Utah’s Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal heads ‘West’ with multimedia presentation
Utah’s Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal says her poem “West: A Transition” is an ode to and a eulogy for the Transcontinental Railroad.
The reason is because historians view the Transcontinental Railroad as both a monumental success and a monumental failure, she said.
“General Grenville Dodge, Union Pacific’s chief engineer, believed the railroad was going to bring us closer to international trade with the Far East,” Rekdal said. “But what happened was domestic trade increased, because people traveled from the East Coast to the West Coast and began trading with each other.”
The poet will shine light on these issues when she performs “West: A Transition” at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 23, at the Kimball Art Center, 1401 Kearns Blvd.
The reason Rekdal says she will “perform” the poem rather than simply read it is because the free presentation is a 30-minute multimedia event. She will read the poem against a backdrop of images and recordings of people speaking in the languages of the Chinese workers and others who helped build and maintain the Transcontinental Railroad.
“You will also hear music that was inspired by the railroad’s influence on America,” she said.
The idea for a collage of sound came to Rekdal during a year-long researching effort after she was commissioned by the Utah Arts Council and Spike 150 to write the poem in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion.
“At first I thought I would write a long poem, but as I began doing the research, I realized that I needed to create something far more intradisciplinary,” she said.
Rekdal also wanted to tell the various stories of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and address the lingering effects of its legacy.
“I know when I was commissioned to do this, I knew there were a number of politicians who wanted a story about American progress and a return to American greatness,” she said. “But there are other issues that are actually relevant today.”
One issue is how the country cast Chinese and Irish railroad workers as “morally inferior, racially suspect and violent,” Rekdal said.
“All I had to do was sample some of this language and string the words together so people could hear these attitudes about immigrants and immigration, and how suspicious they were about who wasn’t white,” she said. “These ideals still remain the same today, so something that I thought should be historically distant turned out to be a contemporary set of issues.”
Another part of the poem was inspired by a series of questions that were given to the Chinese laborers who were detained at Angel Island in San Francisco after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882.
“Some of these questions were designed to make it impossible for them to get into the country,” Rekdal said. “The act was still in effect 13 years after the railroad was built, so the irony was that the Chinese were initially courted to work on the railroad, and then they were rejected after it was finished. You can easily imagine some of these questions used now for people who are coming up from Central America.”
Rekdal was also inspired by an 1893 lecture from historian Frederick Jackson Turner called “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”
“He basically said America’s fascination with the frontier not only made us who we are, but also risked making people who obsess over private liberties at the expense of government control,” she said. “(Turner) essentially said our ideas of freedom would trump the idea of civil responsibility, and that would lead to a spoiled system.”
Rekdal also addresses the fact that the railroad isn’t regularly used for traveling.
“When it first started, the railroad was touted as a middle-class, and even lower-class, traveling experience,” she said. “But because of the invention of the car and airplane, the Transcontinental Railroad, as a means of travel, has been deemed obsolete, and it’s only there to really ship goods around the country.”
Rekdal said poetry is a great way to examine the Transcontinental Railroad because it shows people how they can both agree with and question something.
“Maybe more than other literary art form, poetry thrives on complexity,” she said. “You can look at the Transcontinental Railroad and say, ‘What they accomplished was truly stunning’ and at the same time say, ‘There were many problems in how the Transcontinental Railroad treated its workers and how it shaped American progress.’”
Paisley Rekdal, Utah’s Poet Laureate, will present her poem “West: A Translation” at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 23, at the Kimball Art Center, 1401 Kearns Blvd. For information, visit kimballartcenter.org.
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