photo by L.G. Patterson
Aliki Barnstone, Missouri’s poet laureate, was an artistic but shy girl. Raised in a family of writers and artists, her childhood was filled with imagination and creation. She was just 12 when Macmillan published her first collection of poetry, The Real Tin Flower, with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton. At 13, being shy no longer suited her needs. She cast hesitation aside in favor of a bold voice — a choice since rewarded with a continuous stream of acclaimed poetry, translation and artwork.
This June, Gov. Jay Nixon appointed Barnstone as the state’s fourth poet laureate. Trailing accolades, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize and a Senior Fulbright Fellowship in Greece in 2006, she is the first woman appointed to the role. A brilliant poet, Barnstone is a gifted educator (she’s a University of Missouri English professor), artist, gardener and cultivator of political activism, as well.
Walter Bargen, Missouri’s inaugural poet laureate recalls, “Everyone was curious about the question, ‘What do poet laureates do?’” Beyond the mandate of visiting libraries and schools and composing an original poem in honor of Missouri, little else is defined about the honorary 2-year term. “I think that each Missouri poet laureate has been left to make the position his or her own,” Bargen says.
Barnstone already has a vision. She plans to cultivate an opportunity for Missouri youth to video chat and compose poetry with refugee children in Greece.
Local students will benefit from poetry, Barnstone believes. “I think children now are growing up very publicly without the privacy to be children because of social media,” she says. Art and poetry can help re-instill the freedom of learning to be oneself and the innocence of youth: “[Poetry is] a way of communicating with the world that is theirs and on their terms,” Barnstone says, “and art is fun!”
Children are naturally receptive to art and the process of creation. In fostering that openness, Barnstone hopes to dispel the notion that poetry is hard or boring — something adults could learn, too.
Many say their lack of interest in poetry stems from not wanting to have to interpret it. Barnstone counters, “It’s part of being human to turn to poetry for solace or joy. When you look at a photograph or a painting do you say, ‘I don’t like it because I don’t know how to analyze it’? No, you look at the painting and you go into that world. So my advice is to imagine poetry is a painting and go inside it. Then, from there, you make observations and go into the mysteries with an open heart and open mind.”
Barnstone believes the project also will benefit refugee youth in Greece. “All these kids are traumatized. They need the arts.” And it will help humanize perceptions of refugees. “You can’t objectify and demonize people when you have conversations with them and see them face to face.” (Visit us online at www.insidecolumbia.net to read her poem, “Late January Thaw, Refugees, Fragments.”)
Born in Turkey, Barnstone’s mother was expelled in 1923 when she was 3 months old during the forcible relocation of nearly 2 million people, with those of Greek heritage sent to Greece and Muslims in Greece sent to Turkey. Combining this refugee family history with summers (and occasional years) spent in Greece and with her passion for helping children, Barnstone envisions a long-term educational and therapeutic experience — like poetry itself, something of solace and joy.