A way with words: Independence's Maryfrances Wagner is Missouri's new poet laureate
Maryfrances Wagner says she knew early in life that she wanted to teach.
The writing part, specifically poetry, came a bit later, starting with a nudge. But Missouri’s newest poet laureate hasn’t stopped since.
“My mother used to write little poems and would put them in our lunch boxes or our bag when we traveled, usually about events or nature,” said Wagner, a longtime Independence resident. “One day I was assigned in junior high to write something about country living, and my mother suggested, ‘Why don’t you do it with a poem?’
“It ended up in a literary magazine. That was the beginning, and I’ve just continued to do it my whole life.”
Gov. Mike Parson recently appointed Wagner, a retired English writing teacher at Raytown High School and UMKC, as the state’s sixth poet laureate. Her two-year term started July 1 and runs through June 2023. The Missouri Arts Council oversees the laureateship, which was created more than dozen years ago to enhance people’s lives around the state by encouraging reading and writing poetry through various public appearances and digital and social media.
In addition to her teaching career, Wagner has published nine collections of poetry and had works appear in dozens of publications.
In an Arts Council release, Wagner said she wants “to find ways to reach out to people who don’t usually read poetry or even think they like it.”
To do that, Wagner told The Examiner she plans to put on her teaching hat.
“I’ll probably try to do writing workshops, though right now I can’t go into the schools or travel to them, so I’m thinking of virtual ways to do it,” she said. “Maybe create some interviews of writers around the state, or create some tiny books that have one poem in it and poets will spread them around to people who are not writers, like people at the grocery store or the library or the coffee shop. We might do poetry post cards to citizens in rural areas.”
On Aug. 10, Wagner will be in Jefferson City at a state bicentennial celebration to read her original poem about Missouri (another laureateship requirement).
Wagner has taught English and creative writing at all levels, from children’s workshops to her jobs with Raytown and UMKC (her alma mater) to classes for graduate students and summer classes for writing teachers. But she’s also committed to writing to some degree almost every day of her life, whether it’s just jotting down ideas or fine-tuning compositions.
“I put my money in my mouth,” she jokes. “It wasn’t a case of ‘If you can’t do it, teach it.’
“I’m always fooling around with words, and some days I spend more time on it than others. Writing a poem takes me a long time, and you almost have to be in a certain state of mind. Some can just sit down on the bus or over a cup of coffee and start writing. I cannot do that.”
What Wagner can do and has done with her poetry is draw on a wealth of stories from her Italian roots, as all four of her grandparents were born overseas and emigrated to the United States.
“English was their second language,” she said. “We have a really rich culture of Italian heritage, and my father told me, ‘Whatever you do, you better write about your heritage,’ and I have.”
To witness, two of Wagner’s books of poems: “The Immigrants’ New Camera” and “Salvatore’s Daughter.”
“My father was one of 13 children, and my aunts were all great storytellers,” she said. “I’ve used a lot of what they told me as materials for my poems. They would tell stories about what they call the ‘old country,’ and they were so proud to be Americans.”
In addition to her teaching career and published works, Wagner has co-edited several poetry anthologies, the New Letters Review of Books and, since 2010, the “I-70 Review” annual magazine. Wagner and husband Greg Field established and fund a scholarship for creative writing students at UMKC. She serves on the board of Kansas City’s literary community center, The Writers’ Place, and last year was named Individual Artist honoree for the Arts Council’s Missouri Arts Awards, the state’s highest honor in the arts.
Wagner was chosen poet laureate from 10 finalists selected by a state committee from open applications and nominations. She succeeds Karen Craigo of Springfield as poet laureate. The position was established in 2008 by executive order from Gov. Matt Blunt. Before Craigo, poet laureates were Walter Bargen, David Clewell, William Trowbridge and Aliki Barnstone.