State’s poet laureate shares love of writing craft
By RYAN TRARES April 7, 2013 10:00AM
In this March 20, 2013 photo, literature professor and poet laureate of Indiana Karen Kovacik poses for a photo at her office at Cavenaugh Hall at IUPUI in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/The Daily Journal, Scott Roberson)
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — For many people, their last experience with poetry was slogging through sonnets in high school English class.
Few experience the genre beyond Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost.
But lovers of the written word know there’s more to the world of poetry than school assignments. The genre encapsulates the human condition and helps us understand the world we live in.
“I wonder how people live without it. I feel like poetry helps us bear what we have to bear in this life — death, aging, all of the things that we must bear,” said Karen Kovacik, Indiana poet. “It’s sort of a spiritual practice.”
As poet laureate for the state of Indiana, Kovacik is the ambassador for verse, rhyme and meter. The Indianapolis resident is director of creative writing at IUPUI, teaching the next generation of poets to lovingly hone their craft.
From helping expose the public to Indiana poets to translating the words of Polish poets to English, she has made it her mission to make everyone love the art form as much as she does.
“My goal is to convert everyone, and almost always I succeed. The way it works is I like to teach people about the elements that make a poem good — the imagery, the sound, the rhythm,” she told the Daily Journal.
Kovacik will conduct an hourlong program at Greenwood Public Library from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“We’re honored that she’s willing to come to Greenwood to share her passion and expertise with us,” said Valerie Moore, reference librarian at the library. “It will be a fun and exciting program to hear the state poet laureate read poetry and encourage participants to express themselves through their own poetry. I hope people take away a better understanding of the appeal and art of poetry.”
When Kovacik was growing up in Lake County, reading was a daily part of life in her household. Her parents kept many books around, and weekend trips to the library were a tradition.
She was drawn to poetry, to the rhythm of words, as an elementary school student.
“The characters of it, the music of it, just captivated me,” she said.
Kovacik was writing poems even then. As she grew older, she worked on building her voice, sharpening her structure and bending the language. She would write on blue onion skin paper, because she thought it seemed more poetic.
Her writing has evolved from focusing on her family to the world around her.
One of Kovacik’s most fertile subjects has been Warsaw, Poland. She has visited the country many times, first with her first husband and later on a Fulbright Research Grant. Parts of her family hail from the country.
She has written about a cold December at her aunt’s home in Poland and the everyday detail of a Warsaw architect’s apartment.
“What has struck me about Warsaw is that it’s such an old city but also a relatively new one. I feel like it’s a very layered space,” she said.
Her most recent work has been translating the book “Distant Lands” by the Polish poet Agniesza Kuciak. The book is a false anthology, with fictional biographies, poems and back-stories of 21 imagined Polish poets.
Kuciak used the unusual conceptional piece to comment on life in Poland after Communism and the struggle between conservative and progressive culture.
“It’s her way of talking about Polish identity at a time of transition,” Kovacik said. “She’s an interesting figure in that first generation who came to age after the fall of Communism.”
As a teacher, Kovacik tries to expose students to new, emerging and still-writing poets such as Tracy K. Smith, a 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, and Robert Hass, a former U.S. poet laureate.
“When I was in college, almost all of the works were by dead, white men. Not casting aspersions there, but I know that sometimes, as a young woman, I felt intimidated by that,” she said. “I don’t ever want my students coming away from my class thinking that, because of their background, that they’re not cut out for poetry.”
Kovacik was chosen to be the Indiana poet laureate in late 2011. She was nominated by a council of poets from around the state and then applied to the Indiana Arts Commission.
“She’s well versed in Polish literature. The committee was impressed by her own writing experience but to her commitment to the writing community in Indiana, outside of Indiana and internationally. She brought a wealth of experience to the position,” said Susan Britsch, coordinator for the poet laureate program for the Indiana Arts Commission.
As poet laureate, her duties include judging the state Poetry Out Loud recitation competition. She speaks to high school students to get them involved in the competition.
Her blog “No More Corn” focuses on Indiana poets and introduces people to their work. A series of readings, the Borderlands Project, brings poets from Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Illinois to focus on home, borders and immigration.
All of her efforts are aimed at helping people realize how poetry can be an essential tool in helping deal with their lives. Poetry can be joyous, celebrating love, success and birth. The form helps people record history and make sense of the events, big and small, that occur.
“Poetry helps us live. A former poet laureate, Kay Ryan, says poetry is for desperate occasions. After 9/11, many people did poetry readings to help bear the national tragedy,” she said.