Q&A: Minnesota’s Poet Laureate, Gwen Nell Westerman

The state’s new poet laureate explains her process, purpose, and what gives her hope
Westerman was named Minnesota’s poet laureate in September
Westerman was named Minnesota’s poet laureate in September

Photo by David Ellis

Gwen Nell Westerman is a natural observer. Whether it’s describing the way geese fly across a harvested wheat field or the memories of poked fingers while learning to quilt, her first book of poetry, Follow the Blackbirds (Michigan State University Press, 2013), is a poignant testament to those observations that offer a glimpse into her personal journeys.

So, it might be surprising to hear that Westerman, a professor in the English department at Minnesota State University, Mankato, was at a loss for words upon learning she was appointed Minnesota’s poet laureate by Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan this fall. Westerman, who is the third poet to hold the position and first Native person in the role, said she was honored by the distinction.

An award-winning author, accomplished poet, highly regarded textile artist, and Dakota scholar, Westerman draws inspiration from her life and Indigenous roots. She grew up in Kansas (she received her PhD in English from the University of Kansas) and moved to Minnesota in 1991. She is an enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, her father’s people, and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, her mother’s people.

In a mid-fall conversation via Zoom, Westerman told us she was still working out exactly how to perform her new duties. “The poet laureate for the state of Minnesota is supposed to promote and encourage appreciation of poetry, encourage engagement, find a way to engage and lift up underrepresented voices, and celebrate the rich cultural heritage of the state,” said Westerman, who lives near Good Thunder, south of Mankato. “I’m not sure yet how I’ll shape this experience. I think it will shape me more than I shape it.”

Currently, Westerman is working on a written project about War Mothers, women whose children went off to war. It’s a subject close to her heart.

After graduating from MSU, her son served in the First Battalion Seventh Marines and did two combat tours of Iraq. It’s taken Westerman more than a decade to be able to write about the experience from a mother’s perspective.

Here, Westerman talks about her connection to nature, writing in both English and the Dakota language, and the relationship between writing and quilting.

Gwen Westerman, poet laureate of Minnesota
Gwen Nell Westerman is a writer and fabric artist who appears here with one of her quilts

Photo by David Ellis

On being drawn to poetry:

“I love to sing, and songs are stories/poetry put to music. So it’s the storytelling aspect of poetry that I was drawn to as a writer. I don’t know that I ‘discovered’ a talent of poetry as much as I grew into it. An opportunity to be part of the Emerging Native American Poets program at The Loft in 1997 was the motivation I needed to begin to be serious about writing poetry.”

On natural imagery in her poems:

“I write about what’s meaningful to me, what has impacted me, and especially my relationship to the land. Nobody likes to ride with me when I’m driving. While driving up Highway 169, I’ll say, ‘Look over there; that riverbed is dry. Look, there are three eagles above us. There’s a deer standing in the woods over there—look past the trees in the woods and you can see it.’ They tell me to keep my eyes on the road.

“But there’s always been something deeply integrated into my life and my way of thinking that connects me with the land and water.

“Water, for Dakota people, is our first medicine, so the drought has been showing up a lot in my writing right now. If our medicine is gone, what are we going to do? What about fish? What about the birds and the animals that rely on the rivers and creeks?”

On her poem “Give-Away Song” being featured on Poets.org in July 2021:

“When we have enough, we have an obligation to help others. I was excited that poem was chosen by Poets.org. I received notes from what seemed like every state in the U.S., Australia, Great Britain, France, and Germany. I was humbled that those words meant so much to people. It’s not about having more than you need so you can share. It’s about having enough and seeing that responsibility to others. Or even if they don’t see they need something, to share and show that I’m grateful for what I have.”

On the importance of writing in both the English and Dakota languages:

“Dakota is the language of this land. It’s important for me to include the language in what I write so that people will see that it’s more than language, that it’s a descriptive-sounding language and that it’s important enough to be in books, quoted in poetry, out in the world and places where people least expect it. There’s a glossary in the back of Follow the Blackbirds. My husband and I talked about that for a while because there are some people who think you don’t need to have a glossary or pronunciation guide—people can figure it out for themselves, or it’s our language and other people don’t need to know how to pronounce it. But we have only a handful of first-language Dakota speakers, and they’re getting up there in age. There are many second-language learners, some more proficient than others, and there are a lot of people who want to learn but are afraid. It was important to include a glossary, a pronunciation guide, and a translation so my work can also be a place to learn the language and not be afraid of it.”

On the relationship between writing and quilting:

“It’s kind of the same process. It’s taking an overall idea and putting small pieces together to accomplish that. But I think where the poetry and the fiber art intersect is that I see the art quilts I make as vehicles to tell a story. For me, it’s just another way to tell a story.”

On what gives her hope:

“There are so many stories to be told that can have meaning for everyone. So many voices, so much creativity in places where it’s sometimes least expected. And the joy that comes with creating art, creating stories, sharing those stories is one of the things that makes us human. As long as we can be inspired to create, all hope is not lost.”

Give-Away Song

This is my give-away—
            not because I don’t want
                  it anymore,
            not because it’s out of
                  style or
                broken or
                useless since it lost
                its lid or one of its buttons,
            not because I don’t understand
                the “value” of things.
This is my give-away—
            because I have enough
                  to share with you
            because I have been given
                  so much
                    health love happiness
                    pain sorrow fear
            to share from the heart
            in a world where words can be
            meaningless when they come
            only from the head.
This is my give-way—
            to touch what is good in you
            with words your heart can hear
            like ripples from a pebble
            dropped in water
            moving outward growing
            wider touching others.
            You are strong.
            You are kind.
            You are beautiful.
This is my give-away.
     Wopida ye.   
          Wopida ye.
                Wopida ye.

Copyright© 2021 by Gwen Westerman. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 26, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.