After 35 Years, Midwest Poets Series Turns to a New Director

Monday, April 9, 2018
Elizabeth Barnett

It’s been 35 years since Robert Stewart launched what has become a nationally renowned showcase for poetry in Kansas City.

In 1983, the idea that Stewart said he pitched was simple — provide a showcase at Rockhurst University for the best poets from around the Midwest region.

“I quickly ran out of Midwest poets,” he joked.

In the time since, the Midwest Poets Series — now part of the University’s Center for Arts and Letters — has expanded, bringing Poet Laureates and up-and-comers alike to campus. Some poets have read to more than 1,000 people, others to a small group.

At 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 12, Stewart will present his last guest, NAACP Image Award winner Patricia Smith, to the Arrupe Hall auditorium stage before handing the reins of the series to a new director, Elizabeth Barnett, Ph.D., assistant professor of English at Rockhurst University.

“I am really happy that Elizabeth is taking over,” he said. “I just love her enthusiasm and love for poetry and the way she interacts with people. She said that one of the things that appealed to her at Rockhurst was the Midwest Poets Series.”

Barnett earned undergraduate degrees in English and Spanish literature from the University of Texas-Austin, a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry from New York University, and Master of Arts and doctorate degrees in English from Vanderbilt University.

Barnett already serves as faculty editor of the Rockhurst Review, a literary journal published by Rockhurst University. She was also poetry editor of the Nashville Review from 2010 to 2012 and has had numerous poems of her own published in national publications and literary journals. She said she’s excited to step into the role.

“Bob has a great vision and has curated a series that has brought so many brilliant poets to Kansas City, many of them just before they become recognized more broadly,” she said. “I’m humbled to step into those shoes and hope to maintain that same level of quality that has made the series such a destination for poets from around the world.”

Nearly all of the series’ guests made indelible impressions on Stewart for different reasons. He said Billy Collins, the United States Poet Laureate at the time, filled the University’s Convocation Center, which seats approximately 1,000. Joseph Langland read in front of a much smaller audience poems that Stewart said left him speechless with their emotional impact. In 1988, days after author Raymond Carver’s death, his wife Tess Gallagher delivered a particularly special reading that included previously unheard poetry written by her husband.

There have been nearly as many similar stories as there have been guests, Stewart said, and many of the readers have since become lifelong friends. But as he looks back, Stewart said one of the most important things for him has been the extent to which the series has left an impression on the Kansas City community.

“I’m definitely proud that we’ve been able to sustain it,” he said. “I encourage people to think of it as a cultural institution, and I think we’ve been lucky in that a lot of people do.”

Some of that lasting appeal might have to do with his approach — with each season, Stewart said he’s tried to invite poets with unique points of view and diverse backgrounds in an effort to draw in different audiences.

“I’ve always loved seeing the different crowds of people who come to hear each poet,” he said. “Having that diversity of viewpoint and style is just how I’ve always wanted to represent poetry.”

Barnett said she hopes to continue putting together complementary slates of guests, bringing in poets whose work fuses poetry with community engagement.

“I hope to bring in poets who are community-minded and who are going to inspire our students to think about how they are part of this community around us and how this community is part of Rockhurst,” she said.

Barnett said she helped bring recent series guest Monica Youn, whose background as an attorney gave her a unique perspective in writing poems that explore issues of identity. She said she sees the series as something that can enrich the curriculum for students at Rockhurst and other institutions and a way to engage with the broader Kansas City community.

Next year, Barnett said she will kick off her first schedule with a very special guest — Stewart himself.

“He’s a wonderful poet in his own right, and I think we can honor that side of him now that he’s not needing to do all the heavy lifting of directing the series,” she said.