Montana’s Co-Poet Laureate: Mandy Smoker Broaddus
Montana Poet Laureate Mandy Smoker Broaddus describes the transmission of a poem as “rigorous juggling.”
Carefully, she twines language, fuses vocabulary and in the process of enlightenment, words are threaded, deleted, stacked, and rotated. Bit by bit, a full, rich poem of understanding, love, and freedom prevails.
“I’m hard on my poems and I’m a pretty vigorous reviser,” says Smoker Broaddus, who often writes under the moniker M.L. Smoker. “I’ll begin to write a poem and after it emerges, I’ll go through them line by line. I don’t feel as if I’m constructing a poem. At first, it’s more like the words are coming out. During the revision process, I will go back and wear a different hat and a different set of eyes and see it all through a different lens.”
Poetry, she says, is like a spring, the watering of seeds of joy, an escalating connection that is alive at the moment in the world with her, a pattern of life that radiates out in all directions.
“I never really know when the feeling will come to put a new idea out in the world. There’s never been any expectation, and it could be sporadic. There are times when I will write poetry because I’m feeling stable and grounded, and other times where there has been heartache and difficulty in my life.”
Expression and Empowerment
A member of the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes, Mandy was born in 1975 on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and moved to California when she was in elementary school, graduating from high school in the San Joaquin Valley. She describes her earliest memories of writing as analogous to the sound of a bell penetrating deeply into her cosmos.
“Since I was young, I’ve kept a journal… I’d write stories and create plays in elementary school. I loved writing as an expression of myself. It’s always felt like the right thing to do and has made me feel empowered. In fourth grade, I wrote a play and had my best girlfriends come over and we set up a stage and had props and we rehearsed our lines, and we won the school talent show. I felt strong and capable – and it was fun.”
One of her earliest primary writing influences was California-born Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck (1902-1968).
“I was introduced to John Steinbeck in middle school, and I made such a surprising connection to him and his voice. His style was unique to me. As I got older, I realized that my father’s side of the family from was Oklahoma and my grandparents left town and came to California during the Dust Bowl. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ became personal to me, a connection to my grandparents’ migration, and their transition, and it gave me a window into my relationship with my grandmother that was unexpected.”
Another seminal influence, but for almost entirely difficult reasons, was Native American novelist and poet James Welch, who was born in Browning in 1940. Welch, who died in 2003, is considered a leading author of the Native American Renaissance of literature.
“My dad starting giving me Welch’s books,” says Mandy. “I went to high school in California and his novels were a way to connect back to Montana. My dad used Welch as an example to prove that Native people could write, too, and he would say, here is one of the best examples of that. He was from Montana and described the places that I knew, and that was transformative for me. As I got older I began to get more interested in poetry. James Welch’s ‘Riding the Earthboy 40’ became my bible and I read it a thousand times. He was a huge factor in my development as a writer.”
She earned a BA at Pepperdine University and an MFA at the University of Montana, where she received the Richard Hugo Memorial Scholarship. She also studied at UCLA, where she received the Arianna and Hannah Yellow Thunder Scholarship, and the University of Colorado, where she was awarded the Battrick Fellowship for excellence in poetry writing.
“In high school, I was drawn to journalism and in college I steered to literature. When my mom passed when I was 23 years old, I began communicating with her through writing, and some of that writing later became poems that are part of my collection. Then, I thought that I should study poetry and dive in there.”
Free Verse of Identity
Mandy composes free verse poems in which she opens her heart and accepts all her Native American blood ancestors with their good qualities, their talents, and also their weaknesses. Her spiritual relatives and blood relations are all part of her. She is them, and they are her. She does not have a separate self.
“Identity is a big part of my work,” says Mandy. “Being a Native woman and knowing my history and knowing so much about the place where I come from and my ancestry, my family, and my home, I can’t separate it from anything that I do… My poetry is fully present, and it’s who I am, an Assiniboine woman at the core, and it’s where I create and function from, and a really strong orientation and source.
“Poetry is a vulnerable time and place and act, and I’ve done it in the hopes to reclaim part of my own story and family history. I’m making something possible that was not possible for my ancestors or even my own mother.”
She is the author of the poetry collection “Another Attempt at Rescue” (Hanging Loose Press, 2005). With co-Montana Poet Laureate Melissa Kwasny of Basin, she co-edited “I Go to the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights” (Lost Horse Press, 2011).
Mandy makes her home in Helena, where she works in the Indian Education Division of the Office of Public Instruction. She says that juxtaposing family, work, and poetry has been a particularly sensitive task this past year, and that lately, when she has set aside a time to write, what has come out has mostly felt stilted. Still, she is shrewd enough not to force it. Seemingly workable phrases will drift into her mind at the most awkward times, like when she is sitting in the car or entering a business meeting. Patiently, she accepts each and every snippet as a signal of fortuity.
“I wish that I were more disciplined, or that I could make it a regular process. For me it’s never been the expectation that I could write poetry daily or do it a few times a week, but it is something always more sporadic. I can’t predict the conditions for inspiration.”
What makes Smoker Broaddus’ work so engaging is that she so eloquently transfers into words the grace and ease and openness of her heart.
“Poetry is definitely vulnerability,” says Broaddus. “Poet Greg Pape once said to me before a reading (as encouragement) that I should go back to the moment that I wrote the poem and when it emerged, and said that that would allow me to feel that poem again. I still cry over a poem, even ones that I’ve read a thousand times. Poetry is the essence and spirit of being opened up and raw.”
Self-Perspective of Poetry
While her poems are universally relatable and punctuated by profound moments of personal transformation, Smoker Broaddus says that certain audiences handle and respond to her work with a unique respect.
“Maybe 15 years ago, I gave a reading at the Blackfeet Community College in Browning. It was probably the first time that I had read to an all-Native audience, college students in the library. There were maybe 20 students, from ages 18 to 50 years old. People found connections, much like what James Welch did for me – to provide a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Indeed, she is keenly aware of the responsibility of the Poet Laureate of bringing new associations into the world, verbally, intellectually, and even socially.
“I want young people especially to find that connection to different voices, different styles, different writers, different places. To find something that speaks for them. A voice that might resonate. A place that might be familiar. That’s the most special thing that I’ve learned about poetry, that you could tell it from whatever perspective and vantage point that you want.”
For more information about M.L. Smoker, visit The Poetry Foundation.