OGDEN — Ordinarily, poets are known for the things they write or say.
This is one poet who would like to leave a legacy of listening.
Abraham Smith, an assistant professor of English at Weber State University, was recently named Ogden City’s poet laureate. And while a news release from the city explains that among the poet laureate’s duties is to “make public appearances and read poetry that best fits the occasion,” Smith sees his role as more of a listener to the community.
“I’m grateful to be here in Ogden, and to have my name attached to this honor,” he said. “But I’m all ears if folks have ideas on how to build inroads, poetically. I have the sense and desire to listen, so if you catch wind of this and want to be in touch, I’m easily findable on the English department website.”
Smith replaces Brad Roghaar, who had been serving as the city’s first poet laureate since fall 2016. Smith will serve a two-year term, with an option for a second term.
Smith said he’s an “actively performing and publishing poet” who travels quite a bit, but when he’s here, he’ll be pushing the poet laureate’s agenda.
Jan Hamer, a member of the Ogden Arts Advisory Committee and an instructor in the WSU English department, was on the selection committee for the new poet laureate. She said all members of the committee agreed that Smith was the obvious choice.
“He has a generous spirit. He loves sharing poetry with students and loves teaching,” Hamer said. “He’s amazing as a poet, but he’s not trying to appear erudite. He’s just passionate about it.”
There were six solid applicants for the position, according to Hamer; she and the new poet laureate hope to use the other applicants to promote literature locally.
“We’re calling it The Poet Squad,” Hamer said. “We invited the people who applied for poet laureate to serve on a committee. There were some really good ideas from the applicants, and there’s no reason to let those ideas disappear.”
Among those ideas:
- Although Ogden already has a few poetry slams, readings and open mic nights each month, Smith says there could always be more.
- Offering poetry displays around the community, on fixtures or even those fiberglass horse sculptures that pop up each summer in downtown Ogden. “A poetry reading is ephemeral,” Hamer said. “But if something is written down, it might catch your eye when you’re walking by, or while you’re waiting for a trolly or at a kiosk.”
- Putting up a “seasonal poster” around town, to make sure anyone who is interested in the art form knows about poetry events going on in the community.
- Another idea, borrowed from former poet laureate Roghaar, is to organize poetry-oriented hikes in Northern Utah.
- Implement more fully a writers-in-the-schools program, to give young people more poetry opportunities.
Smith and Hamer say they’re also working on ideas for the upcoming National Poetry Month, scheduled for April.
“We’ve got a lot of ideas,” Hamer said. “We’re just trying to heighten awareness of poetry and literature.”
Smith said one of his goals will be finding ways to connect all the poetry events in Ogden, and make certain the community knows about them.
“I think that Ogden has a lot of wonderful things going on, poetry-wise, but I’m not sure those things are constellated,” he said.
A native of northern Wisconsin, Smith also spent time living in Alabama and Texas. He’s coming up on his third year here in Utah. He’s the author of five poetry collections, including one playfully called “Only Jesus Could Icefish in Summer.”
Smith is also a member of The Snarlin’ Yarns, a local musical group that calls itself Utah’s only punkcountrybluegrassfolkieimprovpoetryhighlonesome band. In describing his role in the ensemble, Smith says it makes him a better poet.
“The band does a chord progression and I’ll hop in with some improvised poetry,” he said. “It’s a good way to break through writer’s block, if you just have to start yelling stuff off the top of your head.”
While some folks may see poetry as intimidating, esoteric or alien, Smith says much of that has to do with the way they’ve been educated about the art form. He said poetry teachers can sometimes give the impression that there’s some sort of hidden “key” to understanding the meaning of a poem. Still, he says poetry is more popular than ever.
“But by the same token, current numbers in our country show that more people are reading poetry now than ever before,” he said. “Quite frankly, there are more reading series and open mics everywhere.”
Smith points to the long-standing weekly Poet Flow on Tuesdays at Lighthouse Lounge in downtown Ogden. He also runs a regular open mic night on the WSU campus. And on March 27, during WSU’s National Undergraduate Literature Conference, Metaphor magazine will host an open mic night at The Argo House in Ogden.
Smith invites all to “step out the door, and come into our community.”
“We just want folks to know that not only is there a poetry pulse here in Ogden, but it’s a roaring one at that,” he said. “Poetry isn’t this kind of cloistered, ivory tower, tweedy-people-talking-in-a-low-whisper kind of situation. It is what (Ralph Waldo) Emerson called a kind of fossil language. Poetry is where speech begins.”
Smith believes that every day, everyone in a community deserves “the good news of poetry” and to be healed by it.
“Poetry seems to be the bedrock of how communities talk and heal — that’s why any city would need (a poet laureate),” he said. “I think of poetry as a suture that connects people together.”