By the time Greta Wrolstad turned 24, she’d already traveled to Russia on scholarship and compiled enough writing to fill a book of poetry, including her acclaimed “Notes on Sea and Shore.”
The Oregon native’s observations of the natural world were both moving and deep. Her words became the reflections of a trained eye and a sharp pen, her thoughts capable of envisioning a landscape “where we do not descend with time.”
And then it ended in a Missoula car accident. No more words. No more poetry. No more reflections on life and the meaning that swirls around it.
“I think the whole MFA program knew immediately what it had lost,” said Joanna Klink, a University of Montana professor of English and published poet. “There was a memorial service for (Wrolstad) a month after the accident, and all the MFA students participated.”
Wrolstad, who made tracks through the University of Oregon, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 2003, solidified her name as one of the region’s top new poets in the University of Montana’s creative writing program.
The watchful young woman was in the second year of the master’s program when she died in a car accident while heading out as a passenger for a summer float on the Blackfoot River.
Klink, who taught Wrolstad in two graduate-level classes, was having dinner that August when she received the news. It was devastating, both on a personal and professional level. But it wasn’t the end of Wrolstad’s legacy.
Collections of Wrolstad’s work would be published posthumously. Creative writing students at the University of Montana still discuss her work. A new literary series will begin next month in Wrolstad’s name, giving other female writers a chance to see their work in print.
“She was a phenomenal student – a very talented poet at a very young age,” Klink said. “The hard thing about her death was that she was just coming into her own voice as a poet.”
Wrolstad’s ties to the Pacific Northwest literary world had already blossomed by 2008. At UM, she served as co-editor of CutBank, the school’s literary magazine. Her friends from the University of Oregon had launched Tavern Books, an ambitious literary press based in Portland, Ore.
After her death, Tavern founders Michael McGriff and Carl Adamshick compiled and edited “Night is Simply a Shadow.” With the help of Britta Ameel – a close Wrolstad friend – the poetry collection became the first Wrolstad book published posthumously by Tavern, and it has been talked about ever since.
Writing in the Tin House literary review as recently as June, Klink described Wrolstad as a patient observer, one who could “look at seawater and trees for a long time without asking what she saw to be anything other than itself.”
As a poet, Wrolstad didn’t shy away from ugliness and horror. She was a traveler, Klink said, and she was smart beyond her years. Klink believes Wrolstad’s best work shines through in “Notes on Sea and Shore.”
“I think you can see in it the mark of a really mature voice, someone who’s writing with wisdom beyond her years,” Klink said. “That’s the thing you sense, her ability to speak in the voice of a poet who has been writing all of her life.”
Natalie Garyet, managing editor of Tavern Books, described Wrolstad’s voice as lasting, and it may now endure through a new writing series launched in Wrolstad’s name.
Tavern, which has grown to represent the work of Nobel and poet laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners and regional writers like William Stafford, will open the Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series to entries this October.
“We want to give people a chance to have their work published, whether they’re emerging or established writers,” Garyet said. “We wanted to find a way to commemorate (Wrolstad’s) legacy and strengthen that legacy. It’s really pretty special.”
The new series is open to women age 40 and younger. Submissions must be full-length and unpublished, not unlike Wrolstad’s own work before Tavern printed it posthumously for the first time in 2010, with a new collection released this April.
Garyet said that while there are plenty of book prizes and literary contests across the nation, Tavern wanted its series to be different. All submitted work will be read by a Tavern editor, and poets who are published will appear in the Tavern catalog, giving their work the promise of longevity.
“We’ve been longtime admirers of (Wrolstad),” said Garyet. “She writes these exceptional lyrical poems that conjure up rich imagery and test the boundaries of internal and external geographies. It really inspired this new poetry series a lot.”
Klink believes the new Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series will narrow the field and give new women writers a chance to break in, while bringing forgotten or overlooked writers back into favor.
It may also help continue the Wrolstad name – one that’s still talked about at the UM creative writing program.
“Because this is directed at young women, I think it will allow for some voices that don’t get heard,” said Klink. “The editors at Tavern are superb editors. In just a few years, they’ve created an incredible series. It’s almost as if (Wrolstad) is still here, doing what poems do and speaking beyond death.”