Literary Indiana: Poets
From professors to laureates—a briefing on Indiana’s greatest poets.
“Little things can loom large and start poems,” Boruch says, and the longtime Purdue University professor has certainly mastered that craft. Her verses pirouette from quirky images—a purple iris, a priest handing out lemons in a hospital parking lot, a sparrow with a missing leg—to startling truths about one’s lot in life or death. Eleven poetry and essay collections and a memoir have brought the 2015 Indiana Authors Award winner a cavalcade of honors, including four Pushcart Prizes and the coveted Kingsley-Tufts Poetry Award—$100,000 for 2011’s The Book of Hours—as well as bylines in prestigious pubs, from The New Yorker to The Paris Review.
First Poem: “It was just about my breakfast—eggs and toast and the fine solitude of early morning. But something about it had that gravity, a certain voice that surprised me.”
Excerpt: “The way the dying hear things, I don’t know / the nurse busy / with another patient, now lift / your other leg, voice too high, / vapid sweet. / Or at some roadside crash, / blood pools secretly / under the coat, the are you / all right? urgent, polite. Is that / a serious question? Oh to answer back!” (from “The Way the Dying Hear Things”)
On Her Nightstand: A Naturalist in Alaska, by Adolph Murie. “He’s famous for his landmark studies of wolves in the 1930s, but the book is riveting in its wild stories of bears and lynx and what wilderness means.”
At the age of 92, Evans could be forgiven for retiring. Having taught at Indiana University and Cornell University in the ’70s, edited one of the first books on African-American female writers in the ’80s, and graced a postage stamp in Uganda, she accomplished enough to be on this list decades ago. But she’s still writing. In February, Big Car Gallery’s Garfield Park location will exhibit a collection of photos of Evans in her youth, along with some new poems. It’s the latest stanza in a long, too-often-underappreciated career.
First Poem: “I got into poetry accidentally. All I had ever wanted to be was a jazz musician. I was in a music publisher’s office in New York, and a white guy walked across the waiting room and took the lead sheets I had composed from my hand. He looked at them and said, ‘You’ll never be a songwriter. You can’t write lyrics.’ That was what shoved me into paying more attention to the words. When somebody insults you, you’ll do anything to get back at them.”
Excerpt: “I will bring you a whole person, / and you will bring me a whole person, / and we will have us twice as much / of love and everything. / I be bringing a whole heart, / and while it do have nicks / and dents and scars, / that only make me lay it down / more careful-like.” (from “Celebration”)
On Her Nightstand: “I read political stuff, but I can’t really identify one book in particular for you. The short-term memory goes first.”
As he finishes his term as Indiana’s poet laureate, Kalamaras looks back on the past two years as the most rewarding of his life. “Reaching out to poetry lovers throughout the state allowed me to cultivate a community,” he says. “That was my focus as laureate.” A professor of English at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne, Kalamaras has published 14 volumes of verse. In addition to contributing work to The Best American Poetry, he sponsors the Indiana Poetry Awards and hosts a YouTube series called “A Gray Barn Rising.”
First Poem: “The first poem I ever wrote was about a man on a ship. I wrote it when I was 12 years old, during a rare childhood sleepless night.”
Excerpt: “A tiger approaches full moonlight / in a river, drinks currents / in slow, even laps, leaps from reeds / the next afternoon, covering a deer / with the buckshot of sudden / and prolonged starlight.” (from “Hysteresis”)
On His Nightstand: Crow with No Mouth, by Ikkyu Sojun. “He’s a Japanese Zen master who lived from 1394 to 1481. His poems are about the immediate environment and how it merges with the interior landscape. Often irreverent.”
As Indiana’s third poet laureate (2012–14), Kovacik canvassed the state, spreading poetry to the masses. Lately, she’s traveling a lot farther. The IUPUI English professor frequently visits Poland, where she exercises her passion for translating literary works. “I often like to read Polish poetry in both the original and in translation so I can see the choices the translator made,” she says. “Not out of a spirit of ‘gotcha,’ but more out of curiosity and wonder.” Polish poetry may not be the sexiest genre, but they don’t hand out National Endowment for the Arts grants and Fulbright research money (both of which Kovacik has been awarded) to just anyone.
First Story: “When I was 9, I wrote a short murder mystery, which ended with the narrator being killed by the villain, mid-sentence.”
Excerpt: “For years no one cracked their cover. / No one spilled lotion on them / at the beach or highlighted / “irony” in pink. They nuzzled like tigers / in roomy cages, relatively free.” (from “The Opened Book”)
On Her Nightstand: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, by Ross Gay. “A big-hearted, planet-loving book of poems.”
A Jasper native and University of Notre Dame grad, Krapf lived and taught in the New York area for 34 years, but his writing would make you think he never left Indiana. His many poetry collections, like Bloodroot: Indiana Poems, and his prose show his obsession with origins and his love for the people and nature here. Back home again and living in Indy, the retiree has been more productive than ever, writing several books, collaborating with photographers and musicians, and serving a term as Indiana’s poet laureate. He also had a life-changing breakthrough: Last year’s Catholic Boy Blues, whose honest, sometimes graphic verses about his childhood abuse by a priest have helped him, and other victims of sexual assault, heal.
First Poem: “‘Separate Circles.’ It was about a broken engagement I had, and it was addressed to my old flame.”
Excerpt: “This courtroom morality messes up my head. / This bottom-line business bitches up my brains. / Cheesy theology disturbs the sainted dead. / How hard is it to testify to the truth? / Can’t somebody speak the plain old truth? / Or what’s gonna happen to our sacred youth?” (from “Statute of Limitation Blues” in Catholic Boy Blues)
On His Nightstand: The Big Smoke, by Adrian Matejka. “He and I had agreed to exchange books, a great old writer’s tradition. And that was one of the books he sent me. Adrian writes wonderful voice poems and dramatic monologues.”
Many of the writers on this list have won the Indiana Authors Award, but it’s pretty rare for a poet to take the prize. Matejka shared the 2015 honors with Marianne Boruch. Nominations for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, on the other hand, were all his own. His most recent collection, The Big Smoke, puts the reader in the ring with turn-of-the-century boxer Jack Johnson, a black man “challenging white boxers—and white America—to become the first African American heavyweight champion.” The poems feel almost like chapters, a structure that’s not easy to pull off. Let’s hope he’s teaching it in his classes at Indiana University, where he’s the poet-in-residence.
First Story: “I would write comic book stories as a kid. They were thinly veiled autobiography—a young black boy with superpowers. My teachers didn’t like it much. That wasn’t ‘writing.’”
Excerpt: “That was the week / it didn’t stop snowing. / That was the week / five-fingered trees fell / on houses & power lines / broke like somebody waiting / for payday in a snowstorm. / That snow week, my daughter / and I trudged over the broken branches / fidgeting through the snow / like hungry fingers through an empty pocket.” (from his upcoming collection Collectable Blacks)
On His Nightstand: The Gorgeous Nothings, by Emily Dickinson. “It’s a picture book, basically. She wrote all of these poems on envelopes, and the book contains beautiful photos of them. If I could write like anyone, it would be her.”
When Whitehead’s first book of poems, The Table of Elements, was nominated for the National Book Award earlier this year, he was shocked. But the local literary community had a hunch he was headed for great things. James Alexander Thom has called Whitehead’s poetry “original, unselfconscious, deep, often very witty.” The editor of So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, Whitehead has published more than 125 poems in 60 publications—and half a dozen short stories as well, including one Pushcart Prize nominee. Not bad for a guy who makes his living as an attorney.
First Poem: “The first one I remember was a long poem I wrote after my father’s father died. I did not then, and do not now, believe in many things that could be described as ‘occult.’ But I kept running into people who closely resembled my grandfather. I wrote the poem about that over the course of many nights in the Writer’s Center at Wabash College, where I worked as a writing tutor.”
Excerpt: “The body perfectly overlaps the soul. / They are like nectar in an adobe bowl. / So when she lays you down to sleep / Pray for her taste for you to keep, / Ignore all those you ought not have, / and kill the dog that counts such sheep.” (from “Some Kind of Deist”)
On His Nightstand: Paths in Utopia, by Martin Buber. “That’s the last book of philosophy in my house that I have yet to finish, and I told myself years ago that I would finish reading all my philosophy books—holdovers from my graduate studies.”