This month, Southwest resident Heid E. Erdrich became the ﬁrst poet laureate for the city of Minneapolis.
“We need poetry, even if we don’t know we do. There’s a human need for thoughtful, beautiful speech. I’m convinced it is part of our yearning for song, for prayer, for comedy, even for political speech,” said Erdrich. “Our city seems deeply divided and that comes, in part, from not knowing and listening to one another. I want to find out if poetry can help us hear one another and help one another.”
Erdrich, who lives in Kenwood, started serving her one-year term on Jan. 1, 2024 and was honored at the ﬁrst city council meeting of the term on Jan. 8 where she read a new poem written for the occasion. (See sidebar for excerpt.) On Jan. 18, she was part of a public celebration at The Loft Literary Center, located downtown at 1011 Washington Avenue S.
“Erdrich in particular has a long history of commitment to this work, and honoring her as the inaugural Poet Laureate speaks to the gravity of her impact,” said Loft Program Manager Lucia LoTempio. “We anticipate Erdrich will be a model for subsequent Poet Laureates to thrive in this role.”
When the city called for applicants last November, friends reached out to her. “They bugged me to apply,” said Erdrich, “and I looked ahead at my 2024 schedule, realized I could make the time, and began to dream about what we could do around poetry in our city.”
Erdrich was born in Breckenridge, Minn., and raised in Wahpeton, N.D. where her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. She has seven siblings and her maternal grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, was the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe from 1953 to 1959.
Her interest in poetry goes back to her childhood. “We recited poems as children to impress our dad, who loved poetry,” she recalled. “Still, he seemed incredulous that I became a professional poet and actually got paid – he was just tickled every time I won an award.”
She has received many awards, including the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress, a National Artists Fellowship from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, and two Minnesota Book Awards.
Despite all these accomplishments, when asked about her proudest moment, she said, “Well, this honor, being the inaugural Minneapolis Poet Laureate certainly is at the top.”
She earned a bachelor of arts from Dartmouth College and two masters of art from Johns Hopkins University in poetry and fiction.
In 2006, she moved with her family from St. Paul to Minneapolis. “So many things brought us here,” she said. “We had found a public school that was a good fit for our oldest child who needed just the right place. We were able to be near two of my sisters and Birchbark Books.” She was also starting work in the American Indian Cultural Corridor directing All My Relations Arts on West Franklin Ave. “I’ve felt connected to that stretch of Franklin since I moved to Minnesota in 1992,” she said, “but I truly love the lakes, parks and the river, too.”
One of her sisters, Louise Erdrich, is also a well-known author and owner of Birchbark books, located within walking distance of her house and across from one of her favorite spots in the neighborhood, Kenwood School’s Stone Poem Rain Garden.
Setting the gold standard
A panel of five judges unanimously selected Erdrich through an open application process administered by the Loft. It included three prominent members of the local literary community – Bao Phi, Carmen Giménez, and Douglas Kearney – as well as made up of members of the Minneapolis Arts Commission.
Twenty-five people submitted applications. “There was a very strong applicant pool,” said Ben Johnson, director of the city’s Arts & Cultural Affairs Department. “Heid E. Erdrich was selected because of the stature of her work, her quality of writing, publication and body of work.” Of the 25 applicants, the finalists also included Junauda Petrus, Miss Mari, Chavonn Shen, and Raymond Luczak.
“Our panelists cited the compelling sense of gravity in Erdrich’s work, the strength in her craft, the strength in her community building, her focus on collaboration, and her ongoing development as an artist,” said LoTempio.
“She will set the gold standard for all future applicants,” said Johnson.
The city’s poet laureate program is administered by The Loft Literary Center. As laureate, Erdrich will speak at official city events, lead at least one public event that features the sharing of poetry and community conversation, teach three classes through The Loft Literary Center, and generally help to advance the art form of poetry in the city.
Erdrich will receive an honorarium of $8,000, and a budget of $2,000 to plan and execute a project she designs. She may apply for a $50,000 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship award.
Erdrich is Ojibwe and an enrolled member of Turtle Mountain. She has authored several poetry collections, including “Little Big Bully,” “Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media,” “Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems,” “National Monuments,” “The Mother’s Tongue,” and “Fishing for Myth.” She also edited the “New Poets of Native Nations” anthology from Graywolf Press. Her next book is expected to be published later this year.
Since 2005, Erdrich has also curated several art exhibits focused on Native American artists. She currently serves as the 2020-2024 guest curator for the Mead Art Museum of Amherst College. Her exhibition, Boundless, that combines text and images from Amherst’s collections of Native art and literature is on view at the Mead until July 2024.
A vision of a city united
“Heid E. Erdrich is a people’s poet with an exquisite voice and deep, deep roots in community,” said Loft Literary Center Executive and Artistic Director Arleta Little. “We look forward to celebrating Heid and to collaborating with her in bringing her vision for poetry to the people of Minneapolis.”
“I am thrilled about our investment in a Poet Laureate and our deepened commitment to expand and infuse arts and culture into this enterprise work, in connection with residents and our communities,” said city council member, and poet Andrea Jenkins. “It has been a long journey for the city of Minneapolis to catch up with so many other communities in the state.”
Erdrich has taught undergraduate and graduate students for decades, receiving tenure at University of St. Thomas and serving as a mentor to Augsburg University’s Master of Fine Arts creative writing program from 2014 to 2022.
For those wanting to write poetry, “just think of images in your dreams and begin writing,” she advises. “Keep your pen moving for five minutes and you will have a good start on a poem.”
If you are looking for good poetry to read, “Minneapolis is rich in poets,” she said, “but the runners up for Poet Laureate would be a good place to start. I’m a big fan of Sun Yung Shin, as well. But my particular interest is Indigenous poetry: Marcie Rendon will have a book of poems out soon and, although she’s not from Minneapolis, Gwen Westerman, Minnesota Poet Laureate has a new book out.”
She added, “I’m a realist, but still I have a vision of our future city united and thriving in all neighborhoods for all peoples. I don’t think fear and separation can last forever – that’s just unsustainable. Our population will change and the next generations will transform the city and it’s their best hopes that really matter. I’m happy to hear those hopes as we make poetry together.”