CHICAGO (AP) – A decade ago this month, Kevin Stein was chosen for a daunting task: following two Pulitzer Prize winners, Gwendolyn Brooks and Carl Sandburg, as the poet laureate of Illinois.
Ten years later the Bradley University professor has put his own signature on a position that is unpaid but considered crucial to widening appreciation for the art form. He has created a state poetry website and donates money out of his own pocket to buy poetry books for libraries across the state.
“I’m a different writer, I’m a different teacher, I’m a different person thinking about poetry than I was ten years ago,” he said.
When he was first named laureate, Stein said he felt like the player on the Chicago Bulls chosen to replace Michael Jordan. Brooks, who won the Pulitzer in 1950, was so renowned that she has a bronze sculpture in the National Portrait Gallery. Sandburg, a native of Galesburg in northwestern Illinois, was nationally acclaimed and won three Pulitzers in his day.
“It took me a while to steady myself, but by golly I think we’ve done some interesting things,” Stein said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I basically took Miss Brooks’ model and tried to update it and make it my own. She was really great in bringing poetry and people together in unexpected places.”
Stein, 59, is Illinois’ fourth poet laureate. Howard Austin, a teacher and banker from a family farm near Blue Mound, took the position in 1936 and held it until he died in 1962. Sandburg held the post from 1962 until his death in 1967. Brooks served for 32 years, from 1968 until she died in 2000.
Illinois went without a poet laureate until December 2003, when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich named Stein to the post. Today the unfunded post has a four-year term, and Stein is in the middle of his third term.
One of the additional places Stein has promoted poetry is online. On the Illinois Poet Laureate website, he features poets, provides links to audio and video clips of poetry pieces, hosts an Illinois poet’s forum and offers advice to young poets. English teachers across the state use the website in classes.
“This is an audio and visual generation and we’re giving them what they want,” Stein said, who travels the state visiting libraries and schools. “I can’t be every place 24/7. That’s why the website supplemented that.”
Janice Harrington, a poet and associate professor of English at the University of Illinois’ Champaign-Urbana campus, said Stein helps break down any barriers people may have to poetry, making it accessible. She said “People’s Poet” is a good description for Stein.
“There are two types of poets, those where (audience members) listen to their poems and quietly leave afterward because they didn’t know what they were talking about,” Harrington said. “And poets like Kevin, where they’re nodding their heads.”
On its website, the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation says Stein’s work “as an advocate for poetry is matched by his work as a poet, which is concerned with the nature of significance and appreciation.”
He said he notices stark differences in how some youth react to poetry. Elementary and middle school students “are so excited about language and have such wild imaginations,” he said. But by high school many students have lost interest, Stein said, and one of his goals is to “catch kids before they learn to hate poetry and to persuade them that it’s an art form.”
Asked about the possibilities of using social media, Stein said simply that he has not yet embraced the world of Twitter and Facebook.
Bradley University helps Stein with his laureate efforts, paying for his travel and offering assistance with his projects. This lets him work on his own poetry, too. Stein has published four books since he became the laureate.
“I had vague notions about what I hoped to accomplish,” Stein said. “Reality has turned out better than I hoped to imagine.”
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