Ashland writer named Missouri's first poet laureate

Tuesday, January 8, 2008 | 7:20 p.m. CST; updated 11:19 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Walter Bargen, who was named Missouri’s first official poet laureate on Tuesday, introduces an out-of-town poet at the Ragtag Cinemacafe on Nov. 6.

COLUMBIA — Gov. Matt Blunt named Ashland writer Walter Bargen as Missouri’s first official poet laureate on Tuesday. Bargen was notified of his selection by phone at 10 a.m. on Monday. He said being named Missouri Poet Laureate is “like a cherry on the whipped cream.”

“I’ve been writing for 40 years and suddenly this happens,” Bargen said. “I never had this in mind, I just write because there’s a great feel of enjoyment for me.”



— National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship (1991) — Hanks Prize (1995) — Quarter After Eight Prose Prize (1996) — Chester H. Jones Foundation poetry prize (1997) — William Rockhill Nelson Award (2005)


Age: 59 From: Ashland Workplace: Bargen has worked at MU for more than 20 years as senior coordinator for the Assessment Resource Center, a department in MU’s College of Education. BEIRUT, from “Fields of Thenar” Machine guns inhabit the rooftops like hungry crows. Bullets peck the library city hall the cobble streets Allah’s forehead. To the east the mountains belch dust as artillery fires into the city planting the bloom of brown orchids on the beach apartments on the Hilton in courtyards filled with the shattered rosary of bricks. People are opening their bodies for the world to read the print still wet and so red it pours out a stoplight on Broadway and Ninth in downtown Columbia, Missouri. ZOONOTIC (Honorable Mention in the 2005 War Poetry Contest sponsored by Winning Writers) Caged, toothless, a lion sits in the manner of Kabul alley cats, front paws slightly curled inward toward his chest, hind legs folded close to his body, head erect, staring beyond what moves beyond the bars. Marjan’s mane mangled from a grenade tossed five years ago that killed his mate. He’d mauled the victorious fighter who’d entered his enclosure to celebrate, lion to lion. He survives revenge and today’s war, gunfire and guided bombs. Near starvation, he gums the flank of something tossed to him. Alley cats steal in to steal choice pieces. From neglect, old age, he dies. Ten years earlier, Kuwait City evacuated, desert-hued walls shrapnel-riddled, hippos, big as burnt-out Mercedes, wandered the streets. Sharks, more or less lucky, pulled from algae-festering aquariums, eaten by the invading army. A confused giraffe stared into a flashing traffic light. Cages opened, toucan and parrots perched on bullets. At the city limits, steel-latticed stems of a hundred desert derricks sabotaged into unfurling black blooms. Half-a-century earlier, by order of the Japanese army, at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, shortly before the flash and ash of Hiroshima and Nagazaki, the cages left open, tigers, leopards, bears, snakes, all poisoned. Three elephants, John, Tonky, and Wanly, wouldn’t eat the poisoned potatoes. The syringes’ needles too weak to pierce their skins. Seventeen days later, John starved to death. Tonky and Wanly, weak and thin, lifted their bony bodies, stood on their hind legs, raising their trunks as high as they could, performing their bonsai trick, begging for food, for water. No one said a word. No one said their trainer went mad giving them what they needed. Everyone prayed for one more day that tomorrow the bombing would end. Two weeks later, they died, trunks stretched, hooked high between the bars of their cage. If that prayed for time exists, perhaps my father found it, mowing the lawn, raking leaves, finishing the basement with cheap wood paneling, washing and waxing a series of cars, a shine maintained between wars. My mother kept some of the bowling trophies, emptied the closets of his clothes, gave away all the shoes except his traditional German dance clogs, the ones with a military spit-shine. I kept the patches, the chevrons, insignias, medals, flags, the photographs. His leather belts, I could wrap around me twice. One cut of gray, wrinkled elephant skin, stamped authentic as death must be. NEWTON REVISITED, from “The Vertical River”) GRAVITY and motion and some thing massed to go lower, precipitous prescription, as when I watched a man in El Dorado Canyon, dressed only in red silk shorts and tennis shoes, scale a plunging granite face higher than any city building. His thigh muscles finer than braided rope, each spiraling sinew compounded by another. Ascending he grew smaller, angelic, and sometimes swung upside down, reaching blindly out and up over a ragged ledge, feeling for a finger-thin crack or feeble shelf of heaven to grab and hold. He was half spider climbing a fissured igneous web, and when he reached the top, fists of lighting punched through the bellying clouds, The canyon became a thunderous well as rain obscured and turned the mountain into a vertical river. I waited out the storm in a cave, considered his survival near naked on a freezing mountain, his only way down a slippery escarpment. In the middle of the downpour, he walked up soaked and shivering, smiling as he told how he was unable to see his hands knuckle in crevices, his wrists buried in the sheering water, and carried into its current to the bottom in a flowing firmament, until he stepped on grounded principles.

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Bargen, 59, has published 11 books of poetry and expects a 12th to be released this year. His work has been in more than 100 publications, including the American Literary Review, International Quarterly and River Styx. He has also received multiple awards, the most recent being the 2005 William Rockhill Nelson Award for the best poetry book by a Missouri writer and the Chester H. Jones Foundation Poetry Prize in 1997.

In addition to writing, Bargen has worked for 20 years at MU as a senior coordinator for the Assessment Resource Center, a department of the College of Education. Despite having a full-time job, Bargen has been able to release four books since 2001.

“People always ask me ‘How do you write so much?’” he said. “But I don’t feel like I get to write enough.”

The position of Missouri Poet Laureate is a new one, created by Gov. Blunt through an executive order on Oct. 18 of last year. He said then that he hoped the chosen poet could be another extension of Missouri’s artistic heritage.

“By naming a poet laureate, we will help continue this tradition for future generations of Missourians,” Blunt said in a press release on Tuesday.

Bargen, too, sees opportunity in the honor. “I hope it brings more attention to poetry in general, and creates a wider readership,” he said.

Blunt accepted applications for the position through Dec. 1, 2007. A selection board from the Missouri Center for the Book then narrowed the 135 applicants down to four finalists before making a recommendation to the governor.

The terms of the Missouri Poet Laureate position have yet to be fully decided, although Bargen will serve two years and is required to make at least six yearly appearances in public libraries and schools across the state. Bargen is scheduled to appear at a poetry reading at the Kansas City Literary Festival on May 17 and at a Feb. 13 event in the rotunda of the Jefferson City capitol building, where he will read some of his poetry.

Bargen will receive no money from the state, but the president of the Missouri Center for the Book’s board of directors, Mark Tiedemann, said that his organization will compensate him for travel expenses related to his mandated appearances. Additionally, Missouri Center for the Book has arranged for Bargen to receive a $5,000 honorarium in two equal installments over his term. The first installment is being provided by the Missouri Arts Council, Tiedemann said, although it is not yet know who is providing the second installment.

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Kevin Gamble January 9, 2008 | 10:30 a.m.

This is incredible work. "Zoonotic" is harrowing, devastating. Thanks to Bargen, to the Missourian for sharing it, and to Blunt for this new form of recognition (first time I've thanked him for anything, I think).

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