Tami Haaland was 16 when she saw a Calgary Opera Company production of “La Traviata” in Chester, courtesy of the Chester Arts Council.
It made a big impression on her, and it helps explain why she has spent so much of her adult life bringing the arts into the lives of others.
Besides being an English professor at Montana State University Billings for the past 20 years, she has directed a poets-in-the-schools program for Arts Without Boundaries, put on numerous writing workshops and taught creative writing and literature in the Montana Women’s Prison for five years.
And for the past year and a half, as the official poet laureate for the state of Montana, she has made herself available, she said, “to talk about poetry in whatever way people wanted me to talk about poetry.”
Mostly, she wants people to become aware of the liberating power of words. She experienced that power most vividly when she taught creative writing therapy at the women’s prison. She would have the women write stories, then invite them to revise their writing, to change their stories.
“It was very exciting because it was the moment of possibly taking control of some of the details of the story in written form that they might be able to transfer outward later on,” she said.
Haaland said she uses the same basic teaching methods regardless of the setting. It’s all about encouraging people to think about how they can express themselves.
“Obviously, with younger people, there aren’t as many barriers,” she said. “They haven’t encountered the difficulties, perhaps, or the voices that encourage them to shut down their imaginations.”
She knows how fortunate she was to have grown up on a Hi-Line wheat farm south of Inverness, which is just east of Chester on Highway 2.
“The beauty of the Hi-Line is that you don’t have a lot of people telling you you can’t do things,” she said. “It’s not like there are a lot of people around who are doing things so much better than you that they’re telling you you can’t do it.”
There was also the freedom to roam and explore. The Marias River was three miles south of her family’s farm, and she and “a pack of cousins and friends” would sometimes spend the whole day just walking to the river and back, wandering, playing, imagining. She remembers finding marine fossils, and once she dug a bison skull out of a riverbank.
In an essay about Haaland in “These Living Songs: Reading Montana Poetry,” published last year by the University of Montana Press, co-authors Danell Jones and the late Sue Hart wrote about “the language of dry wind” that Haaland mentions in one of her poems.
Haaland, having listened so closely to the sounds and rhythms of the prairie, “aches for the magical melody she can never reproduce,” they wrote. In a nice play on a familiar phrase, they also said that, “For Haaland, a primal yearning for the best lost place defines our human condition.”
Also formative was the constant presence of music in Haaland’s home. Her father played in a dance band, The Ragtime Five, in the 1940s, and when she was growing up, her father and uncle and brothers and friends often played music in their house.
“They all played by ear and knew so many songs,” she said. “I remember my mother shuffling us off to bed when we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore, and the music would just go on into the night.”
Music is also an important part of Haaland’s teaching method. At the beginning of her creative writing classes, she said, she asks how many of her students love poetry. Usually a few hands go up. Many more are raised when she asks how many of them hate poetry.
So she asks them to think about how their moods change, often unconsciously, when they listen to music, based on the tone of a particular song, its repetitions, its rhythms. And then she helps them work their way through a poem, trying to show them that a poem can affect them in the same way.
“All of them love music, right? So I hope it’s not too far of a reach for them to come to understand that they don’t need to hate poetry, that it is very much akin to things they love.”
Haaland confesses to worrying about the omnipresent electronic devices her students carry, to listen to their music, to keep in touch, to stay constantly wired. There are advantages, obviously, she said, but disadvantages, too.
“I think kids and adults both need contemplative time, and so, given the propensity for interference, I think we have to deliberately make that.”
For her, that means walking on the Rims without a phone. Better yet, if she goes back to the Hi-Line and goes on those walks she took as a child, it doesn’t matter if she brings her phone because most of the area is still blessedly without cell service.
Haaland graduated from Inverness High School in 1978, in a class of four. A few years later the high school closed, and students from Inverness and nearby Joplin now attend school in Chester. Haaland looks forward to a half-day visit to the Chester schools at the end of the month, where she plans to conduct writing workshops with fifth- through eighth-graders first and then with high-schoolers.
She has traveled all over the state since being named the fifth Montana poet laureate in 2013. Her term ends in August. She said she has had to turn down a few engagements because of scheduling conflicts, but otherwise “I tried to do whatever people asked.”
Her second year as poet laureate has been particularly busy because last May she was named chair of the English, Philosophy and Modern Languages Department at MSUB, where she has been an English professor since 1994.
Jones, a friend of Haaland’s and a colleague in the English Department, said Haaland “not only brings a wonderful voice to Montana poetry, but she explores the hidden depths of ordinary lives. She writes about the West, but she never romanticizes it. She looks for the mystery and secrets of dry prairie land and railroad towns, teenage girls and middle-aged women.”
Even after her time as poet laureate is over, Haaland said she wants to continue bringing the state’s many talented writers to the state’s many small towns.
“Having this kind of circulation going on would be so valuable,” she said. “I would love to see this happen, but it’s more complicated than a two-year term could bring to fruition.”
She also wants to continue emphasizing the importance of the arts, which tend to get cast aside in this pragmatic world.
The arts build empathy, she said, and they teach young people to see nuance and complexity, “which is much different than just taking a test… . They are so primary to our humanity, so important for young people as a means of expression.”
We leave you with one of Haaland’s poems:
As if she needed to wrangle words
into a semblance, as if sustenance
were a simple matter, a sandwich
day after day and nothing more. As if
it were enough, and logic
would not erode. As if she could
still manage once time had disappeared
and space jigsawed into impossible puzzles.
Those aren’t my fingers, she might say
of the writing hand turned in upon itself.