In honor of Sesquicentennial Plus One, I’m devoting the Speaking of Idaho blog to my family’s history during August
Poets laureate were frequently mentioned in early newspapers. Most of those stories were about poets in England, where there was a lot of respect for the title because it was bestowed by the royal family. British poets laureate often graced the pages of the Idaho Statesman in the early days. Alfred Austin was a favorite in the 1890s.
The term was loosely thrown around as an honor for those in clubs and organizations where someone would dash off a rhyme from time to time. Often the title was used in jest. The first mention of an Idaho poet laureate was used that way.
On March 25, 1911, the Idaho Statesman ran an article with the headline, Poet Laureate of Idaho is on the Job at State House. “The spring poet may be a joke in some quarters,” the article began, “but he is an actual living, glowing reality in Boise, and with the first warm rain that burst the buds of the trees he blossomed forth and has been busily engaged for the past few days distributing his poems about the statehouse.”
The man was allegedly using the pen name Hask Haskell. No further mention of that name every appeared in the paper again.
But in 1923, it finally happened. Gov. C.C. Moore named Irene Welch Grissom of Idaho Falls Idaho’s first poet laureate. She appeared in stories here and there reading her poems to various groups and releasing new books for many years. Tracking her in a digital search was a little iffy because although everyone seemed to agree on the spelling of her first and last name, her middle name sometimes appeared as Welsh, sometimes Walsh, sometimes Welsch.
Shortly after Idaho named a poet laureate, Wyoming residents decided they needed one. Wyoming Governor W.B. Ross was reluctant to appoint one because he wasn’t sure he had the legal authority. The editor of the Casper Daily Herald was checking into how Idaho had done it, according to a blurb in the Statesman, which quoted Kelly the elevator man at the statehouse as saying, “Now I ask you, what have they in Wyoming to muse about ‘cept rattlesnakes, oil and cows?”
So, snark was alive and well in 1923.
Irene Welch Grissom was apparently expected to serve as Idaho’s poet laureate for life. She did so for many years until she committed a scandalous crime. In 1948 she moved to (gasp!) California.
So, that year, Gov. C.A. Robbins appointed a committee of writers who would nominate a new poet laureate. Agnes Just Reid was on that committee, so that may have been the connection in my cousin’s memory. They recommended, and Gov. Robbins selected, Sudie Stuart Hager of Kimberly as Idaho’s second poet laureate. There was confusion over her middle name in stories, as well. It sometimes appeared as Stewart.
Hager served until her death in 1982.
So, we had two poet laureates. No more. Today, the Idaho Commission on the Arts selects an Idaho Writer in Residence who serves for three years, receiving a modest stipend.
Here’s a list of the Idaho Poets Laureate and Idaho Writers in Residence to date:
Irene Welsh Grissom (1923-1948, poet laureate)
Sudie Stuart Hager (1949-1982, poet laureate)
Ron McFarland (1984-1985) (first person named Writer-in-Residence)
Robert Wrigley (1986-1987)
Eberle Umbach (1988-1989)
Neidy Messer (1990-1991)
Daryl Jones (1992-1993)
Clay Morgan (1994-1995)
Lance Olsen (1996-1998)
Bill Johnson (1999-2000)
Jim Irons (July 2, 2001-2004)
Kim Barnes (April 2004-2006)
Anthony "Tony" Doerr (July 2007-July 2010)
Brady Udall (July 1, 2010-June 20, 2013)
Dianne Raptosh, (July 2013-June 2016)
Christian Winn (July 2016 to June 2019)
Malia Collins (July 2019 to July 2021)
Lauren W. Westerfield (July 2021 to the present)