"Warrior Poet” Wendy McVicker – recently named Athens’ new poet laureate – has been advocating for poetry in Athens for about 35 years. Her family suggested the title for her business card as McVicker takes on the dual role of poet and karate instructor.
The Athens poet laureate is “an advocate for the arts and fosters a love of poetry and literature among the diversity of all residents,” according to the call for proposals issued by the city of Athens for its third poet laureate. McVicker said “it was time” to apply for the position, as she has been fulfilling that advocate role for many years.
McVicker has taught poetry workshops to people of all ages since her oldest son was in the first grade in the late ’80s, and her approach to poetry has remained the same.
Mothers of students in the class were encouraged to lead volunteer writing workshops, and McVicker volunteered to teach poetry. She read Kenneth Koch’s “Wishes, Lies and Dreams” for ideas on how to teach poetry to young children. Koch approached poetry as a “game you play with language,” McVicker recalled.
“(The students) rose to that bait. It was so exciting to me,” McVicker said. “I still follow pretty much the same idea that poetry is a game we play with language. It can be a very serious game; it can bring in a lot of serious stuff.”
McVicker continued to volunteer as a workshop leader, and eventually schools offered to pay her for teaching fee-based workshops and classes at schools in surrounding communities.
“There might be a whole handful of poets in this country who can make a living from their poetry,” she said. “I don’t make much money from that, but it’s a really rich, wonderful living.”
The Athens Municipal Arts Commission chose McVicker, whose appointment was approved by Athens City Council on Feb. 17, as poet laureate after careful review of her proposal of how to use the position; her lengthy literary resume of readings, performances and exhibitions; and a sampling of her poetry. The poet laureate is awarded a $2,000 honorarium for the two-year position.
McVicker’s immediate predecessor in the position was Kari Gunter-Seymour.
Poet laureates are responsible for projects of their own design for promoting poetry in the community, as well as being commissioned to write poems for the city for special occasions.
The poet laureate position was created in Athens five years ago, according to Carol Patterson, chair of the Municipal Arts Commission.
“Our thinking was something like poetry really is so personal and specific that somebody locally can do that better,” Patterson said. “I mean, what contact do we have with the state poet laureate?”
It also made sense for Athens to have a poet laureate, she added, due to the artistic aura of the city.
“Athens has always been a very artistic town,” Patterson said. “The arts is something that is very valued here, and artists feel safe here.”
In addition to continuing to teach workshops at schools, libraries and poetry groups, McVicker would like to launch the “Poetree” project.
In November 2016, McVicker planted her first Poetree at Chauncey Public Library. She led a group of parents, children and members of a Nelsonville creative writing group in writing poems, and each attendee selected his or her favorite lines to write on a strip of newsprint. After a hole was dug for the tree, each group member placed a line of poetry in the ground. The tree was planted and “fed” with the group’s poetry.
The Poetree project has been germinating in McVicker’s head for many years, she said. In one of her poetry workshops with homeschooled students, she used a prompt to incorporate a tree into the poem. Later, one of McVicker’s visual-arts friends asked if the students used literal trees. McVicker laughed but the idea stuck.
McVicker was also due to plant a tree. One of her friends living in Switzerland gave her 20 Swiss francs to plant a tree in the United States. The combination of ideas led McVicker to Poetrees.
“I’m not Johnny Appleseed. I’m not going to go around sticking seeds and saplings in the ground by myself,” McVicker said. “But I think it’s a great way to bring people together, if we get together and plant something together, and trees are so important.”
McVicker also said she hopes to expand the radio show “Poetry Conversation” at WOUB, which she co hosts. On the show, local poets, teachers and visiting poets are interviewed. McVicker is holding out hope that the show will be sound archived, potentially on WOUB’s website or as a podcast. The show currently runs Fridays at 9 a.m. in the “Conversations from Studio B” slot.
McVicker began writing poetry after spending about seven years living in Switzerland with her husband after college. She learned to speak French fluently, but realized she would never know French as well as English.
“I always say that poetry was my way of making love to the English language,” McVicker said.
When her husband John was offered a job at Ohio University in the ’80s, Wendy ended up in Athens. She describes herself as a trailing wife.
“A lot of smart, energetic, creative women in those days, and this was in the ’80s, (ended) up in Athens because their husbands got jobs at the university,” said McVicker. “There’s not a huge job pool. They tend to create their own careers, lives, jobs with their own energy and smarts and creativity.”
From McVicker’s perspective, the Athens arts community has expanded over the years, especially to include young people. She cited examples of arts summer camps at the Dairy Barn Arts Center and Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville. McVicker also said she witnessed increased communication between Athens and OU, which resulted in more poetry events independent of the university.
McVicker said she strongly believes “poetry has something for everybody and poetry is for everybody.” She has noticed that it’s especially important for youth and young adults.
“My experience is that teenagers need to write poetry, whether they know it or not,” McVicker said. “I think we all do, to some extent, because it’s a different language than the language we learn in school. And we all have things that we need to express that we can’t express necessarily in the language of mathematics or discursive reporting writing or analytical writing.”
McVicker said she’s planning to have a meet and greet at Arts West, located at 132 W. State St., in the coming weeks.