Lowell Jaeger: A poetry conversation

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Montana’s Poet Laureate, longtime Flathead Valley Community College English professor Lowell Jaeger will be reading some of his own poetry as well as reciting from others at the college on Thursday evening, beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the Arts and Technology building. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Donning jogging shorts and windswept hair, Montana’s poet laureate says he adopted the Treasure State as his own by accident 34 years ago, pioneering a propagation of poetry along the way.

Founding editor of “Many Voices Press” and recent editor of “New Poets of the American West,” longtime Flathead Valley Community College English professor Lowell Jaeger accepted the poet laureate title on Aug. 1 of this year.

The title carries with it the obligation of “advancing and supporting the poetic arts...reaching out to and beyond the art and literary communities in Montana to promote the appreciation of poetry as an ancient and ongoing form of expression,” according to the Montana Arts Council.

A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Jaeger has accumulated a plethora of prestigious awards over his career, including the Grolier Poetry Peace Prize, the Montana Governor’s Humanities Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Montana Arts Council.

As poet laureate, Jaeger plans to host 101 events over his two-year term, promoting four of his favorite entities: FVCC, where all five of his own children received their educations; Humanities Montana, a program with which he has worked for 30 years; the Montana Arts Council; and his favorite, the Montana Conservation Core.

He calls the project “Poetry 101.”

Jaeger, over the years, has become a connoisseur of language, a passion that began with a love of words before he could read.

As a child he remembers stealing his brother’s schoolbooks out of jealousy to copy down words he couldn’t yet read by flashlight in a dark closet.

Today, he said, he feels he is still growing as a poet.

He listens to and watches people, taking particular interest and inspiration from the ways they speak and express themselves through everyday chatter.

Years after the fact, he remembers a conversation he once had with a cowboy poet.

“I’m frustrated,” the man said.

“What do you mean, you’re frustrated?” Jaeger asked him.

“I’m frustrated as a stump-tail pony tied short during fly time,” was the rancher’s reply.

“Listen to the rhythm and the sounds and the meaning and the image of that,” Jaeger said. “Everyone’s got that language.”

One of Jaeger’s greatest joys in his new title is the opportunity to bring poetry to the skeptical, the inexperienced and the unexposed, to “see the light bulb go off in their heads.”

“It’s my job now to bring you poetry,” he said. “And let you experience something now that maybe you haven’t experienced before.”

Despite his lifelong affair with the art of writing, Jaeger has never before felt free to call himself a poet.

“I usually call myself a teacher,” he said. The title of Poet Laureate, he said, has given him a kind of badge, a validation in saying, “I’m a poet. I work for the state.”

Each Monday, Jaeger leads a class of college freshman into their own minds, prompting them to listen to their own thoughts before picking them apart to put onto paper.

For 34 years, Jaeger said he has brought a poem of his own to toss into the fray with his students’ work, using his knowledge to grow his students and vice versa.

In his introduction of an anthology of poetry entitled “Poems Across the Big Sky II,” Jaeger says, “As I grow older, more and more I want to listen.”

“I profess fewer and fewer answers. I ask questions, real questions,” he later says.

Each week he does his own homework, presenting a new poem for his class to workshop alongside their own.

The results, he said, are surprising.

“The kids I have in class, I learn so much from them. That’s not just lip service,” Jaeger said of his students. “It’s amazing what fresh eyes can see that old eyes can look over.”

“And I will steal their stories,” he added.

Most of Jaeger’s work, in fact, comprises stories into poetic narratives.

He quoted Robert Frost in saying, “I can hardly think of a poem of mine without a person in it.”

Even when writing in first person, Jaeger has plenty of people to write about.

A polka drummer, a hitchhiker, a carnie. Yes, a carnie.

“That was the best job in the world,” he said of his time working a merry-go-round on the West Coast. “Pick up happy kids and put them on flying horses.”

Jaeger hails from north central Wisconsin, the son of a mill worker/polka musician with an eighth-grade education determined to give his children a brighter future.

One of five kids, Jaeger was the only one in his family to fly the coup, hitchhiking west after graduating high school.

Following his short carnival career, Jaeger sought out a career in secondary education.

He was teaching at a high school on an Indian reservation in Iowa when he attended a conference in Kalispell, where he first learned of a rag-tag community college run out of an old car dealership.

The school’s administrators were searching for an English teacher and captured Jaeger’s attention.

Enter the jogging shorts and messy hair.

Without time to change, Jaeger said he interviewed for the position on the spot.

Though he said he enjoyed the interview and the people conducting it, he never expected the phone call and subsequent job offer that came two weeks later.

He took it without hesitation and never left.

Today, as both teacher and poet, Jaeger said his primary job is to encourage and convince those who think they cannot write of the contrary.

“It’s a human thing that you try to use language and express yourself,” Jaeger said.

Even children speak in poetry, he said, recalling a simple moment of a child crunching on soda crackers.

When asked why he was chewing so loudly, the child answered, “I’m listening to the soldiers marching in my mouth.”

Jaeger gave a happy whoop at the memory, saying, “You see?”

Despite the excitement and prestige that comes with his two-year title, Jaeger said he will be more than content to continue teaching after his time as Poet Laureate draws to a close.

“I love it more than ever. I’m learning how to teach. I know that sounds silly, but it’s true,” Jaeger said.

“I should retire, but I don’t want to retire. I hope physically I hold out because I’m more excited about it than ever, more excited than when I started,” he added.

One of Jaeger’s 101 events, “A Poetry Conversation,” will take place at FVCC on Oct. 26 at 6:30 p.m. in the large community room of the Arts and Technology building.

The event is free and open to the public.

For more information about “A Poetry Conversation” and other programs offered by FVCC’s Continuing Education Center, visit www.fvcc.edu/continuing-education or call 756-3832.

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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