Poet laureate Kevin Stein is giving Illinois its words' worth. When appointed to the four-year post three months ago, Stein promised to give four public readings per year. His appearance last week at the University of Illinois at Springfield was his 16th. Stein's self-deprecating banter with the audience set the stage for his accomplishing one of his goals as laureate -- to put the spotlight not on himself but on the state's poetry.
Stein, who holds a doctorate from Indiana University and teaches at Bradley University in Peoria, is the first member in his family to have attended college. Holding a high draft number during the Vietnam War, he was able to save tuition money while working in a box factory for a couple of years before beginning his studies. This work ethic is apparent in much of his poetry, so it was no surprise that he began the evening with a poem by Carl Sandburg. Hard work and high expectations were part of his upbringing.
One of the night's most memorable poems, "Home Economics,"is a bittersweet recollection of his mother, baking cakes for other folks so that her family can afford Mrs. Paul's fish sticks, "the dreck poor Catholics choke down." Stein can also be very funny. His "First Performance of the Rock 'n' Roll Band Puce Exit," a reminiscence of his days in a teenage garage band, brought down the house (a nearly full Brookens Auditorium). Like all skilled poets, Stein knows his meter and verse, and he treated listeners to a pantoum, a Malaysian form with a rhyme scheme trickier than some politicians. He gave a preview of a "crown of sonnets" -- seven sonnets, connected by the last line of each -- titled "American Ghost Roses," which will appear in his next book, due out in the spring of 2005 from the University of Illinois Press.
Given his packed schedule, it is impressive that Stein has a good start on another of his goals, the development of a poetry Web site. On the site, www.poetlaureate.il.gov, Stein states his objective as "simply to promote the art of poetry" but qualifies this by saying that its "special focus" will be the "rich bounty of work created by Illinois' poets, past and present." The site will feature a series of Illinois poets, and the first choice is dead-on: Lisel Mueller has had a long, distinguished career punctuated by honors including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. On the site you can hear her read several of her poems. The site also features video clips of Dave Etter, Allison Joseph, and Laurence Lieberman reading their works. Stein's site also includes links to some of the best poetry sites on the Internet, as well as a page for youth poetry and advice for aspiring poets.
Kevin Stein's books include A Circus of Want (University of Missouri Press, 1992); Bruised Paradise (University of Illinois Press, 1996); Chance Ransom (University of Illinois Press, 2000), and Illinois Voices: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry (co-edited with G.E. Murray; University of Illinois Press, 2001).