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Poet laureate finds creativity in tragedy

Victoria Waltz

“What is the power of art to represent some of the worst things that can happen to us?” Paisley Rekdal, a University of Utah english professor and esteemed poet, asked the audience at a poetry reading on Oct. 24.

Rekdal is the mind behind collections, “Imaginary Vessels,” “The Invention of the Kaleidoscope” and “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee.” She’s been honored with a National Endowment of the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship and is currently the Utah Poet Laureate.

While sharing her pieces with students in the Stewart Library at Weber State University, a common theme emerged as Rekdal revealed her inspiration behind certain works.

“What I was really writing about was a sexual assault,” Rekdal said. “I had recently lost a man who was very dear to me who had also been raped as a child.”

Drawing on her own experiences, as well as those of her loved ones, she highlighted the haunting and traumatic reality of living as a survivor of sexual abuse.

“The heart of the book ‘Nightingale’ is a series of poems that explore violation and violence,” she said in reference to her latest collection, which is expected to release in spring 2019.

From the time she was a child to the present day, Rekdal said she always had an affiliation for feminine culture and the embracing of sexuality, an interest stemming from her idolization of American actress Mae West.

“The ways in which she depicted men and the ways in which she characterized them in her films was often that they were disposable,” Rekdal said. “I loved that there was something a little bit strange or maybe dangerous about the feminism that she was supporting.”

Devoting an entire series to West, Rekdal incorporated elements of the actress into her work, which included West’s iconic mannerisms and radical views.

“We wouldn’t have gotten people like Madonna or Marilyn Monroe without Mae West, without her very overt, playful sexuality and her very outrageous ideas of femininity,” Rekdal said. “When I was doing this series, I wanted to capture both her sense of humor and her voice.”

Using creative writing as a means of expression, Rekdal has since become fascinated by the art and practice of poetry.

“The sonnet allows for a sort of paradoxical thinking,” she said. “I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to articulate this, but I think in the end what I’m writing is always outside or beyond language.”

As a love letter to her passion, Rekdal created the website “Mapping Salt Lake City” in an attempt to chart the work of writers, poets, literary presses and journals throughout Utah.

“The project came about because I was very inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Infinite City’,” Rekdal said. “It had writers and cartographers basically create this communal project about the unusual histories of San Francisco, and I thought Salt Lake would be perfect for that.”

The website invites all who are interested to add their own voices to the project. Submissions may include oral histories or interviews with Salt Lake City residents, multimedia essays, personal or historical maps and many others.

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