Sharing a Love of Poetry With the Community
The poet laureate is appointed by the state to serve as its consultant on poetry. Along with this title, the poet laureate seeks to advance the understanding and integration of poetry within the classroom.
George Kalamaras, newly appointed Indiana state poet laureate, embodies these exact ideals and is on a mission to instill a passion and knowledge of poetry on a grand scale.
Upon receiving his Doctor of Arts in English from the University at Albany, George Kalamaras has gone on to become one of the most trusted sources in poetry within his state. Throughout his career, he has published fourteen books of poetry, seven full-length volumes, and seven poetry chapbooks, several articles in scholarly journals, and over 700 poems featured in magazines and anthologies. Kalamaras has been recognized numerous times for his innovation and intimacy portrayed in his poems, earning first prize in the Elixir Press Poetry Contest as well as receiving a Creative Writing Poetry Fellowship Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
His most popular works include Kingdom of Throat-stuck Luck and Gold Carp Jack Fruit Mirrors.
Kalamaras demonstrates that poetry has the ability to serve as an outlet for surging emotions and creating an understanding towards others. The impact of poetry even carries into furthering comprehension in reading and writing. As poet laureate, George Kalamaras in on the track of making poetry more prevalent throughout his state and proving that poetry plays a pivotal role in a community.
1. Why did you choose to attend the University at Albany?
My wife, Mary Ann Cain, and I came to SUNY-Albany together for its amazing doctoral program in English. Also, at that time, the great writer, Toni Morrison, was in residence, and my wife (a fiction writer) wanted the opportunity to take a class with her.
2. What role did the University have in your development as a teacher and a poet?
SUNY-Albany had a pivotal role in my development as a teacher and poet. The faculty was incredible, and they cared a great deal about teaching, acting as important role models for future teachers. Furthermore, they taught classes in pedagogy, composition theory and rhetoric, and critical theory—all of which served to continue to feed my interest in teaching, especially cutting-edge theories of being self-reflective and innovative as a teacher. These professors saw the “deeper” me, valued it, and nurtured me, helping me find ways to carve out a life for myself in academe. I can’t single everyone out individually, but professors like Lil Brannon, Cy Knoblauch, Steve North, Judith Fetterley, Gene Garber, and Ron Bosco were particularly instrumental in that regard.
Equally important, though (and apropos to me now being named poet laureate) were two amazing poets, teachers, and theorists with whom I also worked at SUNY—Don Byrd and Judith Johnson. Just like the teachers cited above, they had a very significant role in mentoring me and in nurturing my development. Don and Judy taught me a remarkable amount about poetry, showed me how to balance being a professor, poet, and theoretician, and acted as incredible life-long role models for me for the writing life and for how to be an exemplary teacher.
I have remained in contact with many of those professors named above, and I consider them all friends.
I cannot possibly over-emphasize the importance in my life of all of the above SUNY teachers—they gave me a life as a writer and as an academic, and I carry each of them in my heart, now, as both poet and professor.
I don’t want to inadvertently neglect mentioning my fellow students here. We worked very closely together in the doctoral program. They were incredible colleagues and partners in learning, and I still see several of them at professional conferences, even though I finished the doctoral program a quarter-century ago!
In short, it was quite a community of learning during my wife’s and my years at SUNY—very much a most fertile ground that has shaped me in the deepest and most profound ways. I am grateful to all my teachers and classmates.
3. Congratulations on being named the Indiana state poet laureate! You said that you want to use this opportunity to make poetry accessible and interactive statewide. What do you believe poetry’s role in society is and how do you plan to accomplish this goal of accessibility and interactivity?
Poetry is the most natural yet subversive activity. It is as natural as breath. We begin making poems as children, even if it’s just in inventing words and engaging in word-play. Poetry should have a continual place in our adult lives as well. It is a song that wells up from our deepest sources, crying out to connect with others.
As poet laureate of Indiana, I hope to instill this love and respect for poetry throughout the state. I am planning a series of “exchange” readings, so that poets throughout the state can travel to other poetry communities within the state, read their poems, and meet other poets. I have also started a website, The Wabash Watershed: Where the Rivers of Tradition Meet the Rivers of Innovation (www.wabashwatershed.com). It will highlight poetry features of Indiana poets, have a video blog (from me) about various aspects of poetry, share news and events statewide, and feature poetry from many quarters in Indiana, even “youth poetry.”
Writing a poem—hearing a poem read—grants us the opportunity to transform the smaller individual “self” into a larger, more expansive “Self,” one less concerned with a narrow sense of existence. Inside the evocative power of the poem, we can live and breathe with all manner of existence, even with rocks and animals and plants.
In these ways, poetry is about community. (And if practiced selflessly can be a subversive means of artistic expression in the most generative terms—helping realign the values of a “me” society into a “we” society.) Poetry is really about serving society and culture (and not just about giving an expression to “inner feelings”), even if that “culture” is a culture that expands beyond the world of people into communities of minerals and animals and plants. So the kind of activities I have planned, and my sharing of poetry, I hope, can serve to share this broader vision and conception of what a poem is and what it does. I hope that some of my poet laureate activities might help create opportunities for poets to see their vocation on a much larger scale.
4. What is your favorite poem that you’ve written? Can you share? What is your favorite poem ever written?
I’m not sure I have a favorite poem that I’ve written. I have written poetry for decades (hundreds and hundreds of poems—and several different kinds), and they are all special to me, even the failures, because I learn from them—not only how to be a better poet, but I learn more about my inner life and psyche.
As far as my favorite poems ever written—that is much easier to answer. Actually, I have two favorite poems. One is by César Vallejo, a Peruvian poet who wrote primarily in the 1920s and 1930s. It doesn’t have a title, but you can identify it by its remarkable opening: “For several days, I have felt an exuberant, political need to love.” This Vallejo poem is incredible, unique in that it offers the very basic human desire for love but places that emotion within the public realm. The poem closes with, “and I would like to be kind to myself in everything.” What’s remarkable is that this poem of love for the outer world ultimately becomes a poem of self-forgiveness. Another equally favorite poem—though it’s vastly different—is by the Chinese poet Wang Wei (who lived from 701-761 C.E.) and is called “To Subprefect Chang.” The first line is, “In late years, I love only the stillness.” Here he is, late in life, having lived a busy life of outward service in the world of the social, and he devotes his final years solely to the quiet of poetry and meditation. It’s a gorgeous poem.
5. Overall, how did your college education help prepare you for life and your career?
The doctoral program at SUNY, as I’ve mentioned, was key because it brought me into a deeper relationship with myself and with academic culture. The professors I had, and the innovative courses, showed me how I could bring my personal and public selves together into a generative balance—so that I might carve out a life as a professor and a poet.
6. What advice do you have to share with SUNY students, especially those who may pursue a career similar to yours?
The great mythographer, Joseph Campbell was once asked what advice he had—this, after a multi-hour PBS special in which he explicated some of the deepest and most esoteric teachings of various world religions and philosophies. His answer? He simply said three words: “Follow your bliss!” Of course, he did not mean to drift aimlessly and do whatever “feels good,” but to locate that which gives you the greatest joy, that which makes your heart soar, that which is the most beautiful reflection of your true inner self. I can’t imagine offering any advice more profound than that, so I’ll leave you with his.