Nebraska Poet Laureate/State Poets: A Brief History
Currently, forty-seven U.S. States and the District of Columbia have poets laureate. In 1919, the California State Legislature became the first state to approve an earlier proclamation in 1915 naming Ina Coolbrith to be the California Poet Laureate. Alaska has an official “State Writer Laureate” and Idaho has a similar “Writer-In-Residence” position.
In 1921, the Nebraska State Legislature created an official position for a poet by naming John G. Neihardt (1881-1973) to the honorary position of Nebraska Poet Laureate. In 1927, the highly regarded writings of Neihardt led to him being voted by the Legislature as the “Nebraska Poet Laureate in Perpetuity.”
In the early 1980s, a committee of Nebraska citizens and poetry-related interest groups met to determine if and how another poet could be selected to an official Nebraska poetry position. William C. Kloefkorn was named “Nebraska State Poet” in 1982, as signed by Governor Charles Thone. Kloefkorn, a professor of English at Nebraska Wesleyan University, changed the position from honorary to active by conducting writing workshops, residencies and giving readings to schools, libraries and community groups throughout the state, funded primarily by his Speaker’s Bureau programs through Humanities Nebraska. He served as Nebraska State Poet until his death in 2011.
In 2012, Humanities Nebraska, the Nebraska Arts Council, Nebraska Library Commission and others formed a committee to create criteria for the position of State Poet, including submission requirements for nominations and nominees, as well as selection procedures, for a new five-year renewable term, and sent out a wide call for nominations. The nominees were narrowed to three finalists, who were interviewed by a committee of writers and representatives of literature-related interest groups and rated according to the new criteria. The committee then forwarded their recommendations to Governor Dave Heineman, who selected Twyla M. Hansen of Lincoln as the second Nebraska State Poet on Dec. 1, 2013.
In 2019, Matt Mason of Omaha was selected to succeed Hansen as State Poet. Matt’s work as the executive director of the Nebraska Writers Collective makes him a natural choice for the position. Some of the responsibilities of the State Poet include “serving as an advocate for poetry, literacy and literature in Nebraska… giving public presentations and readings… and providing other outreach in schools, libraries, literary festivals, and various venues… throughout the state.” Matt continues to advocate for poetry and literature by attending speaking engagements, but also by directing the Louder than a Bomb Great Plains slam poetry organization which teaches young students about the power of writing and holds regular events allowing students to perform their own works by competing in poetry slams.