EVANSTON — There was laughter, tears and applause when Wyoming poet Barbara Smith read from her recently published book of poetry, “Putting a Name on It,” at the Uinta County Museum’s brown bag lunch held in the Beeman-Cashin building on Aug. 4.
“I first started writing in college, stuff that no one understood,” Smith said. “Poet Marvin Bell once said that he came to a point in his writing life when he wanted his poems to mean something. I understood what he meant immediately. I, too, want the reader to understand the larger human story, to feel the connection with those other voices co-mingled in my writing.”
Smith is the granddaughter of Norwegian homesteaders, and the daughter of parents who lived during the Great Depression. Her family kept moving west, looking for better lives and their lives inform Smith’s writing today. The stories her immigrant grandparents told of their pioneer days, how they struggled to make a living in the harsh West and the stories her parents told of growing up during the Depression inspired Smith and informed her writing.
She also writes of her own contemporary experiences, first coming to Rock Spring in 1969 as a young teacher and then marrying and raising her family there. She said when she first moved there, it was “a friendly immigrant mining community” — and then the boom hit the town. She writes of those times of rapid change and the effects it had on people.
“The stories we tell connect us and enable us to better understand our similarities and differences, our various cultures, generations and places where we find ourselves,” Smith said. “I began to write with more intensity when I saw a connection between the stories of my ancestors, my own life, and the stories of the new pioneers coming to this boom-and-bust town where I lived. I could really relate to the isolation and challenges pioneer women faced. I felt that we were sisters. That convergence of stories has remained a major theme in my writing.”
Smith then read her poem titled, “Sisters” which drifts from the present to the past and clearly demonstrates the connection between two women separated only by time but connected through their common struggles. The last four stanzas are a powerful example of that strong connection:
“Some pioneer women took laudanum for headaches.
“Some died in the afternoon.
“Some waited five years to dance together and dream.”
“Sisters, she thought, we’re sisters.”
Interjected between the dozen or so poems Smith read aloud to the audience, she told the stories of her ancestors which demonstrated that strong connection. She spoke of a grandmother who drove a Model-T, all alone, from Champagne, Illinois, to Oregon — not only once, but four times.
After telling the audience about her grandmother and her trip in the Model-T, Smith read her poem with the same name as the title of the book, “Putting a Name on It.” This poem speaks of the many pioneers who put their names on Independence Rock and the modern travelers who feel a similar need to let the vast world know, “I was here.”
When she read a poem titled, “Mourning Again,” an audience member asked her to read it again. This poem was about cleaning out the home of her parents after their deaths and it brought tears to the eyes of many. As with the “Sisters” poem, the last four lines are powerful:
“Who wants these precious things?
“We walk through the empty rooms,
“Footsteps echoing our loss.
“Once more, we put them down to rest.”
The last poem Smith read is a favorite of those who are familiar with her poetry and one that has been published in an anthology of poetry, titled “Drive They Said,” edited by Kurt Brown and published by Milkweed Editions.
The poem is titled, “Interstate 80” and the line, “This road will give you religion, mister.” brought lots of laughs from the audience who are very familiar with the hazards of driving on the interstate.
Smith had copies of her book for purchase and she stayed after the workshop to visit with people, sign books and answer questions.
Smith has received recognition for her writing over the years. In 2008, she was named the recipient of the Neltje Blanchan Memorial Writing Award for nature writing, sponsored by the Wyoming Arts Council and funded by artist and arts patron Neltje.
In 2006, Smith received the Wyoming Governor’s Arts Award for her contribution in support of the arts in Sweetwater County as well as for her own writing. She also received the Wyoming Arts Council Literary Fellowship in 1990 and an artist’s residency from the Ucross Foundation. Her poetry and essays have been published in many collections, anthologies, and book series.
Smith is Professor Emeritus at Western Wyoming Community College, retiring in 2007. She taught English, journalism and creative writing at WWCC, and served as Chair of the Humanities Division for 17 years. During her tenure at WWCC, she brought nearly 100 visiting writers to the college to give readings and workshops for students and members of the community.
In retirement, Smith continues to teach a memoir writing workshop in collaboration with WWCC and the Young at Heart Senior Center. Smith said, “I believe it is important for people growing up and living in the American West to write their stories, leaving a record of the true history of this place in their own words.”