Sharing Montana’s Many Voices

Poet and professor Lowell Jaeger receives national recognition while promoting other Montana artists

By Justin Franz
Lowell Jaeger, left, and Hannah Bissell, pictured at Flathead Valley Community College on Jan. 18, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In a cramped office in Flathead Valley Community College’s Arts and Technology Building, Lowell Jaeger oversees Many Voices Press, a small literary publisher that started there a decade ago.

“The warehouse is over there,” Jaeger said, gesturing to a stack of boxes in the corner. “The computer is the bookkeeping department and I’m the editorial staff.”

Jaeger, 65, said “small” is the key word, yet Many Voices Press has played a big role in sharing the work of Montana’s many poets through the publication of a half-dozen titles, including two popular anthologies called “Poems Across the Big Sky.” The professor and poet has worked at FVCC for more than three decades and recently had one of his poems read on Garrison Keillor’s radio show “The Writer’s Almanac.” It’s the second time Jaeger’s work has been featured on the public radio program.

Jaeger was born in Wisconsin and said he has always been interested in language. When his older brother went to school and came home with books, Jaeger would often steal them and hide in the closet to read.

“I’ve always been attracted to jokes, stories, songs and anything related to language,” he said. “It’s been in my blood my entire life.”

Focusing on that love of language, Jaeger attended the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. After teaching for a few years, he landed a job at FVCC in 1983, when the community college’s campus was still downtown. At FVCC, Jaeger teaches everything from freshman composition to poetry.

“Some university professors think freshman composition is the bottom of the barrel, but I love it,” he said. “I love having a fresh group of students.”

Jaeger also takes pride in doing the same work as his students. Whenever he assigns a poem in one of his own classes, he too does the assignment, no matter how busy he is. Jaeger’s own poetry is inspired by everyday things he sees around him, in the same manner as one of his heroes, Walt Whitman.

As a teacher, one of Jaeger’s goals is to share poetry with people who may not normally read, study or write it.

“My life mission is to try and disarm poetry,” he said. “To make it more accessible.”

In pursuit of that mission, Jaeger has published numerous books of his writing, most recently “Or Maybe I Drift Off Alone,” which was printed in 2016 and features nearly 80 poems. However, Jaeger might be proudest of the work he’s done through Many Voices Press. More than a decade ago, three of Jaeger’s students died within a few months of each other, and soon after their deaths, the families gave him poems each had written. Unsure what he should do with them, the poems stayed in a box in his office until he finally opened them up and selected some of the best for inclusion in the first anthology of “Poems Across the Big Sky.”

Since then, Many Voices Press has published two more anthologies, including one focusing on the work of Western poets, and a handful of Native American poetry books. Helping Jaeger with the press is fellow poet and FVCC adjunct professor Hannah Bissell. While Jaeger is the “dreamer,” he said it wouldn’t be possible without Bissell, who helps put it all together. Bissell, who’s been at FVCC for nearly four years, said Montana is a big state, and often a disconnected one. Helping spur relationships between poets and communities is one of the publisher’s primary missions, as well as finding new talent.

“We like to give voice to poets who may not have a chance to get published,” she said.

“There is a lot of unappreciated talent in Montana,” Jaeger said. “This is our small effort to help find that talent.”

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