Robert Stewart remembers when word got out that poet Amiri Baraka would read in Kansas City.
Stewart, who ran the Midwest Poets Series at Rockhurst University for 35 years, looked out into the audience when Baraka was in town and saw an enormous showing from the African-American community.
“It was just incredibly touching to me,” Stewarts says of seeing multiple generations of several families represented.
“The same thing would happen when we had Yehuda Amichai, the Israeli poet, and there would be a number of people from the Jewish community,” Stewart says.
Started by Stewart in 1983 as a vehicle to showcase regional poets, over the decades the Midwest Poets Series expanded to include Pulitzer Prize winners and United States poets laureate, like Tracy K. Smith and Billy Collins.
Stewart says that during his tenure in the position, he was fascinated by the audience each poet would draw — not only are audience members not exclusively students, they’re not exclusively anything. Throughout the season, each audience was a different demographic, he says.
That’s partly because Stewart thought about the line-up “ceaselessly,” he says.
So when Stewart decided to step down as organizer of the series, he wanted someone who would do the same thing.
He chose Elizabeth Barnett, an assistant professor of English at Rockhurst.
“It’s people writing for a readership, people engaging in the real world and writing about the real world and our place in it and our responsibilities toward it,” she says of the “community minded” writers she’ll seek.
This is in direct contrast, she says, to the misperception about poetry and poetry readings, which is that someone stands before a crowd and “speaks in a funny voice and we’re there to appreciate their genius.”
Barnett says a mix of genders, ethnicities and cultures will best serve the community and poetry, but it takes effort not to skew toward white male poets, because so many good ones are out there, and their work is taught so widely in universities.
In fact, the first reader in her first line-up is a white male: Bob Stewart.
Yet, Stewart’s poetry is an example of the community-mindedness she seeks, she says. His newest collection is titled “Working Class.”
“The writing of poetry is a form of labor,” Barnett says, “but being a plumber — which (Stewart’s) father and grandfather were, and he apprenticed at — is equally craft-based and significant and in a way artistic labor.”
The only detail she’s changed since taking the reins, Barnett says, was eliminating the suggested donation at the door; the readings and receptions are entirely free now, so that even a suggested expense isn’t a hurdle to those who are interested.
For her students, she says, it’s important that they see poets as living.
“It really empowers the writing students, especially, to realize they can do this and kind of lowers that barrier between writers and the rest of us,” Barnett says.
For everyone else, she says, the hope is to “bring in poets who are going to speak to different people, and everybody hopefully will eventually find a poet that they connect with who’s come through.”
Midwest Poets Series with Robert Stewart, 7 p.m. Thursday, October 25 at Rockhurst University’s Arrupe Hall Auditorium, 5351 Forest Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri 64110.