On Sept. 26, at the Union Station Museum, Utah’s Poet Laureate, Paisley Rekdal performed “West,” a series of poems about the lives and experiences of Chinese workers on the railroad. This event was a part of the 22nd Utah Humanities Book Festival, which will continue throughout October.
The poems performed by Rekdal were multimedia poems, as they included Rekdal reading and performing alongside audio and pictures to show what life was like for the Chinese immigrants working on the railroad.
“There is something about visual images that you can’t get across with words on a page,” Rekdal said.
Between the reading of each new poem, Rekdal discussed different interesting facts she had found while researching for the poems. One is that nobody knows how many Chinese workers died while working on the railroad. Many did not want to be buried in America, and so their remains were exhumed and their bones sent back to China.
Many names of the people who were working are unknown as well. One of the reasons for this was that in Chinese culture, a person might have a different name in childhood, then a different one in adolescence, and then in adulthood. This can make it difficult to find out a person’s actual name when researching.
“When I started this project, I assumed there would be many documents of workers,” Rekdal said. “But I found there is almost no letters or journals from the Chinese workers.”
For her research, she found various photographs in the books she was reading as well as writing to the Library of Congress for more information.
Rekdal also discussed how her personal experience of growing up in Seattle, Washington as the daughter of a Norwegian father and Chinese mother impacted her while researching about the Chinese railroad workers.
She said that while none of her family or extended family worked on the railroads, she admired the workers and learned a lot about them through creating the project.
Some of the community members in attendance really enjoyed the performance. Bonnie Anderson, who heard about the event from a friend, said “I think if more people come, they would be really impressed.”
Attendees also expressed the need for more promotion of events like this in the future.
“I just want people to learn about these events before they happen. We really want to promote them in the community. This was a great event,” Chairwoman of Weber Book links and former librarian Kathy Gambles said.