Thinking Out Loud: Missouri Poet Walter Bargen

Jul 16, 2015

How does one become Missouri's Poet Laureate? Darren finds out and hears some recent works from Boone County writer Walter Bargen.

Trouble Behind Glass Doors is a 2013 collection of poetry from Boone County poet Walter Bargen. He was the guest on this week's episode of KBIA's Thinking Out Loud.
Credit Credit: Mike Sleadd / www.michaelsleadd.com

Bargen was Missouri's first poet laureate from 2008 until 2010. When asked about how it came to be, Bargen recalled that 'there was a group - The Missouri Center for the Book - that had spent probably a decade trying to convince one administration after another to create the position of Poet Laureate. Finally, Governor Matt Blunt decided in the waning months of his administration that he wanted to do this.'

This decision was contrary to advice from Blunt's advisors, noted Bargen. The governor was adamant that the state create the position.

After three months of nominations of which there were 135, four finalists were selected. "I received a phone call to go down for an interview," recalled Bargen. "I was taken aback by his (Blunt's) very first comment: I've just finished  re-reading the 'Wasteland' by T.S. Eliot for the third time.

Blunt and Bargen had an amiable time in the interview except for an exchange where the then-governor asked 'Is there one reason we should not appoint you as Poet Laureate?' Thinking on his feet, Bargen admitted that he had used the words 'breasts' in a poem. "They chuckled and I tried to dig myself out of that hole and I said 'You know, I did grow up in the '60s. And I felt like I just dug the hole deeper. Why did I say those things?"

After a successful criminal background check for Bargen and his wife, he was eventually appointed as the state's first Poet Laureate.

Asked about his expectations of the position versus reality, Bargen admitted:

I expected I'd get a diploma, a certificate and I'd frame it and put it on my wall and that would be it, but I was overwhelmed by the attention I received from the media... I felt like every breath that I took and every word I said was filmed and in print. I tried to attend to everyone who requested my presence... One of the main activities of the Poet Laureate is to embody poetry. It is really helpful to see someone who presents poetry and makes them want to take poetry home with them. 

Darren Hellwege: How is it different reading a poem versus having it read to you?

Bargen: Poetry remains an oral tradition and it is written with that in mind. When you read a poem, when you see a poem on the page, where the line breaks are, where the punctuation is in the poem, they are all giving you instructions on how to read the poem. It is a composition in words.

Bargen's many works include his work 'Surrounded', which is heard in this episode of Thinking Out Loud:

Surrounded

Years of negotiating while negotiating the years,

and still no agreement. Either way,

the years all head one direction

for the door and down the street.

Unless his eyes are closed

and he finds himself growing up

in this house again, long before the neighborhood

turned to rentals, turned to realtors,

turned into parking lots, he recalls

the hours on his knees

playing cowboys and Indians on the rug,

circling the wagons, all the small plastic figures

forever condemned to be one pose

doing whatever it was they did,

aiming a rifle, shooting an arrow, perfection

perfecting nothing else. How he learned the lesson,

to hold his ground, even as he is more alone

than ever and encircled by stories of concrete.

Also in this episode Bargen read his poem 'In the Round':

–Capitol Rotunda

We sit in one of many circles,

Each of us centered in his or her own

Widening circle even as we stay focused,

Centered.  Circumference is our measure:

Vertical, horizontal, oblique, tangential.

Circularity spinning over, under, around us.

We spin and are spun together in circles─

concentricities we know and some

we don’t know. Thoughts and desires

Circling a circular living:

Darkness to light to dusty darkness.

Within the roundness of these granite walls,

The circling stairs and balconies

Rising upward to a domed climax

Where the Roman goddess of harvest,

Motherly love, stands surveying

The city on a bluff as it spirals outward:

The river rippled round by a child’s thrown stone,

The long meandering freight of coal and corn

Following the circuitous bottoms. 

Bold in her sundown-bronzed vestments,

Ceres up from ancient roots, from the long story

Of our telling, namesake to the dwarf planet

Discovered between the orbits of Mars

And Jupiter, by a Sicilian monk, January 1, 1801,

Near Palermo.  We harvest circles of light and time,

Energetic matters within the ever-expanding

Circumference of our curiosities.  A celestial art,

A music of the spheres, hearing goddess and dwarf planet,

River and rotunda spiraling outward at once.

***

Bargen continues to write and - once a publisher is identified - he expects to soon publish a pair of new books: 'Too Quick for the Living' and a collection of prose poems 'Pole Dancing in the Nightclub of God.'

More information about Walter Bargen is available online. More information about the artist Mike Sleadd whose art graces the covers of several of Bargen's poetry books is here.

Listen for new episodes of Thinking Out Loud each Tuesday afternoon at 6:30 on 91.3FM KBIA.