Tiffany Midge, a poet and writer who grew up in Seattle, Washington, is the author of several books, including Outlaws, Renegades & Saints: Diary of a Mixed-Up Half Breed. She holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from the University of Idaho and is a long-time resident of Moscow, Idaho. She is also Moscow’s newly appointed poet laureate.
Moscow, Idaho, has a population of approximately 25,000. The town is said to be named after the home city of a Russian immigrant who established a trading post in the area in the 1860s.
Tiffany joins me today for a chat about her new appointment—
AM: Congratulations! April 2015 marked the beginning of your 3-year term as poet laureate of Moscow, Idaho. I have to admit, I was surprised when I heard about this—not that you would be appointed, but that Moscow even has a poet laureate! Is it common for a small city like Moscow to offer such a position?
Tiffany Midge (TM): I can’t say for certain, but I do know of a couple of other small-town poets laureate, and I know of several current and former state poets laureate.
AM: How long has Moscow has followed this practice?
TM: This is the first time! The arts council only recently created the post, and it was advertised for people to apply. I’ve always held that I aspired to be Poet Laureate but would settle for Poet-Want-Fries-With-That. And, of course, I often joke about holding the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Moscow/Pullman Highway’s Jack–n-the Box. But this is for realz. I’ve come up in the world!
TM: (Refers to a printout.) Okay, my mandate is “to raise the visibility of poetry and other literary arts within the community through outreach, education, and other programs.” Part of what that means is, I’ll be offering at least one public poetry workshop per year; I’ll be writing and sharing at least three poems per year that “speak in some way to the distinctive character” of Moscow; and I’ll give two or more local readings at “civic functions” like the Art Walk.
AM: Sounds like a busy agenda but pretty good fun.
TM: That’s what I said!
AM: I want my readers to know that you’re an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and you’ve always taken a big interest in Native American authors and artists, among other contemporary work. Is Moscow a positive locale for such artists to present and share their creativity?
TM: There have always been events here on the Palouse that celebrate indigenous culture.
“The Palouse” refers to a geographical region characterized by a unique geological history. It spans much of southeastern Washington state and north/central Idaho. The name is derived from the French for “grass” in probable combination with the name of the Palus or Palusha tribe.
TM: One of the more exciting and interesting events took place in 2011, when UI’s English Department and other community folks organized Hoopaloosa.
“The name, HooPalousa, is a play on words, Hoops and Palouse, basketball and the region where the university is located and appropriate for a game of hoops with writers known for playing with words.” Hoopaloosa has been described as “a fun [basketball] game between the Moscow SuperSonnets, representing the University of Idaho, and a team from the Spokane area called the Spokane Dirty Realists.” The purpose was to raise money towards funding an annual Graduate Writing Fellowship for a Native American student/writer. The game was organized by novelist and memoirist Kim Barnes of the University of Idaho creative writing faculty. Star attraction of the game was National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie who came to Moscow from Seattle to play on the Spokane team.
TM: Also, last spring Natalie Diaz—a sensationally talented poet—was invited and came here to give a reading. And last fall our local bookstore, BookPeople of Moscow, hosted a launch reading of Yellow Medicine Review—an Indigenous literary magazine that I guest-edited and which featured several local writers.
AM: How about your own work as a writer? What have been doing lately, and will it tie in with your new public role?
TM: I’m looking forward to my collection of poetry The Woman Who Married a Bear coming out next year—March/April, 2016, from the University of New Mexico Press.
TM: That’s right. But more recently I have been writing prose—a couple of novels and some essays. I expect my poetry will tie in with the laureate post, the three or more poems per year that I’ll present at public events. I’m looking forward to a couple of events coming up this spring: The first is the Endangered Project, which is a collaboration between visual artists and poets to be presented in May.
The Endangered Project is an undertaking of visual arts and poetry organized by local artists in the Moscow area. The theme of “endangerment” was interpreted freely by each participant. Works will premier at a public opening and reading to be held in downtown Moscow at the Prichard Art Gallery on Thursday, May 21, 2015. The exhibit will run through June 6.
TM: Then in June, is the launch of another project that’s new to Moscow: poetry bus broadsides. Several broadside posters are being created by the very well-known Broadsided Press. Elizabeth Bradfield is producing mine: it’s a sonnet about Spring Valley Reservoir [just south of Moscow] and the bird life one encounters there. The artwork is by Ryan Law. There will be a launch event on June 12 at 4PM at the transit station where the broadsides are to be hung (or they might be on the inside of buses, that’s still unclear). This will be part of the Moscow Art Walk.
“’Smaller communities can give the art a more intimate feel because you’ll often know the artists or author of the work you see on the side of the bus,’ says Elizabeth Bradfield, founder and editor-in-chief of Broadsided Press. Bradfield is excited to have the partnership with Moscow, because it blends the local and national side of art”. — The Daily Evergreen, Washington State University’s student newspaper, 4/22/15
AM: I have to confess, you are such a great humorist, that when I first saw your post on Facebook where you mentioned becoming Poet Laureate of Moscow, I thought it might actually be a parody or joke of some kind. Don’t get me wrong: I love Moscow, and I’m thrilled that we now have you to be our special poet. It’s just that I tend to think of public poets as establishment figures—reading on solemn occasions with no hint of comic relief. Can you set me straight on this?
TM: One of the characters in my novel said, “humor is a veil for fury.” I’m still sorting out exactly what that means. In response to your idea that public poets are “establishment figures—reading on solemn occasions without any irony,” I find that in and of itself very funny: as if life should be a humorless occasion!
I was always that kid who was stifling my giggles in church. I once published a humorous essay about attending my mother’s funeral. Irreverence. Sad clowns. There is so much atrocity and brutality in the world, I can’t help but want to pursue the flip side to that, especially in my writing, if for no other reason than to maintain my sanity.
So often we hear that people don’t like poetry. That poetry doesn’t make sense. I once had a high school student say that poetry was pretentious. I think that using humor in poetry helps to debunk those kinds of notions. Humor potentially takes out the “Ivory Tower” mystique and makes poetry relatable to everyday life, because it can and does bear witness to our everyday activities. It heightens and enlarges them, endowing them with purpose and meaning. Humor invariably disarms us, catches us off guard, and brings the pleasure of connection.
AM: There are, no doubt, many details of a public poet’s role that I don’t even know to ask you about. What would you want people to understand about this role?
TM: A poet whose name I can’t remember said something to the effect that poetry should be a dance around the fire. And in many other countries the role of a poet is very highly regarded. Poetry is consciousness-raising. It incites, it reckons, it entertains, it educates. It’s reportage. It acts as a thousand and one things, but it remains marginalized within our broader mainstream culture. Yet, we use language constantly! We are speaking in pure poetry every moment and aren’t even aware of it! Our most mundane activities are relayed to the people around us, and there are so many gems to be mined in those exchanges.
AM: Tiffany Midge, congratulations for serving as our first poet laureate of Moscow, Idaho. Thank you, and thanks, too, for speaking with us today.
TM: You’re very welcome.
Follow the poet on Twitter @TiffanyMidge.
Read her book Outlaws, Renegades & Saints: Diary of a Mixed-Up Half Breed.