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Poet Laureates
Darin Zimpel, left, and Stephen Kalmar II sit at a table outside Wilson’s Coffee and Tea, 3306 Washington Ave., with a backdrop of West Racine reflected in the windows behind them. Zimpel and Kalmar are the 2011 Racine co-poets laureate. Scott Anderson scott.anderson@journaltimes.com

The children’s counting rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” doesn’t seem an appropriate means for choosing something as literary as a poet laureate. So, when the steering committee which was formed to name Racine’s first poet laureate had a tough time deciding who should get that designation, they named two poets to share the title.

Stephen Kalmar II and Darin Zimpel were recently named co-poets laureate for our city. And, on June 1, they will launch their two-year term in that position with a special “Evening of Poetry” at the Racine Public Library (see box for details). Both poets will read their own work, and they are inviting the public to share the evening with them both as listeners and by reading other poetry.

Such collaborative celebrations of poetry are something the two would like to make a regular part of their work as Racine’s co-poets laureate. One of their goals over the next two years is to bring poetry into the public view and increase its appreciation.

Zimpel, 43, said he would like to use events such as Downtown’s First Fridays and Gallery Nights to expose more people to the styles, subjects and words of poetry and help them see that it can be fun and entertaining.

“I want to get people to think a little more about poetry and to see that it’s not about someone sitting in a high tower writing it,” said Zimpel, who works as a customer service coordinator for SC Johnson (check out his poetry at http://darinzimpel.wordpress.com).

Schools are another place Kalmar, 51, said he would like to share his passion for poetry during his poet laureate term.

“I’d like to go to every school and read poetry with the kids,” said Kalmar, whose day job is monitoring child care centers for the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families.

A key organizer of the Root River Poets group for many years, Kalmar is also excited about collaborating with a variety of area educational, artistic and philanthropic organizations, and generally encouraging public enthusiasm for the written and spoken word. Part of his and Zimpel’s job as co-poets is to help establish the role of Racine’s poet laureate for the long run. 

And they, and the rest of the steering committee, are hoping that people from throughout Racine ’s artistic and poetic community will help them shape that role, said John Dey, reference librarian at the Racine Public Library and chair of the poet-laureate steering committee. Also serving on the committee now are local writers Nicholas Ravnikar and Nick Demske, and they are hoping to add other interested people.

Dey, who said he is happy to have been part of something historic in our community, said that creating a poet laureate designation is something that many feel is overdue in Racine — which has been home to the Root River Poets for more than 40 years and has served as inspiration for internationally known poet, novelist and memorist David Kherdian (www.davidkherdian.com), originally from Racine.

“The U.S. has had a poet laureate for 100 years, Wisconsin started naming its own in the 1990s, and a lot of other cities, including Milwaukee and Madison, already have one,” said Dey. “Poetry is important as an art form and this is a way to make it more accessible to people.”

Those who applied to be Racine’s first poet laureate each had to submit 10 pages of poems, along with a résumé and letters of support, according to Ravnikar. Looking at the poems submitted by Zimpel and Kalmar, their work may seem different in form and subject matter. And Kalmar, who comes from a theatrical and storytelling background, prefers to read his poems aloud — while Zimpel, who describes himself as “notoriously anti-social” enjoys sharing his poems online, through a Wordpress site.

Yet the two — both of whom graduated with degrees in English from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside — have certain things in common, Kalmar said.

“We both agree that precision of language in a poem is paramount.”

Racine’s co-poets laureate also share a deep passion for poetry and the desire to help others discover their own attraction to it.

In addition to their title, Kalmar and Zimpel each received a monetary award of $250. Funds for the award were donated by the Friends of the Racine Public Library, Dey said.

Any proceeds from the laureates’ activities during their two-year term will be split between future funding of the laureateship and charitable contributions to local arts and literacy organizations, according to members of the steering committee.

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