Traveling in a State of Poetry
An Interview // Poet Laureate of Kansas Kevin Rabas // Spring 2018
Over a decade ago, I met Kevin Rabas at Washburn University. I was a college freshman and he had just given a reading. I waited in line, with a lot of questions and very little money. He answered them all, then handed me a free copy of his live studio album “Last Road Trip” a poetry and jazz collaboration with saxophonist Josh Sclar. Ever since, it’s been all jazz and poetry for me and I’m still asking him questions.
You are the current Poet Laureate of Kansas; the state’s sixth poet to hold the position. How did you attain the position and was it something you aspired to become?
There’s a selection process based on a number of factors, including commitment to writing and publishing poetry (a kind of seriousness) and an established pattern of spreading the word about poetry, the arts, and humanities across Kansas. Then, there’s a run-off, where the final two poets give a speech and Q+A session. This is the first year that I made it to the run-off. I’ve always dreamed of being able to inspire larger groups, when it comes to poetry. Poetry has really saved me, and it has also granted me a place in academia. I don’t take that for granted. I want to help others grow through the study and writing of poetry, whether they take poetry writing and the teaching of poetry on as a job or as a hobby.
What does the role entail and waht do you foresee as your primary focus on the state of poetry in Kansas?
As Poet Laureate of Kansas, I’m a spokesperson and advocate for poetry—and the arts and humanities—in our state. I love it. It’s a dream role. So, I travel across the state fairly regularly, giving talks, readings, and presentations about poetry, the arts, and humanities. Also, I have a number of initiatives, including a Letters to a Young Poet project, where more experienced poets mentor new or developing poets, and the “greatest hits” from those conversations will be published in an anthology.
One of my main messages is that everyone can write and enjoy poetry, and through that process people can notice and cherish the extraordinary in the ordinary. Poetry, whether we read it or write it, helps us to more fully observe the world around us.
One of the “quotables” from my main talk goes something like this: Poet Naomi Shihab Nye says, “Poetry helps us to see something worth seeing everywhere, whether inside or outside of us.” In this way, poetry helps us to see the value in everything and the beauty in everything. It reminds us that every little bit of our lives is meaningful, and not only the outside world—what we can see—but also our inner lives: our thoughts and our emotions.
I encounter a large number of people who are unaware that our state has a poet laureate, why should it matter to them? Do you see poetry as beneficial for every Kansan?
Like any art form, poetry is important. Poetry can teach us a lot. It can be a “window” and reveal things outside of ourselves and our experiences or it can be a “mirror” and show us things we had not thought about when it comes to the self and our own lives.
Kansas is a place of poets, right now. There are a number of strong poets here and as a living, growing art form, poetry seems very healthy in our state.
Who are some Kansas poets we should be reading? What are your thoughts on the poetry coming out of Topeka?
Although he’s in NYC now, Kevin Young is a former Topekan, and I just finished one of his books a few months back, “Book of Hours,” which begins with the death of his father and ends with the birth of his son. It’s a cycle of grief and joy. Other poets I’m reading right now and I think others might like: Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Kim Addonizio, Tim Seibles, Thomas Lux, Scott Cairns, Traci Brimhall, Claudia Rankine, Fred Moten, and Nikky Finney.
Topeka seems to have a vibrant artistic scene, including a scene for poetry. I love coming here to read and watch and listen. Topeka has so very many strong poets, past and present, including (but certainly not limited to) Nick Twemlow, Ben Lerner, Kevin Young, Ed Skoog, Anne Boyer, CA Conrad, Cyrus Console, Gary Jackson, Leah Sewell, Matt Porubsky, Dennis Etzel Jr., and Eric McHenry. And you. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; there are many many more.
You currently chair the Department of English, Journalism and Modern Languages at Emporia State. You’ve stated that you choose to teach and write in Kansas, why is this important to you?
I love and admire Kansas. My line in Kansas goes back several generations, with many of my people settling around the Lake Wilson area. There is so very much to discover here, when it comes to KS, the land and its people. I get to discover more during my laureate trips.
You have published seven books of poetry, most recently, “Late for Cymbal Line” a collection of poems and stories from Local Gem Press in 2017. The first book of yours I read was “Bird’s Horn & Other Poems” (Coal City Review 2007). Do you have any thoughts on your work’s progression from “Bird’s Horn” to now?
I started mainly as a narrative poet, telling stories in verse. As time progressed, I branched out, and I also write lyric, meditative, and confessional poems now. Lately, I’ve also written a number of ekphrastic poems, poems about art. Beyond mode, I work diligently to hone my craft, to capture the loose and free speech of our state, but also to compress and condense what I find so that the poetic moment is chiseled and clean and abrupt. I work to focus what I find.
I think of your poem, “Those quarter note triplets” from “Sonny Kenner’s Red Guitar” (Coal City Review 2013). It made me go listen to Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” How has being a jazz percussionist influenced your writing?
Jazz is one of my primary loves and passions. There was a time when I almost paid my rent as a jazz drummer. I used to do a monthly gig at The Cup & Saucer in the KC River Market (1999-00). Josh Sclar was on sax, and I was on poems and drums. I learned a lot about how to read and perform for an audience during that time. It influenced not only how I read out, but also how I wrote. I’d say the words aloud as I typed them, back then. And I wrote to attune to what Josh was doing on sax.
Every poetry book title of yours references music. How would you describe your poetry musically?
My first book editor/publisher Brian Daldorph encouraged me to run with the idea of writing about jazz and to try foregrounding jazz in my writing. I still follow his advice.
I have what some might call a jazzy style, a style influenced by jazz music–its cadences, its democratic freedom, and, at times, its sense of urgency. I feel humbled and honored to be a small part and proponent of one of America’s greatest art forms, jazz, an art form rooted in African American experience, but also open to all those willing to apprentice to that tradition and sense of craft. At least that is how I see it.
Care to share some parting words?
Everyone can enjoy poetry. Search until you find the poets you like. Then read them. And many times studying one poet intensely will lead you to a group of other poets you also like. Then another. And on it goes.
Also, get out and hear some poets live. It’s like nothing else.