The reading, titled “The Public’s Poet” served as a kickoff for the Sandburg Days festival. He read mainly from his recent poetry collection, “Wrestling Li Po for the Remote,” which, according to Stein, explores the balance between losing the self and being grounded in reality.
Stein is significant in connection to Sandburg Days as he carries on the legacy of Galesburg-born Carl Sandburg. In 2003, Stein filled the shoes of the past-poet laureate who was awarded the title in 1965. Other past poet laureates include Howard Austin and Gwendolyn Brooks.
As poet laureate, Stein has the opportunity to promote his work via Illinois government channels such as poetlaureate.il.gov. However, he chooses to link site visitors to countless other poets and poetry youth projects from the state in addition to his own works.
“For me, this is an opportunity to feature Illinois poetry,” Stein said of the page.
True to this idea, Stein began by reading works of other poets — namely, youth poets with whom he has worked. He called one by a fourth grader “sophisticated.” He also read a collaborative piece by three fifth-grade boys titled “Bread” and commented on how much he liked the final line: “Best of all, I like French toast.”
“I feel like if I was a kid in that [poetry] class, I’d have a lot of fun,” senior Sienna Cittadino said after the reading.
Then, Stein moved on to reading his own poems.
He began with a cento poem — one that borrows lines from other poems — about his dog, titled “The Good Dog’s Valentine Cento” and followed it with one titled “Illinois Mothers Who Lost a Child to War.”
“Mothers know that kind of loss in a way that we never will,” Stein said of the emotion captured in the poem.
His closing poem, “Wrestling Li Po for the Remote” is about a discourse with ancient Chinese poet Li Po while watching “Cops.” During this reading, Stein got especially into his self-described “performative” poetic art.
“I really enjoyed how animated he was,” freshman Laura Rae D’Angelico said after the reading.
At the reading’s conclusion, Stein had copious words of advice for those in attendance — especially on the recent artistic trend of mash-up and collaborative works.
“The individual is inextricable from their culture … I don’t think poems are totally socially constructed … but I don’t think they’re a wholly individual thing,” he said. “I honestly feel I can steal from all arts, and I call it aesthetic kleptomania.”
He also had much to say about the creative process.
“Sometimes you write in the middle of the night and it’s right … at the root, writing is just liking to make stuff,” Stein said.
Many Knox English professors as well as creative writing and English literature students were in attendance.
“It’s interesting to me, being in classes that write poetry[and] trying very hard to reach that audience and to reach an audience that isn’t reading poems, to see how he does it,” Cittadino said.
Stein feels that the main advice a writer should follow is known as the “three Rs: ‘Read. Revise. Risk.’” in order to be successful and defines poetry in the words of poet René Char: “the contribution of the creature to creation.”