As soon as I finish writing this, it’s on with the spanx and heels (a dress too so as not to shock anyone) and out to the Lawrence Arts Center where we celebrate and formally install Wyatt Townley as the fourth Kansas Poet Laureate. I have a large fake sunflower in the back of my car, and a survival kit of sorts put together by Denise Low, the second Kansas Poet Laureate, and myself (essentials included: a detailed atlas, chocolate and wine). In my heart, I carry joy and ease: the seemingly complicated and weighty homelessness of the program is now firmly resolved, thanks to the vision of the Kansas Humanities Council and particularly its director, Julie Mulvihill.
This moment is especially sweet for me. My term, which has been easing to a close with the announcement of Wyatt’s appointment at the end of April and now this ceremony tonight, ends, appropriately enough, poetically. Spring is at its height, irises abound all directions, and in the past 24 hours I’ve had glimpse after glimpse of poetry-inducing moments, some easy (watching the sun balancing on the horizon after some tortillas and refried beans last night at my home) and some more challenging (listening to a gorgeous jazz ballad as I drove through the lovely moonlit night in my nightgown at 3 a.m. to pick up my son from the almost-all-night high school graduation party). One irony of being poet laureate, although I tended to be in denial about it most of my term, is that you experience all this poetry-catalyzing beauty, tenderness and inspiration without having adequate time to write about it. Now that time is returning to me, and despite a mild case of sleep deprivation from last night’s interruption, I’m already feeling energized about writing a lot of new poetry.
I’m also inspired to write more about some of what I experienced over the last four years, so much of it an honor and a gift. The gifts were sometimes literal. When a former colleague interrupted a faculty meeting I was in at Goddard College, where I teach, to give me a lovely painting featuring a Kansas stamp to celebrate my laureateship, I told my colleagues, “Oh, yeah, people often give the poet laureate gifts.” They laughed with me at this, but it was true: I amassed wonderful books, an occasional bouquet of flowers, a hand-made vase, a whole lot of dinners, a few beautiful stones, a Navajo rug, and most of all, moments of connection with people I never would have met otherwise.
“The gift must move,” one of my favorite prose writers, Lewis Hyde, writes in his superb book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. The gift filled me up, and I reciprocated however I could along the four-year journey. Tonight, we honor Wyatt Townley, who not only has the distinction of having one of the best possible first names for a Kansas poet laureate but who writes with power, precision, an eye for the magical underpinnings of the ordinary and an ear for the music that poetry gives us. I’m grateful for the gift of her poetry and presence, and I’m ready to bop her (lightly, of course) on the head with a certain giant fake sunflower at this changing of the poetic guard. Praise to all who made this happen, and may the overall gift of the poetic power of language continue to imbue our lives with meaning and light.