Writers are abundant in our spunky mountain town, which is evidenced by the variety of artful poets published throughout the last decade in the Montana Poets Series, which is in its fourth iteration this year.
“Poetry is a private language in a secret handwriting,” said Craig Czury, founder of the poet series.
Mara Panich, owner of Fact and Fiction bookstore, is one of those poets and was able to publish her first book, “Blood is Not the Water,” through the series. She sees the art form as distilled thought and emotion.
“Poetry is a very personal thing, both for the person writing it and the person reading it,” Panich said. “And I'm putting my art out there for the world to read and judge and decide about.”
Through the enriching verses of poetry she explores topics like desire and the expectations put on women. While each poem is vastly different in length and format and topic, they all stem from what makes us human — introspection and emotion on how the world treats her and how she treats herself, an ideal inspired by her favorite poets, Natalie Diaz and Audre Lorde.
“So, Mara, she kinda dances around and does different things within her manuscript and chooses different sorts of styles and approaches in terms of the line and the stanza and spacing in her poem,” said Mark Gibbons, the editor of this year’s series.
Panich hopes when people read her poetry they respond with empathy and realize they’re not alone in their thoughts and feelings.
Kurt Sobolik, another of the poets, also published his first book, “Homespun,” in this year’s series. Sobolik loves creating something from nothing and his style of poetry is extremely distinctive.
Through what almost seems like stream of consciousness, Sobolik's poetry tells little stories of life in a rural area. The writing is full of voice and character and journeys through the minds of men like him, who have spent their lives in the unincorporated areas — fixing banged-up cars and escaping to fly fish.
“I like the way that Kurt's book is sort of all these kinds of dramatic monologues that seem to come from rural America that you recognize being a Montanan,” Gibbons said.
Sobolik hopes those who read his work will see themselves or someone they know in the witty stories of day-to-day life.
Both poets are now focusing on their next projects as both of their works have been published and distributed. But the other four poets of the series, Gillian Kessler, Chris La Tray, Melissa Stephenson and Clark Chatlain, will be published later in the year.
“That's one of the beautiful things about this series is they're not just focusing on one kind of Montana poet,” Panich said.
Each poet of the series writes with a distinct voice, style and theme to their books, which Panich said exemplifies how diverse the people of Montana really are — they don’t only write about mountains and rivers and nature, she said.
“(Poetry is) a voice that's inside of us that sometimes you hear out of the mouth in day-to-day life, but not all that often,” Gibbons said. “And it's this contemplative, reflective, observant voice of the human being that gets put down on paper.”
Gibbons believes poetry is an oral art, meant to be spoken out loud to a rhythm, but still effective in the written word. He sees poetry as the voice of humanity with as much variety and cadence as music.
Panich read the words aloud as she wrote them out, testing how the spaces felt and exemplifying her favorite words and ideas.
Lines from the poem she named the book for, “Blood is Not the Water,” read:
“last night I dreamt
I was dancing with a bear
leash in hand
Sobolik tried to carry the reader through his poems from line to line by ending each line on a simple and strong word, weaving together thick blocks of text.
Lines from his poem Landslide read:
“my kid rolled a boulder down the hill after
i specifically told him not to and the next
thing you know there’s this sickening crunch…”
Publishing local voices
The Montana Poets Series was started in 2010 by Czury, who is from Pennsylvania, but spent some time in Missoula during the ’70s learning from the writers and poets of the town and university.
Czury found his break in 1980 with the publication of his first book, which won the First Book Award from the Montana Arts Council. He later returned to the coal-mining town he was from in Pennsylvania where he wrote and published several more collections of poems, many about his views of the place he lived.
After a while of being away from Montana, Czury returned to be the keynote speaker at the National Summit of Mining Communities in Butte. There, he reconnected with an old friend from his Missoula days and became interested in the poetry scene in the state where he made his big break.
“I went to Missoula to revisit my younger self, just to say thank you for having a dream and having an obsession and having a vision,” Czury said.
He realized how much unrealized talent was in Missoula as people who had once been his friends and teachers were sitting on unpublished manuscripts, so he decided to help them find the break that he did in 1980.
He contacted his publisher at FootHills Publishing, a poetry-specific house based in New York, to make an arrangement to create the first Montana Poets Series in 2010.
“I knew how much having my first book published through the Montana Arts Council meant, and how it changed my life, and how much the community of poets influenced me and really helped me grow as a young poet,” Czury said. “So when it came time, it was just right.”
Each iteration of the series includes three men and three women, because Czury noticed that the writing scene was dominated by the former.
“I wanted to balance that out and really try to break through those barriers,” Czury said.
One of the first women published in the series, Jennifer Finley (then Greene) is a Salish woman from the Flathead Reservation who won the 2010 Albanian Poetry Festival MENADA Literary Prize for her collection, “What Lasts.”
Czury said many of the poets published in the Montana Poets Series have gone on to publish other books with FootHills or other publishers. The success of the series propels them to reprise it every few years.
Because Czury was rarely in Missoula, spending most of his time living in Pennsylvania or Italy, he had old friends in the area refer the best up-and-coming poets to him. When Gibbons reached out to him to ask about a fourth Montana Poets Series, Czury asked if he’d be willing to take up the mantel and be the new editor for it. Gibbons was been one of the poets published in the second series and has been involved ever since.
“Mark has been a real ace when it comes to his generosity,” Czury said. “I thought he was the perfect one to pick up where I left off.”
Czury believes that Gibbons has a good ear for who in the poetry scene needs to be heard and read. And Gibbons is just excited to be able to carry on something he believes helps people. So as long as FootHills is on board he plans to keep the series running.
The publisher prints exclusively poetry books in small paperbacks with black twine holding it together. The front of each book has simple text and an image.
Panich’s book cover is a colorful splash of reds, oranges, greens and blues. At the center is a soft featureless figure of a person with a red heart painted over their chest. Panich painted the image herself years ago, and she felt it captured the feelings of celebration and introspection that pervade her poetry.
Panich’s next project is illustrating and writing a graphic story about the chicken who adopted her. Goldie Hen died in an attack from a wild animal, spurring Panich to create a story in dedication to the bird. Telling the story through black-and-white ink drawings of a bird and simple writing has been a new experience for her.
“It just went some places where I was really exploring the more difficult things I've gone through in the past few years, through the story of Goldie Hen,” Panich said. “And it's gotten a lot bigger than I imagined it was gonna be in the first place.”
Panich is overjoyed to have a book published and to be running Fact and Fiction, all of her goals and dreams are coming together, and she hopes to continue publishing.
Though the balance between running a bookstore and writing is a difficult one, she continues to write for 10 minutes each day. She jots thoughts and verses into a standard journal, exercising her mind and body in the ways of a writer. She filled seven or eight journals last year alone.
Sobolik is still a bit shell-shocked by his success in publishing his first book, but says he doesn’t feel any different just because he’s published now. He loved writing as a kid, but didn’t pursue it in any sort of professional way until Gibbons convinced him to share his work in this series.
His book is a collection of poems he’s written over the last decade, and now that it’s complete he’s ready to focus on writing new works. The feedback he’s received so far has been positive, and though he’d continue to write with or without validation, he said it’s nice to know people want to read it.
“I got to really give kudos to Mark on all of this,” Sobolik said. “We always exchange poems and he's always been glad to read mine. He's always been very encouraging as far as trying to put a book out.”
Gibbons is excited for the rest of the series to be published throughout the year and already has people in mind for the fifth collection. The next book, “Ash in the Tree” by Gillian Kessler, will be released in July and explores Kessler’s journey of coming to terms with her mother’s death through a mix of traditional and freeform style of poetry, Gibbons said.
Czury is happy to see the legacy of Montana Poets Series live on in Gibbon’s capable hands. He’ll never forget Missoula as the place where he learned what real poetry was and found his own voice.
“Missoula has always been a vibrant town for poets and literature,” he said.