As a child, Aliki Barnstone and her family would visit a house their father owned in Vermont every year.
They would prepare big spaghetti dinners and gather around the fireplace to roast s’mores.
After dinner, her family of four, plus a family friend who was a recognized American poet, would take turns tossing out a word. Then everyone would sit down to write a poem using the collection of words as inspiration.
What might seem unusual in most families was commonplace in hers. Barnstone’s father is also a successful poet and professor emeritus at Indiana University, with more than a dozen volumes of poetry to his credit.
Barnstone, 64 , herself is the author of 11 books; eight are books of poetry, and the remaining three are critical works. She is on the faculty of the MU English Department, where she teaches poetry workshops among other classes.
In 2016, she was selected by the governor to be the fourth poet laureate of Missouri, where her role is to enrich the live of Missourians through poetry and reading.
Writing and poetry were just ordinary aspects of life growing up as the daughter of award-winning poet Willis Barnstone and her visual artist mother, Elli Tzalopoulou-Barnstone.
“We amused ourselves by playing board games, making up plays making our own costumes, writing and painting,” she said.
Art was something that was never forced upon her or her brother, Tony Barnstone another published poet and a professor at Whittier College in California.
“No matter what we would choose to do, we were encouraged to do,” she said.
Her brother echoed similar thoughts. “Our parents made reading and writing and so on fun,” he said. “I wouldn’t say expected. It was just sort of a family tradition.”
Aliki Barnstone did know from a young age though that poetry and teaching was something she was going to pursue: “I always wanted my dad’s job.”
She had lots of time to practice because she and her brother were not allowed to have phones while growing up.
It all paid off quickly when her first book of poetry was published by Macmillan when she was just 12. Her father had approached the publisher and persuaded them to publish her book, “The Real Tin Flower.”
It was the start of an illustrious career in the poetry world and the first of the 11 books she would ultimately publish.
Barnstone has her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brown University and earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. After college, Barnstone began teaching and eventually wound up at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas .
She loved the city and the diversity of the people but decided it was not where she wanted to raise her daughter. She joined the MU English Department in 2007.
As Missouri’s poet laureate until 2019, she held readings and worked with anyone who sought her knowledge. Some of her favorite work was with children, teaching them to feel that each has something special to contribute.
“If kids have something that no one can take from them,” she said, “that protects them from a lot of they have to face.”
She values the idea that poetry gives children a life for themselves.
“They need something that’s theirs, that is not for anyone unless they choose. They need to have some sense of their own private lives.”
She likes to view her relationship with all of her students as a give-and-take.
“Unless it is a collaboration it is no fun for me and isn’t fun for them,” she said.
Zoe Korte is a sophomore in her advanced poetry workshop. She talks about the impact Barnstone has had on her.
“She helped me get published in my first Lit Mag, which was a lifelong dream of mine,” Korte said. “She helps us rediscover the childlike joy that is in creative acts.”