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Missouri's Poet Laureate, Who Is From Kansas City, Plans Virtual Poetry Readings During COVID

Poet laureate Maryfrances Wagner with the Mark Twain statue at 10th and Central in Kansas City, Missouri.
Maryfrances Wagner
Poet laureate Maryfrances Wagner with the Mark Twain statue at 10th and Central in Kansas City, Missouri.

KCUR has a tradition of asking each new poet laureate for three writing "rules." Maryfrances Wagner shares hers.

Last month, Governor Mike Parson announced retired English teacher Maryfrances Wagner as Missouri’s sixth poet laureate. Wagner lives in Independence, is author of nine poetry collections, and taught at Raytown High School and the University of Missouri-Kansas City for 30 years.

In Kansas City, many fellow writers and lovers of literature know her as the vice president of the Writers Place.

Wagner had applied for the poet laureateship once before and been turned down. Then, a friend nominated her for the 2021-2023 term.

“I was very surprised but excited. I thought of all these things I wanted to do to try to bring poets across the state together, and things I wanted to do to reach out to people who don't read poetry or even know if they like it or not,” Wagner says.

Maryfrances Wagner (left) and poet Patricia Cleary Miller at the Writers Place in 2019.
Maryfrances Wagner (left) and poet Patricia Cleary Miller at the Writers Place in 2019.

Like outgoing Missouri poet laureate Karen Craigo, the pandemic will largely confine Wagner’s big ideas to virtual spaces; in a non-pandemic year, laureates travel the state speaking and working on projects of their own design.

Aside from workshops and on-line speaking engagements, Wagner also plans a series of 10-minute poetry readings.

“I will invite poets to answer a couple of questions and read a couple of poems, and it’ll be a 10-minute bite,” Wagner says. “We will put those on the website, the MAC website, so any teacher can download them, any person can download them.”

She hopes the bites will prove useful to curious readers and serve as a resource for teachers across the state.

And, in keeping with a years-long KCUR tradition, Wagner shares her “rules for writers,” which she thinks will provide a reminder to experienced poets and be helpful to those who are just starting.

1. Be observant.

Notice everything, pay attention to the tiny things happening that usually go unnoticed. Things happening in the background that will take you past the obvious. The way water travels over rocks, the way a water strider glides. See the same things everyone sees but in a different and fuller way to provide texture and surprise.

2. Read.

It’s an obvious rule. It’s important to read to see what writers are doing and to see how writing is changing as it always does. I’d say, study what a good poem should do. Study why a poem is successful. Ben Franklin said he learned to write by imitating what he thought was good writing. I’d say read to learn, to get new perspectives. Read to get the details right. You want to be sure what you say about an animal or tree is accurate, so you’d want to be sure the tree or the bird or the flower you name actually would be in the setting you’ve created. Still, saying that you need to get the details accurate is not to be confused with making sure you’re always telling the truth. Which brings me to my third point.

3. Be true to the spirit of the poem.

The way the writer feels about the subject he’s writing about should be true. It should sincere. If the poem is strong enough, it won’t let you write a lie. It’ll take over. But for the sake of the poem, the poet can change the details to make the poem stronger and more interesting.

On August 10, Wagner will debut a poem about Missouri during the Missouri Statehood Day commemoration ceremony in Jefferson City.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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