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Getting Versed in Kansas Poetry: Five Questions with Eric McHenry, Kansas Poet Laureate

Language lovers of all ages are in for a treat this Thursday night: Eric McHenry, the current Kansas Poet Laureate, will be speaking at a special free event in the library auditorium at 7:00 pm. Along with being the author of the award-winning poetry collection, Potscrubber Lullabies, and the gleeful and heartwarming children’s picture book, Mommy, Daddy, Evan, Sage, McHenry is also Professor of Creative Writing at Washburn University, where I had the privilege of having him as both an adviser and instructor.

I quickly found him to be one of the warmest, most intelligent people I’ve ever met. As a poet he is insightful, erudite, and playful; as an advisor and educator he was always approachable and encouraging, consistently brilliant, witty, and always engaging. His love for poetry and language is sincere, and his passion and enthusiasm for sharing that love with others is genuine and inspiring.

Always helpful and eager to share his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of all things poetry, Professor McHenry agreed to answer a few questions in preparation for his LPL speaking event:

AH: Tell me a little bit about your background and the role poetry has played in your upbringing and education.

EM: Auden called poetry “memorable speech,” and I think that my interest in poetry is a natural outgrowth of a lifelong interest in talking. There’s such pleasure to be taken in the creative arrangement of words. I grew up with Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose and a mother who recited Robert Burns and Robert Frost, and so poetry has been a presence in my life since long before I’d given any thought to what a poet might be. I had encouraging creative-writing teachers in high school and college who did things like give my poems to the school literary journal without my permission. I think the moment I decided that I really wanted to be a poet was probably the moment I realized what kind of poetry I wanted to write, which was the first time I read “Love Songs in Age” by Philip Larkin.

AH: Will you briefly describe your journey from student to professor to Kansas Poet Laureate?

EM: After college and graduate school I made my living for a long time as a journalist and editor, but I always figured I’d apply for poetry teaching positions at colleges if I managed to publish enough to be a viable candidate. Blessedly, the first teaching job I was offered was in my hometown, at my great-grandmother’s alma mater, Washburn University. I’ve been teaching there quite happily since 2009. This year, I applied for the poet laureateship and was lucky enough to be selected. I was psyched to learn recently that I’m the youngest state poet laureate in the country, although the blogger who pointed this out was making the argument that state poets laureate are too damn old, obviously, if the youngest one is Eric McHenry.

AH:  Will you briefly describe what a Kansas Poet Laureate is for those who may not be familiar with the program? What are some of the responsibilities involved?

EM: The poet laureate spends a two-year term traveling around the state promoting poetry. Through the generosity of some donors, the Kansas Humanities Council provides me with a small travel stipend, allowing me to visit 24 different sites during those two years. I give a talk about poetry and recite some poems that illustrate the ideas I’m introducing. These talks are all free and open to the public. Basically, I just try to convince people that reading, hearing, and even writing poetry can enrich their lives, and I do this in part by showing them how deeply it has enriched mine.

AH: What other Kansas poets have received this honor in the past? What poems and publications by these poets would you recommend for people unfamiliar with Kansas poetry?

EM: For 20 years I’ve loved Jonathan Holden’s poem “Cross Bracing,” from his very first book, Design for a House (1972). He published Knowing: New and Selected Poems in 2000, and it might be the best introduction to his crisp, direct, incisive style. Lately I’ve been enjoying Glamour, a little book that Lawrence’s own Mammoth Publications brought out in 2011.

Denise Low is brilliant at evoking the natural world and locating the human consciousness within it. Check out New and Selected Poems: 1980–1999 for a broad sampling and Melange Block for some stellar recent work.

Landed, a newer collection by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, contains an inventive and various series of “self-portraits”: “Self-Portrait at Fourteen,” “Self-Portrait as KitchenAid Mixer,” and “Self-Portrait as Pond”: “I turn my back and a million wings / shiver across my surface.” And don’t miss her remarkable collaboration with the photographer Stephen Locke, Chasing Weather, which juxtaposes images of intense Kansas weather with equally intense poetry.

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I resent Wyatt Townley because she has done something I’ve been trying to do since college: she has written a perfect villanelle. It’s called “The Fountain,” and it’s in her exquisite 2011 collection The Afterlives of Trees.

AH:  In addition to the poets already discussed, will you share with me some of your very favorite poetry that’s come out of Kansas over the years? Are there any interesting commonalities you find in these works that make them distinctly ‘Kansan’?

EM: The three poets who leap to mind couldn’t be more different — Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, and Albert Goldbarth. And I guess their difference points up something they have in common: each sounds exactly like him- or herself and no one else. Maybe Kansas, with its elbow room and its unobstructed sky, is good at giving poets a sense of limitlessness, of complete freedom to become. Having said that, I should acknowledge that Brooks and Goldbarth might call themselves Chicago poets first, or something else entirely, and that Stafford did his best writing about Kansas when he was living in Oregon. In any case, I take a great deal of pride in the fact that my home state helped shape the sensibilities of those three geniuses and many others. Read “In the Mecca” by Brooks, “The Swerve” by Stafford, and “A Florid Story” by Goldbarth and you’ll share that pride with me.

You won’t want to miss this terrific opportunity to meet one of the brightest and most inspiring minds and talents that the great state of Kansas has to offer.

 

One Comment

  1. Stephanie says:

    I find it humorous that people consider “poet” as if it were a job description. Me, I’ve never felt it was a choice: I started writing poetry and short stories by age seven. My mother even claims that I put a few pages of my “writing” (or drawings) together at age two presented them to her as a “book”. To be clear, I’ve written piles of stories, poems, & song lyrics, along with melodies and instrumental compositions, & perhaps that explains why I’ve taken so long to focus on publishing. Either way, I appreciate poets like Mr.McHenry, because they adore their work and are willing to encourage all sorts of creativity. Thanks to the Library and Mr. McHenry for a wonderful event.

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