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Missouri's first poet laureate moves poetry toward the center of society

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 14, 2008 - It's a busy time for Walter Bargen, who is traveling the state as Missouri's first-ever poet laureate. Through readings and workshops, he's had a forum to discuss his beloved craft and help others improve their writing. But when it comes to creating his own poetry...

"Isn't that the irony?" Bargen said. "I hardly have any time for writing, and that's a frustrating element for me."

Such is the reality for many artists who find themselves on tour. Bargen's schedule is particularly crammed - during the work week he's a senior coordinator at the University of Missouri's Assessment Resource Center.

Still, you won't find Missouri's new literary ambassador dwelling on the drawbacks of travel. Bargen said he's honored to serve as poet laureate, a title bestowed upon him in January by Gov. Matt Blunt. Among his duties for the two-year term are appearances at public libraries and schools across the state. Bargen already has made dozens of such visits on top of reading poems at events such as a Veterans Day ceremony at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City.

"The goal of the laureate is to try to move poetry back toward the center of society," he said. "I hope I can move it a few inches."

On Sunday, Bargen will be the latest guest critic to run a monthly workshop hosted by the St. Louis Poetry Center . About 30 local poets have submitted their work to Bargen, who will give each person a written review and share aloud his critiques of some of the submissions. The event begins at 1:30 p.m. at the University City library, and is free and open to the public.

Bargen has plenty of comforting words for the writers, some of whom are new to sharing their work. "I tell people that [writing] is quite easy and there's nothing to it," he said. "But I can only say that having done this for 40 years."

In that span, Bargen has published 12 books and two chapbooks of poems. His most recent collection, "Theban Traffic," was released last spring, and "The Feast: Prose Poem Sequences" won the 2005 William Rockhill Nelson Award for poetry, which recognizes the best book of poems published by a Missouri or Kansas author. Bargen's work has appeared for years in literary journals and magazines.

Bargen lives outside of Ashland, Mo., and often shines the spotlight on his home state. "Rising Waters: Reflections on the Year of the Great Flood," is an anthology of short stories, poems and essays about the 1993 storm co-edited by Bargen. When he's had time recently to write, it's been about his experiences going from site to site as poet laureate.

To classify a poet's style is difficult, but Bargen said the most succinct description of his work came from a Kansas City Star writer who noted that it "ranges between rural revelries and enigmatic surrealism." Others have noted Bargen's attempts at merging poetry and the novella.

Nancy Hughes, executive director of the St. Louis Poetry Center, said Bargen has the ability to captivate readers - and a live audience.

"You can stand in the back of a room and watch people as he reads," she said. "There's sometimes rustling at the beginning, but he quickly moves an audience. It gets quiet, and it's not because he's a huge performer. His poetry is very much about the common experiences in life, and there's this kinship that fills the air immediately."

The Poetry Center

Bargen is the latest noted writer to come through the poetry center, which opened in 1946 as a place for area poets to share and critique their work (Tennessee Williams was among the early authors to take part in its programming). According to Hughes, the center is the oldest of its kind west of the Mississippi.

Formerly a grant writer for the center, Hughes is the lone paid employee at the nonprofit organization. Those serving on its board of directors understand that they have tasks to perform on a volunteer basis - lining up poets for events and running writing contests, for instance.

The poetry center is a center only in name. It has had multiple "homes" over the years, such as the downtown public library and the Clayton Federal Savings Bank in Webster Groves, which were borrowed for regular meetings or a one-time workshop.

"We've always been small and very frugally minded, which makes sense for poets," Hughes said. "For years, only poets bought poems, and poets don't have a lot of money. Now it seems like more people are buying books of poems."

The poetry workshop, held the third Sunday of each month from September through April, is one of the longest-running center traditions. Those who submit work range from experienced poets to graduate students to engineers.

Hughes began to write poems only after she was hired as executive director. But she tries to avoid spending too much time at the center's workshops. "If I stay through the whole program, I get out of bed Monday morning and start writing. I'm too inspired, and then I can't get any work done."

Beyond the Sunday program, the center invites an out-of-town poet to St. Louis several times a year to run a workshop for up to a dozen local poets who pay a small fee. That event is typically hosted at the house of one of the workshop participants.

On the fourth Tuesday of every month (other than December), the center sponsors a reading called "Poetry at the Point" that takes place at the Focal Point acoustic music space in Maplewood. Its "Observable Readings" series at Schlafly Bottleworks draws a young crowd who listens to visiting poets on the first Thursday of every month.

The poetry center also sponsors a range of outreach programs that take poets into schools and community centers. Writers have teamed with elementary and middle school teachers to develop ways of using poetry to teach lessons around subjects like the Civil Rights Movement and how to use a multiplication table. Another program sends a poet educator into the St. Louis County Jail to teach writing to more than a dozen inmates who are awaiting sentencing.

Every year, the center sponsors several poetry contests for different groups, among them high school students and its own members. About 100 people belong to the center, but few events require membership and most are open to the public.

Hughes said attendance at readings and monthly workshops has increased since she began several years ago.

"Poetry has real strong roots in St. Louis," she said. "A lot of writers come out of here, and there's evidence of a growing interest in this form of writing,"

Bargen said he sees the same interest throughout the state. "Generally, I've been surprised at the enthusiasm," he said. "People are taking the opportunity to immerse themselves in poetry."

Elia Powers is a freelance journalist. 

Elia Powers
Elia Powers is a Freelance Writer in St. Louis. He worked on several stories for the STL Beacon.