Poetry in motion
City of Reno selects Gailmarie Pahmeier as its first poet laureate
Poetry in politics is a combination that many Reno citizens are probably unfamiliar with. This is understandable, as Reno has lacked the honorary position of poet laureate—until now. On Jan. 5, Reno City Council unanimously voted to appoint University of Nevada, Reno professor and poet Gailmarie Pahmeier to the position.
The title and duties of poet laureate are traditions that date back to the 14th century—a tradition many local and federal governments still hold. The current Poet Laureate of the United States, Charles Wright, was appointed last year. Traditionally, a poet laureate’s main duty is to compose a poem for special events, such as dedications or public occasions.
Christine Fey, city of Reno resource development and culture affairs manager, has been involved in the development of the position since last spring, when the idea was presented to the council by Councilmember Jenny Brekhus.
“She went and asked for permission to have staff spend time to go the Arts and Culture Commission, to solicit their support in seeking a poet laureate for the city of Reno,” Fey said. “They were enthusiastic and thrilled to have the opportunity.”
As Reno has never had a poet laureate, the job fell to Fey and her staff to research and propose the terms of the position. Most of the selection process is modeled after the State Arts Council’s process for selecting the Nevada poet laureate.
In order to be considered, applicants need to be nominated, provide publication credits, a list of accomplishments relating to the literary arts, two to three letters of recommendation, and an artist statement detailing the applicant’s vision of the role. Poet Laureates serve a two-year term and receive a $1,000-per-year honorarium from the Reno Arts and Culture Commission.
While the nomination guidelines require the poet laureate to meet a minimum of four official engagements on behalf of the city, the duties of the position are otherwise vague. According to Fey, this was intentional.
“In this first term, this poet laureate is going to set the tone for what poet laureates do,” Fey said. “Each of the four applicants brought different ideas of what a poet laureate would do, which I thought was very exciting—they greatly exceeded our expectations.”
Fey believes the position is a good endorsement of a public art medium that has been underexposed in the past. Appointing a poet laureate has been a topic of council discussion before, but no action was ever taken.
“I think the time is ripe,” she said. “We have come to a place in our community where arts and culture is no longer an add-on, but rather an essential. Arts and culture is one of the things that defines us … so why not have a poet laureate that helps to shine a light on the literary arts as well?”
After a three-month selection process, the RACC decided Gailmarie Pahmeier would serve as the inaugural poet laureate. Pahmeier, who has been a faculty member of the UNR English Department since 1985, was originally nominated for the position by Robert Blesse—retired director of the Black Rock Press.
Shaun Griffin, a local poet and an inductee of the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, was among those to write a letter of recommendation.
“Bob Blesse told me the position had become a reality,” Griffin said. “He said he was going to nominate Gailmarie and asked me to help, and I immediately said I would.”
Griffin has lived in Virginia City since 1978, and in addition to writing and editing several acclaimed poetry collections, has served in various arts-administration roles around the state—including the State Arts Commission.
Since meeting Pahmeier when she moved to the state in 1984, he has known her as a fixture in the artistic community of Reno and rural Nevada. A community he believes will benefit from the Poet Laureate’s role as an ambassador for poetry.
“She’s able to be a public person with what is typically a very private art form,” Griffin said. “She’s going to use it as a tool and platform to raise awareness of the art form.”
Awareness, he hopes, will combat any negative preconceptions the public may hold about poetry, and its importance as a form of expression.
“Poetry has not been widely read in this time and culture; it has in the past,” Griffin said. “Unfortunately, there’s a kind of fear in the public about poetry. Sometime in grade school we learned that poetry is hard, so why try? Hopefully, she will assuage some of that fear.”Foreshadowing
Pahmeier has several specific projects she would like to implement. As outlined in her original artist’s statement for the position, she places a heavy emphasis on community engagement and service.
To maximize her accessibility to the public, she intends to start what she calls “community office hours.” At various venues across the city, Pahmeier will hold monthly forums where interested citizens can discuss literature and ask specific questions about poetry.
She also believes that her position as poet laureate will allow her to serve her students outside of the classroom through the implementation of a new internship program.
“I’m interested in trying to set up what I’m going to call ’Gown-to-Town Internships,’ in the literary arts,” Pahmeier said. “Take creative writing students who are good writers, who have the time and want to earn some credit working six hours a week in a community setting discussing literary arts. Working with kids, working in shelters, working with seniors. … I think that would be great.”
Another goal involves compiling an original poem from submissions she receives from Reno citizens. A type of crowd-sourced poem she calls “The Reno Poem.”
“I’m going to ask residents of Reno to send me a short stanza on something specific they observed in Reno,” Pahmeier said. “I’ll put them together as a Reno poem, and then, depending on how many submissions I get … I’m hoping to get on local radio … and I will just read that ongoing poem and credit the citizens—the residents—that created that week, that month’s, poem. And then at the end of my tenure, which is scheduled for a two-year term, we’ll almost have a book. That’s my goal, ’The Reno Poem,’ and who knows? Maybe we’ll get a local publisher to go ahead and make some copies of this.”
While initiatives like this are as new to Reno as the position of poet laureate itself, Pahmeier’s experience with the artistic community over the past three decades has left her optimistic.
“I don’t know how it could have a negative impact, and if it makes people giggle, ’That’s so silly,’ so what? There’s a moment of joy, somebody got a laugh out of it. I think that’s valid also.”
In 1992, the National Endowment for the Arts conducted a survey of arts participation statistics in 12 cities. The survey found that, per capita, Reno came in second in highest percentage of residents who read poetry—beating out Seattle, Chicago and Philadelphia.
“I like to use the analogy of building a home,” Pahmeier said. “I’m here to lay the concrete and put in the septic tank—the basic stuff to make the house habitable. I’m hoping that those who follow will make the most gorgeous, beautiful home on that foundation.”