WOMEN YOU SHOULD KNOW IN WYOMING: State’s Ninth Poet Laureate Pens Stories Rooted Deep in the West

Barbara Smith, professor emeritus at Western Wyoming College in Rock Springs, appointed by Gov. Gordon

Barbara Smith, of Rock Springs, was appointed the state’s poet laureate in October. Though Smith officially retired from Western Wyoming College years ago, her passion for teaching — as well as writing — endures. (Courtesy photo from Barbara Smith)

By Melissa Thomasma

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Barbara Smith doesn’t let retirement get in the way of pursuing her two lifelong passions: teaching and writing. And at 76, her efforts continue to deliver rewards. Last month, Gov. Mark Gordon appointed Smith as Wyoming’s poet laureate. Smith is the ninth poet laureate for the state, the first of which was designated in 1981. 

“Barbara’s poetry captures the essence of Wyoming and is instantly relatable,” Gordon said in a  statement. “Her work speaks to the incredible changes that have taken place in the state and across the West since the arrival of the first pioneers.”

Smith was nominated for the honor by fellow poet Tom Spence, based on “Putting a Name On It,” her volume of poetry released in April 2022 that received the Wyoming Historical Society’s Award for Poetry. The collection depicts the lives of pioneer women in the American West, a theme that coursed throughout her family’s history of homesteading and her four decades in Rock Springs.

Previously, Smith won the Governor’s Arts Award in 2006 and the Neltje Blanchan Memorial Writing Award for nature writing, sponsored by the Wyoming Arts Council, in 2008.

Spence, the former president of the statewide arts nonprofit Wyoming Writers, believes Smith’s recognition is well-deserved. “The language she uses is neither pretty nor presumptuous — just thoughtfully honest and insightful,” he said. “When I read her poems, my most frequent reaction is, ‘I’ve never seen it that way.’”

Spence also admires that Smith’s poetry springs from objective reality: “It is from the simple, even familiar, facets of daily life, of a memory, of an observation, when it snags Barbara’s poetic pen that the special insights of her poems come to light.”

Smith, meanwhile, saw herself as a longshot for the Poet Laureate honor.

“I thought, ‘Oh, fiddle. There’s so many writers in Wyoming who have more publications . . . .” Smith told the Wyoming Truth. “ . . . I thought I probably won’t be considered. And then I got a call, and that was a pleasant surprise.”

Barbara Smith is Wyoming’s ninth poet laureate. Her work focuses on  themes of resilience, determination and the hardships of thriving in the West. (Courtesy photo from Barbara Smith)

A lifetime of inspiration

Born in West Valley, North Dakota, Smith spent her first dozen years in a community brimming with extended family, not far from where her great-grandfather homesteaded upon his arrival from Norway. The stories from her childhood clung to her memory, later providing fodder for her poetry.

“Both of my grandmothers were storytellers, and they entertained us by telling these adventure stories about when they were young,” she said. “My grandmother and grandfather married and went off homesteading up in Saskatchewan in a little sod house they called their honeymoon cottage; she would tell stories about the wolves coming in . . . .”

Smith earned B.A. in English from Montana State University-Northern and an M.A. in English from the University of South Dakota. She privately toyed with poetry while in college, but kept her work to herself. Her mindset shifted during a 1983 workshop with poet Marvin Bell.

“He said, ‘At one point in my life, I started to write so the poem would mean something to others,’” said Smith, who became inspired to share her work with friends and colleagues.

By then, Smith was well into her career at Western Wyoming College in Rock Springs. She  retired in 2007 after 38 years of teaching English, journalism and creative writing. She also chaired the Humanities Division for 17 years.

And along the way, Smith found creative inspiration in the landscape and the community that surrounded her.

“They hadn’t had the [mineral] boom yet,” Smith said, remembering her arrival in Rock Springs. “It kind of reminded me of the towns in [the film] ‘The Last Picture Show.’ It was just this little old sleepy town, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll be here a couple of years, and then I’ll go back to civilization in Montana.’ Fifty plus years later, I’m still here.”

When the mineral boom hit southwest Wyoming, Smith was married to her husband, Leonard, and a mother to five children—two of whom were babies. She recalled the massive influx of workers to the area as unprecedented and destabilizing.

“It was a disaster,” she said. “They weren’t expecting thousands of people to show up.”

The daily challenges Smith faced, as a parent and Rock Springs resident, reminded her of the stories of pioneer women that she heard from her grandparents. The parallels became the poems that fill the pages of “Putting a Name On It.”

When she’s not writing, Smith can be found teaching a memoir-writing class at Western Wyoming College. “I keep teaching just to keep my brain from turning into complete mush after [retirement],” she said.  

Over the past half-century, Smith has encouraged countless students and community members on their own literary journeys. She sees her role as the state’s poet laureate as a continuation of that practice.  

Smith’s advice for aspiring authors? “Keep writing and you’ll get better. Often, people have too much self-doubt and high expectations, so they don’t really get started,” she said. “They think the first draft should be perfect and get discouraged when it is not.”

And it’s those deeply human narratives that Smith believes are the most authentic and powerful.

“I really am committed to the idea that the true history of the West is best told in the stories ordinary people tell of their experiences living there,” she said.  

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