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Frequently Asked Questions [FAQs]

Here are some questions Wyatt Townley has been asked since becoming state poet laureate.

What is the role of the Poet Laureate of Kansas?

The Poet Laureate brings attention to value and power of poetry statewide, promoting the humanities as a public resource for all Kansans. I see the role as a door opener, welcoming people home to the poetry that underlies all life and imbues it with meaning and depth.

What services do you offer?

I do author visits regionally and nationally, giving readings, talks, and workshops inside and outside the educational arena. We can combine services—a reading and discussion with a craft talk or 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?

Poets also need to eat, and 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.

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 not taken it. I have always lived something of a double life: poetry-in-motion is a theme, and my approach to language has always felt kinetic. 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.

Today these two paths of poetry and poetry-in-motion have fused. I write often on the theme of body-as-home, and I 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 40 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, train stations, even a foundry. Always I come away from these experiences receiving more than I give. For a number of 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'm blessed with a rich mix of writing, teaching, judging contests, giving workshops, and advocating for the arts, most recently with the Kansas Alliance for the Arts in Education.

Meanwhile I do the heavy lifting 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. I love getting poems into unexpected places—specialty markets like Piano and Keyboard and Yoga Journal. It was a longtime goal of mine to have Garrison Keillor read my work in his silken baritone on NPR, and Ted Kooser (our former U.S. Poet Laureate) ran it in his syndicated column, American Life in Poetry.

I have published six books, four of poems, with presses small (Stephen F. Austin State University Press; Kansas City Star Books) and big (Little, Brown; HarperCollins). My newest book of poems is Rewriting the Body. For a link to my books, click here.

Who are your literary influences?

Early influences, being first, go deep. As a girl I carried around Poe, Donne, Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Tennyson, Whitman, and Dickinson. Then I found Eliot, Cummings, Neruda, Sexton, and Merwin. 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, the push of the wind, and storms without equal.

Both my grandmothers wrote poetry. My maternal grandmother was a pianist who 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 was a Larned boy and rountinely recited poetry around the house—Tennyson, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats, Longfellow. My mother was a pianist who helped establish the Conservatory at UMKC. All that music goes deep.

How can I learn more about the writing process, or get one-on-one help, or take classes?

You can find some resources on my contact page. For nuts and bolts, I return to Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, Lewis Turco's The Book of Forms, and John Hollander's Rhyme's Reason. For empathy and inspiration: Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. If you'd like company, explore your local library, college, or art center, which may offer courses or have lists of editors and teachers who freelance. (The Writers Place in Kansas City has such a list.) You can always start your own writing group or find a writing partner and navigate the unknown together. 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. 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 technology makes this a real option. The only advice that makes sense to me is to start where you are. One thing leads to another. But you've got to love the act of writing—of bringing the invisible into the visible—first and last.