Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stein Strove To Present 'Poems As Experience' | WGLT

Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stein Strove To Present 'Poems As Experience'

Sep 20, 2017

It's a position with a grand title, but no job description, no budget, no staff, and no salary.

Yet, poet and Bradley University Professor Kevin Stein calls being Illinois Poet Laureate one of the best jobs in the state.

Stein will be stepping down in December after serving 14 years as Illinois' top ambassador for poetry. He says the legacy of previous Illinois laureates, who included Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks, who held the job some 30 years, was never far from his mind.

"Anybody who follows Gwendolyn Brooks and Carl Sandburg knows it is going to be a daunting task and one will suffer in comparison with those literary giants and active persons in the literary world. I knew I wanted to extend some things Ms. Brooks had done so well and I also wanted to add my own touches as well," Stein said on GLT's Sound Ideas.

One of his lasting legacies has been to establish the first Illinois Poet Laureate website, to showcase the work of distinguished Illinois poets, visiting poets and student writers.

"We put a lot of audio and video of poets reading their work on that website," Stein said. "You could read a poem and then hear a poet read that poem, which I think is really exciting."

A genial, bespectacled man with a trim goatee, Stein said whenever he visited schools, "I would always came back with a pocketful of poems I thought were really wonderful." They would often make their way onto the laureate's website. He judged an annual contest for elementary, middle and high school students. 

"I was able to write about young folks's poems with the same seriousness and passion I would take to writing about the work of James Wright or any other contemporary poet ," he said.

While there are many fine English teachers across the state, Stein said some of them remain "uncomfortable" teaching poetry.

"Those folks err by making (the teaching of poetry) a 'Where's Waldo' search for meaning. We worry too much about having an expository result out of the reading of the poem. Poems are experiences, they are not stories about experience. They are experiences," Stein said.

"Many times, folks spend too much time on rudimentary matters of meaning and not on the bigger stuff poetry is tied into," he added.

He joked that the laureate position "costs the state nothing"—there is no travel or project budget—but that frees each laureate to shape the job anew.

He is clear on what the poet laureate's role should not be. "It shouldn't be an act of self-aggrandizement. It's a a service position." he said.

Stein said one of his projects was to donate out of his own funds poetry collections of Illinois poets to public and school libraries across the state. His website lists 237 public poetry events in which he was involved during his tenure as laureate.

Although much of contemporary poetry focuses on the personal and the minutia of daily life, Stein noted that poetry has enjoyed a public role throughout history, and that historic thread continues today.

"In ancient Rome when you published a poem you recited it aloud before a gathered crowd. So many times in our nation's and our world's history, a poem and the culture became inextricably bound up," he said.

A contemporary example would be Billy Collins' poem "The Names," which he wrote to memorialize those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"So for me, poetry has a public function that the poet laureate becomes the face of and agent of," Stein said.

Stein brought poetry into the public arena when he was called on by former Gov. Pat Quinn to write a poem for a gathering of Gold Star Mothers, who lost children in combat.

Stein called it a highlight of his public duties as laureate. 

His poem for that occasion, "To Illinois Gold Star Mothers Who Lost A Child To War," begins, 

You know these names as more than polished stone,

more even than ink on white parchment.

You know the child awash with chocolate,

the lanky one no jeans could hold.

You know the face you framed upon the wall ...

"I read the poem I believe six times or seven times and it was gratifying that the poem was well-received by the mothers," Stein said.

"And movingly I've had a number of individuals—mothers, fathers sons daughters, sisters—say they have the poem pinned up in their cubicles at work for thinking of their lost loved one. That gives one chills as a poet and person in the way poetry can bring comfort and solace."  

Stein said he is also retiring from teaching at Bradley University in Peoria when the current semester ends in December.

"It's been a wonderful run," he said of his laureate tenure. "There are a number of wonderful Illinois poets. My wife and I are both going to be retiring from our work this December. So it seemed a nice fit for me to step away from this now and allow somebody else to have this tremendous opportunity.

Stein won't be idle. He said he is "well into" a new manuscript.

"I'm still tinkering and it's a lot of fun to have something to sit at the desk and mess around with and be excited about," he said.

You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Stein:

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