“It’s a Mythic Feeling”: An Interview with Shari Wagner, Indiana Poet Laureate
by Alisha Erin Hilliam
On a hot summer day in the midst of Indiana’s state bicentennial year, I sat down with poet Shari Wagner to talk about place, landscape, and how they influence who we are and what we write. Wagner is an acclaimed writer and the 2016-2017 Indiana State Poet Laureate—a woman skilled in her craft and steeped in her surroundings. Her second book of poetry, The Harmonist at Nightfall: Poems of Indiana was published in 2013 and explores the people, places, and history of the Hoosier state. She can be found online at shariwagnerpoet.com and at her poet laureate website, throughthesycamores.com.
Alisha Erin Hillam: Your most recent book, Harmonist at Nightfall: Poems of Indiana, is written about the people, places, and landscapes of Indiana. Did you plan this book, or did it come out organically?
Shari Wagner: The book began as a folder of newspaper clippings about sites I wanted to visit, such places as James Dean’s grave in Fairmount where women leave lipstick from their kisses on Dean’s headstone and the Indiana Dunes where the ghost of Alice Gray is said to haunt the shoreline. Later, as I thought about applying for a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis, I realized what a wonderful project it would be to visit and write about the places in my folder. This project reinforced ideas I’d been reading in essays by Indiana author Scott Russell Sanders, ideas about the importance of place and feeling connected to where you live.
Years before, when I worked for the Clifton-Choctaw of Louisiana, I had known what it was like to live in a place where trees and springs and almost every curve along a twelve-mile road were connected to some kind of story. Through these stories, I felt not only attached to the history of Clifton, I felt strongly attached to the landscape. I wanted to have that same deep attachment to the landscape of Indiana. I wanted a geography endowed with myth, places entwined with folklore and history.
So I received a fellowship and started going to places like Dean’s grave, the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area where Sandhill cranes gather, and the Coffin house in Fountain City, where Levi and Catherine Coffin were conductors for the Underground Railroad. While visiting these places, I’d often learn about other related sites, and then at readings people told me about their favorite places in Indiana and how I should be sure to write about them, too. So what started out as a series of poems kept growing until I intuitively felt the book was finished.
AEH: What challenges did you face in writing a book with such a deliberate and tight focus?
SW: One challenge was the expense of driving to places all over the state and paying for overnight lodging. The Renewal Fellowship was a huge help, as were some grants from the Indiana Arts Commission. Of course, depending on a grant or fellowship means that you must go forward on faith that each place you visit will yield a poem. Fortunately, most poems came out to greet me—once, even, as a great cloud of crows spiraling above my head and my daughter’s! If a poem didn’t reveal itself right away, I discovered that I could wrestle with it until it finally bestowed a blessing.
AEH: How would you describe Indiana to someone who has never been there?
SW: The landscape is incredibly diverse. People from other states don’t think of it that way—they assume it’s all flat cornfields. I first came across that stereotype when I was in eighth grade and my family moved to East Africa for a year. My schoolmates—mostly other Americans and Canadians—would make fun of Indiana, saying that it was one field of corn after another. Of course, there are plenty of cornfields, but there are also hills, dunes, forestlands, prairies, wetlands, and in southern Indiana, amazing caves. We have glacier-formed lakes; backbone ridges; deep canyons; and our own Stonehenge, mounds where the Adena-Hopewell celebrated the solstice and the alignment of stars.
AEH: What is Indiana poetry doing? What is the Hoosier poetry scene like?
SW: I’d say there’s a lot of community-making going on. There are active writers’ organizations that offer workshops, sponsor readings, and publish anthologies. Brick Street Poetry in Zionsville, for instance, is currently placing poetry book boxes in state parks and collecting poems for a book to be distributed to children in Indianapolis hospitals. I teach with the Indiana Writers Center, a non-profit organization that offers writing workshops, publishes the online journal, Flying Island, and will soon be releasing a new anthology of contemporary Indiana poetry. There are also a lot of open mics, especially around Indy, and many informal writers groups. Almost everywhere I go I meet poets who either belong to a writers group or are looking for one. The writing of poetry is a solitary kind of pursuit, so I think it’s great when poets can be connected to a group that shares their passion for writing and offers feedback on their poems.
AEH: Nature and landscape are prominent in both your writing and your initiatives as state poet laureate (such as Arts in the Parks and the Children of Indiana Nature Park). Why do these themes resonate with you?
SW: My connection to nature is vital for my mental, physical, and spiritual health—and I think that’s true for most people. I grew up in a ten-acre woods near a wooded creek that I loved to explore, so early on, I had an appreciation for nature and landscape. My first poems, however, were inspired by the landscape I saw in Somalia—I was intrigued by the desert (the guban) that surrounded our village and the Indian Ocean that was not far away. When we came back to Indiana, I continued to write about nature. Sometimes people think of nature poetry as sentimental, but that’s just because they haven’t read enough poetry. They certainly haven’t read Roethke’s “Root Cellar” or Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist!”
I’m excited to be offering poetry workshops and hikes to adults and kids through several exciting initiatives—Arts in the Parks, Next Indiana Campfires, and the Children of Indiana Nature Park. I believe it’s important that people, young and old, feel connected to the natural world, not only for their own well-being, but for the very future of our planet.
AEH: What are you going to do as a poet laureate that no other poet laureate has done before?
SW: Mostly I’m building on the good foundation that the four previous poet laureates have provided. For example, in April, for National Poetry Month, it’s been a tradition for the poet laureate, in conjunction with the Indiana Humanities website, to post a poem each day by an Indiana poet. I did that, too, but added a writing prompt related to the featured poem. Visits to libraries and schools have also been part of the poet laureate’s position, and I’m doing many of those. Like the previous poet laureate, George Kalamaras, I also have a website. Mine, Through the Sycamores, has a poetry feature and a writing prompt each month, along with my event calendar and information about Arts in the Parks poets. Something I think that’s unique about my laureateship is that I’m focusing on some themes—poetry’s connection to history in honor of Indiana’s bicentennial and its connection to nature in honor of the centennial of its state park system. To celebrate the Indiana Arts Commission’s 50th Anniversary, I was commissioned to write a poem about the arts in our state that became part of a video you can find on YouTube or my website.
AEH: Speaking of Indiana’s bicentennial this year, how are you, as poet laureate, facilitating this celebration through poetry?
SW: I am planning an event to celebrate the history and beauty of the Indiana Dunes and an event at Pokagon State Park that honors Indiana’s Native American history. Historical sites I’ve read at or will be reading at include Gene Stratton Porter’s homes at Rome City and Geneva, James Whitcomb Riley’s boyhood home in Greenfield, and a one-room schoolhouse where the Shipshewana Historical Society meets. When I go to libraries and schools, I also share poems related to Indiana’s history. One of my favorite visits was to Greensburg High School where I read my poem about Elizabeth Finnern, a local woman who disguised herself as a man in order to fight alongside her husband in the Civil War. Wherever I go in the state, I usually have some poems related to area history.
AEH: What is hardest for you when you write, and how do you tackle that?
SW: I think each poem has its own challenges, but maybe one of the hardest things for me is knowing when a poem is finished. I enjoy the process of revising so much that I sometimes revise too much. I like the poet Mark Irwin’s definition of when a poem is finished; he says a poem is complete when it’s finished to the eye but not finished to the heart. I like my poems to end with a sense of mystery or some new expansion of perspective.
AEH: What writers have influenced your work? Who would you recommend?
SW: One of the first poets that influenced me was Robert Frost. I bought his complete collected poems while I was a teenager and read through that book several times. Certainly Frost’s focus on nature inspired me, but I also really loved his dramatic poems like “Home Burial” and “Death of the Hired Man,” and “The Witch of Coos.” The persona poems of Lisel Mueller have been especially important to me, and I keep going back to certain poems by Antonio Machado, Mary Oliver’s American Primitive, and Jared Carter’s Work for the Night is Coming. One of my favorite poets is Yusef Komunyakaa. He was one of my M.F.A. teachers at Indiana University. All of his books are great, but I especially love Magic City. I teach poetry as memoir at the Indiana Writers Center and frequently use poems from that book as models for prompts.
AEH: What is next for you as a writer?
SW: I’ll soon be finished with a collection of persona poems in the voice of a Mennonite farm wife. She is probably my alter ego—someone I might have been if I’d lived on a farm like my Mennonite forebears. Her fictional stories are inspired to some extent by real experiences of my mother, aunts, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers.
I am also working on a collection of poems in the voices of different men and women from Indiana history. These tend to be people well known in their day but now mostly forgotten—people like Christina Sullivan (the Skunk Lady of Howe), Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown (a Hall of Fame Cubs pitcher from Nyesville), and Belle Gunness, the female Bluebeard of La Porte.
Alisha Erin Hillam’s work has appeared in such publications as decomP, Architrave Press, Prick of the Spindle, Midwestern Gothic, Passages North, and Rust+Moth. She is the recipient of several literary awards from Purdue University and is a Best of the Net nominee. Originally from Indiana, she currently resides in Massachusetts with her family.