Gwen Westerman is Minnesota’s Poet Laureate

Minnesota State Mankato English professor Gwen Westerman has been named Minnesota’s Poet Laureate by Gov. Tim Walz.

Westerman is the first Native American to serve as the state’s Poet Laureate. At Minnesota State she has been teaching literature and technical writing since 1992 and heads the University’s Humanities program, all following a seven-year job in corporate communications.

“It is an honor to serve as the Poet Laureate and help elevate poetry across the state,” Westerman said. “I am excited for the opportunity to share the beauty of poetry and to engage and celebrate the voices of Minnesota.”

Her publications include “Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota,” a book she co-authored with Bruce White and which won two Minnesota Book Awards. That 2012 book is a history of the Dakota people in Minnesota stretching back hundreds of years prior to the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. Her father was a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota, and her mother was from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.

Minnesota State Mankato English department chair Geoff Herbach has worked with Westerman since he arrived at the University in 2010.

“Gwen is so clearly a giant,” Herbach said. “If you’ve been to a department meeting with her, you know. If you’ve seen her read her work, you know. If you’ve seen her art, you just know.”

Westerman’s poetry collection, “Follow the Blackbirds,” published in 2012 by Michigan State University Press, is written in English and Dakota, one of her heritage languages. Her poems and essays have been published in POETRY, Yellow Medicine Review, Water-Stone Review, Natural Bridge, and at poetryfoundation.org.

In his statement announcing Westerman’s selection, Walz said the poet laureate role involves encouraging young people to use their voices, which makes Westerman, as a teacher, an ideal fit.

Gwen Westerman, writer, artist and English faculty member at Minnesota State Mankato, is now the state’s Poet Laureate.

“Dr. Westerman brings a wealth and depth of experience that is representative of Minnesota’s vibrant poetry community,” Walz said. “I am grateful she has chosen to bring her talents and knowledge to this new role as Minnesota’s Poet Laureate.”

As a teacher, Westerman’s work at the University has been awarded a NEH Scholarly Editions and Translations grant and a University Presidential Teaching Scholar award. She has presented in the Douglas R. Moore Faculty Research Lectureship and is a Distinguished Faculty Scholar.

Westerman also works in fiber arts and has pieces that are part of the permanent collection of the Minnesota Historical Society, Great Plains Art Museum, University of South Dakota and the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota.

She is the state’s third poet laureate, following Joyce Sutphen and Robert Bly.

“She speaks powerfully for so many people,” Herbach said. “We’re just lucky to have her here. Given her giant impact on our community and in the state, I’m almost not surprised she’s the new Poet Laureate. Almost. I’m still giddy with the news.”