Kansas has a new poet laureate. The responsibility has fallen to the widely published and award-winning Eric McHenry, an associate professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka.
Poets laureate earn the honor after a rigorous application process involving a selection panel of their literary peers. When we asked McHenry why he wanted to be poet laureate, he expressed his feelings in the language of the common man:
“It sounds really cool.”
And, he said, it presents a unique challenge in Kansas. “I think if you’re a poet and from Kansas, you spend a lot of time trying to justify poetry to Kansans or trying to justify Kansas to poets. Both poetry and Kansas are things that people are sometimes a little skeptical about. People don’t know enough about them, so they jump to quick conclusions.”
McHenry has the right to make such generalizations, given that his family has lived in Kansas since the mid-1800s.
“My brother and I are the only fifth-generation graduates of Topeka High School,” he declares. He says he hopes to be a good advocate for poetry all across the state.
“I’d like to show Kansans poems that can shake them up, change their perception of the world or make them glad someone put words in that order.”
Speaking of putting words in order, we asked him for his top three pieces of advice for poets. So, in one of his first official acts as the Poet Laureate of Kansas, here they are:
1. Read a lot and really love it.
Really mean it when you’re reading it. I meet a certain number of poets who are interested in reading only their own poetry. Those are not the ones for whom I have the most hope.
The world is not eager to receive yet another new poet. Charles Simic once told me (I’m paraphrasing): The world is not out there saying, ‘Oh great, another poet — aren’t we lucky!’ When you write a poem, you’re not sending it out into the most hospitable environment. If you want success, you’ve got to keep doing the work for the work’s sake, for a long time with no hope of success or recognition. (If you’re in it for success and recognition, you’re in the wrong business.)
3. Absorb influences from all over, not just from the world of poetry.
When I need to be reminded to double down on my work, to be extra serious about it and not coast, one of the things I like watching are YouTube videos of really good hip hop musicians. They’re so resourceful, and they’re using the same medium I’m using, which is language. And they’re working so hard at it, and are so hungry to be better than everyone else and better today than yesterday.
McHenry's first book of poems, Potscrubber Lullabies, won the prestigious Kate Tufts Discovery Award in 2007, the largest American prize for a first book of poetry. In the following video of the ceremony, Leonard Nimoy reads one of McHenry's poems (McHenry reads his own poem a bit later):