You’d forgive George Kalamaras for being a little flummoxed. His 2014 has come with a new title for the Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne creative writing professor: Indiana’s Poet Laureate. A Fort Wayne resident (with his wife, IPFW rhetoric and creative writing professor Mary Ann Cain) since 1990, Kalamaras is the first poet in Fort Wayne’s history to be so lauded. Find out what inspires him (besides his beagle Bootsie and the perfect cup of tea) as we play 20 Questions.
So how did the poet laureate gig come about?
I was nominated in August by a professor at Notre Dame. I interviewed with the Indiana Arts Commission and went through the selection process.
Do you get to wear a crown or a sash?
Just a wreath of palms!
What are the duties of the state poet laureate?
You are an ambassador for poetry throughout the state. I will recite a poem at the General Assembly and visit various schools and poetry groups across the state.
Do you still have the first poem you ever wrote?
I do. It was about a person trying to make decisions in his life. I was 12 years old.
What inspires you?
The thing that inspires me is nature. It’s clichéd, but it’s true. I’m claustrophobic if I’m not out in nature.
What’s your position on rhyming?
I don’t rhyme my poems. Rhyming really left mainstream poetry 50 or 60 years ago. It’s considered passé. It’s not like I have a vendetta against it, though! But it can dummy a poem down.
Who is your favorite poet?
A Peruvian poet named César Vallejo. I love his images, I love his ability to put two things together in surrealist juxtaposition. Another is Walt Whitman. I love his expansiveness, the way he included the entire world. He’s very spiritual.
What’s your favorite poem and why?
Gosh, there are so many. One is by César Vallejo, a Peruvian poet who wrote primarily in the 1920s and 1930s. It doesn’t have a title, but you can identify it by its remarkable opening: “For several days, I have felt an exuberant, political need to love.” This Vallejo poem is incredible, unique in that it offers the very basic human desire for love but places that emotion within the public realm. The poem closes with “and I would like to be kind to myself in everything.” What’s remarkable is that this poem of love for the outer world ultimately becomes a poem of self-forgiveness. Another equally favorite poem — though it’s vastly different — is by the Chinese poet Wang Wei (who lived from 701-761 C.E.) and is called “To Subprefect Chang.” The first line is, “In late years, I love only the stillness.” Here he is, late in life, having lived a busy life of outward service in the world of the social, and he devotes his final years solely to the quiet of poetry and meditation. It’s a gorgeous poem.
You traveled in India. What are your thoughts on the Indian poet Mira Bai?
I love Mira Bai! I read her and Kabir together. I discovered them in 1979 or 1980, and I’ve been reading them ever since. The sense of first love, the sense of the spiritual in the material world is … something very deep.
Do you think the Midwest lends itself to poetry?
I think people’s perceptions are that it doesn’t, but I think it does. The Midwest is not monolithic. When people think of Midwest poetry, they tend to collapse (it). It’s diverse and complex, and because of that diversity it certainly lends itself to poetry. Poetry is not about simple things. Or it can be about simple things, but in a complex way.
You’ve been a professor at IPFW since 1990. What appeals to you about teaching?
It allows me to … not be selfish and use whatever knowledge and wisdom I’ve gained and impart it to others. It also enables culture to move forward.
What appeals to you about research?
I love details. I love intricacies and odd facts. I love to collect those. I collect information and data and (put) them into poems. I believe science is poetic. Why not include the mating habits of the fire ants of Namibia in a poem? Poetry isn’t just about expressing feelings; it’s about expanding and preserving our culture.
What kind of a student were you?
I was a good student.
Your wife is also a writer. What’s it like having two writers in the family?
I love it. Mary Ann and I share our writing with each other. I feel like I’m understood on extraordinarily deep levels.
What’s your favorite memory?
Meeting my wife … in a creative writing class in college.
When are you the most productive?
Late evening and night.
How do you engage the next generation in the love of poetry?
Let them know poetry is relevant in their lives now. Show them that poetry’s complexity is a vehicle for them not to feel alone. People feel isolated and alone. You allow the next generation to see that poetry will connect them … and make them feel a sense of community.
What can’t you live without?
What’s the best venue for poets to find an outlet for their work today?
Websites are great, and we should embrace that technology, but also they need to go to poetry readings. You find deeper and more complex meanings when (poetry) is read.
What makes you happy?
Everything. I’m happy to be alive, to be on this planet, to be breathing and that my carbon dioxide is feeding these plants and they are giving back oxygen!