Just a few days after writer Raymond Carver’s death, his wife, poet Tess Gallagher, called Bob Stewart at home. He was expecting to hear from her, expecting her to cancel.
Her scheduled appearance at the Midwest Poets Series, which Stewart directs, was only two weeks away, and when he heard the news about Carver, he just knew what she’d say.
“This is her way of saying she’s not going to make it,” he thought as soon as he heard her voice on the other end of the line.
But Gallagher surprised him. “She said, ‘No, I absolutely want to assure you I’m going to come,’ ” Stewart said. “Because she wanted to celebrate Ray Carver’s life.”
Two weeks later, Gallagher arrived at Rockhurst University and held the stage for more than an hour and a half. She read not just her own work but also brought out poems by Carver no one had seen before.
“We had one of the most extraordinary evenings in memory,” Stewart said.
That’s saying a lot for a program that in its first 29 years has brought to Kansas City 14 Pulitzer Prize winners, 10 U.S. poets laureate, two Missouri poets laureate and one winner of the Nobel Prize in literature.
The series, which Stewart founded in 1983, will kick off its 30th anniversary year on Thursday with a 15th Pulitzer winner, Tracy K. Smith, who won the 2012 prize last spring. The reading is just one highlight of a season that once again celebrates the global range and influence of the written word.
The Midwest Poets Series has become a cultural institution in the community and made a name for Kansas City on the national and international poetry scene.
“It’s the kind of place where poets would like to read because we have nothing if not authenticity,” said Michelle Boisseau, a Kansas City poet and creative writing colleague of Stewart’s at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Boisseau read at the series last year. “When I got up on stage I felt so much desire to hear me read. It’s incredibly energizing to read to that audience.”
Stewart says this year’s poets can be seen as a microcosm of the series as a whole. Rounding out the schedule are Valzhyna Mort on Nov. 29, Mark Doty on Jan. 31 and Australia’s Les Murray on March 21.
“Bob took special care in choosing the slate of poets,” said Cynthia Cartwright, director of the Center for Arts and Letters at Rockhurst. “He is very careful about constructing a season where there are both male and female poets, all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, national reputations and international reputations.”
Smith is African-American, and Mort, “a true international voice,” grew up in Belarus before she moved to the U.S. Stewart called Doty “one of the premier figures in contemporary American poetry.” Murray, who lives in New South Wales, Australia, is renowned worldwide.
Murray has published 12 books of poetry, translated into 10 languages. Doty, with eight books of poems and four books of prose, is only the second poet to make a repeat appearance. Mort and Smith are making names for themselves early in their careers; Smith has three books, and Mort recently published her second American book.
“The whole series represents what we’ve been trying to do all these years,” Stewart said.
Doty and Smith also reflect Stewart’s method of choosing poets, which involves a little acute observation, a little intuition and a little luck.
“Every time I turn around lately, I’m discovering a poem by Mark Doty, or my students are telling me things they’re reading by Mark Doty that they’re enthusiastic about,” he said. “There’s just too many intersections of interest that I can’t ignore.”
Similarly, Kansas City writer Whitney Terrell mentioned Smith’s name to Stewart a couple of years ago, and when she won the Pulitzer earlier this year, Stewart knew the time was right to invite her.
“So often it happens, where I’m kind of already interested in (a poet), and there will be little things that come up, sort of like the universe is telling me that now is the time to bring this person to Kansas City,” Stewart said. “I look for where the energy is.”
Attracting poets of Murray’s international stature sets the Midwest Poets Series apart from other cultural institutions in the country, Boisseau said. Someone like Murray, who often reads in major cities like New York, would never have a chance to visit Kansas City otherwise, she said.
And when major poets do come to read, they find it a rewarding experience. People are there to see the poet and are not likely to approach him or her with manuscript in tow, just trying to further their own careers.
Stewart said many of the poets he keeps in touch with have fond memories of the series and even ask if they can come back. The Midwest Poets Series puts Kansas City on the map for people who otherwise may never see or think about it.
“In literary terms, on a national scale, I don’t think it can be doubted that a lot of major writers in the country identify with Kansas City now, and they wouldn’t have without this here,” Stewart said.
When she arrived at Rockhurst more than 20 years ago, Cartwright was initially surprised by the poetry series’ popularity.
“Where are these readings held, in a phone booth?” she wondered. “Who comes out to them?”
She estimated that the series as a whole now draws 900 people a year, many of them frequent attendees. For the last 10 to 15 years, the series has been in Rockhurst’s Mabee Theater, which seats 300.
“It’s not uncommon to have standing room only,” said Cartwright, who applauded the shared experience of hearing poetry in public.
Former poets laureate Billy Collins and W.S. Merwin both drew crowds of almost 1,000 for their readings, which were in the campus gymnasium. Merwin’s reading was especially memorable for Stewart. He remembers Boisseau sitting in the front row, listening with rapt attention.
“Merwin got done reading; everybody applauded, and Michelle just sat there,” he said. “Finally she stood up and she says, ‘I feel like somebody has just been throwing flowers on me for an hour.’ ”
“I remember feeling as if all the cows were surrounding the manger,” Boisseau said. “He was glowing like some kind of emanation.”
But even a sparsely attended reading can have a big impact.
In 1989, Stewart brought Joseph Langland, a poet who’d grown up in Iowa in a community of Norwegian immigrants. He recalls maybe 15 people in the audience.
“I remember sitting in the front row and thinking, ‘I don’t care who’s here, I’m here,’ ” Stewart said. “I was completely thrilled to sit there and listen to Joe Langland read his poems.”
Because, in the end, poetry is a personal experience. Stewart says it ultimately doesn’t matter how many people come to a reading. If a reading changes one person’s life, he said, it’s extraordinary.
“People get uplifted, they’re entertained in a way that’s a little deeper, more powerful than we’re used to with mass media entertainment,” he said. “I think it changes people’s thinking about who poets are and what they’re about.”
Being present at the Midwest Poets Series is inspirational, Boisseau said.
“When you’re in the salt spray of language,” she said, “then you say, ‘I want to go on my own voyage, I want to build my own ship.’ And that’s why we bring people to town.”