Expanding the Definition: The Poets’ Congress

On Saturday, March 8, Montana Poet Laureate Tami Haaland will join other writers as they host a Poets’ Congress in Big Sky, Montana.

Jessianne Wright

On Saturday, March 8, Montana Poet Laureate Tami Haaland will join other writers as they host a Poets’ Congress in Big Sky, Montana. This “lively exchange of poems and discussion,” Haaland said, is designed to “expand the range of possibilities for what poetry, [and performing arts, for that matter,] really is.” It will be held at the newly opened Warren Miller Performing Arts Center (WMPAC) and begins at 7:30 p.m.

The Poets’ Congress is described as a “perspective-shifting talk” on the WMPAC website and Haaland hopes the event “will not only expand the audience’s sense of what poetry is, but also how they experience it.” Haaland will join Colorado Poet Laureate David Mason and Montana Songwriter Martha Scanlan to open the event. The poets will integrate music throughout the evening, embracing the relationship these two mediums share. Haaland said the poets will create a “dramatic presentation, similar to listening to music.”

WMPAC Artistic Director John Zirkle explained that the first half of the evening is geared toward examining the purpose of poetry and the role of a Poet Laureate. The writers will look at how far-reaching the genre can be. The second half of the night will focus on widening the audience’s perspective about what poetry really is. To do this, several other area poets will make their appearances on stage, presenting various poetry styles. Linds Sanders, a young slam poet from Missoula, Henry Real Bird, a cowboy poet and former Poet Laureate from the Crow Nation, and Dave Caserio, a performance poet, will all share some of their works.

Haaland is excited for the event, saying “it is a delight to bring poetry to people.”
As a Montana State University Billings English professor, Haaland stays busy. But she is active beyond her professional role at the university. She taught creative writing and literature at the Montana Women’s Prison for five years beginning in 2008 and currently directs a writing-in-the-schools 12 week program in conjunction with Arts without Boundaries which pairs poets with elementary students.

Haaland was born in northern Montana on the Hi-Line, south of Inverness, and has deep ties to Montana. Her family homesteaded in the area, and her great grandfather worked as a carpenter in the Butte mines. She has researched Montana’s literary heritage, with special focus on poetry and has engaged in numerous community activities, striving to bring a love of poetry to Montana residents.

Haaland has published two books of poetry. The first, Breath in Every Room, won the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize and her second, When We Wake in the Night, was a finalist for the May Swenson Award.

In August of 2013 she was appointed Montana Poet Laureate, a title which honors citizen poets of exceptional talent and accomplishment. Nominations are made and then recommended to a panel comprised of members of the literary community, at which point three finalists are selected and submitted to the Montana Arts Council. The state’s Poet Laureate is then selected by the Governor. Haaland will hold the title for two years and a new Poet Laureate will be appointed in the summer of 2015.

In all of her work, Haaland tries to highlight the expansiveness of poetry, sparking greater interest in not only writing it, but also experiencing it. She compared the March Poets’ Congress to a concert, explaining that the writers will vary the tone, alter the mood, and present different styles, creating contrast and engaging the audience.

The Poets’ Congress falls in the middle of the WMPAC’s debut season and touches on a theme emphasized by each of the nine events scheduled this year. For the debut season, WMPAC is trying to broaden perspectives and take a new look at the definition of performing arts. By bringing in a “diverse offering of interesting thinkers,” Director Zirkle hopes to inspire the community. WMPAC is more than a concert hall, he said. “We want to make a statement for Montana. We want to be a cultural hub for the West.”

The 280-seat performing arts center has hosted the James Sewell Ballet, a unique storytelling troupe called The Moth, and Ukrainian pianist Antonii Baryshevskyi, among others. So far, every event has been a success, noted Zirkle. “We have sold out all of our shows,” he said proudly.

Work on the center was completed one year ago, in March 2013. It was funded by donations made from the community and the entire project has been met with wide support, Zirkle said. “It is incredible.”

WMPAC works in collaboration with the Arts Council of Big Sky and is located next to Ophir School. It strives to act as a community model. During the day, students use the hall; in the evenings, special events are scheduled, incorporating local performers as well as regional and international venues.

For more information about Haaland, visit www.facebook.com/HaalandLaureate. Visit www.warrenmillerpac.org for more about the Poets’ Congress or to view upcoming events at WMPAC.    

Jessianne Wright is an honors student at MSU and recently returned from a semester abroad in Spain where she studied art. In addition to her studies, she has begun training with her Quarter Horse yearling, Thyme.

Little Girl
She’s with Grandma in front
of Grandma’s house, backed
by a willow tree, gladiola and roses.

Who did she ever want
to please? But Grandma
seems half-pleased and annoyed.

No doubt Mother frowns
behind the lens, wants
to straighten this sassy face.

Maybe laughs, too.
Little girl with her mouth wide,
tongue out, yelling

at the camera. See her little
white purse full of treasure,
her white sandals?

She has things to do,
you can tell. Places to explore
beyond the frame,

and these women picking flowers
and taking pictures.
Why won’t they let her go?

“Little Girl” from When We Wake in the Night,
by Tami Haaland, ©2012 WordTech Editions,
Cincinnati, Ohio. Poem reprinted by permission
of Tami Haaland and the publisher.

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