Jul 15, 2015

A brief history of the Indiana Poet Laureate

INDIANAPOLIS – You don’t have to rhyme your words to be the state’s next poet laureate.
But you do have to travel near and far, as a modern day bard, promoting the values of verse.
That and perhaps be willing to risk a little disrespect from the legislative body that created the job in the first place.
If you let me explain, it will cause you no pain.
Last week the Indiana Arts Commission issued a call for Indiana's next official poet laureate, to be named in January, and invited anyone to submit a nomination.
The two-year gig is currently filled by George Kalamaras, an English professor with a wonderful, web-based magazine, The Wabash Watershed.
The site offers an online tutorial on Indiana poets, a chronicle of Kalamaras' lyrical tours of the state and details of his poetry contest whose winners get a prize paid from the small stipend that comes with the title of laureate.
An added bonus are videos of his at-home poetry readings with his beagle, Bootsie, in tow.
“I want my poems to say welcome, welcome, welcome,” Kalmaras says, noting the universal appeal of a poetry-loving dog.
He's the state's fourth official poet laureate.
The first was Joyce Brinkman, a longtime lover of politics and poetry who served in the General Assembly for a decade.
In her tenure, she closed the legislative session by reading poetry written in homage to retiring lawmakers. When she left the Legislature, she was declared poet laureate by affirmation of her colleagues.
She was flattered but underwhelmed. For decades, lawmakers handed out the title willy nilly.
“It would just happen when anybody had a whim to do it,” she said.
Brinkman brought some rhythm and rhyme to the process.
In 2005, she convinced legislators to pass a law turning over the task of selecting the poet laureate to the Arts Commission. And she got them to attach this mission to the title: To advance the appreciation of poetry statewide.
Her successors - all well regarded, published poets - have done so in impressive ways.
One of them, Norbert Krapf, pushed for collaboration among poets, artists and musicians. With courage and candor, he wrote poetry about the sexual abuse he suffered, while growing up in southern Indiana, at the hands of a Catholic priest.
Another poet, Karen Kovacik, traveled the state to boost the Poetry Out Loud program, urging high school students to give voice to poetry they loved. She came up with a humorously titled blog, No More Corn, to feature accomplished poets who’ve sprung from this farm-fields-filled state.
Kalamaras has carried on the tradition of making poetry feel relevant. His latest contest invited people to write about history and social justice, and what those notions mean to them as Hoosiers.
At this year's Arts Day at the Statehouse – when advocates hope to convince lawmakers of the importance of the arts in Indiana – Kalamaras was invited to address the General Assembly with a poem.
He’d picked “Gray Barn Rising”, a poem so clearly about Indiana which begins, “Somewhere inside me, a gray barn is rising.”
Only, the reading didn’t happen.
He was crowded out by other legislative business, his poetry slammed.
“They forgot about him,” Brinkman said.
She wants to make sure Indiana doesn’t forget its need for a poet laureate. She asked me to make sure I direct readers to the Indiana Arts Commission's website - www.in.gov/arts - for details on how the next one will be picked.
The choice likely will be a published poet, with a depth of experience in educational program development. But, Brinkman insists, the title isn’t meant to be exclusionary.
“My feeling is that everybody can be a poet,” she said. “We’re the only creatures that write. We are the scribes of the world.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her atmhayden@cnhi.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden

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