Oklahoma's poet laureate awarded $100,000 fellowship
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish makes it clear that she was not surprised when she was named Oklahoma's official poet laureate in 2017.
She knew she'd been nominated. She knew she stood a chance.
"I was delighted and excited," she says. "Not exactly shocked, because you know we have a really strong and interlaced poetry community here."
She pauses, nearly breathless, then continues. "Now, you want to talk shocked?" she asks, her voice rising with excitement. "This grant!"
On Tuesday, Mish learned that she was selected to receive a $100,000 fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, or AAP. That didn't come out of the blue, either; she'd submitted a proposal, applied for the award. She simply didn't expect to be one of the 13 state or local poets laureate nationwide to be chosen.
"I'm not nearly as well known as many of the poets on this list," she says. "Oklahoma, I think, gets overlooked. The Academy of American Poets ... did a generous and amazing thing."
This is the first year that AAP has offered the fellowships, which range from $50,000 to $100,000. The money doesn't benefit the winners directly — it's not theirs to spend on cars or add to retirement funds. Instead, it benefits the broader environments in which those poets live.
Mish's winning proposal sought funding to "present poetry workshops for students in public schools in under-served communities and/or rural areas across the state that serve the economically underprivileged and/or people of color." That's a formal way of saying that she wants to share her knowledge with the next generation of Oklahoma poets and writers, especially those who have fewer learning opportunities than those in more affluent communities. Some of the schools she plans to visit, she says, are in areas that "have a poverty rate of 100%."
She's still making out a list of which schools to visit and when, but she must spend time in 15 schools in the next year. Since it's near the end of the spring term, she won't be able to fulfill the fellowship's promise until school resumes in the fall. She hopes to schedule most of the work in October and April 2020.
The project is near to her heart because although she was born in Hobart, she was raised in Wewoka, where she attended rural schools without much exposure to poetry and the arts. She overcame that, earning two English degrees from the University of Texas and an English Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma, plus authoring “What I Learned at the War” (2015) and “Work Is Love Made Visible: Collected Photographs and Poetry” (2009), which won the 2010 Oklahoma Book Award for poetry.
In her governor-appointed role as poet laureate, she already has worked with students in various schools. The fellowship gives her the opportunity to reach more students and build on Oklahoma's literary traditions. In particular, she identifies with a particular subset of the Works Progress Administration (later changed to Work Progress Administration and widely known as the WPA). The WPA was a New Deal organization that put millions of people to work on infrastructure projects. One part of it involved musicians, writers, directors, actors and more; one goal was to educate people and promote literacy.
Oklahoma writers and poets were celebrated in the early decades of the 20th century, Mish says, but while their work fell afoul of some political leanings and drove some gifted authors away from the state, a renaissance came in the 1930s because of WPA workers. Some taught; others recorded oral histories, which are now artifacts of inestimable importance.
"I’m looking at this grant as my personal WPA," Mish says. "The writing part in particular. They did all kinds of work in rural communities, a lot of small towns."
Others are as excited as Mish is. Her phone has been "ringing off the hook" since news broke Wednesday morning, she says. Our phone conversation was peppered with interruptions from people attempting to reach her, at least until she activated a "do not disturb" function.
"This is not like anything that I’ve ever encountered before," she says. "I need to frame it for myself in a way. It isn’t about me. … I'm as excited for students and teachers and the state as I am for me personally."
But that doesn't make the honor any less satisfying.
Jennifer Benka, AAP's executive director, said in a news release: “Mish is a poet whose work exemplifies how poetry can spark conversation and can help us learn about one another’s lives and unique experiences, which promotes greater understanding." She went on to describe Mish and the other fellows as "exceptional leaders."
Mish says any honors come on the shoulders of the state's past and present literary stalwarts, including Dorothy Alexander, who has long operated a small Oklahoma publishing company; Ken Heda, director of the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival; and the close-knit community of poets and authors of which she is a part.
The fellowships were made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and were announced by The New York Times. AAP, founded in 1934, is perhaps the best and largest resource for poets, teachers and admirers of poetry.