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Rock Springs writer Barbara Smith named new Wyoming Poet Laureate

Tess Anderson
Barbara Smith

When Barbara Smith first moved to Rock Springs in 1969 to teach English at Western Wyoming Community College, the area was, in her own words, “just a sleepy, small town.” A few years later, Smith witnessed the community completely transform as a result of a big energy boom in the early seventies.

Those experiences take center-stage in the new Wyoming Poet Laureate’s first full-length poetry collection Putting a Name on It, which paints narrative-based vignettes about the people of the state and their connections to place.

At that time, people flocked to the southwest corner of the state to make fast money in coal, oil, and gas as energy companies came to set up new power plants. Companies were also drawn to the area because of the discovery of a significant deposit of trona. The raw material for soda ash used to make glass, paper, and baking soda.

Smith said the change came quickly and rather unexpectedly, and that the companies made plans to establish in the area but didn’t give the community any sort of a heads up to help them prepare. She said the boom of that era was a bit of a poster child on how not to, rather than how to.

“People who might have built apartments or houses or grocery stores and so on were caught unaware that this was coming, and then [the companies] had something like a call out for hundreds of people,” she said.

Smith said the rapid onset of the new industries meant that jobs were abundant, but that places to live were decidedly less so.

“People were throwing up apartments and trailer parks all over the place, and there were people living in their campers out in the desert – you can imagine that the family of the guy who came here and had them all living in a camper in a Pamida parking lot were not terribly happy.”

While Smith was experiencing the boom in real-time and also getting married and having kids, she kept her eyes open to the drama going on around her. She said witnessing that moment in Rock Springs’ history ended up being a huge help for her creative process.

“Even the old timers were totally blown away – their little town was no longer the same. Everybody was up in arms and everybody had to experience change, whether they liked it or not – and that's really good material for poetry,” she said.

It also reminded her of stories that her grandmother told her as a kid about homesteading in Saskatchewan, a province in Western Canada. The parallels of people being uprooted, both voluntarily or involuntarily, and creating new communities inspired Smith to write for a larger audience.

“I started out just writing for myself, and I think a lot of people do that. Then I moved on to trying to get reactions from others to see if they understand what it is I’m trying to write about,” she said.

Eventually, the boom busted, but Smith went on to teach English at the local community college for 37 years. She said working with students from many different backgrounds throughout the years helped her stay connected to the pulse of the community.

“When you interact with people all day in classes, you really get a feel for what life is like out there, if you listen to them. You’re not in an isolated ivory tower,” she said.

Now retired, Smith still teaches memoir-writing workshops in the community whenever she can find the time. She said she’s passionate about helping other people get their own stories down on paper.

“The stories and the experiences of the people who actually live through some of these changes really tell the true history of the modern West and of the past,” she said.

Smith is the ninth poet to hold the honor of Wyoming Poet Laureate since the position was established in 1981. She said she’s looking forward to giving poetry readings and teaching workshops for schools and communities around the state.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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