Just one soul gets to be Indiana Poet Laureate during the state’s bicentennial and the centennial of its state park system, and Shari Wagner sees her anointing as an opportunity “to emphasize poetry’s connection to history and also to nature.”
In both areas, the Westfield author and teacher intends to turn up new flora and fauna inhabiting old ground.
Did you know, for example, that Abraham Lincoln, who came of age in southern Indiana, wrote poetry as well as immortal speeches?
Ever hear of a lady named Belle Gunness – and nicknamed “The Bluebeard of LaPorte” – who is said to have murdered 40 people in the 19th century?
And how about a true “Indian-an” – Kil-So-Quah (1810-1915), given a dignitary’s treatment by the state as granddaughter of the great Miami Chief Little Turtle?
They’re part of a book of historical Hoosier voices Wagner has been assembling and will build upon with ideas gathered from her travels around the state over her two-year tenure as laureate, which begins in January. Another poetry book she’s writing, woven from the voices of Mennonite women from the northern Indiana environs of Wagner’s youth, also will be part of this public collaboration. She’s looking forward to the endeavor, even if it pays nominally and can stretch an artist thin.
“Actually, my biggest concern was my car, which is 15 years old,” she says. “I find that when I give workshops and readings it helps my writing. Even though there’s less time, it tends to stimulate you to write more.”
Named in November by the Indiana Arts Commission as the state’s fifth poet laureate, Wagner continues the IAC’s winning streak of well-credentialed title-holders with uncommon backgrounds and distinctive ambitions for the job.
Like predecessors Joyce Brinkman, Norbert Krapf, Karen Kovacik and George Kalamaras, the 57-year-old product of tiny Markle, Indiana, combines deep Indiana roots with extensive exposure to life abroad.
Research work and mission trips have taken her to Haiti, Kenya, Honduras and Somalia, as well as the exotically traditional Clifton-Choctaw community in Louisiana, a focus of her keen interest in Native Americans. It was in Somalia, where she spent eighth grade in the company of her father, a missionary doctor, that she began writing poetry.
“I came back to Indiana and I looked at the landscape differently,” she says with a laugh. “Simile and metaphor, all around me.”
She’s published two lauded books of poetry, Evening Chore and The Harmonist at Nightfall: Poems of Indiana. Redolent of Mennonite wives “sturdy as the chimneys of old farmhouses,” of the campfires of our forgotten forbears and of the stark austerities of the Third World, these verses have appeared individually in elite literary journals and have been featured in former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry column and Garrison Keillor’s The Writers Almanac.
“Even while she laments the losses that beset any life, Wagner also celebrates the goodness of growing things in poems charged with the clear light of praise,” renowned Hoosier essayist Scott Russell Sanders said of Evening Chore.
Just as pertinent to Wagner’s new post are two books she co-authored with her father, Gerald Miller – Making the Rounds: Memoirs of a Small-Town Doctor, and A Hundred Camels: A Mission Doctor’s Sojourn and Murder Trial in Somalia.
Yes, murder trial. Four decades ago, a rural Hoosier’s venture of religious charity in a destitute country rewarded him with criminal charges when a patient who had been in his care died in a separate event. The established penalty was 100 camels to be delivered to the family of the deceased. Providentially, acquittal was won.
As if that were not material enough, Wagner has books on hand produced from memoir projects she has conducted with youth and with senior citizens through the Writers’ Center of Indiana. Soon, she will add a book of remembrances by women military veterans, now in progress. And she plans to continue teaching poetry as memoir, also through the Writers’ Center.
“I just love memoir work,” she says. “You develop such a community of writers.”
Holder of a master’s in fine arts degree from Indiana University, Wagner has taught creative writing and memoir writing in schools, colleges and community venues. She teaches in the Butler University multi-disciplinary seminar Religion, Spirituality and the Arts, headed by Rabbi Sandy Sasso.
Her husband Chuck is a poet and a teacher of creative writing and AP English at Brebeuf Preparatory School. Daughter Vienna is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where daughter Iona is an undergrad. The girls are writers as well; and Iona, an accomplished musician and composer, has accompanied her mother in readings. As ideas for the coming two years develop, Iona may find herself on board again.