Shari Wagner thought she had a pretty detailed mental map of Indiana’s geographical and cultural terrain.
Not only had she lived in six Indiana locations, including Fort Wayne and rural Wells County, but she’d traveled extensively throughout the state for “The Harmonist at Nightfall,” her book of “place” poems.
But when the 1976 Norwell graduate began her two-year term as Indiana poet laureate in 2016, she started getting invitations from small towns she had to google and cities she’d never visited.
“Two years ago, I didn’t know where Jasper County was,” she says. “Now, having been there three times, I’m friends with many of its poets – and felt their grief when the beautiful campus of St. Joseph’s College closed this year.”
It’s the poet’s role to explore the hidden meaning inside the familiar, to see what lies beneath the surface. As poet laureate, Wagner – like one of those telescopes that harnesses the power of many individual lenses – has been helping guide and connect such introspection throughout the state.
On Saturday, conducting a poetry workshop at Loblolly Marsh – where 440 acres of the Limberlost Swamp once championed by Gene Stratton-Porter have been restored to wetlands – Wagner helped weave participants’ observations about a stunning 12-foot-tall golden-flowered native prairie plant into a single poem.
“This isn’t what you expect when you think of Indiana,” someone said, echoing a refrain often repeated throughout the day as participants explored the marsh.
This group of poets, which came from as far south as New Harmony and included a native Hoosier visiting from Ontario, shared a passion for both history and nature. Other groups Wagner has worked with have focused on social justice, veterans’ issues and political activism.
“It hasn’t been surprising to me — but it certainly has been amazing — to see how so many poets are doing things to serve their community,” Wagner said, noting efforts to save forests and historic sites, share poetry in children’s hospitals, and organize open mics and writing workshops for teens.
“It’s just a stereotype that poets live cloistered lives,” she said. “Indiana poets – inside and outside of universities, in towns and cities and rural areas – are deeply involved in the world.”
Reflecting a national trend, this quiet activism took on a new urgency after last year’s presidential election.
“I think that poetry by its very nature is all about waking us up to the world,” Wagner said. “But recently, (during) the Trump era, the protest aspect has certainly become less subtle and more overt.”
Shortly after the election, Wagner was one of many poets invited to an Indianapolis event that spawned a forthcoming anthology: “Writers Resist: Hoosiers Writers Unite,” edited by Josh A. Brewer and published by Chatter House Press.
“For a long time Indiana poets have been writing poems that support social and environmental justice,” Wagner said. “But recently I think many of us have been looking for ways to reach a larger audience with our concerns.”
Much as she’s enjoyed presenting workshops, reading other poets’ work and creating a new issue each month for her laureate website, www.throughthesycamores.com, the one downside is that she’s had less time to focus on her own work.
“I feel the irony every time I’m telling people how important it is to have a regular time and place to write each day,” she said. Lately she’s found herself adding, “even if it’s only for 10 or 15 minutes” – a reflection of her own reality that no doubt resonates with poets, who invariably have day jobs that pay the bills.
“Fortunately, I know the important role that the unconscious has in the writing process,” she said. “I know that it’s smarter than my conscious mind, and I trust that it’s working extra hard these days when I can’t.”
Wagner’s next project is a collection of persona poems in the voices of Indiana historical figures.
“As I travel to new places, I keep learning about local people I should write about. In fact, that happened in Fort Wayne this summer, when I came to read at the History Center.”
She was already planning to write about Chief Little Turtle and General Anthony Wayne. She’s since added others, including Jesse Lynch Williams, the chief engineer of the Wabash and Erie Canal, to her list.
As a childhood fan of Gene Stratton-Porter’s novels and nature books, Wagner had previously visited the Hoosier writer’s homes in both Rome City and the southern Adams County town of Geneva. But it wasn’t until this past summer, conducting workshops at Loblolly Marsh about 3 miles southwest of Geneva, that Wagner got a look at the low-lying terrain northeast Indiana was once known for.
Now, she notes, her mental map of Indiana “includes beautiful trails through prairie and woodland and marsh. It’s colored in with the yellow of prairie dock and partridge pea, the purple of coneflowers and Ironweed.
“And it’s associated with the people who carry on Gene’s work of environmental education – the wonderful staff and Friends of the Limberlost.”
To learn more:
Visit Indiana Poet Laureate Shari Wagner's website at www.throughthesycamores.com.