. . . poetry is an art form requiring an act of attention
from its practitioners and its readers alike. However
challenging, poetry need not be cold or aloof. It is a living thing,
the elemental stuff of our shared language. . .
poems celebrate what it is to be human.
~ Kevin Stein, Welcome Page for Illinois Poet Laureate
Kevin Stein, current Poet Laureate of Illinois, began his term in December 2003.
Originally a lifetime appointment when it was established in 1936, the position became a four-year renewable term in 2003. The appointee must be a citizen of Illinois, a "distinguished" poet "prepared" to promote literature and the arts throughout the state, and be "willing and available" to travel and give at least four public readings annually. A committee appointed by the governor is charged with presenting a slate of vetted nominees from which the state poet is chosen.
Three poets have preceded Stein: Howard Austin (1936-1962), Carl Sandburg (1962-1967), and Gwendolyn Brooks (1968-2000). The position was vacant after Brooks' death, until Stein's appointment.
* * * * *
Poetry connects you to a lineage of humans who yearn
to make sense of their world by giving voice to
their inarticulate fears, joys, and desires.
Poetry... enriches and deepens your daily life....
~ From Kevin Stein's "Advice to Young Poets"
An award-winning poet, critic, editor, and teacher, Kevin Stein, Ph.D., has published more than a half-dozen poetry collections, including Sufficiency of the Actual (University of Illinois Press, 2008), American Ghost Roses (University of Illinois Press, 2005), which won the 2006 Society of Midland Authors Poetry Award, and Chance Ransom (University of Illinois Press, 2000). His first collection, A Circus of Want (University of Missouri Press, 1992), received a Devins Award for Poetry (it is available through re-sellers via Amazon). Stein also has written several scholarly critical works, including Poetry's Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age (University of Michigan Press/Digitalculturebooks, 2010) and Private Poets, Worldly Acts (Ohio University Press, 1996, reprinted 1999). In addition to publishing numerous poems and essays in well-known literary magazines and journals, including The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and American Poetry Review, Stein has edited several anthologies of Illinois poetry, the most recent a CD anthology, Bread & Steel.
When you read Stein's poems, which range widely in their subject matter, poetic form, and tone, you hear stories about working-class lives, suicide, domestic violence; are let in on personal meditations; enjoy the poet's humor and wit, appreciate the depth of intellect, and nod in acknowledgment of the scene described. You also take stock of the willingness to bare emotion and sensitivity, not only to desire and want and loss but to brokenness, too, as in "Fathers"in Bruised Paradise*, "It Didn't Begin With Horned Owls Hooting at Noon" in A Circus of Want, or "The Cost" in American Ghost Roses".*
Stein is a poet very much engaged with the present, addressing and commenting on political, social, and cultural issues both ordinary and profound. Take as an example "On Being a Nielsen Family" (in Sufficiency of the Actual), which he equates to being "the Postmodern Descartes, // pledging, 'I watch, therefore I am'", concluding:
We're our own Peeping Tom, peering in.
On stage, we're culture's disguise,
the way a bickering couple makes nice
once the bell ding-dongs neighbors in
for cocktails and unsalted Cheese Nips...
. . . We are watched watching,
watching ourselves watched. We are never
enough, so the lie is as we wish to be.
Or "Beanstalk" (in Chance Ransom), in which the poet's mind wrestles not only with the mundane ("my daughter's loathing for homemade bread") and the disturbing (". . . family plots unearthed because Pakistanis / will pay to grind the bones for cooking oil, / soap, chicken feeed: the deed unplanted / to feed the starving and their starving poultry....") but also the beautiful (". . . this slew of blue lupine / and immaculate black-eyed Susan, a plenum of delphinium // blowing its gold-throated trumpet now. This now.").
The poet's voice can be colloquial, as in the opening of "To the Reader Awakened by a Noisy Furnace" (in American Ghost Roses) — "You've heard the one about the two-bit crook/ who, when fingered for the cops, spills all. He sings, they say, like a canary, and thus avoids jail...." — and also betray deep awareness of life's harshness and pain, as in "To Illinois' Gold Star Mothers, Who Lost a Child in Service of Country", which Stein wrote and recited specifically for a Gold Star Mothers event in Chicago in September 2009 (video of his reading is available here), or in "Terms", in which the narrator admits to lying about drinking, saying, matter-of-factly:
. . . We're drinking
like this because we want a child and we can't
have one. "These things happen," the doctor said,
"These things you have to live with." Most nights
it's easy to feel inadequate, slightly broken,
thinking of the good or even the bad parent
you'll never have the chance to be. . . .
A professor of English, Stein directs the creative writing program at Bradley University.
All Poetry Excerpts © Kevin Stein
Kevin Stein on "What Is a Poet Laureate and What Does He or She Do?"
Kevin Stein's Citations (Articles, Interviews, Book Reviews)
Selections of Kevin Stein's Poetry (Audio, Text, Video)
"Author Interview: Kevin Stein on Poetry's Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age", Digital Culture Books, August 2, 2010
Kevin Stein's Essay "(Hidden Track): Poetry in Public Places" at Poetry Daily (Originally, TriQuarterly, Issue 135/136)
Kevin Stein and Marc Smith, Page vs Stage, Parts One, Two, Three, Four (YouTube Video of Slam Poetry Event in Chicago in April 2009)
Kevin Stein, "On Being a Neilsen Family" (YouTube Video of Recording of Poem)
*Several of the poems noted above may be viewed via GoogleBooks: Chance Ransom, Bruised Paradise, and American Ghost Roses. Stein's poem "In the Name of Names" was published in Hamilton Stone Review, Summer 2010 (Issue 21).
Poetry Foundation Page for Kevin Stein
Here's a video of Stein talking about and reading his poem "On Being a Neilsen Family" (this differs from the recording noted above):