The Duluth Poet Laureate Project had its origins as a response to the Minnesota State Legislature’s attempt to appoint a State Poet Laureate during the summer of 2005. When former Governor Timothy Pawlenty vetoed the idea, he did so by reasoning that if a state poet laureate was chosen, then there would be an ongoing need to appoint a state potter laureate and so on.
When Lake Superior Writers board member Jim Perlman learned of Governor Pawlenty’s veto, his agitated response was to work on organizing a poet laureate project for the Duluth area, as a way of honoring local poets and encouraging the enjoyment of poetry. With the direction of Lake Superior Writers, a committee was formed of representatives from area bookstores, library groups, and university English departments. A budget for a two-year post was established, and funding was requested and received from such organizations as the Friends of the Duluth Public Library, Northern Lights Books and Gifts, the Arrowhead Reading Council, and others. Most recently, the project was supported by a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, through the Legacy Amendment.
Duluth’s First & Subsequent Poets Laureate
In the spring of 2006, an announcement seeking the first Duluth Poet Laureate went out. In April, the twelve-person poet laureate committee chose Bart Sutter based on the quality of his poetry and his ideas for organizing five events (panel discussions, workshops, and readings) over the course of two years. In a public ceremony, Sutter was crowned with a wreath made of bay leaves, a tradition that continued for Duluth Poets Laureate Jim Johnson (2008-2010), Sheila Packa (2010-2012), and so on.
Each poet laureate receives an honorarium for his or her two-year term, and additional funding supports organizing and promoting the five required events. The fourth Duluth Poet Laureate was Deborah Cooper, 2012-2014. Jim Johnson, serving a second term, was Poet Laureate for 2014-2016. Additional co-sponsors of the Duluth Poet Laureate Project have included Lake Superior Writers, Minnesota Public Radio, Zeitgeist Arts Cafe, the Duluth Public Arts Commission, the English departments at UMD and CSS, and Lake Superior College.
Beginning in 2012, the English department at the College of St. Scholastica sponsored the Duluth Poet Laureate Project. As of January 2018, Zeitgeist Arts Center became the organization’s fiscal sponsor.
Public Events, Workshops, & Publications
Public events organized by Duluth Poets Laureate have included a poetry reading on nature held at the Hartley Nature Center, a poetry reading on work at the Duluth Labor Temple, a panel discussion on the history of poetry in Duluth, and a poetry reading about rural life held in a Wrenshall barn one frigid afternoon in late fall.
Sheila Packa offered poetry workshops, an anthology publication reading for Migrations about life’s transitions, and the production and distribution of poetry placemats at the annual Empty Bowl fundraiser.
Deborah Cooper chose “Poetry in Sacred Places” as her theme, emphasizing a variety of interpretations. She also organized a Noteworthy II program inviting musicians to compose music inspired by poetry submissions.
During both of his terms, Jim Johnson offered high school students the opportunity to read their works at the Sacred Heart Music Center.
Setting a Trend
The Duluth Poet Laureate project was the first of its kind to be established in Minnesota in modern times. Other Minnesota poet laureate posts have since begun in Saint Paul, Red Wing, and Winona. Approximately 40 U.S. states currently have state poet laureate positions. In 2008, Robert Bly was appointed the first Minnesota State Poet Laureate, and in 2011, Joyce Sutphen was selected by Governor Mark Dayton.