Melissa Kwasny has seen the power of poetry to strengthen students’ senses and imagination and to reach struggling learners.
Kwasny, who has taught Lesley graduate students for 20 years, is now poet laureate of Montana, along with Mandy “M.L.” Smoker. The two were recently named Montana’s “Poet Laureates” by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. They are the first poets to share the position.
In addition to her work in Lesley’s Integrated Teaching Through the Arts program, Kwasny teaches undergraduate and graduate workshops in poetry throughout the West and has taught K-12 students.
We asked Kwasny to tell us about her new role, how “poetry saves lives” and more:
Q: What is your teaching philosophy?
A: First, poetry is an art; therefore, there is no wrong way to write or read poetry, just as there is no wrong way to look at a painting. As Gertrude Stein said, “Artists need worship, not criticism.” This, of course, does not mean that we can’t get better at it through practice.
Second, poetry, like any art, depends on developing one’s own imagination, which begins with trusting one’s perception. I give students tools to strengthen their attention to things, to refine their five senses, which are, as William Blake said, “the chief inlets of Soul in this age.”
Third, reading and writing go hand in hand. One does not become a good writer without being a good reader. Pairing the two enhances one’s skill in both.
Q: You’ve been teaching Lesley students for 20 years. What are your favorite aspects of working with Lesley learners?
A: Many people, teachers included, are fearful of poetry because it was taught to them not as a creative endeavor but as a subject that one does well or poorly at. The remarkable fact about teaching art in schools is that often those students who are struggling the most academically are those who excel at poetry. Most teachers of any kind of art will attest to this.
Q: Why is integrated teaching through the arts important?
A: Art gives struggling students a different language in which to excel, which therefore leads to hope and a newfound confidence in education and in themselves. … Students feel divided from one another, depressed about the world, and often resigned to being seen as instruments of the economy instead of precious and individual beings with their own feelings, intuitions, imagination, (and) some would say, selves or souls. Poetry throws them a life vest.
Q: How did you and M.L. Smoker react to being named Montana Poet Laureates?
A: We’re honored to have our work recognized by the state of Montana and we applaud the governor and the arts council for accepting our proposal to share the position, something that hadn’t been done in the past. We are both excited about what this innovative collaboration can mean. We hope it will serve as an example of the strength and creativity of people working together.
Q: How did you and M.L. Smoker meet?
A: Mandy and I were introduced to each other by poet Patricia Goedicke, who was mentor to each of us when we were in graduate school, albeit in different years. Since then, we have edited an anthology of poems in defense of global human rights, “I Go to the Ruined Place,” and supported each other through our years as long-time educators. Mandy, who is an enrolled member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana, brings years of experience directing Native education programs. Our goals include introducing audiences to the poetry of marginalized communities, especially American Indian and LGBTQ communities, and working with youth and teachers.
Q: Why is poetry important?
A: Mandy and I both believe that poetry saves lives. Because it speaks the language of the interior life – feelings, dreams, perceptions – it connects us to ourselves and to each other. It gives us hope. It offers the beauty of creativity even to those whose lives might be full of ugliness. It empowers by engaging the power of our imaginations, one of the most miraculous powers we have as human beings.
The Montana Poet Laureateship is a two-year term. Other Lesley poet laureates include creative writing faculty Adrian Matejka, who is Indiana Poet Laureate, and Professor Danielle Legros Georges, who served as Boston Poet Laureate from 2016 to 2019.