SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s new poet laureate, Paisley Rekdal, is on a mission.
Rekdal, who lives in Salt Lake City, was appointed to the four-year post in May and is planning to travel the state to collect the stories of local writers and poets — living or dead — to better understand Utah's literary history.
“We have had so many different fiction writers and poets that have been attached to the state but don’t have archival projects that gather them all together,” Rekdal said in an interview with the Deseret News. “What I want to do is create a Mapping Literary Utah site that gathers together the works of as many writers and poets that are attached to Utah as possible.”
Rekdal invites Utahns to contribute by sending in names of poets and writers who may be unknown or forgotten. Specifically, Rekdal is looking for stories about writers who are no longer living, including stories about Native American poets, early Mormon poets, non-English speaking writers, performance poets and Japanese-American writers and artists who lived at the Topaz Internment Camp outside of Delta.
Her colossal undertaking caught the attention of the committee that ultimately passed her name along to Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert for consideration for the post.
"The literary arts are an essential part of our state’s rich cultural heritage,” Herbert said in a news release. “Ms. Rekdal’s artistic accomplishments and teaching service make her ideally suited to continue the tradition of bringing poetry and literature to the people of Utah."
Rekdal’s Mapping Literary Utah project is a spin-off of her Mapping Salt Lake City, a community web project. The idea came from Rebecca Solnit’s “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas,” a collection of maps with accompanying essays that describe the City by the Bay. The Mapping Literary Utah website will include maps, journals, knowledge of different literary presses, interviews and video clips of Utah’s literary artists.
Alyssa Hickman Grove, the literary art program manager for the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, said the committee that reviewed applications thought Rekdal’s Mapping Literary Utah project was ambitious and a worthwhile resource for people who want to know about the literary history of Utah.
“She is eminently qualified, said Grove of Rekdal. “Literature and language are one of the main ways we express ourselves. It’s just so important to recognize that as an important art form and means of expressions. It is not something that should be seen as elite or elevated, it is accessible to everyone. It is important to spread that around the state.”
Rekdal wants to spread her love of poetry through the state in hopes of dispelling what she said is the fear of poetry.
“I think deep down everyone loves poetry, but people have been taught from humiliating public school experiences to fear poetry, but there is no reason to fear poetry,” Rekdal said. “I think there are so many more reason to celebrate it and enjoy it. When babies are born, or when people get married or when people experience great grief or loss, people turn to poetry first. It is the art that best encapsulates the human soul in action.”
Her own interest in poetry came when she was 16 and home from school sick. Digging around in her English-major mother's large book collection, Rekdal came across two works by poet legends: Italian Renaissance poet Dante Alighieri's “Inferno” and Roman poet Ovid's “The Art of Love.” The gory, terrifying illustrations of Dante’s journey through hell in contrast to Ovid’s erotic and funny poems from 2 A.D. captivated Rekdal.
Those works kicked off her poetic interests, inspiring her to also write her own. In her early 20s, Rekdal aspired to be the editor of Harper’s Magazine, but soon realized she needed more experience. At the age of 22, Rekdal said she approached writing like she was training for a marathon.
“You need to read both things that are good as well as bad because sometimes you don’t understand why something is good until you see something that is bad,” Rekdal said. “Read everything. Read widely and read as much as you can. Learn to like the act of writing. Treat it like an exercise. Build up to it. Write often so you get used to wanting to do it.”
As Rekdal embarks on what she calls “The Four Year Road Trip,” she will use those skills as she tries her hand at something new: podcasting. Her podcast will feature different writers and editors who Rekdal will interview and ask about their relationship to places in Utah.
Rekdal, a Seattle native, has lived throughout the world, but it is Utah that has become her muse.
“Utah has been a huge inspiration to me,” Rekdal said. “The environment is so unbelievably beautiful here. The public land has been incredibly inspiring. The interaction you have with the natural work in Utah is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced.”
Along with her plea to the public for help, Rekdal also wants to give back.
“Please take advantage of your local poets,” Rekdal said. “I am more than happy to go out and speak to groups. It will be an opportunity to meet other people in the state and find other writers to feature on the website. I look at it as a mutually beneficial activity. Ultimately I would love to bring poetry to as many different audiences as possible to the state.”
If you go
What: Poetry reading, Zion Arts Council, Sept. 8, 7 p.m., Canyon Community Center, 126 Lion Blvd., Springdale (zarts.org)
What: Reading from “The Broken Country: On Trauma, A Crime and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam,” Sept. 30, time to be announced, The King’s English, 1511 S. 1500 East (kingsenglish.com)
What: Utah Humanities Book Festival event, Oct. 10, 7 p.m., Viridian Event Center, 8030 S. 1825 West, West Jordan (utahhumanities.org)