Ninety-two counties. Ninety-two poems.
Brick Street Poetry Inc. committed to achieving this project of epic proportions about two years ago as its contribution to the Indiana Bicentennial observance.
With the deadline in sight for a book the local nonprofit intends to publish by the end of this year, the goal of representing each of the state's counties with a work of verse will be tough to reach.
But it figures to be pretty close. A solicitation campaign working through the state's public libraries and the Indiana State Library has gotten the organizers about two-thirds of the way, and more sources are being tapped as well.
They include the Indiana State Federation of Poetry Clubs, the Prairie Writers Guild of Northwest Indiana -- and, if you're reading this and you're tight with the Muse, perhaps one of your gems. Submissions may be sent to http://poetryonbrickstreet.org.
In addition to the writings of various Hoosiers, most of whom are anonymous and from every walk of life, the book will feature pieces from prominent poets, including Indiana Poet Laureate George Kalamaras and his three predecessors in that post: Karen Kovacik, Norbert Krapf and Joyce Brinkman.
Brick Street's program chair and impresario of the project, Brinkman says, "We're going to have an interesting mix and a broad sampling of Indiana's poetic voice."
A broad range of quality as well, as might be expected.
"From some counties, we'd get two or three really good ones and have to make some tough choices," says Barry Harris, poet and longtime editor of Tipton Poetry Journal, who is assembling what's provisionally titled the Birthday Book. "And in other case, everything that came in was ... well, not all that good."
A not-all-that-good poem could pass muster as a kind of catalog of a county's natural and social distinctions. "Bragging poems," as Harris dubs them. That sort of ceremonial tribute wasn't a requirement by any means, and many of the best works had a literary sense of place that let the chips fall where they may in terms of local virtue and vice.
Disclosure time: As a board member of Brick Street and a judge of several counties' nominees, I encountered surprising variety, sophistication and emotional power in a number of them, all from virtual unknowns. I met with some doggerel along the way; but a Pulitzer Prize competition this is not.
Not to name names or quote liberally while the selection process continues, but examples of approaches to the theme range from cheery civic boasting ("The courthouse walls have murals grand/ of our history we love to share") to lamentations for loss ("Today I walk with ghosts/ of memories for centuries silent") to the spotlighting of individuals, such as a beloved schoolteacher ("The greatness was in you/ for you marked the path with words/ these weathered and tumbled stones/ the ones we leave for each other.")
"I had no expectations," says John Hawn, aka poet J.L. Kato, who is president of Brick Street. "And we've gotten some great writing and some writing that's not so good, but manages to reflect the state. We want it to be Indiana-related, and we've had some hard choices between relevance and literary quality."
Many amateur Hoosier poets find themselves emulating the Hoosier Poet, with mixed success, Hawn and Harris remark. James Whitcomb Riley with his trademark rustic dialect does not exactly command universal critical acclaim these days (though he has his scholarly admirers), and it might be argued there's no bad poetry like bad secondhand Riley.
"Many people are still stuck on this folksy image of Indiana," Harris says. And perhaps it's consistent with poetry's marginal status in contemporary fashion that the Bicentennial batch is overwhelmingly rural.
That's the nostalgia of political ads and herbicide commercials, not the reality of modern Indiana, nor the world of Indianapolis and Gary and most of our best current poets. Surely the laureates, urbanites all, will provide some balance.
With or without pinpoint relevance or uniform literary excellence, this ambitious show of initiative by Brick Street, a tireless flame-keeper for the deathless art of verse, should provide a unique addition to Indiana's cultural trove.
Its midwives hope it will alert a state of TV watchers and smartphone slaves to what they're missing.
"When this book is out, average people can have a touch and feel for poetry, and be inspired," says Harris.