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Epistolary Poems for National Poetry Month


March 10, 2021

Just in time for National Poetry Month this April, Montana Poet Laureate Melissa Kwasny is offering a "letter poem exchange" with interested teachers and students around the state.

With this interesting twist on the pen pal concept, Kwasny will email participating teachers an epistolary poem to be shared with students. The letter will include suggestions and assignments for student responses, including sample letter poems by other poets and quotations and ideas about writing itself.

An epistolary poem is a poem that is written in the form of a letter. Examples are Montana poet Richard Hugo's letter poems in 31 Letters and 13 Dreams and Kwansy's co-poet laureate M. L. Smoker's letter poems to Hugo and to James Welch.

Kwasny is the author of six books of poetry and a collection of essays on the poetic image, Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision. Along with Smoker, she edited an anthology of poems in defense of global human rights, entitled I Go to the Ruined Place, as well as Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry. Kwasny has taught poetry writing in graduate and undergraduate programs and in the public schools for over thirty years.

As a model for the epistolary poem task, Kwasny wrote the following letter poem:

Dear Young Poet,

[...] I live in a small apartment with a small oven I bake bread in. My couch is red, the floors are wooden and stained with gaps between the planks. Poetry books line my shelves, which are my favorite possessions. I also like a small pine tree that grows in a terra cotta pot in the sun. A friend gave it to me when I moved out of the forest into town. What is your favorite possession? What is the kindest thing a friend has ever done for you?

As you can see, a letter should be full of real things, as the poet Rilke wrote in his own "Letter to a Young Poet." He advises, "Write about your sorrows, your wishes, your passing thoughts, your belief in anything beautiful...In order to express yourself, use things in your surroundings, the scenes of your dreams, and the subjects of your memory." A letter poem should also ask a question or two, opening a path for correspondence that the recipient can travel. I look forward to hearing from you.


Melissa Kwasny

According to the Humanities Montana website, "This project is designed to offer an alternative to online learning and to offer aspiring writers a chance to be pen pals for a while with one of Montana's poets laureate." Personnel at Humanities Montana also emphasize that every student should not be required to participate, only those interested in this project.

In addition to her role as Montana's Co-Poet Laureate, Kwasny serves as one of the Humanities Montana Speakers in the Schools. These trained facilitators and experts lead students in workshops and conversations on topics like current affairs, untold histories, native cultures, literature, and more. Teachers can work with speakers to tailor programs to varying degrees to suit classroom needs. These programs are also available for virtual classrooms.

Any interested teacher is encouraged to visit the Humanities Montana website: to browse the catalog of speakers and their topics. "Explore our extensive catalog for inspiration and a new voice in your classroom for a day. These programs are free for classrooms and the request process is easy," a Humanities Montana spokesperson stated.


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