Widely Published and Revered by her Peers, the Kansas City Area Poet is the Recipient of a 2020 Missouri Arts Award
Maryfrances Wagner has established a national reputation through her poetry, but her latest accolade is one from the heartland.
The Independence-based poet is the recipient of a 2020 Missouri Arts Award — an honor that recognizes individuals, organizations and communities that have made significant contributions to the state’s cultural and artistic life. The awards presentation was held Feb. 5 in the Capitol Rotunda in Jefferson City.
“Poetry has always been the way for me to express myself best,” said Wagner, whom William Trowbridge — former Missouri Poet Laureate — praised for poems that “consistently engage with their insight and compassion.”
Not only have Wagner’s works appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, but she has also distinguished herself as an editor and educator. She co-founded and continues to co-edit the “1-70 Review,” has lent her editing skills to 12 poetry anthologies and the “New Letters Review of Books,” and was a founding member of the Writers Place in Kansas City.
And no doubt scores of aspiring writers benefited from her tutelage at Raytown High School and UMKC, where for many years she taught English and creative writing before her retirement. At UMKC, Wagner and husband Greg Field established and fund the Crystal Field scholarship in creative writing.
Wagner said she originally became aware of poetry as a child.
“My mother wrote poems and my father recited them,” she said. “So I started writing them with my mother. Then one day, we wrote one together — all three of us. It was a poem about country living. And that just sort of set the path. I just kept on writing.”
She became so enamored of poems that she got into the habit of learning them by heart.
“When I was in high school, I memorized Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven,’ which is a long poem,” Wagner said. “And then I started memorizing other poems.
“In high school, we didn’t read very many living writers — Robert Frost was about as far as we went. But once I got into college, I was moved or influenced by many living (poets): Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, W.S. Merwin, Sharon Olds, Mark Doty. Pablo Neruda is one of my very favorites; Emily Dickinson is one of my earliest influences.”
Her Italian heritage, she said, has played a large role in her poems.
“All four of my grandparents emigrated from Italy,” said Wagner, who was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and whose maiden name is Cusumano. “And English was a second language for my parents. I’ve published nine works, two of them chapbooks, and all of them have poems about family in them. That is the major theme of my writing.”
One such poem is “Hugging Mother,” published by the Dying Dahlia Review, an online literary journal:
I slouched against her,
sagged into her skirt folds
to pout or hide from uncles
who rubbed whiskers on my cheeks.
I leaned into her to hide
a missing tooth, a broken
nose that healed crooked,
a line of stitches on my forehead.
On bus rides, I huddled
under her arm and listened
to the bus door hiss each time
someone entered until I napped.
The immigrant experience is explored at length in Wagner’s most recent collection, “The Immigrants’ New Camera,” published by Spartan Press in 2018. Denise Low, the second Kansas Poet Laureate (2007-2009), praised the book, observing that Wagner “balances lyric with narrative perfectly” and “tells wonderful stories . . . compressed into poems and amplified with poetic intensities.”
The collection’s title refers to one of its poems, Wagner said.
“There’s a poem in the book called, ‘The Immigrants Get a New Camera,’ and it’s about my father’s side of the family,” she said. “My aunts were storytellers, so a lot of what I write about comes from the stories they told me over the years.
“They were very poor, and they amused themselves in whatever way they could — when they got something new, it was a really big deal. And so, when they got a camera, they were posing for all these pictures, and they didn’t have any film. But they didn’t care. The fun was in pretending that they did.”
Recently, the role of immigrants in contemporary American society has become a subject of political debate — prompting some artists to respond. But Wagner said her poems are apolitical.
“I haven’t gone there,” she said. “That’s not my thing. I know some writers do it really well, and I applaud those who can. But anytime that I try to write something political, it ends up being didactic, which is a terrible thing for poetry to lapse into.”
Wagner’s experiences in and out of the classroom have also proven to be inspirations, she said.
“I have a lot of poems about students and some of their stories,” she said. “And I also have always had a theme of nature and have probably written almost as many poems about nature as I have about family.”
Above: photo by Jim Barcus