Montana roots nurture MSU Billings poet Haaland

2011-10-09T00:15:00Z 2012-10-12T16:30:12Z Montana roots nurture MSU Billings poet HaalandBy MARY PICKETT Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
October 09, 2011 12:15 am  • 

Tami Haaland knew by the age of 12 that she would be a poet.

But she had started down the road to her life of poetry long before.

The Montana State University Billings associate professor of English grew up in a home filled with music, art and the power of the written word.

Her father, who farmed for a living, painted landscapes and played the guitar, jamming with his mandolin-playing brother.

"Somehow the images and sound congealed into poetry," she said. "It was my way of expressing myself."

Another major influence was Haaland's mother, who was an eloquent, prolific letter writer.

The wind-brushed open spaces of her childhood home in northern Montana awakened a sense of poetry, too.

Haaland will be among the poets participating in the High Plains Bookfest, Oct. 13-15, in Billings. The theme of this year's festival is: "The Nature of Poetry, The Poetry of Nature."


Nature, people intersect

Even though Haaland grew up close to nature, turning the natural world into poetry is tricky, she said.

Descriptions of nature can wind up too bland, she said, adding that there has to be more than just a list of things she sees in nature to make a good poem.

Instead, her poems often are about nature intersecting with people.

For Haaland, poetry comes from a moment when she notices something and pays attention to details.

She listens for how those details "ring in my ear and what music they make."

The ability to keenly look at the world around her is a skill she learned from her late parents, Dorothea and Roald Haaland.

Her father had an artist's eye to see amazing things in a normal day from the clouds in the sky to an agate hiding in a field.

Her mother had a knack for spotting birds and deer.


Exposing beauty

In her 2001 collection, "Breath in Every Room," Haaland alerts readers to the beauty in ordinary life.

In "Capture," garter snakes wrap around boys' wrists and point their reptile heads outward, "dainty black-tipped tongues flicking in smells."

The poem "In Summer" shows how a bat "lifts into the night with no sound like the bubbles our son set loose in a whirlwind. . . ."

Some poems tap into her experiences as a mother.

She and her husband, Jim Bradley, have two sons: Philip, 22, and Nathan, 16.

The poem "After" describes her removing straw from her son's sweater after he trips in a pumpkin patch. But the poem also is about anger, against whom it's not clear. But the act of examining the sweater is a search for something else.

"Our fingers examine this fabric for odd texture, the barbs buried deep."

Haaland "is a very quiet poet," in contrast to some poets who use sensational material, said Cara Chamberlain, a poet and English instructor at Rocky Mountain College.

Readers may not be aware of techniques she uses in her well-crafted poems.

"Her language is deceptively poetic," Chamberlain said.

Haaland grew up near Inverness west of Havre. Both sets of grandparents homesteaded in the area. Her paternal grandfather, an immigrant from Norway, worked in the mines in Butte before turning to farming.


Poems emerge

When she went to the University of Montana, she took classes from poets Richard Hugo and Madeline DeFrees and writer William Kittredge, but she didn't start writing poems in earnest until well after she graduated.

She started working at MSU Billings in 1994, later receiving a master's of fine arts from Bennington College in Vermont.

She now teaches creative writing and fiction at MSU Billings

Her new book of poetry, "When We Wake in the Night" will be available in June.

In addition to her writing and teaching, Haaland generously gives her time to the community and promoting fellow writers, Chamberlain said.

Haaland teaches creative writing at the Montana Women's Prison and helped start the Yellowstone Writers' Collective, a loosely organized group that plans and sponsors readings.

Haaland also started an online publication, Stone's Throw Magazine, with writer Russell Rowland; and is on the advisory board for Aerie, a youth literary journal in Missoula.

She's even taken her writing to the stage, reading her poems while Betsy Harris danced during a local performance-art show "Feast for the Hunger Moon."

Contact Mary Pickett at or 657-1262.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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