A filmmaker from Poland and a former journalist from Kansas hope a combination essay-contest-and-documentary-film-project will help bridge the state's (and the country's) well-documented divides.
Poetry Unites Kansas officially launched Monday. Zadrzynska's local partner in the effort is Wichita native Mark A. Uhlig, an editor, foreign correspondent and New York Times bureau chief in Managua, Nicaragua and Mexico City, Mexico, who is now the CEO of a Kansas City-based communications company.
"We invite anyone in Kansas to write about the influence of a poem on their life," Uhlig says. "It doesn’t need to be profound, but it needs to reflect their thinking and their life."
Contestants enter a 600-word essay, which will then be judged by esteemed national and local writers: award-winning poet Edward Hirsch; novelist and journalist Nina Darnton; bestselling author and Kansas Citian Candice Millard; Kansas Poet Laureate Eric McHenry; and longtime Kansas City Star journalist Steve Paul. Zadrzynska will then direct short documentaries about the winners.
"The quality of the filmmaking and quality of this competition is spectacular," Uhlig says. "It's one of the most extraordinary initiatives I’ve seen in this area, and the results in Europe have been extraordinary."
Anyone who watches videos of previous winners on the Poetry Unites website, he says, "will quickly understand how powerful this is."
"I really believe that poetry unites and politics divides," Zadrzynska says. "When the program started in Poland, it was sponsored by a Belgian foundation. The whole idea was to integrate new European countries, and the poem was treated as an instrument of mutual understanding. The integration of Europe didn’t happen so perfectly as we hoped it would, but the group of people I filmed met together and stayed together and had very personal and intimate stories about their favorite poems and about their lives."
"I think everybody has some lines that they remember and have learned at some point in their life they think about when life is difficult or possibly when life is good," Uhlig adds.
For example, Zadrzynska remembers the first letter she got when the project launched in Poland. A teenage girl from a small village sent her an essay about Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art."
"It starts: 'The art of losing isn’t hard to master.' It's one of my favorite poems," Zadrzynska says. "I was incredibly moved that someone from a little village I never heard of has so much to do with me and my emotional life."
But that wasn't all. The girl decided to study American literature and is now earning a PhD in Indiana, where she teaches English as a Second Language.
"So this poem really changed her life. You know what’s funny? Nobody in her family read. She was a daughter of farmers, but her grandmother started to run a library as a business in this little village. So they would receive a lot of books. Her grandmother left her and her brother among brooks, and she started to read when she was five. One day she found this poem in this library. It's a very touching story to me, and a coincidence."
In bringing the project to Kansas, Uhlig says, he and Zadrzynska hope to create "a new dimension to public dialog and elevating it — because when you talk about art you necessarily elevate the public dialog — and you end up emphasizing universal thoughts we all share."
Part of the point of the project, Uhlig says, is to explore the extent to which "the life of the mind" is active in a state where people are geographically separated by long distances.
"If you talk to people who are involved in poetry readings throughout the state, they’re surprised at how much involvement there is," he notes. "I don’t doubt that the life of the mind is active ... but we're inviting people to tell us the answer."
"That’s why I find this project so exciting," Zadrzynska says. "I will see, learn more about the state which is exactly in the middle of the USA."
With no significant financial reward — everyone who enters gets a signed copy of Hirsch's bestselling How to Read a Poem and Fall In Love with Poetry; finalists get their work published in a program; finalists who appear in a documentary get trips to the gala screening in Overland Park this fall — the project seems to be less a competition than, as the Poetry Unites Kansas website puts it, "celebrating the power of poetry in the lives of ordinary Kansans."
"I hesitate to say 'ordinary Kansans' because I’m guessing when you see the results won’t think of them as ordinary Kansans anymore," Uhlig says.
Poetry Unites Kansas submissions are due by April 28, 2017. More information is available on the Poetry Unites Kansas website.
Mark Uhlig and Ewa Zadrzynska discussed Poetry Unites Kansas on KCUR’s Central Standard. Listen to the full conversation here.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.