United Poets Laureate:
Six State Poets Laureate Talk Shop

By Marilyn L. Taylor

Picture this: a small flock of State Poets Laureate hanging out in the wilds of Kansas on the Ides of March!  That’s exactly the way Kansas poet laureate Caryn Merriam-Goldberg described it after inviting a group of us, all from the Midwest, to convene in Lawrence, Kansas, this past spring.  The gathering took place for a three-fold reason: (1) to allow us to get to know one another, (2) to present a reading to a sizable audience of local enthusiasts, and (3) to bounce around our ideas on promoting the art of poetry in general, and the challenges of the Poet Laureateship in particular. 

Photo by Kaye MacIntyre.

Our group was small but wonderfully eclectic; it included the aforementioned Caryn (official Energizer Bunny and Poet Laureate of Kansas), Mary Swander (Poet Laureate of Iowa), Walter Bargen (immediate past Poet Laureate of Missouri), as well as Denise Low and Jonathan Holden, both recent past Poets Laureate of Kansas.  The synergy was almost palpable; these are delightful, brainy people, without an arrogant bone in their collective bodies.  We agreed almost immediately, in fact, that we were destined to become the core group of a much larger laureate lollapalooza that’s already in the works for next year.

In order to carry off something as ambitious as this, we realized that our immediate and most urgent job would be to contact the Poets Laureate of all the other states.  There are lists available on the Internet, but most are pathetically outdated; even the one maintained by the Library of Congress in Washington is sadly behind the times.  Bringing these rosters up to speed took some concentrated investigative effort, but we wound up finding and contacting most, if not quite all, of the Poets Laureate in the country.  At this particular point in time, incidentally, they number exactly forty-one.  Some of them, it turns out, have already been meeting on a relatively regular basis; most have not.

In any case, all forty-one of them have been invited to participate in next year’s vastly enlarged event, scheduled to take place in Lawrence on March 13th and 14th, 2011.  Responses are already trickling in; so far we will be welcoming the Poets Laureate of Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, North Dakota and New Hampshire, along with another very well-known guest-poet (his identity is still a secret) who says he’d be delighted to come.  More replies from the various states are arriving all the time.

Lawrence, Kansas, incidentally, offers a splendid backdrop for all this.  Not only is it centrally located geographically, it’s also a lively university town that reminds me in many ways of a small-scale Madison.  It’s well worth a visit.  I’d urge Verse Wisconsin readers, in fact, to consider checking out the event; remember, it occurs during spring break for most schools, and might offer a refreshing alternative to your usual beach idyll.  No palm trees, perhaps, but you’re guaranteed plenty of vitamin-enriched poetry!  Stay tuned for further details as they develop.

Getting back to our gathering last March.  The reading we presented on our first evening together took place in the auditorium of the stunning Spencer Museum of Art in downtown Lawrence. We drew more than 85 people, some of whom, I was told, drove long distances to get there.  I can’t help editorializing a little by suggesting that it was probably worth the effort, because the poetry was of such high quality, the presentations were uniformly engaging, and the subject-matter extraordinarily varied.  Mary Swander opened with a cheerful riff on the banjo before reading from her long narrative titled The Girls on the Roof, which concerns the aftermath of a devastating flood; Walter Bargen read poetry infused throughout with dark humor and sharp intelligence; Denise Low’s poems succeeded in gracefully combining the natural world with the human realms of art and literature; Jonathan Holden read an unforgettable piece on the song of the meadowlark.  As for me, I did a formal turn or two that seemed to suit the occasion.

Afterwards we celebrated over dinner at an excellent restaurant called The Free State Brewery, where we began to get to know each other better—and laid plans for “Lunch Laureati: Brown Bag It With the Poets Laureate," scheduled for the next day. 

That event proved to be even more successful than we’d hoped.  A small but interested group of participants sat down with us in an airy white room in the Lawrence Arts Center to ask us questions about the roads each of us had taken to arrive at the writing life, why it is that we do what we do, and how we feel about the poets and poetry of today.  These, of course, are our favorite subjects, so the conversation grew pretty lively—especially since many of the attendees were poets and artists too.

We spent the remainder of our time together at Caryn’s warm and rambling house in the country, where we devoted ourselves to a single task: outlining next year’s super-colossal Poet Laureati extravaganza.  We gave ourselves practical assignments for getting it off the ground, and now we’re communicating progress reports regularly via email.  It’s at that event where we plan to address the nitty-gritty issues, like funding, the selection processes used by the various states, and the fine art of dealing with matters political.  That, of course, will be where the real fun begins, and where we hope to begin knocking the socks off of poetry-lovers everywhere.

And if I might add my own fearless forecast: it’s not going to be long before many of the country’s state Poet Laureates begin working together collaboratively in earnest.  If, within a few years, you find yourself referring to an entity called The United Poets Laureate of America, that’s precisely what we’re aiming to accomplish.

For more photos of the Poets Laureate gathering in Lawrence & further information about United Poets Laureate, visit their website.