Indiana's poet laureate, Cedar Lake native George Kalamaras, has worked to kindle greater public interest in poetry through YouTube videos, cash prizes and by asking residents to submit their best verse.
He just completed the ambitious Project 411, a sweeping collaboration that combined the work of 411 poets across the state and with deep ties to Indiana into a free-flowing poem meant to evoke the state river. It's called Project 411 because the Wabash River runs 411 miles through Indiana.
Kalamaras, an Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne English professor who's published seven books of poetry and more than 800 poems, replaced fellow Lake County native Karen Kovacik, who hails from Highland, as the state's poet laureate nearly two years ago.
"I was so honored and shocked to be named poet laureate and to have the opportunity to represent the different art forms while acting as an ambassador throughout the state," he said. "I've been sharing poetry with people, and encouraging and inspiring writers."
Kalamaras solicited contributions from across the state for his collaborative 411 project and has recorded 70 episodes of the video blog "A Gray Barn Rising," where he reads poetry on his couch with his beagle pooch, Bootsie. He toured the state and brought poets from different corners of the state to other regions, for instance taking a contingent of Fort Wayne poets to Hammond last year, to get literary communities out of their own worlds to meet others they normally wouldn't.
Drawing from his honorarium and own pocket, he also established the Indiana Poetry Award, which gives out cash prizes. The award was given out in different categories, including urban poetry, rural poetry, historical poetry and social justice.
"It's so important to get that type of recognition to win a prize," he said. "Even though it's not an exorbitant amount, it's really a shot in the arm that encourages them to go forward to write more poetry and have more confidence in themselves."
He also tries to engage the public through his website, The Wabash Watershed.
Kalamaras still has a lot of family in Northwest Indiana, including his mother, aunt and uncle.
"I loved growing up in Cedar Lake, especially back then when it was undeveloped, in the woods," he said. "I had a very interesting experience because I grew up in the country but was 45 to 50 minutes from Chicago and got all the Chicago radio stations so it was the best of both worlds. I had the city culture, but growing up in the woods brought me much closer to nature."
He worked at Inland Steel during the summers and said it shaped his later work as a poet.
"Growing up in the woods and working in the industrial part both shaped my work. I bring both of those things in my poetry," he said. "The sensibility of being close to nature and the social awareness of what it's like to grow up in the Rust Belt, in a highly industrial place that's struggling. It enlarged my sense of self, and deepened my sense of how to connect to humanity."
Such a mind-set led him to Project 411, which he hoped would broaden and deepen Indiana's poetry community in vital ways. Poets, including a few who wouldn't formally identify themselves as such, all contributed an individual line of verse. Kalamaras chose the best ones and arranged them alphabetically.
"I wanted it to be a great river of a poem with our lines of poetry being tiny tributaries that feed into each other, into a greater mass," he said. "That's what I see poetry as anyway. It's something that enlarges us and that's larger than ourselves."