Robert Stewart has nurtured a lot of up-and-coming writers over the decades he's spent as an editor at New Letters magazine and as a writing instructor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
In December, Stewart released a new book of his own poetry. He called it "Working Class" in recognition of his roots as well as the blue-collar ethos he brings to writing.
"The title for the book came late in the process," Stewart told Gina Kaufmann, host of KCUR's Central Standard. "I realized as I was looking through the poems in this manuscript that there was a working class sensibility."
Stewart said he grew up in a "blue collar, working class background" in St. Louis, Missouri. His grandfather and father were plumbers, and he started out as a plumber's apprentice.
"At some point I got interested in literary pursuits and I went in that direction," he said, "but I never really lost my connection to the working-class world — to the people themselves whom I loved and admired, and to the things that they taught me."
The book covers a range of topics, including his Sicilian roots and his spiritual life. Stewart was raised Catholic, and draws on language from Psalm 118 for the opening poem, "Translations, a Psalm."
"(It) essentially says at one point: The stone that was rejected by the builders has become our cornerstone," he said, noting the paradox.
As a poet, he said, "I'm often interested in paradoxical situations."
This psalm also reminded him of construction work that he did as a younger man, and the language of his foreman.
"In many cases, it always felt like we were just picking up stones and setting them down. That was my job all day," he said.
In the poem's last stanzas, he writes:
Those stones won't move themselves,
we do agree. The sun burns
the same for everyone, all true,
hard pressed and falling —
gloves worn through
to fingers — words hard
as knuckles and now set.
Get up in the morning and go.
No one can do this but you.
"It's kind of my way of living," Stewart told Kaufmann. "I do believe that sometimes you have to 'get up in the morning and go.' And it's sometimes hard. And you just put in a day's work. And coming from a blue-collar working class background, it's putting in a day's work that has always meant something to me."
Listen to the full conversation here.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.