There are many power hitters this year in the Utah Arts Festival’s Literary Arts lineup for the Wordfest Stage. Among them are Lisa Bickmore, Utah Poet Laureate, and Heather Lang-Cassera, who was Clark County, Nevada’s Poet Laureate from 2019 to 2021. Both participated in interviews with The Utah Review.
LISA BICKMORE (June 23, 12:30 p.m. Wordfest Stage)
Named the Utah Poet Laureate last summer by Governor Spencer Cox, Lisa Bickmore says that her love of poetry started in her childhood years. In an interview with The Utah Review, she mentioned that it started with The Weekly Reader Book Club. She remembers teachers in school as well as her LDS Sunday School teacher who were comfortable with all forms of verse, including T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams and even Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century English poet whose works became famous when they were published posthumously.
Bickmore’s love of poetry grew continuously. Born in Delaware, she spent her formative years living in many parts of the U.S. and even in Japan. A Brigham Young University graduate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she taught at Salt Lake Community College, where she also helped establish the school’s publication center. Her work, which includes three books, has garnered prizes and awards.
For this year’s Utah Arts Festival, Bickmore will read on the Wordfest Stage (June 23, 12:30 p.m.), which heralds the Literary Arts venue’s impressive spectrum of events and poets who will be performing and competing throughout the weekend.
Bickmore says that her creative process includes an ongoing cycle of reading as much as writing and listening for and learning about new opportunities for poetry. She also follows an ongoing yet intermittent journaling practice, where she adds ideas, thoughts and images for possible poems. “It can be a fragmentary process where an idea for a poem has taken shape in my imagination and if I am lucky I try to write the words from those images as quickly as possible,” she says. But, she adds that those same threads are almost never in the same shape when a poem is finished. She also shares her work with a trusted writing group. “I know them so well and their feedback means a lot to me,” she says.
As for deciding which poems might be best for a published collection as a book, Bickmore explains that she realizes somewhere in the middle of her process that there are enough poems for a collection.
When asked about how her subject lens has evolved over the years, she set up the context by referencing a recent New York Times interview with musician and songwriter John Mellencamp and a discussion he had with Bob Dylan. In the interview, Mellencamp said, “Bob and I were painting together one day, and I asked him how he wrote so many great songs. In all seriousness, he said, ‘John, I’ve written the same four [expletive] songs a million times.’ I’m going to get in line with Bob on that. It’s always the same song, just more mature or with a different angle.”
Articulating her personal family experiences as a lens for her poetry, Bickmore explains in her younger years it was about family but now it has become the subjects of illness and death. She explains that it is about framing one’s experiences to practice citizenship as an artist in searching for what can make the world better. So, it is important to take some of the same old subjects and think about new ways and poetic forms to try.
A specific example is Dear David, written after David Bowie’s death. In an artist statement for the poem, Bickmore wrote, “I remembered Bowie as Ziggy Stardust—that recording came out when I was in high school, still forming my own identity—and that dramatization, that theatricality, was alienating but also enthralling. I listened to his last recording, Black Star, many times—it came out at almost exactly the same time as his death, a gesture thoroughly final.” One song struck a significant poetic chord for her: I Can’t Give Everything Away. She explained, “It seemed to me to be about the gift of art, and the piece of being an artist that is about withholding, about holding some essential self back. I hoped that writing to Bowie in this letter-poem, as I was meditating on that last album, its melancholy, its mortal knowledge, at this moment in my own mortal progress, would be an act of homage to that mystery.”
Bickmore is ten months into the role as Utah poet laureate. “I have been struck by how important it is to be in community with each other, around the arts,” she explains. Some activities have included mobile micro fests as an opportunity for poets to publish chapbooks of their works in small editions and learn more about maintaining creative control and ownership of digital files. Writer workshops also have strengthened the community in meaningful ways, she adds.
“People are writing everywhere,” she says, “With writers around Utah, I enjoy finding these communities and I ask about what I can do for them as opposed to assuming knowing beforehand what they need or should have.”
Several years ago, she established Lightscatter Press, a nonprofit publishing entity tailored to give visibility for emerging writers and to provide multiple modes of access for their work. Their mission reads, in part, to “preserve and extend the material, tactile experience of the printed, bound text through beautiful, innovative design that integrates digital artifacts and experiences created for and with the printed text.” It was established in part by a grant from the National Endowment for Humanities and has received support from the Utah Division of Arts and Museums.
One mode involves a digital web app which allows the reader to design their own experiences with poems in a book by deciding, for example, how to navigate reading or hearing a poem from the book.
HEATHER LANG-CASSERA (June 23, 2:30 p.m., Literary Arts Stage)
Nevada’s literary scene has blossomed nicely into an exciting community so much so that Clark County inaugurated a poet laureate program before the state began its own. Among the Clark County poet laureates is Heather Lang-Cassera who served from 2019 to 2021. And, as she explains in an interview with The Utah Review, the role was far more than what an outsider might assume to be primarily an honorific role. But, now as an emeritus, she has found more ways to be steeped into a diverse and multifaceted literary community.
“As poet laureate, you are a steward for the community,” she says. “You find yourself steeped in a community with poets, some of whom once thought they never could become a writer.” Lifelong connections have been established, including with Ashley Vargas, who also is from the area and is the Utah Arts Festival literary arts coordinator. Lang-Cassera mentions an event sponsored by Nevada Humanities which featured a collaboration with more than 50 poets. She also was a 2022 Nevada Arts Council Literary Arts Fellow.
Not only a poet with a prodigious published output, Lang-Cassera is an editor, publisher, literary criticism writer and editor, essayist, author of fiction and college lecturer. Her roles have included world literature editor for The Literary Review and a founder and editor for Tolsun Books.
Among her favorite mentors and inspirational role models are H.L. Hix and Christine Stewart-Nuñez, who is just completing her term as South Dakota’s poet laureate.
Lang-Cassera is moved by many things, in considering subjects for her work. In addition to philosophy, she finds visual art just as powerful. Music is important, too. She played saxophone in college and in bands. “Interestingly, I generally hated and shied away from poetry until my twenties,” she recalls, “because I did not find poetry that spoke to me, especially when they were written hundreds of years ago and I couldn’t relate to how they connected to life today.”
When a relative moved out of the country, they left behind boxes of novels, books, and what she describes as “incredibly beautiful books” of contemporary poetry by publishers she was unaware of at the time.
“Within several minutes of opening the box, I suddenly felt different about poetry,” she adds.
Lang-Cassera likens her approach to what a sculptor seeks to accomplish, especially in the complex challenge of blurring boundaries, images and transitions in order to explore new ways of interpretation and representation. She has been intrigued by the lack of constraints in poetic forms but also for finding practical uses for more formal forms, as part of the writing process. As the maxim goes, good writing is always revising and rewriting. This sparks the creative drivers in Lang-Cassera’s work, which can spring from a curiosity about a complex natural world to help connect history to the present but also as a form of activism and advocacy to put meaningful perspective on contemporary events.
A prominent example was Gathering Broken Light, a poetry collection she spent three years working on, which was a tribute to the victims and survivors of the October 1, 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival, where 58 people were killed. The proceeds from the book were donated to the Las Vegas Strong Resiliency Center. In a 2021 interview, published in Off the Strip, she explained, ““I went to a poetry event in Northern California and the folks with whom I was talking hadn’t heard about the tragedy, or at least didn’t remember hearing. I felt shocked by that, not blaming them or anything like that, but I was surprised and unsettled. That was when I first started thinking about writing the book.”
A Salt Lake City native whose father still lives in Utah, Lang-Cassera also is excited about Tolsun Books. Their first published book was Off Boulder Highway by Jennifer Battisti, which slyly upends the cliché that whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas in a pop-culture driven memoir that is both fiction and nonfiction in various parts. Lang-Cassera adds that Tolsun Books also publishes poetry in translations and different languages including Spanish and Korean, for example.
Her next collection of poems, a book of ecopoems with the working title of Firefall, has been acquired by Unsolicited Press for publication in 2025.
I have never known loss
I took words and placed them on my tongue,
a quiet catapult for what
I cannot say.
I think of your wrists,
but as city swans in pairs
dark with moonlight.
And your ribcage,
Here, I wait
with ceramic bowl, clean & grey as shadow,
between two hands
so that I might feel
the something that is in emptiness.
What are we
but trees without hills are no less
for their loneliness.
And these promises, rearranged—
a wing unbroken, a softness
For more information and tickets, download the Utah Arts Festival app for free, available to Android and iOS users. There also are links to the UAF’s standard website.