As Natalie Peeterse sees it, Montana’s big sky, and the big, big land it arches over, are the challenges she must deal with on the job and off.
On the job, she is part of a distance delivery team for HealthCARE Montana, which is a part of Missoula College. She helps manage a federal grant to design distance learning opportunities to train nurses for rural places in Montana.
“My role is really just to help with online delivery so that working people in these rural communities can have access to college while continuing to live their lives,” Peeterse says. “We owe it to the residents of the state to provide high-quality education. There are parts of Montana that aren’t rural, they’re called ‘frontier,’ which is more rural than the word ‘rural’ allows for.”
But in her free time away from the job, Peeterse also bumps up against the challenges of distance while trying to help regional writers, musicians and artists connect with one another in the big empty space they call home.
Peeterse earned a master's of fine arts degree in poetry in 2002 from the University of Montana and is a published poet. Her chapbook elegy, “Black Birds : Blue Horse,” won the Gold Line Press Poetry Prize in 2011. She has been a fellow with the Arizona Commission on the Arts, a participant at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and an artist in residence at the Caldera Institute in central Oregon. She is a recipient of the 2013 Artist’s Innovation Award by the Montana Arts Council.
And partly because she knows the challenges of finding an audience for her work in big, sparsely populated Montana, Peeterse co-founded the Open Country Reading Series in Missoula along with the poet Henrietta Goodman.
“I know a hundred working writers,” Peeterse said. “But we can still feel lonely in the midst of all that.”
The Open Country Reading Series supports regional writers, musicians and artists by showcasing their work cultivating what by rights ought to come with the territory in Montana – a culture of openness where they can thrive and grow.
“It’s all about connection. That’s where the magic happens,” Peeterse said.
One of her big personal projects has been to push through to publication “Verde Que Te Quiero Verde,” an anthology of poems after Federico Garcia Lorca, the great Spanish poet – a crucial influence on Peeterse at one period in her life. She recruited the writers to make it happen.
But a similar project, more distinctly Montanan, is in the works for Open Country Press. In 2017 it will publish, “Bright Bones: Contemporary Montana Writing.
“We’re trying to capture the spirit of now and here in Montana, to get a fresh perspective,” said Peeterse. “We’re not homesteading. We’re going to work every day and trying to raise our families.”
And writers, too, are wrestling, like nursing students, with ways to overcome the challenges of all that open country.
“It’s always about human connection. You can’t get anything done without that,” Peeterse said.