Sherry Wagner is Indiana’s poet laureate for 2016-17. Wagner has been a faculty member since 2008 at the Indiana Writers Center, and has published two books of poems, “Evening Chore” and her latest, “The Harmonist at Nightfall: Poems of Indiana.”
Wagner’s path from nominee to poet laureate began with the Indiana Arts Commission’s review of her letters of nomination. After seven professors from universities around the state reviewed a portfolio of five of Wagner’s poems, the commission granted Wagner an in-person interview.
As poet laureate, Wagner plans to develop public workshops and other initiatives that celebrate the importance of arts instruction, poetry, and the beauty in nature. She spoke with WFIU’s DeShawn Tyree about what inspired her to become a poet, and shared a poem of hers that takes place in Bloomington.
DeShawn Tyree: “For you being named Indiana poet laureate, it seems to be less a prestigious position and more so a responsibility. It sounds as if you’re going to get out there in the community doing things.”
Shari Wagner: “I teach a lot of my poetry writing classes here. I also have classes in libraries or at Marion University, or neighborhood centers. So I don’t just work here. I also work out in community centers or libraries and different places.”
Tyree: “Poetry is not a lost art, but in the public school system art programs are losing funding left and right. With you being named poet laureate, do you think you could have an impact on this in any way?”
Wagner: “That really concerns me because I think the arts are so important in the schools. I know I was so fortunate when I was a junior. There was a poet in the school. She was going to Purdue University but she had a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission to go into schools. I studied with her and she gave me personal encouragement, met with me in the class and individually. She just really made a difference.”
Tyree: “It’s great to have people in our lives who can make a difference. Well, I’m wondering when was it that you decided to be different and become a published poet?”
Wagner: “Well, I started in 8th grade. My family moved from the small town of Markle, Indiana, to Somalia. My dad was filling in as a doctor there at a Mennonite hospital. That’s where I think it was, maybe through osmosis, because I didn’t know it until later. But Somalia is a land of poetry. I just loved the desert and the ocean which were so different than my experience. So, I started writing poems there. Then, when I came back to Indiana, I think I saw things differently. Things I had taken for granted. Then I wanted to write about nature there too. I see that as a coming of age experience going to Somalia.”
We stop not for the pedestrian light, but to watch the courthouse tree,
Its winter branches quivering with wings like dry leaves.
Thousands and thousands, as if a gust of wind lifts them they rise one cloud into the heavy sky.
While they are gone, and we stand looking upward as if for fireworks.
A man emerges from a parked car joins our corner, I almost hit someone watching the birds.
Starlings he says.
Suddenly, they are back wheeling above our heads,
A spiraling molecule of DNA.
We remember the news on public radio only the night before,
How dinosaurs were more like birds than lizards.
When the birds finally settle and resume the shape of leaves,
The sky seems so deserted like a child’s magic stencil board when the page has been lifted and the writing disappears.