Poet Paisley Rekdal along the Transcontinental Railroad grade.

In real time: Progress of a (railroad) poem

With sly wit, Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal has been commenting on social media throughout the year she was researching and writing “West,” a book-length poem about the Transcontinental Railroad.

Jan. 20, 2018: “This week has been a series of some of the odder requests/assignments: writing for the Journal of Military History, poem solicitation for pamphlet on spiritual practices, a commission to write about the transcontinental railroad, a request to evaluate a program in distress, a request to offer faculty advice on “poetic performance” (I don’t know what that is either), and a request to help a complete stranger fulfill his bucket list by teaching him to write a poem–just one!–before he moves on to his next bucket list item, which is making a basket from rushes. At some point, without my realizing it, I turned into poetry’s Swiss army knife.”

March 22: “I’m beginning to think that the best writing I’ve ever done has been the result of following someone else’s absurd suggestion. So, yeah, sure: I’ll write you a commissioned poem about trains.”

May 17: “Been commissioned to write a long poem on the transcontinental railroad for 2019’s 150th anniversary: if you are a descendant of the TCR’s workers (Chines, Irish, Mormon, Japanese or African American), please contact me. Taking oral histories for an interactive component. Also interested in descendants of the Pawnee, Shoshone, and Cheyenne that lived along the route and worked against or with Union Pacific. Thanks you!”

July 3: “I’ve been asked to write an opera libretto. This seems like something I’d be really terrible at. Anyone done this before? What goes into it?”

July 12: “Signs I am neck-deep in the weirder aspects of transcontinental train research — I keep checking my mailbox, praying that my CHINESE AMERICAN DEATH RITUALS books has arrived.”

July 18: “How’s your Chinese? I’m trying to gather names of Chinese workers on the transcontinental & it turns out this is the hardest thing ever. Few records, most ‘problematic.’ Here are some (possible) workers’ graves in SLC whose names I can’t translate. ANY help appreciated.”

Oct. 26: “Desperate request for poetry help! For my transcontinental railroad poem, there’s a multimedia component: I’m weaving together the (recorded) voices and languages of the people who either worked on/built, maintained, or were displaced by the railroad as it came through the west. The speakers read two or three sentences that I provide that they then translate into their own languages. I have lots of voices already (Chinese and many individual descendants of Chinese RR workers, Navajo, Greek, Irish) but I need to get speakers of the following languages, preferably male speakers:




Shoshoni (this voice could be male or female)



Also, I’d like to get some Mormon descendants of the RR workers. If you fit any of these qualifications, please contact me! And if you know anyone who can help, can you share this post with them or send me their contact info? Thank you!”

Oct. 19: “I can absolutely make my 2 book deadlines and write an opera libretto and teach. I can absolutely do that. Now can someone please hose me down because my hair seems to be on fire.”

Oct. 16: “My research for the transcontinental rail poem I’m writing for Utah’s 150th celebration means I’ve met fascinating people. One is Willy Chun, elder of SLC’s Bing Kong Tong. Big thanks to @nytimes for giving me an opportunity to share his story.”

Nov. 9: “While doing research on the transcontinental RR on the Library of Congress website, I stumbled across this: the palm print of Amelia Earhart. Which I find immensely moving.”

Nov. 17: “Proof that terror, field work, and eight straight months of research can pay off: I’m finally getting a draft of my long poem about the transcontinental railroad.”

Nov. 18: “Things seen and found on the original transcontinental railroad. Pottery shard from Terrace’s Chinatown.”

Nov. 20: “What is getting me through the writing of this libretto is the dream of what kind of ball gown I’m going to buy and wear for the opening of the opera.”

Dec. 1: “The only level of fame I want to achieve anymore is editors spelling my last name correctly. Based on life to date, THIS WILL NEVER HAPPEN.”

Dec. 24:“I never thought I’d have much to say about a train. But it turns out, if you’re interested in writing about race, class, gender, violence, sexuality, technology, automatons, labor, capitalism, the environment & genocide, the transcontinental may be your subject. Also, it comes with a soundtrack. #goldenspikeTHIS”

Jan. 16, 2019: “Hello: I am someone who has written 27 poems about a train and I’m not finished yet please shoot me.”

VISIT Spike 150 for schedules of statewide events and exhibits.