There’s a bit of mystique about the art of poetry, with some finding it slightly uncomfortable to attempt or difficult to define. Must it rhyme? Should it deal with deeply emotional issues? Is it something for only the most rarified of writers? Are poets born or are they developed? As IPFW professor George Kalamaras, who has been with the university since 1990, begins his two-year term as Indiana’s Poet Laureate, he sees the appointment as a way of demystifying poetry, sharing its beauty while making it accessible to those who may feel outside of its reach. Extensively published and honored both within his own institution and through international entities, Kalamaras has been forging the link between poetry and nature, humanity and the global community for years, but he sees this opportunity as a way to open the doors for others throughout Indiana.
“I have a fairly generous agenda of what I’d like to get done, and I want to start with the hallmark of my laureateship, a web magazine and blog called The Wabash Watershed: Where Rivers of Tradition Meet Rivers of Innovation. I want it to be a place where we can publish Indiana poets, featuring different poets on a regular basis so that several will be featured every year. It will include biographical notes, photographs, a short interview and maybe a podcast of the poet reading his or her work. We have some wonderful poets in Indiana, but they aren’t getting any exposure.”
And in bringing forth this website, Kalamaras hopes to not only provide that exposure but to redefine the way people see poetry in the first place.
“Poetry needs to be community-based,” he says. “The cultural stereotype of poets is that we’re loners, isolated somehow from our community. A film like Dead Poets Society makes my teeth ache because that only advances that stereotype. What we really need to do is come out of ourselves and write poetry of the community. They shouldn’t worry about themselves.
“George Harrison wrote ‘I, Me, Mine,’ and that has been totemic for me in my life. We have to get out of ourselves and not worry about the ‘I, Me, Mine’ and see who we are in companionship with our community.”
Born in Chicago, Kalamaras grew up in Lake County, Indiana which clearly drives his sense of Indiana geography, tradition and symbolism, all of which is helping to define his early plans for his laureateship. In keeping with his theme of community, he also looks to launch Project 411, so named for the 411 undammed miles of the Wabash River.
“I want for poets to work in collaboration to create 411 lines of poetry, to create a collage poem in the way that individual tributaries all flow together to form a river. The name of the website and magazine are significant to me because the river wouldn’t be what it is without all of those tributaries, and in that same way I want people to see each other more and more as part of a larger community in which they can all come together.”
Part of his duties as Indiana Poet Laureate will have Kalamaras working through the state, visiting schools, libraries and other community institutions. Building off of work that his predecessor, Karen Kovacik, began with her Borderlands Project, Kalamaras plans to launch Five Corners Readings which will encompass Fort Wayne, the Lake County area, Evansville, Columbus and the Indianapolis area.
“I want it to be an exchange of readings where perhaps a group of poets from Fort Wayne go to Columbus, and poets from Columbus to Lake County, and Lake County poets can visit Evansville. I see this moving through the state, visiting libraries, schools, universities. I want to have poetry readings where I’m not the centerpiece but rather the host for all of these poets throughout our state.”
Kalamaras says that some of his official new duties coincide with much of what he was doing already, namely organizing events which spotlight the writing talent throughout the state and beyond. With his appointment coinciding with his return to classes at IPFW following his sabbatical, he acknowledges that there are a lot of different balls to juggle, but with two years to accomplish his agenda, he looks forward to traveling the state and sharing his passion for poetry, particularly with a new generation of poets.
“I want to sponsor poetry awards in a variety of categories and publish them on The Wabash Watershed. The categories will be rural poetry, urban poetry, historical poetry and ‘outsider’ poetry which don’t really fit into any category but deal with issues like race, class and gender. I also want to have a youth poetry corner to find poems from K-8 and then high school. Young people should have a forum for sharing their poetry, and, of course, they feel comfortable with technology, so rather than having a poem published in some obscure book or journal, they can tell their friends, ‘Hey, I have a poem published on this website’ and be able to share it with people.”
In providing a forum for young poets, Kalamaras can try to recreate the experience he found in his first effort at poetry, one which obviously still resonates and was instrumental in setting his life course.
“I wrote my first poem when I was 12 years old, and it was a really powerful moment for me. I usually slept soundly, but one night I couldn’t sleep and had the idea to write a poem. I worked on it off and on all night, and when I shared that poem and saw the reaction of other people, that they could see and experience something I was feeling, it was very powerful.
“I didn’t have a chance to write poetry in school. There were no language arts classes back then. We basically took history, English, science – there was no means of expressing myself like that. But I did have a teacher named Miss Wright who used to read to us, and she really introduced a love of books and reading to me and opened up a whole new world.
“It didn’t have to be poetry. I was encouraged to read all kinds of things. And I can’t overlook my parents’ role in this because my mother always recognized and encouraged me, as did my father. I was very fortunate in that regard, to have parents and people in my life who would see what I was doing and say, ‘That’s of value.’”
Kalamaras hopes to have the first piece of The Wabash Watershed unveiled this month, and a local celebration of his appointment already took place at Hyde Brothers on February 1. IPFW plans its own celebration at the Walb International Ballroom on February 27. All of this builds to what Kovacik promises will be a frenzy of activity with April’s National Poetry Month. Though it promises to be a hectic pace, Kalamaras says he is honored and humbled by the laureateship and looks forward to its opportunities. He quotes his wife, fellow IPFW professor Mary Ann Cain, when he describes the potential for what lies ahead.
“I like to use Mary Ann’s phrase, ‘It lifts a lot of boats.’ I want to put a face on poetry for Fort Wayne and have it deepen my relationship with other people in Fort Wayne. I see it as a way to understand poetry and what I’m doing in more palpable ways, to see the potential of poetry to be more than personal. Poetry is not personal in a ‘hey, look at me’ way. Showing poetry as a way to connect to students, neighbors and people throughout the state is very satisfying. Although it’s a ‘laureateship,’ I don’t want to rest on my laurels. I see this as a way to move forward, not a resting point.”