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Women of USU: Literary Tradition at USU

Wednesday, Oct. 09, 2019

Jessie Christine Anderson historical archive photo.

Jessie Christine Anderson was an avid participant in the newly formed literary society Helicon, founded during her senior year.

May Swenson historical archive photo.

May Swenson is widely recognized in the literature world as a highly influential Twentieth Century poet, the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships. Photo: "May Swenson, 2," USU Digital Exhibits, accessed October 2, 2019,

Star Coulbrooke at poetry walkabout.

In 2015, Star Coulbrooke was named Logan's first Poet Laureate. Her poems are published nationally in dozens of literary journals, magazines, and anthologies.

Poet Laureate Shanan Ballam.

Shanan Ballam was named the second Poet Laureate for Logan in August 2019. As poet laureate, Ballam plans to coordinate with the Logan Library to offer free poetry workshops for individuals of all skill levels.

Since its earliest days, women at Utah State University have had a huge impact on the cultural, scientific, economic, and social fabric of the institution. The Year of the Woman shares these critical voices simply because their stories matter.

Utah State University has a long-standing literary tradition. Just a year after opening its doors in 1890, the students organized a Literary Society. The society utilized essays and orations to advance the literary abilities of its members. The following year, they split into two groups, one for young women and one for young men. Prior to World War I, the campus featured the Student Life newspaper, The Buzzer yearbook, plus the Ag-Literose, published by the Quill Club, a student writers’ organization.

Today, USU continues to foster student writing through The Statesman, the student newspaper; Sink Hollow, an undergraduate literary journal; the annual Voices of USU anthology; and Aggie Blue Print, among others. The Bull Pen is a creative writing club hosted by the Department of English.

Helicon West is a contemporary open mic forum for writers, but it, too, had its roots in an earlier organization—unbeknownst to its organizers. For the rest of the story, continue reading.

Then: Jessie Anderson (UAC 1909)

Jessie Christine Anderson, daughter to natives of Denmark, received her early school training in her hometown of Toquerville, Utah. Following her early education, Ms. Anderson continued her studies at the Branch Normal School in Cedar City, Utah, University of Utah, and Utah Agricultural College. She entered the UAC with junior standing in Domestic Science. She completed this course and received her degree in June, 1909.

During her time at the UAC, Ms. Anderson was an avid participant in the newly formed literary society Helicon, founded during her senior year. She graduated and moved to Snow Academy in Ephraim, a branch campus of the AC to head the Domestic Science Department.

Then: May Swenson (USU 1934)

May Swenson was born in Logan, Utah in 1913, the oldest of 10 children. Following her graduation from Logan High School, Swenson began her education at Utah State University. She graduated in 1934 with a bachelor’s degree from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Swenson taught poetry at Bryn Mawr, the University of North Carolina, the University of California at Riverside, Purdue University, and Utah State University. She was also a manuscript reviewer at New Directions Publishing from 1959 to 1966. Swenson left in an effort to place more focus and attention on her own writing.

Swenson’s verse collections include A Cage of Spines (1958), To Mix with Time (1963), Poems to Solve (1966), More Poems to Solve (1971), New & Selected Things Taking Place (1978), and In Other Words (1987). Half Sun, Half Sleep (1967) contains new work and her translations of poetry by six Swedish authors. Further writings include Iconographs (1970), translated from the Swedish Windows and Stones, Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1972) by Swenson and Leif Sjoberg. Her own poetry is widely anthologized, and a collection entitled Nature: Poems Old and New (1994) was published posthumously. Swenson’s poems have appeared in Antaeus, The Atlantic Monthly, Carleton Miscellany, The Nation, The New Yorker, Paris Review, Parnassus and Poetry.

May Swenson is widely recognized in the literature world as a highly influential Twentieth Century poet, the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships--among them a Guggenheim, a Ford Foundation Poet-Playwright Grant, an Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, and a Robert Frost Fellowship. She was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and served as chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1980 until her death in 1989.

Swenson’s reputation has only grown over the years as indicated by the recent publication of her work by the Library of America. Despite her international success and reputation as a progressive thinker who discovered her own path, Swenson’s work demonstrates the importance of her family and her Cache Valley roots.

Now: Star Coulbrooke (USU 1996, 1998)

Star Coulbrooke grew up on a farm in Riverdale, Idaho as one of nine children. She attended a two-room schoolhouse in her early days of education. After her father’s death when she was 11, an older sister took her to live in Montpelier, Idaho. One day in school, Coulbrooke’s teacher asked the class to write poems for an assignment. Coulbrooke’s was about her father and was written in rhyming quatrains. As the bell rang at the end of the period, the teacher instructed the class to stay seated so that she could read them this poem. “How could you not be a writer of poems after that?” asks Coulbrooke.

Despite excellent grades, Coulbrooke dropped out of high school at 16, and was married a year later and the words stopped coming. In her 23 years of marriage, Coulbrooke wrote only 12 poems. Her words were trapped. In 1986, she earned her GED and in 1992, she left her husband, a day she refers to as her emancipation day. Coulbrooke went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Utah State University, where her mentor was Kenneth Brewer, a USU faculty member who taught poetry and English courses for three decades and later served as Utah poet laureate.

Coulbrooke currently teaches poetry writing and directs the Utah State University Writing Center. She has worked hard to make the Writing Center a safe place for people to share their work and to find their voice, just as she found hers. She is also the co-founder and coordinator of Helicon West, a bi-monthly open readings/featured readers series that publishes community broadsides, and Poetry at Three, a local poetry writing group celebrating its twentieth year.

When Helicon West was founded by Star Coulbrooke and Professor Michael Sowder, they did not know of the earlier connection to USU Helicon literary society of 1909.

In 2015, Coulbrooke was named Logan’s first Poet Laureate. From an English Department announcement on Coulbrooke’s new position, it says that some of the “objectives of the City of Logan Poet The objectives of the City of Logan Poet Laureate Program are to enhance the presence and appreciation of poetry and the literary arts in Logan, raise awareness of the power of literature, poetry, and the spoken word, create a new body of literary works that commemorate and celebrate the vibrancy of our city, [and] inspire an emerging generation of literary artists.” As Poet Laureate, Coulbrooke worked to bring poetry to community. Her poetry walkabouts were just one way Coulbrooke brought poetry to the community. These walkabouts offered the public opportunities to explore Logan and share poetry with one another.

Star Coulbrooke’s poems are published nationally in dozens of literary journals, magazines, and anthologies. She co-authored a chapbook, Logan Canyon Blend (Blue Scarab Press, 2003), with Kenneth W. Brewer, the late former poet laureate of Utah. Her chapbook, Walking the Bear (Outlaw Artists Press 2011), can be accessed through the Digital Stacks at the University of Utah Marriott Library. Her latest poetry collections are Thin Spines of Memory (Helicon West Press 2017), Both Sides from the Middle (Helicon West Press 2018), and City of Poetry (2019), which includes poems written for USU presidents, the former dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, visiting poets and writers, and others, as well as the four annual collaborative, commemorative poems from the poetry walkabouts Coulbrooke conducted throughout her term, ending the volume with the final collaborative poem, “Love poem to Logan City.”

Now: Shanan Ballam

Shanan Ballam is a senior lecturer at USU in the Department of English where she teaches creative writing and composition. She is also the poetry faculty advisor for the Sink Hollow: An Undergraduate Literary Magazine and was selected as the 2014 Lecturer of the Year for the College of Humanities & Social Sciences and served on the Utah Arts Council Board of Directors as the Literary Arts Representative from 2013-2017. Ballam earned an MFA in poetry writing from the University of Nebraska, Omaha, studying under her mentor, William Trowbridge, Poet Laureate of Missouri.

Ballam is the author of the chapbook The Red Riding Hood Papers (Finishing Line 2010) and the full-length poetry collection Pretty Marrow (Negative Capability 2013). A semi-finalist for the Brittingham and Pollak Poetry Prizes, the May Swenson Award, the Philip Levine Prize in Poetry, and the Louise Bogan Award, in 2012 Pretty Marrow received first place in the Utah Division of Arts and Museum’s Original Writing Contest, judged by Sue Walker, former Poet Laureate of Alabama. Her work has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies, most recently in DIAGRAM, South Dakota Review, and Sugar House Review. Ballam’s latest book is Inside the Animal: The Collected Red Riding Hood Poems (Main Street Rag Publishing 2019).

Shanan Ballam was named the second Poet Laureate for Logan on August 20, 2019. As poet laureate, Ballam plans to coordinate with the Logan Library to offer free poetry workshops for individuals of all skill levels.

“It doesn’t matter if you have ever written a word of poetry or if you have written a lot,” Ballam said. “I’m an experienced teacher so I will be able to help each person individually to write something that they are proud of.”

Utah State University has had and continues to have a rich history of literary tradition. From the early days of the college to the present, USU students and faculty have been developing their literary craft and sharing their powerful voices. Many organizations have been formed that bring the university and city communities together to celebrate literary art. We honor those who have come before, and those who are shaping the future now for creating legacies worth remembering.


Join Star Coulbrooke, Logan City Poetry Emerita, Thursday, October 17, 2019 at 5:30 p.m. at Garff Wayside Garden (100 South Main) for a Votes for Women Poetry Walkabout to celebrate Suffrage and contribute to a community poem. The meeting place is the Gazebo in the parking lot, and participants are invited to bring writing supplies and dress for the weather. In case of rain, the writers will convene in a historic home nearby. The poem developed during this walkabout will be presented during Women’s History Month March, 2020.

Resources: Matilyn Mortensen, Kristen Munson

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