Ohio Will Soon Have its First Poet Laureate. What Does That Mean?

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Nearly every state in the U.S. counts a poet laureate among its artistic ranks, but Ohio has never been one of them — until now. Later this year, Gov. John Kasich will formally appoint the state's first poet laureate, casting a nod to Ohio's legacy of poetry.

The Ohio Arts Council opened the call for nominations in April, and now a selection committee is meeting throughout the fall to winnow the list of nominees. They will shuttle three recommendations to the governor, who will make the final call.

"Broadly speaking, we're looking for somebody who will generally contribute to the growth and awareness of poetry throughout the state," Ohio Arts Council executive assistant Justin Nigro says. The poet laureate will be expected to provide at least 10 public readings each year in settings all over Ohio, from the rural to the urban, and engage young students' interest in poetry.

State Sen. Eric Kearney, a Cincinnati Democrat, originated the legislation that led to this process. He wanted to expand the role of poetry throughout the state. The Ohio Arts Council picked up the workload once the bill passed.

"This could really blossom into something very, very special for the state of Ohio," Kearney told WVXU in 2014.

So far, so good: The state received 17 nominations for the position, giving the selection committee a lot of great material to work with. Once chosen, the poet laureate will serve a two-year term. Nigro expects the state will receive even more nominations in 2017, the next time someone will be chosen.

Even before the appointment is made, this news has given Ohio residents a chance to reflect on the world of poetry born in the Buckeye State. "We're excited to reach a new audience and get more support around poetry," Ohio Arts Council communications strategist Hannah Brokenshire says. "Ohio already has a lot of great poets associated with the state throughout history. It makes sense for us to recognize poetry in a state that's produced so many great poets."

Ohio's contributions to the canon include Langston Hughes (who grew up in Cleveland), Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Nikki Giovanni. But the field of contemporary American poetry is rife with talent — names that might only be known in the tightest of poetry circles. Having a poet laureate on hand does wonders in terms of introducing a community of artists to the people.

Lance Larsen, the poet laureate of Utah, tells Scene that he's experienced that interaction quite a bit as he travels around his state. He says his role is fairly open-ended, giving him a lot of latitude in terms of how he presents his poetry. "I participate regularly in certain annual events: an awards ceremony for Utah writers and Poetry Out Loud, a national high school recitation contest sponsored by the NEA.  And of course I give readings and lead workshops around the state," he says.

The job will work in much the same way here in Ohio: plenty of readings and workshops and opportunities for the uninitiated to get familiar with how poetry affects us.

In fact, on a related note, the Ohio Arts Council is now accepting registrants for the national Poetry Out Loud competition. High school students memorize classical and contemporary poetry and compete in recitation contests. (Get more information at oac.state.oh.us.) Brokenshire says that the poet laureate will be involved with the Poetry Out Loud programming.

"So much of the vision that we share with Eric Kearney is that we want to make poetry relevant to the next generation, and we want it to be more accessible," Nigro says. "Oftentimes it's perceived as a high art and a thing that's inaccessible to the public. Part of the hope for having a state poet laureate is to show that poetry is for everybody. You don't need a Ph.D. in English to read a poem, to understand a poem, to connect with a poem."

It's true, and Ohio's advance into the world of poets laureate will only help impress that on young and old readers alike.

Shelby Stephenson, the poet laureate of North Carolina, says that people reveal an innate "thirst or desire" wherever he goes. He writes about his view of the world — spinning yarns that wind around his childhood and his home in southeastern North Carolina — and finds that people who may not have a direct connection to his life experiences will begin to share their own.

"People of all ages are starved to tell their stories, to engage the unknown and the known — and to leave a deposit with earning power, to go on and live the days and keep waking up and going again," he tells Scene. "Everyone on the planet has a story, stories to tell."

Larsen concurs, and notes that sometimes it takes a little nudging from expected sources — like America's poets — to get people to realize that power.

"Kafka once said that a book 'should serve as the ax to the frozen sea within us,'" Larsen says. "If this is true for books, then it holds true in spades for readings and workshops and literary celebrations. We need to flex and stir our collective memories. Poetry, like theater, reminds us who we are, and temporarily brings interior and exterior landscapes together."