3 Rules For Writers From Kansas' New Poet Laureate

Apr 20, 2017

Kevin Rabas, chair of the English, Modern Languages and Journalism department at Emporia State University, is the new Kansas Poet Laureate.
Credit courtesy: Emporia State University

The Kansas Humanities Council on Thursday announced a new Kansas poet laureate: Kevin Rabas (pronounced as RAY-bus).

Rabas, an associate professor of poetry and playwriting at Emporia State University, grew up in Shawnee. He co-directs ESU's creative writing program and serves as co-editor of Flint Hills Review.

His latest collection of poetry, Songs for My Father: Poems & Stories, was published in 2016. 

The Kansas poet laureate position is not a state- or federally funded position; support comes from the Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Charitable Trust and the Kansas Humanities Council’s Friends of the Humanities group.

On Rabas's agenda for the two-year term: compiling a new anthology of Kansas poets, and traveling the state to talk about "finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, finding the beauty and value in everything around us." 

Another proposed project draws inspiration from poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who collected correspondence in a book called Letters to a Young Poet

"An experienced poet mentors a younger poet," explains Rabas, "and we take excerpts from that communication and create a book which can later help other poets, and also stand as an artifact of this place and time." 

KCUR has made it a practice to ask new poets laureate — Rabas' predecessor Eric McHenry and Missouri poet laureate Aliki Barnstone — to begin their terms by dispensing three pieces of advice for writers. So we asked the same of Rabas, who said: 

1. Write every day.

"Keep going. Make writing a daily practice for yourself, and enjoy it. You can get great pleasure out of reflecting and writing towards the excitement and the energy. And writing about all sorts of things that might happen to you or that you might engage in — from joyful events to sad events."

2. Read widely and deeply.

"Read what you need to read to get you where you're going, meaning: Find the people who are kind of your community and tribe, and read as many of them as you can and read as much of their work as you can, so you can find that community. 

"Living in Emporia, there are not a whole lot of people who are like me, who are kind of jazz poets. And so I need to read Yusef Komunyakaa, the late great Amiri Baraka, etc. So read widely and deeply.

"Also, go back further in time from these contemporary folks, and find where the tradition comes from. Things like moving from (Walt) Whitman to (Allen) Ginsberg ... that sort of thing." 

3. Keep your life calm; get the writing done.

"There's an idea that you have to be kind of wild to be a poet or a jazz musician or something like that. And there's a place for gaining experience. But try to maybe keep your life calm enough that you can get the writing done, so you can last.

"One of the reasons I didn't stay down the path of jazz as my main thing is because I would see these older musicians still on the stand in their 80s and 90s. They had to keep playing because there was nowhere to go next, nowhere to retire. I admire that, but it scared me a little bit.

"So try to live your life in a way that you can last and do what you love and also find a way to rest at the very last stages of your life." 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.