Frequently Asked Questions [FAQs]Here are some questions Wyatt Townley is fielding since becoming Poet Laureate.
What is the role of the Poet Laureate of Kansas?
The Poet Laureate represents poetry and the literary arts statewide, promoting the humanities as a public resource for all Kansans. I see myself serving as a door opener, welcoming people home to the poetry that underlies our lives and imbues them with meaning and depth.
What services do you offer?
The theme of my laureateship is coming home to poetry, with its innate power to heal, transform, and inspire. I visit communities around Kansas giving public readings, talks, and discussions free of charge to nonprofit organizations. I also offer workshops, both inside and outside the educational arena. We can combine services—a reading and discussion with a writing workshop, a poetry workshop with a yoga class (in other words, poetry and poetry-in-motion). For more information on programs, click here.
How do I arrange to bring you to my community?
You can contact me directly, and the best way to do that is through email. My address is info@WyattTownley.com.
What are your fees?
There is no cost to the sponsoring organization for readings and discussions that qualify for the Poet Laureate program (click here for eligibility). For programs beyond my official duties, I'm happy to negotiate what works best for all of us. To paraphrase the late, great William Stafford (Kansas' original, unofficial Poet Laureate), please aim to pay as much as you can, honoring both your budget and my work.
Are you available for interviews?
Yes. Please contact me at info@WyattTownley.com.
Can you meet with me to help me with my writing?
While I encourage everyone to explore and have big adventures on the page, I cannot meet individually with writers to review poems or manuscripts, or talk with you about the direction of your work or how to get it published. There is only one of me, and as Poet Laureate, I must focus my energy on representing the literary arts throughout our state and growing the state of poetry.
Can you come to my writing group / book group for free?
I am delighted that these groups exist and want them to flourish! But again, there is only one of me (except when my evil twin shows up). Generally, I must limit my Poet Laureate appearances to readings, talks, workshops, public and official functions. That leaves very little time to visit writing groups and book groups, except in rare cases.
What got you interested in poetry?
Poetry saved my life, providing solid ground after a childhood trauma, and it is a place I turn to every day for sustenance and renewal. More than a place, poetry is home. So I am passionate when it comes to spreading the word about its power to heal and reconnect us with what's important.
What is your background?
If there is a typical path to becoming a poet, I have taken the road less travelled. I have always lived something of a double life: poetry-in-motion is a theme, and my approach to the page reflects the kinetic instinct and rigorous discipline of dance. I was a dancer—had my own company in New York—but alongside that, or really underlying that, was always poetry. While I earned a BFA in Dance from Purchase College (State University of New York), I was also able to complete a Senior Thesis in Literature, and at graduation was given the first Presidential Award, a prize created in my honor.
Today these two paths of poetry and poetry-in-motion are entwined in my life. I write poems on yoga and teach yoga as a means of achieving a poetic state. As far as I'm concerned, it's all poetry.
What is your work experience?
I've been writing since childhood and teaching for over thirty-five years. I've been fortunate to work with children and seniors, poets and non-poets, in diverse venues including museums, libraries, retirement centers, schools, literary centers, universities, even a foundry. Always I come away from such experiences enriched, receiving more than I give. For years I served on the founding board of The Writers Place, helping to establish a national literary center in Kansas City, and was a teaching artist with Young Audiences. These days I find myself judging contests, giving workshops, participating on reading committees, and advocating for the literary arts, most recently with the Kansas Alliance for the Arts in Education.
Meanwhile I do the strenuous work that poets do—exploring deeper and higher ground while experimenting with form, taking artistic risks, and revising endlessly to approach Coleridge's sparkling definition of poetry: the best words in the best order.
What and where have you published?
Poems and essays have appeared in venues from the literary to the mass market, The Paris Review to Newsweek. Garrison Keillor read my work on NPR in his silken baritone, and Ted Kooser (our former U.S. Poet Laureate) ran it in his syndicated column, American Life in Poetry.
I have published five books, three of poems, with presses small (Woodley; Kansas City Star Books) and big (Little, Brown; HarperCollins). My most recent book of poems is The Afterlives of Trees, a Kansas Notable Book. For a link to my books, click here.
Who are your literary influences?
I've been influenced by everyone I've read. Early influences, being first, go deep. As a girl I carried around Donne, Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Tennyson, Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Cummings, Neruda, Sexton, and Rich. My dance bag got pretty heavy.
What are your Kansas roots?
I'm a fourth-generation Kansan. In 1860, my great grandfather bought our family farm in Westphalia, providing the setting for much of my work over 150 years later. You can take the girl out of Kansas, but…I never felt more Kansan than during my 17 years in New York, when I longed for the spreading horizon, sweet air, and storms without equal.
Both my grandmothers wrote poetry. My maternal grandmother won—of all things!—a television in a poetry contest. My father's mother, Hazel Bennett Baker, was wartime editor and longtime columnist for Larned's Tiller and Toiler, still in circulation today. My father, a Larned boy, gave us ongoing doses of poetry—around the house he was always reciting Tennyson, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats, Longfellow—and my mother was a pianist, so the music penetrated as well.
How can I learn more about the writing process, or get one-on-one help, or take classes?
I've listed some resources on my website. In terms of the nuts and bolts of craft, I go back to Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, and for empathy and inspiration, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. These manuals are for prose, but they translate eloquently to poetry. For one-on-one help, explore your local college, university, community college, or art center, which may offer courses in creative writing or keep a list of editors and writers who freelance. (The Writers Place in Kansas City has such a list.) You can always start your own writing group or find one well-chosen partner and learn together how to write your way to new ground. There is no shortcut. The only way I know is Hemingway's: Apply the seat of the pants to the chair.
How do I get published?
It's one of life's mysteries. I don't know. And it doesn't seem to get any easier. What I do know is that many people are more interested in publishing than in working on the craft, i.e., the "paperwork." Our job as writers is to make ourselves at home on the page. Get married to it. We've got to crave the unpredictable, table-turning, magical, surgical, messy process of putting one word after another. We're practitioners, eternal beginners, and our apprenticeship is lifelong. If we keep applying the seat of the pants to the chair, day after day, night after night, eventually, somebody's dam will break—ours or theirs. We'll get better; they'll relent!
Of course, you can publish your own work. Whitman did it, and these days e-publishing and print-on-demand technology make this a real option. The only advice that makes sense to me is to start where you are. One thing leads naturally to another. But you've got to love the act of writing—of bringing the invisible into the visible—first and last.