Illinois’ Poet Laureate Kevin Stein

Feb 1, 2004

Kevin Stein, a professor of American literature at Bradley University, is Illinois’ poet laureate. The position has been vacant since 2000 when Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks died. 

“He has translated his life experience and put it into rhyme, rhythm and verse,” said Gov. Rod Blagojevich when he named Stein. “He was wise enough and brave enough to know that poetry can have as much of a place on the factory floor as it does in the lecture hall.”

Stein’s most recent book, Illinois Voices, is an anthology of 20th-century Illinois poetry, for which he was co-editor. Since joining Bradley’s faculty in 1984, he has written several other books and published widely in such journals as the American Poetry Review. His poetry collections include two volumes published in the University of Illinois’ Poetry Series, Bruised Paradise in 1996 and Chance Ransom in 2000. In 1992, he published A Circus of Want, which received the Devins Award for Poetry.He has also written a volume of essays on the interplay of poetry and history called Private Poets, Wordly Acts and a critical study of the poet James Wright. He received the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry magazine, the Indiana Review Poetry Prize and two Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards. He is a recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts Poetry Fellowship. And in 1989, he was named Bradley University Professor of the Year for excellence in teaching.

Unlike the previous three poet laureates — Howard Austin, Carl Sandburg and Brooks — this appointment is not for life. Blagojevich set the term at four years, with the option to renew with the governor’s consent. Stein will be expected to give at least four annual public readings and reach out to people in all regions of the state.

Stein’s ideas for making poetry more accessible to all Illinoisans, including using radio and the Internet, are good and will lead to his success as the poet laureate, says Kenneth Clarke, executive director of The Poetry Center of Chicago. But he also looks forward to the opportunity to choose another laureate in four years. “We could have in 12 years as many poet laureates as we’ve had in the last century.”

Blagojevich chose Stein from a list of 25 nominees. Each of the finalists met the criteria set by the governor: a history of publication, activity in the state’s literary community and critical acclaim by peers. However, there was controversy within the poetry community during the process. C.J. Laity, publisher of the online poetry magazine, spoke to the concern that the poets recommended by the eight-member panel headed by the governor’s wife, Patti, did not reflect the state’s poets.

“It seems the finalists were chosen based upon tangible attributes, such as who has the most published books, who has won the most awards, or who is the most respected within the academic circles,” he says, “as opposed to who has struggled to beat the odds (Sandburg lived in a boxcar for years, yet became poet laureate), or who colors outside the lines (Brooks turned her back on what was considered ‘accepted’ styles of poetry and created her own style), or who can relate to, thus represent, the people of Illinois the best.”

Clarke takes a different view. “I don’t think any poet working in Illinois today represents the whole of the poetry community. I think this would be impossible for any poet.”

Laity and Clarke do agree that it was past time to name a new poet laureate and are optimistic that Stein can excite a new passion for the art form.

“Some people think Illinois has had only two poets, Sandburg and Brooks,” says Clarke. Unfortunately, he says, the majority of the population, those who aren’t in universities, go into a book store and never think of going to the poetry section. But he has high hopes for Stein and his ability to change that. “He’s a well-crafted artist, but not so high and lofty that he can’t connect with people,” Clarke says. “I think he will be gracious to everyday people who will look to him as a leader.”

Beverley Scobell

His Poetry

Past Midnight, My Daughter Awakened by Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue
In the presence of blue, it’s the eye
that signals to the brain, that signals
to the heart, slow down, slow down,
a process of attenuation I hear
in Coltrane’s notes, loping
then sprinting, then nearly gone,
Chamber’s barely audible bass
holding sway amidst the fifties hiss.
It’s then I think death must be like this,
its last beats sweeter because few,
the body closing doors and shutting windows,
locking up before the long buzz, crackle,
microphone hum. Then Miles and Cannonball
and Coltrane, horns whispering “So what,”
building in defiance until I wonder 
at their swagger, their fear,
as I did at the woman in Jimmy’s Bar,
who having nothing to lose, popped
the French heart medicine “experimental”
only tamely described. Quaffed them
with a Guinness, shoveled popcorn in,
and would not turn from those who stared.
Like me, birthday boy half in the bucket,
or those whose glass slipped from hand
to floor upon seeing her puffy face 
the color of Franz Marc’s horse. Still,
it’s my mother’s fault I can’t think of blue
as forlorn: her kitchen and bath,
carpet and drapes, that starving goose
above her pale couch – all blue,
or better, some shade of calm embodied
by a thing we lounge upon, wash our hands in,
or do what we close the door to do in.
It’s no miracle the sadness of the wretched
didn’t come to mind studying the woman’s 
blue face, or watching the June delphinium 
offer its trumpet of blossom in September,
horn of plenty, yellow throated surprise
as deft as my daughter, backlit
by stairwell light, hands on hips 
in the manner young children take
with parents who’ve misbehaved.
Glancing at me, the chair I sit in,
our striped futon, even the cheap
Chagall taped to the wall, she says,
“I guess I’m doomed to love blue,”
a joke she knows will bring my laughter,
doomed to love what lifts and often 
kills us – sailor’s ocean, pilot’s sky,
those eyes whose sheen I had not reckoned on.

—Kevin Stein

How mundane those things that change us, 
the line from crashed finch to sliced finger 
to my daughter’s loathing for homemade bread – 
twelve tinny notes linking one story to another
as on “All Things Considered,” where D.C.
cherry blossoms segue to Kabul’s bone trade,
family plots unearthed because Pakistanis 
will pay to grind the bones for cooking oil,
soap, chicken feed: the dead unplanted 
to feed the starving and their starving poultry.
What’s a body worth? Chickenfeed. 
Yet, meaning yes, but, ask the dozen finches 
who risk dusk for one last seed among 
the husks brusquely tossed aside. Husk – a word 
for those finch bodies as well as ours, though 

what prize each enwraps is only speculation. 
Chickenfeed? Being, Heidegger says, resides 
in being-in-the-world not out of it. Yet. 
How are we to know till we’ve left it, 
smashed headlong into the glass we saw too late, 
happy to be meeting the sister Other 
eye to eye? Oh sure. I don’t buy that.
Ask the crashed finch, flushed by the neighbor’s 
flabby tabby – tuft of feather on windowpane, 
wing dust as serrated as our bread knife. 
Worth what, a couple good rhymes.
Ask Jack in the Beanstalk, whose English bones
the giant threatened to grind for bread.
Ask Man Ray, fresh from Nazi Paris, 
hitching NY to LA with a tie salesman 

who pitched cheap wares at truck stop 
and tourist trap. Paisley and polka dots, 
collegiate hues, a blood red bold enough 
to enliven even the stiffest pin stripe. 
Capitalism’s knot, the noose about our neck, 
two for ten dollars. What can’t be sold? 
Safe in LA, Man Ray exchanged every tie he owned

for the shoe string he looped beneath his collar. 
A price for everything, I’m thinking, as my daughter 
slices her loaf of silence: “So hungry, they dig up 
their dead?” At ten, she’s learned the names 
of bone, muscle, organ, and the other names 
for those other parts, too, in classroom 
and all night slumber party confession.
What’s a body worth? Fe, fi, fo, fum.

Showering, she runs the well dry, pondering 
the angle of water on belly and thigh. 
The pump coughs air and still she stares, 
unrecognizable, in the frantic antiseptic 
bathroom light, mirror so fogged one body 
meets the other along a path toward the river 
she knows is there but can’t see. Yet,
meaning still to come. The answer? 
It turns out 98 cents, that old joke, 
if hauled across the mountains to Pakistan. 
Just 50 cents, 7,000 Afghanis, in Kabul.
Then what’s a shovel for? To plant the dead
and dig them up. Meaning you shouldn’t listen
to the radio if you’ve enough bread and few do.
What price guilt? Sliced finger and Band-Aid. 

Fact is, each breath becomes bone
becomes dust. Yes, but what’s a shovel for? 
To plant the living who bloom right here. 
Meaning if I had a hammer, if I had a hammer . . . 
I’d still choose a shovel to plant the carload
of untagged, close-out perennials I bought 
not knowing what, pledged to the double edge 
of faith and desolation any life rides. 
Any life, any ride. Who knows what you get? 
Beans. I’d waited fall through summer to find out. 
Ask Jack. I’d dusted bone meal so their roots 
knuckled down. What can’t be bought? 
Go ask my daughter. It’s time, time. Yes, but.

—Kevin Stein



Illinois Issues, February 2004