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This National Poetry Month, Meet State Poets Laureate from the Midwest

by Angela Zonunpari

These state-appointed poets promote reading, writing, and appreciation of poetry across the Midwest.

Mary Oliver’s Devotions has been a companion for the last few months, especially in the afternoons when I feel like I need a little change from staring at the computer screen. The Ohio native—who won the National Book Award (1992) and the Pulitzer Prize (1984) for poetry—captured life, the everyday, and the natural world in simple and astute ways. It’s made me visit her work regularly; a new practice for someone who isn’t naturally drawn to poems.

Over the weekend, I read these lines in ‘Storage’ from her collection of works in Felicity (2015):

“… Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing—the reason they can fly.”

It brought a sense of knowing and a smile as I thought about my long list of spring cleaning and gardening to-dos. And the timing is perfect — just in time for National Poetry Month.

Since 1996, April has been observed as National Poetry Month, which is dubbed “the largest literary celebration in the world.” Throughout the month, the Academy of American Poets provides activities and resources “to celebrate the integral role poets and poetry have in our culture.”

“Sometimes there is a word-picture that catches our breath and inspires us, an image that makes us see a-new, a cunning turn of language that makes us want to speak in tongues.”


Poets laureate play a key role in this celebration. States, cities, and counties across America participate in this tradition to promote the reading, writing, and appreciation of poetry among the public. A poet laureate is generally an honorary position, acquired officially by a governor’s proclamation or legislative action, or unofficially by being selected by a literary organization.

According to the Library of Congress, the first-ever state poet laureate (Ina Coolbrith) was named in 1915 by governor’s proclamation in California. Forty-five states now have an official position of state poet laureate, with Michigan reinstating the honorary role last year after 64 years.

U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón shares her thoughts on inspiration and poetry. Video courtesy of Library of Congress.

Join us in celebrating National Poetry Month by getting to know the Midwest’s current batch of poets laureate!

Angela Jackson

Illinois: Angela Jackson

Award-winning poet, novelist, and playwright Angela Jackson was named the fifth Illinois Poet Laureate in 2020, filling the position that had been vacant since 2017. She was born in Greenville, Mississippi and raised on Chicago’s Southside, and educated at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.

In her letter ‘All May Enter’ as the state poet laureate, Jackson wrote, “In the realm of each poem, we find contained the nucleus of life itself, some truth that otherwise eluded us, but pulses in our daily lives, behind our eyes, on the edge of a smile or frown, laughter or weeping.”

Tim Andersen, Bel Air Photography
Curtis L. Crisler

Indiana: Curtis L. Crisler

The official position of Indiana State Poet Laureate was created in 2005, and in 2024 Curtis L. Crisler was the eight Hoosier to take on the honorary role. Born and raised in Gary, Indiana, Crisler is Professor of English at Purdue University Fort Wayne. As the state poet laureate, he will be a part of programs in schools and libraries across Indiana.

According to the poet, his work exhibits an “urban Midwestern sensibility (uMs)” that embodies “the community and creativity of the varied relationships of descendants from the first through second waves of the southern migration, exploring their connections to place/environment, history, family, and self.”

Vince Gotera

Iowa: Vince Gotera

Earlier this year, Iowa named Vince Gotera, Professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa, as the State Poet Laureate. He is Iowa’s fifth poet laureate since the position was created in 1999. In addition to his almost 30-year teaching career in creative writing and literature, Gotera has served as editor for long-running, leading literary and poetry publications.

“In a simple, straightforward style,” Gotera begins his collection of poems, Dragonfly (1994), “by writing about a father’s tender love for his son,” states National Book Award finalist, poet and playwright Jessica Hagedorn. “…ever mindful of the big picture, Gotera goes on to explore the painful contradictions of cultural identity with dark humor, wisdom, and compassion.”

Nandi Comer

Michigan: Nandi Comer

Until 2023, Michigan had named a State Poet Laureate only once—Edgar A. Guest in 1952. The honorary position was finally filled with the selection of Detroit resident and award-winning poet Nandi Comer. Comer is currently the director of Allied Media Projects Seeds Program and the co-director of Detroit Lit, a program dedicated to providing reading and professional development opportunities to narrative makers of color in Detroit.

“Michigan has such a rich legacy of poetry,” she said in a press release. “Poets like Robert Hayden, who served as the first Consultant in Poetry of the Library of Congress; Pulitzer Prize-winning Tyehimba Jess; and the fierce, award-winning Carolyn Forché have transformed the field by reimagining what is possible in writing.”

Gwen Nell Westerman

Minnesota: Gwen Nell Westerman

In 2021, Gwen Nell Westerman was appointed the Minnesota Poet Laureate—the first Native poet to hold the position. Westerman is an enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate Nation and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and teaches English and Humanities at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is the third official State Poet Laureate of Minnesota after the position was created in 2007.

“‘Give-Away Song’ honors our Dakota value of generosity and sharing whatever we have with those around us. This poem is also a response to the missionaries and Indian agents who often reported that our ancestors did not know the value of things that the government provided them—blankets, flour, meat, food, tools, other supplies—and that when those goods were distributed, the people would immediately share with others who did not have as much as they did. But I think our ancestors did know exactly the value of things and that value only comes when you can share,” she shared, along with the poem published by the Academy of American Poets in 2021 (pictured on the left).

Photo Credit: Dr. Denise Lajimodiere / North Dakota Council on the Arts
Dr. Denise Lajimodiere

North Dakota: Dr. Denise Lajimodiere

The North Dakota Poet Laureate position was created as a lifetime position in 1957. There has been a total of three poets in the honorary role since then. In 2023, Dr. Denise Lajimodiere, an enrolled Citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in Belcourt, North Dakota, was named the State Poet Laureate—the first Native American to hold this position.

She is a retired Associate Professor from the School of Education, North Dakota State University, and has dedicated 44 years in the field. The poet and children’s book author is also considered an expert on the history of Native American boarding schools. In 2019, her academic book Stringing Rosaries: The History, The Unforgivable, The Healing of Northern Plains Boarding School Survivors was published by the North Dakota State University Press.


Kari Gunter-Seymour

Ohio: Kari Gunter-Seymour

In December 2023, Kari Gunter-Seymour of Albany, Ohio was reappointed as the Ohio Poet Laureate. Before taking on the honorary position in 2020, Gunter-Seymour was the poet laureate for Athens, Ohio. During that time, among other prominent project, she partnered with Ohio University to develop a “Poetry Trail,” part of mAppAthens, OHIO Museum Complex’s outdoor museum project.

A post on the Ohio Arts Council website, states that “The work is firmly and unapologetically attached to her home soil and is an examination of the long-lasting effects of stereotype and false narratives surrounding native Appalachians.”

Bruce Roseland

South Dakota: Bruce Roseland

The South Dakota Poet Laureate position was established in 1937. Bruce Roseland, a rancher and poet from Seneca, South Dakota, was welcomed as the state’s ambassador for poetry in August 2023—the eighth South Dakotan to take on the role.

In his speech at the 2023 South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood, he said, “By listening to the poetry of others, we find commonalities and step into their shoes, walk their mile, see what they see, hear what they hear, feel what they feel. Poetry does not have to be complicated, but it has to be honest. It has to come from the heart.”

As the State Poet Laureate, Roseland has extended an invitation to people and communities and wants “people to tell me the why, tell me about a day in your life. There’s no such thing as an unremarkable day in anyone’s life.”

Nicholas Gulig

Wisconsin: Nicholas Gulig

After a decade of the Poet Laureate Nominating Commission operating under an Executive Order to fill the position of the Wisconsin Poet Laureate, the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters became the stewards of the program in 2011. They appointed Wisconsinite Nicholas Gulig, a Thai American poet, as the “state’s leading voice for poetry” in January 2023. Gulig is currently an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and lives in Fort Atkinson.

On their website, the Academy states, “It’s more of an “activist” rather than “honorary” position. The Wisconsin Poet Laureate has a crucial role promoting poetry, creativity, and artistic expression…”

More Ways to Celebrate Poetry

Here are:

As part of this celebration, U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón has curated this year’s ‘Poem-a-Day’ series that features “previously unpublished poems by contemporary poets on the weekdays and classic poems from the public domain on the weekends,” states the press release from the Academy. By signing up for the series, a poem gets delivered to your inbox daily!