Larry Woiwode: ND’s poet laureate remembered
In one of his essays collected in “Words made Fresh,” the late Larry Woiwode mediated on what being a regional writer really means. To some that might reduce the appeal of a writer’s work, Woiwode instead pinpointed how that narrowing of the focus to the land a writer knows, brings forth greater specifics and ultimately the poetry in the human experience that renders all things universal. This quality is ever present in the writing of North Dakota’s late poet laureate, and is precisely why he was granted the title in 1995.
Woiwode passed away at the age of 80 on April 28 after a brief illness, according to a statement released by his family. A service was held on Tuesday at New Hope Free Lutheran Church in Jamestown, and a public memorial service will be announced at a later date.
Born in 1941 in Carrington, and best known as an acclaimed author and essayist, the Sykeston native’s works appeared in many a storied publication and were honored by numerous organizations throughout his career, including the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award in 1992. While his early successes brought him to New York City and Chicago, he returned to North Dakota in 1978 with his family to a farm outside of Mott, where he lived and worked the rest of his life.
One of his contemporaries was Rick Watson of Minot, who was named an associate poet laureate by Woiwode in 2004. Watson sat down with me at Broadway Bean and Bagel to share memories of the man, and the impact he had on literature and the formation of other writers in the state and beyond.
“There’s a real poetry in everything that guy wrote.” Watson said, “He understood what was deeper than politics. Deeper than religion. He understood the people of North Dakota, and he poured that into his writing.”
After returning to North Dakota, Woiwode published a series of memoirs including “What I Think I did” and “A Step from Death,” closing out his career releasing collections of essays on the act of writing, and biographies on other North Dakota luminaries like Sister Thomas Welder and the Scheel family.
“Those two memoirs aren’t just good because of the juicy details, and the crazy crap he went through. There’s an honesty, talking about his own demons and foolishness.” Watson said. “My dad read them and he said ‘It’s like he’s sitting there in the bar talking to you.'”
Woiwode also provided years of service to the arts of this state as a lecturer and as a writer in residence at both Jamestown College and the University of Mary in Bismarck, where he fostered the growth of students and other fellow writers in the region. I myself attended one of his writer’s conferences at Jamestown College with my father when I was just in high school, where Woiwode did his best to help the attendees appreciate and perform the art of poetry.
There was an outpouring of testaments on social media from those who were taught by him in the days after the announcement of his death, cementing that Woiwode’s legacy will be written by everyone he encountered in life, and through his works and words.
“He paid a high price; I mean in terms of popularity coming back here. He really struggled; he struggled all the rest of his life to do what he did best. It is amazing that this guy grew up in Sykeston, North Dakota, and chose to come back and chose to stay. People will always need poetry more than they’ll need a 401K.” Watson concluded.
As Woiwode himself said in the opening essay of “Words made Fresh”:
“Chaos can’t be illustrated without order to depart from, and it is up to writers, as it has been for centuries, to help us find our way around this home on earth, whatever our place on it.”