didn't feel the pull to literature and poetry until she discovered a number of Native American writers like James Welch, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo and Leslie Marmon Silko.
"I read anything I could get my hands on," Smoker said. "I was very, very hungry for their stories."
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She kept building her love for literature, and then tragedy struck when her mother, back at the Fort Peck Reservation in eastern Montana, passed away.
"I began in my journaling experience to have a conversation with my mother, and I turned some of those first writings into poems," Smoker Broaddus said.
She describes herself as a "narrative poet," using stories and moving through time and action to get to the truth of language.
"It's a language that eliminates barriers, creates opportunities for connections and meetings," Smoker Broaddus said.
Other Native American poets influenced her work: James Welch, Paula Gunn Allen (her mentor at UCLA), Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, Ray Young Bear and Adrian Louis are all among the linguistic-artists Smoker counts as her connections to the world of poetry.
Because Smoker Broaddus travels so much for her work as an educator, writing poetry is a flexible experience.
"I read lots of poetry," she said. "It's an important tether."
Both women view their new co-roles as a way to create change in the arts and also in society as a whole. Smoker Broaddus is the first Native American woman to hold the position of Montana Poet Laureate, and she recognizes the power the name holds.
"We just want to relay and convey part of experiences in the world," Smoker Broaddus said. "Some of which have been difficult, with being pushed out."
Art is a form of resistance, both women said, and resistance comes in different shapes and forms.
"It's a tool that we can offer, a language we can offer for students that are struggling, and there are a lot of young people struggling in Montana," Kwasny said.
"We're very excited about some goals we have," she said. "We want to introduce the work of marginalized communities, bring in Native American art and poetry, the LGBTQ community and attempt to bridge some of these divisions we have."
"Poetry has a power that can do that," Kwasny said.
Smoker Broaddus agreed. "We want to remind ourselves that all voices matter, and this is a way to be inclusive and to respect that," she said.
Both believe deeply in the power of partnership and are looking forward to working with one another over the next years.
"It's just a beautiful opportunity to share it with and demonstrate across Montana how wonderful collaboration can be," Smoker Broaddus said.
"We're hoping the idea of collaboration, our example of collaboration, will have people working together, not working together in a hierarchy but collaborating as a creative act," Kwasny said.