Politics & Poetry: Why South Dakota doesn’t have a new poet laureate
The term of South Dakota’s poet laureate is four years. It begins July 1 the year following gubernatorial elections. That’s according a 2015 state law that updated the selection process.
But this year, Governor Noem has not appointed a poet laureate.
Picking a poet laureate is supposed to be non-political. That requirement was designed by law during the 2015 legislative session. Lawmakers were determined to keep politics out of poetry. Republican Senator Corey Brown was the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 86. He gave his testimony in verse.
“Though I have no gift for rhyme and meter / I stand in open session / to pitch this bill pertaining to the poet laureate's succession …”
Then-representative Lee Schoenbeck recited Badger Clark during debate. (Badger Clark was the state’s first poet laureate. He was a cowboy poet. He preferred the term ‘poet lariat.’) Senator Deb Soholt pointed out the text of the bill itself would be printed, partially, in haiku form:
shall for life have the status
Governor Daugaard’s office expressed concern that the poetry society board might offer a candidate unpalatable to future governors. Daugaard’s amendment to SB 86 was defeated after Senator Dean Wink declared “I agree with the good representative that maybe the society is in a better position to nominate the poet laureates than the governor.”
Senate Bill 86 passed. It reads:
“No person may be appointed unless such person has been recommended to the Governor by the South Dakota Poetry Society and has written and published poems of recognized merit prior to the appointment.”
The governor is not required to approve the board’s recommendation for poet laureate. Governor Daugaard approved the appointment of poet LeeAnn Roripaugh in 2015. Governor Noem celebrated poet Christine Stewart’s"passion for poetry" when she appointed Stewart to the post in 2019.
Poet laureate position vacated
Christine Stewart moved to Canada mid-term, taking an academic position at a new university. Governor Noem declined to accept the society’s recommendation for an interim poet laureate. And now, the governor’s silence on a new appointee threatens to leave the state without a laureate.
Poet Laureate Emeritus Christine Stewart says since the laureate is not a paid position, whomever is chosen must be an effective collaborator as well as a poet of merit.
“It makes me really sad that the board’s choice didn’t get confirmed by the governor,” Stewart says. “I know the board knew they could work with their choice. They believed in that person’s track record, the quality of their work, and what they had in mind moving forward. It’s just a loss. It’s a loss for that new work to happen under that official poet laureate title.”
“So far as we are concerned, with the deadline having come and gone, we will go without a poet laureate for the next four years,” says Dana Yost, current president of the South Dakota State Poetry Society.
“It’s an important cultural position in the state. South Dakota has had a poet laureate since 1926. That person is a leading advocate not only for poetry but for the arts. It’s a very important position, and it’s just disappointing that we’re going to go vacant for four years.”
This year the South Dakota State Poetry Society has submitted two names to Governor Kristi Noem for consideration. That’s out of four selected finalists.
SDPB has confirmed the poetry society board selected poet Bruce Roseland as their first choice. Roseland is a fourth-generation cattle rancher from north-central South Dakota, author of several poetry collections, a South Dakota Humanities scholar, and winner of multiple Will Rogers Medallions in Poetry.
Roseland resigned as poetry board president on October 16, 2022, telling board members he was interested in putting his name in for the post. He was also the citizen who helped bring the non-partisan poet laureate bill to the state legislature in 2015.
Since the recommendation, Roseland has been accused of having "inside information" in the form of emails regarding the application process that he received during his tenure as president of the society. He denies allegations of wrongdoing. He says he forwarded emails regarding other applicants to the new board leadership upon his resignation as president. Roseland says politics are getting in the way of poetry.
“It should be based on merit and merit alone,” Roseland says. “It should be judged that way, and it should be judged by how someone wants to be active and be an ambassador to the state and poetry.
“It’s not about the person. I think poetry is a wonderful thing. It’s a great way of self-expression for people. That’s why it should be based on merit and based the level of desire to get out there and mingle with the people and have a program.”
Sources close to the story tell SDPB Governor Noem’s office requested poet Joseph Bottum receive the board’s nomination. Bottum is director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University and author of more than 800 essays, poems, reviews, and short stories. He serves as poetry editor for “The New York Sun.” In 2022 he was commissioned to write the Phi Beta Kappa poem for Princeton University. He lives in Hot Springs. Bottum applied for the position but did not receive votes from board members after being interviewed as a finalist.
Bottum provided the following statement to SDPB via email.
“It seems a sadness that the Poetry Society would politicize what ought to be a literary decision in the name of their dislike of conservative intellectualism and desire to promote one of their own in-crowd. As probably the most-published author in South Dakota, I cherish my family’s deep roots in the state and am grateful to be considered for any position that might contribute to our shared South Dakota.”
The poetry society has submitted a second recommendation to the governor’s office, after the rejection of Bruce Roseland’s name. The name of that poet has not been released.
Governor Noem’s office did not reply to several requests for comment for this story.
Correction (July 12): The original version of this report said Joseph Bottum lives in Spearfish. He lives in Hot Springs.