Arts & Culture

New Kansas poet laureate, a Shawnee Mission NW grad, was inspired by journalist mom

Kevin Rabas, a graduate of Shawnee Mission Northwest, was named Kansas’ poet laureate on May 1. The Emporia State University professor will serve a two-year stint.
Kevin Rabas, a graduate of Shawnee Mission Northwest, was named Kansas’ poet laureate on May 1. The Emporia State University professor will serve a two-year stint.

As a child, Kevin Rabas would sometimes follow his journalist mother on assignments.

Joyce Rabas wrote for local newspapers the Shawnee Journal-Herald (now the Dispatch) and the Sun. She covered everything from city council meetings to fires. She sometimes would sling a tape recorder around her son’s neck.

Watching his mother observe and write about local events set his love of poetry in motion. He says his mother always encouraged him to write.

“She tells stories on paper, and that’s essentially what my poems and prose are,” he says. “I love learning from someone who knows how to write and observe the world.”

And now, the Shawnee Mission Northwest graduate and Emporia State University professor is at the start of his two-year stint as Kansas’ new poet laureate. He was appointed May 1.

His theme: finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

It is “about reminding us to observe, acknowledge the beauty in our lives and how every little moment can be meaningful,” Rabas, 42, says by phone from his office in Emporia. “Observe and cherish the world and our lives in it.”

Holding two master’s degrees and a doctorate, Rabas is the chairman of the university’s English, modern languages and journalism department. He has authored seven books of poetry and fiction (two more are forthcoming).

Rabas is also a jazz drummer. He plans to combine poetry and music to draw new and seasoned readers.

Rabas’ friend, the outgoing poet laureate Eric McHenry, watched Rabas’ presentation, a component of the poet laureate application process. Rabas competed against five other Kansas poets.

“He had some really terrific ideas about the way poetry draws our attention to small details and seemingly minor things and makes us savor life and its richness and variety,” McHenry says.

The main focus of the poet laureateship is speaking to Kansas communities to spark or rekindle the love of poetry.

Rabas explained how he would do that, McHenry recalls, partly by quoting another poet with Kansas ties, Kevin Young, who will take over as the poetry editor at the New Yorker later this year.

Rabas pointed to Young’s poem “Expecting,” about parents listening for their baby’s heartbeat during an ultrasound:

And there it is: faint, an echo, faster and further

away than mother’s, all beat box and fuzzy feedback. You are like hearing hip-hop for the first time — power

hijacked from a lamppost — all promise. You couldn’t sound better, break-dancer, my favorite song bumping

from a passing car.

The Kansas Arts Commission started the poet laureate program in 2005, but the Kansas Humanities Council took it over in 2013. Rabas is the state’s sixth poet laureate.

Leslie Von Holten, director of programs at the Kansas Humanities Council, says competition for the title is fierce, with applicants ranging in age and backgrounds.

This year, they had applicants from their early 40s, like Rabas, into their late 60s, and from high school teachers to ministers. Applicants must have been Kansas residents for at least the past three years and remain residents until the poet laureateship ends.

“They definitely need to be seasoned. Being in one’s early 40s is young. You do need to have a history of service to the community. You do need to be published by well-regarded publishers. It takes time to develop that kind of legacy,” Von Holten explains by phone from her office in Topeka.

But, she says, all the applicants share a passion for poetry and writing. What the committee loved about Rabas, she adds, was his side projects.

One such project, called “Letters to a Young Poet,” is inspired by Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

During his tenure, Rabas is asking experienced and amateur Kansas poets to start a correspondence. He will collect some of their interactions and the resultant works, hopefully in the form of an anthology.

He’ll also travel the state — making at least 24 appearances, though McHenry made closer to 100 — spreading his love of combining poetry and music, as the Greeks did with lyric poetry, so-called because it was accompanied by a lyre.

“It’s one of our options,” Rabas says. “Why not do it that way? I’ve had people say, ‘You’re doing hip-hop or rap or freestyling’ in parts of it, and that’s cool. I’m just doing my thing, and it comes out in many different forms.”

McHenry believes people are hungry for what only poetry can provide.

“Poetry gives you a chance to slow down and savor the nuances of language and enjoy the artful, playful, indirect ways that language (have more profound meaning) than it often is given the opportunity to.”

According to Von Holten, most applicants, including Rabas and McHenry, do not make poet laureate on their first attempt.

When Rabas lost to McHenry two years ago, he turned to poetry to soothe his ego. He titled this piece “At the Literary Awards; Or, Drum Roll, Please.”

When I get to the room,

the Kansas Poet Laureate is at the stand,

testing the mic, and I’m here having lost

to him, packing in my drums, and he asks

if I’m the entertainment, says play me a rim shot

when I joke, and I say, “Cheesy as it is,

I’ve been asked to play drum rolls

for winners.” “Really?” he says.

I play one for him.

See Kevin Rabas

Saturday, May 20: A Petroglyphs (Rabas’ band) performance with reading. 8-10 p.m., Aimee’s Cafe and Coffeehouse, 1025 Massachusetts St., Lawrence.

Saturday, June 17: Reading and music. 1-2 p.m., The Feast at CityArts, 334 N. Mead St., Wichita. Also, 7-8 p.m., Aimee’s Cafe and Coffeehouse, 1025 Massachusetts St., Lawrence.

Saturday, June 24: Reading and music. 7-8 p.m., Ellen Plumb’s City Bookstore, 1101 Commercial St., Emporia.