Smile Politely

Keeping up with Will Reger, Urbana’s Inaugural Poet Laureate

Since his inauguration last summer as Urbana’s Poet Laureate, the first to be exact, Will Reger has been busy collaborating, writing, meeting, listening, giving readings, and creating new programs benefiting both the local poetry scene and our community as a whole. With two upcoming live readings, (January 23rd at Krannert Uncorked and February 13th at the Urbana Free Library) featuring work from his new collection Petroglyphs, Reger was kind enough to spend some time on rare day off sharing his reflections of life as Urbana Poet Laureate thus far.  

Smile Politey: You are currently at or near the halfway point of your tenure as poet laureate. How would you describe the experience?

Will Reger: I feel pleased with what we have accomplished so far. I also feel that time is short and I need to use my time wisely if I want to complete everything on my list.

SP: What have been some of your favorite moments?

Reger: The opportunity to work with young people. I was involved with Ashanti File’s group, Writers of Oya. I will be doing some things in local high schools. I also have enjoyed the many opportunities to read poetry and support other poets in their efforts. I have met many poets I did not know previously, who are wonderful people and writers. I thoroughly enjoyed the Poets on a Park Bench project, and look forward to getting back to that when the weather gets more comfortable.

SP: What has surprised you? 

Reger: To be honest, what surprises me most of all is how wonderful people feel about having a poet laureate in Urbana. People often cheer the laureate on or brag about the presence of the laureate. They are proud of having one. I am convinced it isn’t because of me so much as it is people love the fact that someone is in place to be a kind of leader or focal point on the poetry scene. It is a form of civic pride, perhaps, so I really do hope the program will continue into the future, for the sake of all those who are pleased it is there.  I think it is good for the community.

SP: Has the experience impacted your own work? If so, how?

Reger: First and foremost, it has allowed me to publish a book, in terms of both confidence and funds to accomplish it.  That is a major turning point in my writing career.  It seems like the reception of the book has so far been very positive. I am looking forward to the release event on Jan 23, for the opportunity to share my work with a different group of listeners.  In terms of the actual writing, I think success breeds success. I write more boldly, I think, because being poet laureate gives me a bit of a license to be more bold in my poetry.

SP: Teaching and working with young poets has been a key priority for you. Early in your tenure I remember reading about the development of a Young Americans Writing Poetry (YAWP) initiative. How has that been going?

Reger: Well, sadly, my vision for that idea has not exactly come to pass. I have worked and will work more with youth, but my YAWP initiative has taken a back seat to other things. But I still have hope for its future.To be fair, other things have happened more slowly than I wished or not at all, as well, so I have had to learn to be flexible.

SP: It’s so exciting to think of young people engaging in a literary form many people mistakenly think of as old-fashioned and irrelevant. What is their experience with poetry like?

Reger: We will see in April.  Most of my efforts for young people will be in the coming months.  What I’ve been able to do so far, however, has shown me that poetry and writing generally can give young people strength to meet the challenges of their lives.

SP: Can you update us on any other projects or collaborations you’ve been working in as Poet Laureate of Urbana? 

Reger: Poets on a Park Bench completed five interviews before the weather became uncomfortable.  I fully intend to continue it in the spring. Writers of Oya, an initiative led by Ashanti Files, is ongoing, I believe. I participated in one of their events and will welcome the chance for any further involvement. I have been reading in a lot of places — the Word is Seed program, with Alasadeyinka Davis and the Center for African Studies at UIUC.  I read at events at the Common Ground and Spurlock Museums, and was featured at the monthly read at the Iron Post.  I did a workshop with Parkland College faculty member, Amy Penne, with a class in creative writing at Tuscola High School. I was able to initiate a program called Laureate Likes, in which poets get a poem of theirs featured on the digital sign in the Urbana Free Library. That is on-going. Today, “Sophie” by James Englehardt is featured, and he has gotten some love for that from people who know him, but also featured were poets such as Ruth Siburt, Steve Davenport, and Ashanti Files. Within the next few days I will be a featured reader with Ruth Siburt at a Decatur reading held at the Wild Flour cafe, and I will read at the Uncorked at Krannert Center for Performing Arts, to release my book.

Also, in February I have organized the Poet Laureate Showcase, featuring a number of our best poets. That will be held at the Urbana Public Library.  In the coming months, besides the Interview series, I also hope to get the Poems on Glass project off the ground.  It has had a few difficulties, but I have hope for its future. That is a program that will feature local poets’ work in conjunction with the art murals that appear in windows around town, so it means that some poets will have their work in the public eye for about 2 years. I am currently organizing a postcard poem and art contest and a writing workshop and open mic for the UHS and Uni, which will take place in April. And I am working with the Chez Veterans Center on campus, and Nia Klein, a local tutor and therapeutic writing instructor, whom I met at Parkland College years ago, to hold a workshop and maybe some other activities for returned veterans, tentatively called Writing Strategies for Veterans. So I have a lot to look forward to in Spring semester, before I hang up my laurels. 

SP: When you look ahead, which contributions or points of impact will be most significant to yourself and to our community? 

Reger: I would feel most successful if one or two of these events became continuous for the community.  I think the Showcase [The Poet Laureate’s Showcase at the Urbana Free Library in February] the Laureate Likes, the Poems on Glass, and the Poets on a Park Bench could be significant ways to keep the poetry community in the public eye, and let Urbana know its poets are not just reading to each other, but we want people to see, hear, and know our work, recognize our names, maybe, but certainly come away with a line or two of our poetry stuck in their heads to pop out when they most need it. 

SP: In addition to the February Showcase, you’ll be reading at the January 23rd Krannert Uncorked. What can you tell us about that?

Krannert Uncorked will feature my reading between two musical events. The Showcase is intended to give the community a more balanced presentation of styles. It mixes poetry communities, which is one of the underlying things I hoped to accomplish. I’m very pleased that a diverse group of poets all agreed to be a part of it. To me, it shows that we poets are coming together in the community. That is very exciting. More of that, please.

SP: You have been a long-time participant in the local poetry scene and in readings in particular. Live poetry can be so much more impactful, yet there is the challenge, or perhaps the beauty of it being ephemeral as opposed to reading a printed copy. Do you enjoy the performance aspect? Does it require a different approach to communicating?

Reger: I was born and raised a bookish introvert.  But when a few of my poems were set to music and contributed to the winning of a prize and given a New York performance back in 2010, I realized that all these poems I’d been scribbling in private have some real worth for others.  I say that about myself, but I will say it also about so many other poets I have come to know–the world needs to hear their work.  It is powerful, delicate, nostalgic, loud, muscular, sad, silly, grim. And so on.  Reading in public, for me, has been a significant opportunity to improve.  A live audience gives you immediate feedback on the work. To hear a room full of people laugh or gasp is such an intoxicating experience. But to hear nothing or to feel nothing from the audience is also instructive. Maybe the poem needs work, maybe the performance was not up to snuff. Many reasons for audience reaction. Reading to an audience is an important part of being a poet. It helps the poems come alive and it gives the poet a better sense of how the work is received.

SP: Congratulations on the publication of your latest book, Petroglyphs. I’ve seen it described as “spare and powerful” with a focus on revisiting/reimagining aspect of everyday life. Can you tell us more about that?

Reger: That description comes from James Kotowski, of the faculty of Parkland College, who is my good, good friend, an excellent poet in his own right, and the author of the Introduction of the book.  I think it reflects what he sees as a quality in my writing. What I see is more complicated because I am more intimate with the creation of the poems. I’ll give you an example of what I think James is talking about.  A couplet from the poem “To Catch a Thief” (a love poem):

“If I steal your breath, reweave,
whisper it back to you as a song–

How many songs could I sing for you?….:” 

I don’t think these lines could suffer the loss of a single word and still mean what I want to say. These are lean lines in my view, very tight and strong. I won’t say I’ve always achieved this quality, but it is what I desire.

SP: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Reger: I want to express my considerable gratitude to Rachel Storm, our award-winning Urbana Public Arts Coordinator for her unfailing support of the poet laureate program.  Honestly, I would not have been able to do what I have done and what I plan to do without her involvement. She knows everybody. She envisions things happening much more clearly than I. She can organize efforts. She has helped me a huge, HUGE amount to achieve what I have wanted to achieve. I will be forever grateful to her, as should the city of Urbana. 

Top image: Head shot photo of Will Reger wearing a dark blue shirt in front of background of green trees. Photo from the Urbana Public Arts & Culture Program’s website. 

Arts Editor

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