When Shari Wagner was 13 years old her family packed their bags and moved to the Horn of Africa. Her father worked in a hospital in Somalia, so they transplanted to the desert — a scenery that became a primary source of inspiration in her poetry years later. Today, Wagner is Indiana's poet laureate for 2016 and 2017, one of the highest honors a poet could have in the state.
"I was deeply affected by a number of things, but particularly the desolate beauty of the desert (guban)," says Wagner. "I describe the experience of trying to write poetry about it in my poem, "Second Language." I didn't know it at the time, but Somalia has traditionally been a land of poets."
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The influence that this time had on her original a writer were astronomical. Wagner is now the author of two books of poems, The Harmonist at Nightfall: Poems of Indiana and Evening Chore and has co-authored or edited a slew of other titles. To crown off her writing notches she has had three Pushcart Prize nominations and two Arts Council of Indianapolis Creative Renewal Fellowships, and nine grants from the Indiana Arts Commission. You know, just a few things. We were able to chat with her about her plans as poet laureate before her calendar of readings and appearances gets into full swing.
NUVO: Why is poetry such a significant medium to you?
Shari Wagner: Writing poetry is a way I explore experience and discover meaning. It's the process of crafting language until it says more than one thing at a time and rhythm, sound, imagery, meaning, and form all coalesce. Poetry is the way I sing and paint and dance. It's the way I keep awake to the world's wonder and listen to the silence. Poetry writing brings synergy to my daily experience — what I see and hear, dream and read and remember, all these things and more, start bringing gifts to the poem.
NUVO: What major motifs or themes do you find in your writing?
Wagner: My poems have a high regard for mystery and a deep desire to encounter the sacred within the physical world. They explore, among other things, the connections between things often assumed to be in binary opposition, such as the past and the present, the dead and the living, nature and humanity, imaginative truth and fact.
NUVO: What direction do you want to take your work over the next two years?
Wagner: I'm currently working on a collection of poems in the voice of a fictional Mennonite woman who lives on a farm near Shipshewana in LaGrange County. I'm hoping that book can come out within the next two years. After that, I want to complete another book that I've been working on for some time: a book of poems in the voices of fascinating Hoosiers, such as Madame C.J. Walker, James Dean, John Dillinger, Alice Gray ("Diana of the Dunes"), Belle Gunness ("Bluebeard of LaPorte"), Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown, and John Chapman.
NUVO: What do you want to do as the poet laureate?
Wagner: I want to promote the writing and reading of poetry throughout the state, in a variety of settings, in libraries, schools, community centers, and senior centers. Since my term coincides with Indiana's bicentennial and the centennial of its state parks, I'm also planning to celebrate poetry's connection to nature and history with some special readings and workshops at parks and historical sites.
NUVO: What role has poetry played in your life (both with you and your family) over the years?
Wagner: My husband, Chuck, is also a poet, and one of the things we both liked to do when our two daughters were young was read them poetry. I believe that reading aloud to Vienna and Iona tuned my ears to be a better poet and gave them an increased awareness for the possibilities of language. They dictated poems to us before they could even read or write and later filled blank books with poems and illustrations. As I was working on Poems of Indiana, school breaks, summer vacations, and many weekends were spent traveling as a family to Indiana state parks and historical sites. With so much poetry in our household, I could understand if it spurred our daughters to become scientists or mathematicians, but Vienna is an accomplished poet, with one of her poems on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, and Iona is a singer-songwriter with her own CD.