Honors: Anne Boyer

The Kansas City-Based Poet is a Winner of Prestigious Awards from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and the Whiting Foundation

It’s a good bet that Anne Boyer wouldn’t frame her recent success in clichéd terms. As an acclaimed poet and essayist, it’s unlikely that she would resort to such shopworn language as “the sky’s the limit” in reference to her ascending literary reputation. Or, for that matter, “the possibilities are endless.”

Nonetheless, the future looks bright — there goes another cliché — for Boyer, an assistant professor of liberal arts at the Kansas City Art Institute. Among her books are “The Romance of Happy Workers” (2008), “Garments Against Women” (2015) and the latest, “A Handbook of Disappointed Fate.” She recently won the Cy Twombly Award for Poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.

Boyer was one of three experimental poets to receive $40,000 grants from the organization founded by composer John Cage and visual artist Jasper Johns in the 1960s. The C.D. Wright Award for Poetry and the Roy Lichtenstein Award were given to Lisa Robertson and Fred Moten, respectively.

“It’s a remarkable thing not just to get an award, but also to have this kind of recognition of an art practice like poetry — which is not one that gets a lot of money,” Boyer said. Painter, sculptor and photographer Twombly, who belonged to the same generation as Johns, found inspiration in poetry, she said.

In addition to an honor, the Twombly award was also a surprise, Boyer said.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” she said. “It’s one of those awards in which they ask for recommendations from experts in various fields, and look over everything that you’ve done in your career. Then the committee makes a decision about who gets the award.”

On the Foundation for Contemporary Arts website, Boyer’s work is described as exploring “the possibilities of literature as an instrument for thinking about experiences often excluded from literature, particularly those that gather around gender, class, labor and illness.”

Boyer, 44, was born in Topeka, Kansas, and grew up in Salina. She earned an MFA in poetry at Wichita State University.

Her interest in poetry, Boyer said, came early.

“I’ve always just loved to read,” she said. “I was one of those kids who couldn’t get enough out of a book. So I knew I was going to be a writer of some sort, or an artist. I started out studying both, but poetry was cheaper.

“You don’t have to pay for studio space in order to write. And it doesn’t have a lot of overhead. It’s really portable, and you can do it on the bus.”

Boyer considers poetry “a practical form of self-expression” that fits into “the rhythms of daily life,” as in the poem “At Least Two Types of People” from “Garments Against Women”:

There are at least two types of people, the first for whom the ordinary worldliness is easy. The regular social routines and material cares are nothing too external to them and easily absorbed. They are not alien from the creation and maintenance of the world, and the world does not treat them as alien . . .

Then there are those over whom the events and opportunities of the every-day world wash over. There is rarely, in this second type, any easy kind of absorption. There is only a visible evidence of having been made of a different substance, one that repels . . .

“The New York Times” praised “Garments Against Women” as “a book of poetry (or is it lyric prose? Essay? Must one decide?) that also turns away from poetry: It has no interest in meter or prosody per se — rather, it is interested in the measuring of thought and feeling, in a slow amazing and amazed rendering of the negative space of official life.”

Equally skilled at poetry and essays, Boyer said the circumstances determine which literary form she employs. “A Handbook of Disappointed Fate” is a collection of essays and prose pieces. An upcoming nonfiction book, “The Undying,” will address her experience with breast cancer.

“Usually, when I write essays or any kind of nonfiction, I’m responding to something that somebody’s invited me to do,” she said. “So people will say, write an essay about some general topic, and I usually write it for that occasion.

“Poetry tends to be more self-directed — it comes from my particular need to engage the world on my terms. It’s a more intimate and personal mode of expression. An essay is part of a larger conversation with other people.”

As for poets whom she considers influences, Boyer cites Alice Notley, who is credited with addressing such neglected topics as motherhood and domestic life, and Emily Dickinson, a 19th-century American poet who was woefully underappreciated during her lifetime.

Boyer said that she came across Notley’s work as “a single mother trying to write, and looking for other women who had had successful careers as poets under difficult conditions.” And she turns to Dickinson again and again for “an education in the possibilities of poetry. Her commitment to her art was almost otherworldly.”

Dickinson, a famous recluse, might seem an unlikely influence on Boyer, whose work has been perceived as political. But she sees no contradiction.

“There is no separating art and politics,” Boyer said. “And poets have to respond to the world that they’re in. So my poetry is political, but it’s not only that.”

On March 21, the New York-based Whiting Foundation announced that Boyer was one of 10 emerging writers to win a $50,000 Whiting Foundation award.

Above: Anne Boyer on the front steps of her Kansas City home. Photo by Cassandra Gillig.

About The Author: Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson is an arts writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is also host and creator of the jazz program, “Somethin’ Else,” on 107.3 FM and 96.3 HD2 in St. Louis.

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