Minnesota Humanities Center


Posted March 24, 2023

Spring brings with it National Poetry Month in April. Minnesota Poet Laureate Gwen Nell Westerman shares with us her thoughts on this transitional season and gives an insight into her writing process.

Odowaŋ ota
nawaḣuŋ hehan wekta
k’a iyomakpi.
Aŋpetu teca heca.
Zitkada e dowaŋpi.

Now that the days are becoming longer than the nights, the ravine behind my house is filled with the sounds of the open river and the songs of finches, chickadees, nuthatches, owls, and eagles. Their melodies refute the presence of the melting snow drifts, some still taller than me, and the frozen ruts of the long gravel driveway, lined with tall maple trees adorned with swelling buds. Tundra swans, Canadian geese, and even a flock of robins have passed through our area pushing winter farther north as they fly.

It seems that this year spring has approached in fits and starts. We revel in a few mornings of sun and the relative “warmth” of 28 degrees as students in hoodies and shorts wait on the sidewalk for their school buses. Then we are slapped back to our senses by single digit highs and a wind that howls outside our windows at night making the darkness even colder. It has been a difficult winter, even by Minnesota standards, yet it has encouraged introspection and, incredibly, hope. I like to think that my writing has been like those seeds under the snow that need below-freezing temperatures to break dormancy and germinate.

Wi iyaye kiŋ
Caŋ iḣeyata iżaŋżaŋ.
Haŋ wi hinaŋpa.
Okpaza makoce kiŋ

I am not a disciplined writer with a consistent practice of writing every day, in the same place, at the same time, meeting a daily required word count—although I can write in that way, when necessary, as in when a deadline is approaching, or when all the stars align and I am not easily distracted by household chores or shiny things. My writing habits are simple. I write on paper with a sharp Number 2 pencil because then I can feel the words appearing on the page, words that can flow down from the branches of imagination like sap from maple trees. In Minnesota, that can be any time between January and April—no set date or time for the sap to run, like the change to and from “Daylight Saving Time.” Maybe it is my quiet rebellion against an artificial constraint meant to standardize the ordinariness of our lives, against the concept of utility or of making our daily routines easier rather than creative. Can inspiration ever really be scheduled?

Perhaps Monet was inspired
by this simple sight,
red leaves floating in the grass,
subtle changing shades,
the impermanence of light.

Looking for light in the darkness of this past winter has truly revealed its transience, whether it has been from my window gazing across open prairie and farmland, or in the barrage of truly heartbreaking news in a 24-hour cycle that refuses us any respite. Yet, these are the cycles of our lives, beginnings and endings, leavings and returnings. We adjust to change, remember previous patterns and create new ones. We treasure quiet moments, endure the uncertain and still plan for the future. We shake off the heavy winter, stretch, and reach for the warmth of the sun.

Write it.

Sing it.

Share it.

At dawn I awoke
to the sound of birdsongs
floating on the breeze,
the promise of a new day
carried in their melody.

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Gwen Nell Westerman Headshot
By: Gwen Nell Westerman

Gwen Nell Westerman’s roots are deep in the landscape of the tall grass prairie, and reveal themselves in her art and writing through the languages and traditions of her family, including Dakota and English. She has two poetry collections Songs, Blood Deep (forthcoming) and Follow the Blackbirds (2013). Her poems are included in the permanent exhibit “Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories” at the Field Museum in Chicago, and have been published in Yellow Medicine Review (Fall 2022), When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, edited by Joy Harjo (2020), POETRY (June 2018), and New Poets of Native Nations: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, edited by Heid E. Erdrich (2018).