Sheryl Noethe named new Montana Poet Laureate

Published: September 26, 2011

By Kristi Niemeyer

“I was born into a family that didn't read books,” writes Montana’s new Poet Laureate Sheryl Noethe.

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Sheryl Noethe (Photo by Kurt Wilson)

But she read voraciously, and when a fifth grade teacher told her she could become a published author someday, the idea “changed my life entirely. Now I saw myself as a writer, a part of the literary dialogue of our culture. I re-wrote my own identity, beyond anything my family had ever dreamed of.”

Now, Noethe not only crafts her own award-winning poems, which have been published in four collections and several anthologies and literary magazines, she also helps thousands of youngsters rewrite their own identities.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, in his appointment letter to Noethe, says he was most struck by her statement, “a few words from an adult can shape a child’s idea of who they are and who they can become.”

“Your commitment to teaching children that they ‘have the ability to find their own literary voice’ is evidenced in your outstanding work in Montana schools,” he writes.

Noethe, who earned her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Minnesota, taught children to write poetry in some of New York City’s most dangerous neighborhoods before moving to Montana 25 years ago.

She founded the Missoula Writing Collaborative in 1995 and remains its artistic director. The program now serves students in a dozen Montana schools and a small Alaskan village.

Mark Gibbons, one of the poets employed by the collaborative, estimates that its writers have “reached over 25,000 students in western Montana who have produces in excess of a quarter of a million poems.”

He praises Noethe as “an award-winning poet whose passion for the written word, for honest communication, for young people, for the wounded, for the meek, and for the voiceless is unparalleled. And she’s fun.”

Fred Arnold, a language teacher at Hellgate Middle School, has watched Noethe in action. “One particular girl in our class is a ‘non-producer,’ that is, she literally sits and takes up space … She seems immune to any external stimuli.

“Her writing and participation in Sheryl’s class has been remarkable. I use the papers she generates there to grade because she won’t do mine. This is not an isolated incident.”

Writer and freelance journalist Jeremy Smith watched Noethe lead a poetry class at Rattlesnake Elementary School in Missoula. She read Richard Hugo’s “Driving Montana” to the students and then helped them create their own “Montana road trip” poems. “Half an hour later, two-dozen once shy boys and girls leapt in front of each other to volunteer to read their poetry out loud,” writes Smith. “I have seen Sheryl repeat this experience with such diverse groups as adjudicated teenagers, developmentally-disabled adults, and foster care clients, as well as thousands, if not tens of thousands more Montana public school students.”

Noethe has garnered several awards, including the Missoula Cultural Achievement Award, the William Stafford Prize Best Book of Poetry and the Montana Arts Council Literature Fellowship. She has authored four poetry collections: As Is, Greatest Hits Archival Series, The Ghost Openings and Descent of Heaven Over the Lake. Her work has also appeared in several anthologies, including I Go To The Ruined Place, Poems Across The Big Sky and Montana Women Writers.

Her textbook, Poetry Everywhere: Teaching Poetry Writing in School and in the Community, published in 1995, is widely used nationally. She’s currently developing curriculum for Montana schools, utilizing Indian Education For All funding, that will educate students about American Indian literature.

The Montana Poet Laureate was established by the Montana Legislature in 2005 to recognize and honor a citizen poet of exceptional talent and accomplishment. The Poet Laureate's role is to encourage appreciation of poetry and literary life in Montana by giving readings and presentations throughout the state and making poetry available to a wide state audience.

It’s a mantle Noethe is eager to wear. “My mission and my life's work are what the position of Poet Laureate fulfills: spreading the good word, involving everyone in the pleasure of writing, and a focus on children discovering they have the ability to find their own literary voice.”

According to one of her admirers, she brings another quality to the job. Gibbons quotes the poet William Carlos Williams, who said, “If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem.”

He adds, “Sheryl’s a pleasure. Sheryl’s a poem. That makes her a perfect choice for the next Poet Laureate of Montana.”

Poetry Class

For Nancy McCulloch

When the fourth graders begin writing

I wait in fear and deep humility

for the poetry that opens my sleeping third eye,

whispers from God; answers to unspoken hope,

messages from trees, unrealized wishes,

the small thing that never seemed to matter,

the way a child and a rat love one another,

the green force that drives the blossom.

The answer, I surmise, has to be reincarnation:

little Ezra Pounds with big ears roping cattle in Idaho,

four-foot tall girls in braids, already pillars of Haiku,

joining Master Basho; and also Issa.

T.S. Eliot unawares, in a soccer jersey,

William Carlos Williams chewing on his pencil,

an unkempt Dylan Thomas jumping hills on a yellow dirt bike,

John Berryman typsy on a skateboard.

Sylvia Plath looks over our heads and mutters to herself.

I try not to plead, or badger, but

What did you mean by that line?

Where did it come from?

How did you ever think of anything like that?

Do you know what it’s called, what you did?

The old souls, with their fruit-leather breath

and questionable hygiene, sweat lines

beneath baseball caps

shrug, shake their heads, push up their glasses, mumble

I Dunno.

Noethe will read from her work and participate in workshops during the Montana Festival of the Book, Oct. 6-8 in Missoula. Learn more at http://www.humanitiesmontana.org.

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