Last night Wyatt Townley, outgoing Kansas Poet Laureate, bonked Eric McHenry, incoming Kansas Poet Laureate, with a sunflower as is our tradition in these parts. Although the Kansas Humanities Council officially launched his term earlier this month, nothing’s official (at least to me) until the sunflower hits the head.
Wyatt’s term, as she told KHC, was full and expansive:
We laughed, we cried, we got chills. We put over 10,000 miles on our 16-year-old van, never breaking down and managing to dodge all blizzards and tornados…..Internally, I found a path from private to public that I could travel, and made new friends along the way. It was all poetry, all the way down.
Over the last two yeas, Wyatt gave over 70 presentations, helping a myriad of communities explore home from what she calls “the mobile home of the body” all the way to the cosmos as home. She also curated the Homewords project, encouraging Kansans to submit American Cinquains about home as body, house, land, and sky, and out of the submissions, she created columns featured in newspapers around the state. In the end, she featured 105 poems for the 105 counties of Kansas. Here is one of Wyatt’s Cinquains, a form that invites us to write poems five lines long, with two syllables on the first line, four on the second, six on the third, eight on the forth, and two in the final line:
the silo and
I, a set of nesting
dolls with a surprising poem
Here’s what I remember: Coleman Hawkins
and I are sitting at a mahogany table
in the Village Vanguard, quietly talking.
He’s finished a set in which he was unable
to summon even one unbroken tone
from the bell of his once-clarion saxophone.
But now that’s over and he feels all right.
He’s smoking because he’s wanted to all night,
drinking cloudy cognac from a tumbler
and coughing ferociously; his voice is weaker
than his cough; he’s barely audible, mumbling
to me because he knows I’m from Topeka.
He says, “That’s where I learned to tongue my horn.”
I know, and that’s the only thing I hear.
It’s 1969; in half a year
he’ll be dead. In three years I’ll be born.
A professor at Washburn University, and a poet published far and wide, Eric recently told the Kansas Humanities Council:
There’s nothing I love more than sharing poetry with people, and I look forward to doing that in every corner of Kansas over the next two years. I think we’re all grateful when we encounter language that’s equal to life’s richness and complexity. Poetry can provide that.
Listening to Eric recite poems he memorized — something he does frequently to show us the value of getting that language into our bodies and psyches — I have no doubt that he will shine the light on a lot of poetry — and moreover, what poetry can do to spark magic and insight — throughout and beyond his poet laureate term.
So thank you for the wild, beautiful, and vivid road trip through poetry, Wyatt! And Eric, we’re now riding shotgun with you for where you take us.