Verse meets vision: A poet takes charge at the University of Utah’s American West Center
Paisley Rekdal is an acclaimed poet with a new—and she admits—surprising title: Director of the American West Center at the University of Utah. In this episode, Rekdal shares with host Chris Nelson why she was attracted to the role and describes how she hopes to use the sensitivities of a poet to expand its community engagement and take the center in new directions.
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Chris Nelson: Welcome to U Rising, where we share stories about research, innovations and key initiatives taking place at the University of Utah. I'm your host, Chris Nelson.
My guest today is Paisley Rekdal, who has a new role at the University of Utah as the director of the American West Center. Paisley is also a distinguished professor of English in the College of Humanities. She's a poet whose work has been widely published and praised. Accolades include receiving Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, and serving as Utah's poet laureate. And Paisley is one of our inaugural Presidential Societal Impact Scholars. Welcome to U Rising!
Paisley Rekdal: Thank you so much for having me.
Chris Nelson: Well, welcome. So let's first talk about your new role as director of the American West Center. And for those not familiar with the center, give us a brief overview of the center and its history.
Paisley Rekdal: So, it's actually one of the oldest regional centers in the country and it was founded in 1964, I believe. And it's got a really great mission. Basically, it works on three different things. First, it does innovative public humanities programming, so anything from bringing writers in who are talking about the American West to historians to water rights experts—we bring that out to the public. The second is to actually work with our community partners to do publicly appointed scholarships. So, we work with a lot of the tribes and we look work with the Department of Energy and the National Park Service to come up with different ways of approaching public history there. And the last part of our mission is really to think about engaging the public and raising up a new generation of publicly engaged scholars, writers and students.
Chris Nelson: So, your background applied to the American West Center. I was surprised when I saw that, but . . .
Paisley Rekdal: Everyone is!
Chris Nelson: . . . it makes sense after I read your bio and read some of your work. But what was your interest? What brought you to that center?
Paisley Rekdal: Weirdly, it was being potentially poached by another university! I was having a conversation with somebody and they said, ‘Uh, we have an American West Center that's on fire.’ It shall go unnamed. And they said, ‘Would you be interested, actually knowing your work, would you be interested in working on a center like this?’
And to be honest, I'd never even considered it, but once that dropped, the little seed dropped, in my mind, I thought that is exactly what I would like to do because American West Centers are a hub of interdisciplinary scholarship. It's where history, the arts, science, environment, everything kind of works together. You're thinking about everything from public policy to Indigenous history and I'm curious about all of these things. And it's a way to sort of foster this conversation. So, when I thought about it more, I was like, yeah, I would love to do something like this. So, I dropped the possibility of this into the lap of our wonderful dean, Hollis Robbins, and she said, ‘I think this makes sense.’
Chris Nelson: Yeah. But people have been surprised and . . .
Paisley Rekdal: Everyone's surprised. Yeah. I mean, when you put a poet in charge of anything to do with money, everyone looks a little aghast. And I understand and appreciate that this is a center that has for a very long time been involved with history, historians started the center. Floyd O'Neil was one of, obviously, the primary member, Matt Basso, who is in history did a tremendous job thinking about cinema and thinking about World War II in the West. And then Greg Smoak, who has been the director for the last 12 years and has done a tremendous amount, working with the different Indigenous communities to bring out Indigenous history in Utah, make sure that that's the forefront of the American West Center's mission.
So, you know, handing it over to a poet seems like a crazy thing to do and for me, my real goal is to sort of keep that going, to keep that public history part still going, but then to also think about how we can make this a more publicly engaged center. I think for a long time people haven't known about some of the excellent work that the American West Center has been involved in. So, I want to make sure that people know we exist, go to events, see the very diverse and interdisciplinary kinds of programs we're going to run and get more engaged that way.
Chris Nelson: Yeah, I have to admit I did not realize the breadth of the center until I was researching this. You know, I thought of kind of, you know, Greg Smoak's work with Indigenous populations. So, the word that keeps coming up is engagement and, you know, the university does engagement at a lot of levels, but kind of define that for the center. What does community engagement for you look like with the center, do you think?
Paisley Rekdal: Well, traditionally with the center engagement has looked like working with public partners like the tribes or the Department of Energy or the National Park Service to do something like the Native Places map, which you can see on our website right now. And it's a great ArcGIS program where you can basically see all of the different geographic, geologic formations in Utah, but through an indigenous perspective, you know, see the names that these different tribes gave to these places.
So that's what public engagement has traditionally meant or thought, thinking about taking oral histories and the people who work in the Great Salt Lake. But now I'm thinking about engagement in terms of having community outreach, a little bit more public programming so that people can actually come to lectures more. COVID really threw a wrench in everyone's systems and so the American West Center for many years was not able to run some of the public events that they had been running. But also to get back into the curriculum sort of swing of things. So one of the biggest initiatives the American West Center had was creating the Utah Indian Curriculum Initiative. And it's a fantastic program and series of curricular materials, but that was done in 2009 and there's some updating that needs to be done. And certainly now with all the different kinds of types of technologies available in classrooms, we want to get back out there and repurpose and make a respectful and also innovative history that K through 12 teachers can use to teach about Utah's native communities.
Chris Nelson: Boy, yeah, this is an emerging theme on this podcast, the depth of material we have. Let's talk about some of that material. So, I know one of the things the center has is this incredible archive of oral histories, including Native American/Indigenous interviews. Can you talk about that just a little bit?
Paisley Rekdal: Yeah. Oral history is really the center of the American West Center’s history. I mean, we got a grant in like the ’70s from the Doris Duke Foundation and this allowed the center to take, I think, an unparalleled 2,000-plus interviews with different native communities just around the region, throughout the Intermountain West as well. So, there are tons of interviews you can get with the Navajo Nation all the way to the nations out in Washington state, the Northwestern Band of Shoshone. We also have interviews with the Goshute and the Ute and some of the Paiute as well. And so this is really important work, but the collection ends to a certain extent because the funding ended. And so we've been building up from oral history programming from there. We've definitely done oral histories with a variety of people.
There's the Vietnam Oral History Project. There's a polio oral history project. There's the Saline Stories oral history project. There's an oral history project that I just discovered yesterday that we're running with Mormon women of color that's been going on. And so there's just more and more and more of these oral histories coming through. But at the heart of it is this incredible collection of Native American oral histories that go back basically from the, you know, ’60s on to about 1980 or so. And we're still taking some now, we're still going back into communities, but that kind of initiative would be great if we could, you know, go back to it.
Chris Nelson: And you mentioned, you know, some of this is public education and a form of curriculum some other examples of how that information is shared with the public or how that public can access them.
Paisley Rekdal: Yeah, that's the real key that I want to work on. Right now, I think you have to be a researcher to really access this information. Those world histories are located digitally in the Marriott Library, so you have to have that kind of access.
But the other thing that we have done with the Utah Indian Curriculum Project, we did put that on our website. You can access that on the web site and they are PDF materials. But again, we're thinking about doing something that allows people to see a more technologically engaged way of presenting that history. We've also found some things on that curriculum that we'd like to change to be more respectful of the tribe's own practices. We want to go back and redo that.
And so one of the things I'd like to do is create a kind of initiative where we go back into the oral histories. We use some of those to supplement the Utah Indian Curriculum Project, which was done in 2009. We go back and work with different technological experts to sort of repackage and repurpose some of this material. So K through 12 educators are able to access and understand how to use it. And I also want to give free workshops for teachers across the state so that they know how to use this material, they can teach this material respectfully. So, this is going to go, you know, require that we go back and have long conversations with the tribes and make sure that the history that we're presenting is, of course, up-to-date, but also accurate and respectful for what they want. But also thinking about how is it that they want to tell their stories. Right now, I think nationally history is a fraught conversation, a fraught topic, for a lot of people. And I've always been a firm believer that more complexity, more information is always better than less in order to make people feel good. It's a complex, difficult and fascinating history that Utah has and we need to tell it.
Chris Nelson: So, you're taking over as center director, some really remarkable scholars and individuals, but I actually see, you know, looking at this through the lens of a poet is actually quite interesting as you talk about these stories. And so, talk about what you want your legacy—I mean, you've touched on that a little bit, but maybe we could go into, I think, the unique thing you bring as a poet to telling these stories that rather than being a historian or being a policy scholar.
Paisley Rekdal: Well, one of the things that I learned as Utah's poet laureate was when you do a community project, say like the one I did around the Transcontinental Railroad, I was working in archives and historical materials, and I found it so exciting to me as an artist and I was able to create a digital poem called “West” that people can enter and play with and create their own sort of translation of history and I can talk more about that later, but it made me realize with the American West Center, and again, those archives, one of the resources that we haven't tapped into is the artistic resource. We have historians that can come in and do public projects or scholarship, but one thing I'd like to do is also called an Indigenous Writer-in-Residence Fellowship. We bring in a nationally recognized native American writer and they work with local tribe, K through 12 students and University of Utah undergraduates to go into our archives, find out what we have, they get to play around, look at the different kinds of collections, and then they turn this into stories, poems, podcasts, artworks, whatever they want to do.
And then we would, if they wanted to, you know, display them, figure out a way that there would be a public publication of these materials. So again, it would be about giving back that history to a lot of the people who have been producing that history, who are living with that history and then seeing how they, as budding artists, will translate that to a larger community. So, getting artists and writers into our archives is also something I really want to do.
Chris Nelson: So, we call it the American West Center and I don't know if you've thought much about this, but I'm curious what makes the American West, you know, this interesting place and we have a center for it. What is that unique characteristic of the American West that brings all this together? Because it's not the “Utah Center,” it's not, you know, “Mountain West.” We call it the “American West.”
Paisley Rekdal: Yeah, it's a good question. I'm still trying to figure out the answer myself. You know, the American West is a place of so many mythologies and I think every American West Center, and there are several across the United States actually, that are wrestling with trying to get away from that mythology and show that the American West is fascinating precisely because it's an entirely enormous region of the country in which every possible kind and type of community intersected at some point.
We might have a very particular idea that the American West is a place where the ‘white cowboy’ lives, but it's not. I mean, cowboys were here, certainly, but you've also got women of pretty much every different kind and type of ethnicity. You've got migrants coming from Asia and from Europe. You've got obviously so many different Indigenous communities that are sometimes working in concert and sometimes working very much in conflict here. You have a space where the Civil War is still, in some ways, being fought after the Civil War was fought. You've got technological innovation that links the country with the transcontinental [railroad]. You get just so many different kinds and types of conversations. And I think that that to me is what makes the American West Center, or just American West studies, such a rich field.
Chris Nelson: So, on that, I've been excited to ask you about this. So, you've had a new project you released, “West: A Translation” and its corresponding website westtrain.org. I have to admit, I spent a little bit longer than I want to probably admit on university time exploring westtrain.org. And so I would encourage listeners to go there and experience it for themselves. But do you want to talk about that? It’s kind of difficult to describe, quite honestly, until you've experienced it.
Paisley Rekdal: Yeah, that's kind of what I wanted. And to a certain extent, it also speaks to my philosophy about how to think about the American West. So, when I was asked to write, as the Utah Poet Laureate, a poem of the Transcontinental Railroad for its 150th anniversary, its commemoration, I'm half-Chinese and the first thing I thought was, ‘Well, I want to forefront the Chinese labor. I want to forefront their making of this.’ And I really was struggling because for about a year, excuse me, for a year, I was reading everything humanly possible about the Transcontinental, and there were just so many stories that were coming out. And then I happened to be rereading a book called “Island,” which is a collection of poems about the Angel Island detainees, many of whom obviously were from southern China. And some people might know that on Angel Island, there are hundreds of poems carved into the walls in Chinese by these detainees, some of whom were kept in detention for up to 22 months.
And so I chose a poem that was actually an elegy for somebody who committed suicide while in detention. And I take that elegy and every Chinese character becomes a different poem, a different entrance, into the Transcontinental's history. I get to think about, obviously, the Chinese workers' experience, but I get to think about gender roles on trains, the impact of the Irish, mass murder, Mormons and the train, polygamy, prostitution, African American porters, adoption. I became very fascinated by the way that the train facilitated adoption in the West.
And I could go on forever, but you know, luckily there were enough characters that I was able to give a sort of wider and more capacious sense of how the Transcontinental really impacted American culture. But you have to enter it through an Asian lens. You have to enter it through a Chinese language. And for me, this is so important because when we come to this history of the American West, we usually come to it through a particular lens that usually forefronts whiteness, but it's not really whiteness that is the final and first lens of the West. There are many lenses we can look through first to get a completely different picture. And I think that that's what's exciting, is like every year we could have a different lens, with the public programming to say, let's look at the American West through the Indigenous lens, through the Latinx lens, through the Asian lens and we could just keep going.
Chris Nelson: It’s a remarkable site. I mean, there's video and an audio that you voiced, it sounds like there's the written word. So, I would encourage anyone who has any interest, it's westtrain.org, and then the book version is “West: A Translation.”
Paisley Rekdal: Yes. In the book, once I had made that website, I asked my publisher if I had just effectively ruined my chance at selling a book. And he said, ‘Well, the book has to be a different experience.’ And so I became really excited by that because I divided the book between poetry and prose. Every poem has what I call a little lyric historic note because there was so much history I still couldn't fit into the poem without capsizing the poem. So there's effectively two books in one. All of the different notes together produce one essay. You can read cover to cover or you can read poem to note, to poem to note or you could read the poems and then maybe go into the notes as you want or you could read all the notes and maybe go to the poems.
So I try to create something that's a little bit like the website, which allows readers to sort of play around. Usually we open a book and, like I said, you've go cover to cover, but here it's this question of how do things mirror each other? How can you selectively see different things speaking to each other across time and across genre?
Chris Nelson: Yeah. But excellent work, like I said, it captures you and you can get lost on that website very, very quickly. You're also keeping busy doing a variety of other things, one of which is being co-chair of the PEN America Utah chapter. Talk about that role and your co-chairs and what that organization is doing.
Paisley Rekdal: So I am co-chair with Erika George at the Tanner Humanities Center, and I'm also working with Rebekah Cummings, who's over here at the, basically at the University of Utah, but also with the Utah Library Association, and Peter Bromberg, who is with EveryLibrary.
And together we're all thinking about this question of the freedom to read, which is basically PEN America's mission, which is to defend the First Amendment, the rights of journalists and writers and artists to produce work and to defend free speech in general. So right now, as I said, you know, obviously history is somewhat under attack, banned books a big topic of discussion. It's happening in Florida and Texas and Missouri and Mississippi. And, of course, here we've had a lot of fights about books, what's appropriate and whether or not everyone should be able to have access to the book.
Or should certain children have access to these books. So mostly we are trying to fight against the banning of books in Utah. We have, and I could go down the rabbit hole with this, it's very technical, but essentially we have some laws on the legislative books that make it so that if anyone declares a book is pornographic, it has to be pulled from the shelves and only then examined by committee. And we're here to remind people that librarians and publishers and educators have all been reviewing these books. Pretty much no book of pornography has ever knowingly been put in a K through 12 library. That's not to say that books don't get reviewed occasionally and reconsidered, but the reconsideration process that would be sort of normal has been thrown out the window in favor of what I would say is a kind of hysterical and fearmongering kind of campaign around what children should or shouldn't read.
And interestingly, what children shouldn't read tends to be written by BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] and LGBTQ people. And so it's pretty easy to figure out that they're promoting a very particular idea of identity and sexuality and authorship. And so we are here to sort of say, ‘Look, we're, you know, we need to back off this. We need to reconsider the reconsideration policies and we need to have a thoughtful conversation about why we choose and why educators and librarians choose the books they do.’ And right now, it's also impossible not to mention that librarians are living in fear and they're already starting to pre-select against certain books because they are afraid of all of the blowback that they're already starting to see. So even though we're fighting censorship, there's a lot of self-censorship that's happening in school libraries and classrooms and in public libraries because the fear of retribution is so great. And you cannot have an open democracy and you cannot have a free nation without access to information.
Chris Nelson: Well said. And that's a formidable group of co-chairs. So thank you for your work on that. You’re also serving as a poetry editor for the High Country News.
Paisley Rekdal: I am. That's the easiest job! So, I read poetry and select a poem a month for High Country News. I try to focus in on writers from the West that a lot of people haven't heard of and certainly younger writers as well, give them a voice.
We don't have a lot of page space for poetry, so it's usually just one poem a month, but it's always a delight. I should also say if listeners out there don't know High Country News, it's a wonderful national, but regionally focused, journal. There are articles about, you know, contemporary issues in the American West. There's also lots of cultural analyses, op-ed kind of writing about the American West. There's book reviews. So, anyone who's interested in anything from the environment to the politics to the cultural movements that are happening in the Intermountain West, I strongly urge you to pick up a copy of High Country News.
Chris Nelson: Well, again, congratulations on all the great things you're doing and particularly in your new role with the American West Center. For those looking for more information, you can go online at awc.utah.edu or just type in University of Utah and American West Center. Thanks, Paisley.
Paisley Rekdal: Thank you.
Chris Nelson: Listeners, that's it for today's episode of U Rising. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is Robert Nelson. I hope you'll tune in next time.
I'm Chris Nelson. Thanks for listening.