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3 rules for writers from the new poet laureate of Kansas

Poet Traci Brimhall steps in as the next Kansas poet laureate in 2023.
Colin MacMillan
Poet Traci Brimhall steps in as the next Kansas poet laureate in 2023.

Kansas State University professor Traci Brimhall starts as the 8th poet laureate of Kansas on January 1, 2023.

Poet Traci Brimhall was born in Minnesota, but she says her family moved every three or four years. After nine years of living in Kansas, she’s embraced the state as home.

“It's the longest, by far, that I've ever lived anywhere,” she says.

On Thursday, the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission named Brimhall the 8th poet laureate of the state. Her four-year term starts on January 1, 2023.

“I'm excited. I have so many ideas. I also know sometimes I have more ideas than time,” she says with a laugh.

A professor of English at Kansas State University, Brimhall has written four poetry collections, including her 2020 work, “Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod,” published by Copper Canyon Press. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Poetry, Best American Poetry and others.

The state poet laureate position was established in Kansas in 2004. The role often includes public readings, lectures and workshops across the state, as well as a signature initiative.

With a nod to Kansas’s agricultural economy, Brimhall envisions connecting the literary arts to food — from food production to food insecurity.

“I would like to reach out to local chocolatiers and wineries, and pair some local wines and chocolates with beloved books of poetry for Valentine's Day,” she says. “I'd love to do writer's harvest events in the fall where we collect food for food pantries.”

“I'd like to unite a lot of my outreach through the lens of food in Kansas,” she adds.

Brimhall says food is already a topic she incorporates into class assignments, such as having students read Maya Angelou’s cookbooks.

“Food is such a great way to get people to think about sensory detail for a poem,” she says. “You have the smells and the tastes, and there are often great connections to family and culture and holidays and things that are really important to people. So food is often a thing that brings people together.”

KCUR has made it a practice to ask new poet laureates to give other writers three rules to write by. Brimhall’s are:

1. Read promiscuously

“Read novels and memoirs and plays. Read poetry and magazines and children’s books. Read your bookcase instructions before assembly. Just keep reading everything that appeals to you. Reading helps inspire writing, and it teaches us things about the world, about ourselves and about others. But a strong reading habit builds imagination and empathy.”

2. Embrace writing badly

“It might be better to say write without judging yourself, but that can also be really hard to do. Also if you set out to write badly, you might have a good time along the way! Whatever mental trick you need to play with yourself, try that — but keep writing. Stephen King said something along the lines about how only 10% of his writing was good, so I would tell myself to write nine bad poems so that the 10th one might be great. It lets me have permission to write things that aren’t good, and usually along the way to my ninth bad poem I write something that I actually am happy with.”

3. Commitment to Community

“I often tell people I am a poet for the friendships. Much of the desire to write is a desire to connect. Finding your community or building the community you need is a huge piece of the satisfaction of being a writer. Sharing things you love, celebrating the successes of friends, and having fellowship with others are the things that changed me from a person with something urgent to say to a person with a lifelong love. Commit to showing up for others, sharing your own work, and building spaces on the page and in person where we can all see each other in vulnerable and loving ways.”

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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