West Valley City • Lance Larsen was playing a game of pick-up basketball last Monday with colleagues from Brigham Young University when he got the call that he would be Utah's fourth poet laureate.
"I don't play basketball like a poet. I'm kind of rough and tumble," Larsen joked Thursday afternoon, minutes after Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert officially announced the 52-year-old Idaho native would serve the next five years as Utah's newest ambassador of assonance and viceroy of verse.
After Gov. Herbert's announcement, Larsen quoted 20th-century writer Franz Kafka. "A book must be the axe to break the sea frozen inside us," Larsen told attendees at the annual Mountain West Arts Conference at West Valley City's Utah Cultural Celebration Center.
The same holds true for poetry, a play or any other work of art, Larsen said. "Poetry gives us a second chance at life. I hope I can do that during the next five years."
"Rough and tumble" as Larsen's basketball game may be, his Utah colleagues in poetry note that his skills are as formidable as they are accomplished.
Jacqueline Osherow and Katharine Coles, both professors of English at the University of Utah and Guggenheim Fellowship recipients for their own poetry, count themselves impressed. "We're often taken by surprise by their weight and depth," writes Osherow on the back of Larsen's 2009 collection, Backyard Alchemy.
Coles, the state's outgoing poet laureate, praised Larsen's "brainy" verse. "It's embedded in the sensory details of everyday life, and thoughtful, and spiritually attuned," she said.
A professor and associate chair of the English department at BYU, Larsen lives in Springville with his wife Jacqui, a painter, and two of their four children who remain at home. Son of a geologist father and home economics professor, he first found himself captivated by poetry after reading James Wright's "A Blessing" as a 21-year-old student at BYU, after which there was no turning back.
After finishing a master's thesis on Willa Cather at BYU, he earned his doctorate in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston. His fourth collection of poems, Genius Loci, will be published later this year by University of Tampa Press.
In addition to Coles, Larsen follows St. George poet David Lee and Logan poet Kenneth W. Brewer as past poets holding the position. Created in 1997, the state's poet laureate is chosen from among names first gathered by a committee formed by the Utah Arts Council. After debate and discussion, the council then narrows its choices to three. Those names are sent to the governor, who makes the final selection. "The selection process is a lot like 'American Idol,' but with less singing," Larsen quipped.
The post is non-paid, although the Utah Arts Council occasionally foots the bill for expenses when the poet travels within the state.
"The literary arts are an essential part of our state's rich cultural heritage," Gov. Herbert said in announcing his choice. "Mr. Larsen's artistic accomplishments, and teaching service make him ideally suited to continue the tradition of bringing poetry and literature to the people of Utah."
Coles ended her term by reading poems inspired by her recent visit to Antarctica. She also reminisced about the readings and workshops she presented in Utah schools, libraries and church basements.
The same morning her appointment was announced by then-Gov. Jon Huntsman, Coles said she got a phone call from an elderly man asking if she would read his late wife's poetry to assess its quality.
"Anyone who has the chance to do it, should do it," Coles said. "Unfortunately it's something that just falls on you."
Leadership in the Arts Awards
In addition to announcing Utah's new poet laureate on Thursday, Gov. Gary R. Herbert also presented the Governor's Leadership in the Arts Awards to four recipients.
Teri Orr • Recognized for 18 years of work as director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation, which has helped give the resort town a national profile on the arts scene.
Stephen Goldsmith • Founder of Artspace nonprofit of affordable living and working spaces for Salt Lake City artists, was honored for his vision of "artists as city-builders."
Chris Roberts • A teacher noted for his 34 years of integrating arts into the classroom, setting an example for other Utah educators in the advancement of the arts.
The City of Ogden • The city was recognized for fostering a creative environment for arts with its urban setting and diverse population.
"Not Necessarily at Rest"
Rocks stacked at corners of a squatter's camp,
colored bottles hanging from a tree.
Broken oyster shells
lining a dirt pathway to match the hems
of clouds trundling their gossip
over open-air markets towards the sea.
How can those who watch us not be moved
by our puny tries at beauty
the gods who look down, the dead
who sometimes look up? Yearning works
through us, whiskers to tail, the way
a yawning cat converts stretching into praise.
Lance Larsen, from his 2009 collection Backyard Alchemy