The Poet, Essayist and Editor is at the Center of All Things Literary in KC
What is the written word really worth? Only everything you can put into it.
So goes the ardent ethos of probing poet and essayist Robert Stewart, veteran editor of “New Letters” magazine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and founder of the Midwest Poets Series at Rockhurst University.
Stewart’s credentials make him a high-profile player in the Kansas City literary community. But it’s his unflagging if old-fashioned passion for conveying emotional truths on paper and his diligent fostering of both student writers and old-pro wordsmiths that underlie his considerable influence and reputation.
How many other academics can claim that they put up their dukes against rock and roll legend Chuck Berry and wrote a poem about it? That poem, “Fighting Chuck Berry,” may never be published, for personal reasons, Stewart says, but more on that later. Stewart was surprised to see Berry referred to as a “poet” in media appreciations following his death earlier this year at age 90.
“He was a songwriter,” Stewart recalls. “I never thought of him as a poet. That’s all new to me.”
That’s because in a poem, “the words on the page have to do all the work,” Stewart says, as opposed to the lyrics of a song, which get significant help from the accompanying music to convey “sound and meaning and ambiguity.”
The challenge of producing something fresh and alive and different with words alone can be daunting. Yet anyone who can read and write can give it a try. And there are plenty of informal bards doing just that, Stewart says.
“It seems to me that poetry is irrepressible,” he says. “Part of the reason is because poetry is so close. Anybody can pick up a pen, write a small poem and carry it around in their wallet or pocket. It’s not uncommon for somebody to find out that I’m a poet and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve got one of my poems right here.’ A friend of mine and I were at a drinking establishment not long ago and were talking about poetry. And the bartender said, ‘I’m a poet,’ and he pulled out one of his own poems.
“I think that there are more people walking around who are poets to some degree or another. Maybe they write a poem now and then. They think about being poets. Maybe they’re not as actively engaged in it as I am. But it would be amazing to know how many people that you might see anywhere, who look like regular people, actually either write poems actively or occasionally.”
Whoever and wherever those furtive poets may be, they share the same goal as all sincere versifiers.
“What you’re really wanting is that moment of intensity that people feel something deeply,” Stewart says. “And that’s a poem.”
From Plumber to Poet
Stewart grew up in suburban St. Louis, the son and grandson of plumbers, and worked in the summertime as a plumber’s apprentice.
“People say, ‘Why aren’t you doing it now?’” he says. “Because I’m the slowest plumber you ever saw in your life. It’s like 14 trips to the hardware store before I finally figure it out.
“But my experience in the pipe trades as a laborer was profoundly important to me. My first book of poems was called ‘Plumbers.’ My father would say, ‘Can you bring me 15 copies of that book?’ I’d say, ‘What happened to the others I gave you?’ He’d say, ‘Oh, I take them to the union hall and sell them to the plumbers.”
Stewart was always interested in writing, but more as an admirer of great literature than as a writer seeking greatness. He didn’t get serious about the art of creative writing until the mid-1970s, when he graduated from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and came to Kansas City to earn his master’s degree in English at UMKC.
“I got really connected to the poets here in Kansas City,” he recalls. “I got interested in the poet (and ‘New Letters’ founding editor) David Ray, who was here at the time. And I took some classes and I got interested in poetry and in publishing and it just seemed like a great niche for me. I started volunteering at ‘New Letters’ to help however I could. Just listening to David Ray talking on the phone to these writers who I’d heard of, I just thought, this is really exciting.”
After graduating from UMKC, Stewart worked as a part-time teacher for the school’s English department — “I taught freshman composition,” he recalls, “and it was brutal” — while also working part-time as managing editor of “New Letters.” But by the early 1980s, he’d left to pursue a career in commercial freelance writing, among other things.
“I was restless,” he says. “I didn’t quite know what I wanted to be. I did a lot of odds-and-ends jobs along with freelance writing. I worked as a copy editor for Universal Press Syndicate for a while. And I taught one year at Rockhurst University. I was learning a lot, but I was bouncing around. I was a little lost, frankly. I was even applying for more traditional jobs and not getting them — thank God. I was trying to figure out who I was.”
Personal epiphany arrived in the form of financial practicality in 1985, when repeated attempts by “New Letters” to get Stewart back into the fold finally succeeded.
“I got to thinking about it and having a regular paycheck started to make a lot of sense to me,” Stewart remembers. “Because there were magazines out there that owed me hundreds of dollars. You know how it is as a freelancer, trying to get paid is the hardest job.”
So Stewart returned as managing editor of “New Letters” and as an English teacher at UMKC. In 2002, he succeeded retiring “New Letters” editor Jim McKinley.
“It really is quite a literary operation here at UMKC,” Stewart says, including the “New Letters” book-publishing arm, BkMk (Bookmark) Press, and the “New Letters on the Air” nationally syndicated radio show. “When I took over, I thought, ‘Well, my job is just to try and not ruin it.’”
TO A TURTLE
I am slow, too.
Here’s the wide road—
it’s a chance—
and a shell is, so far,
a kind of wing
to escape on.
My house in Waldo, truck,
have no value
in this discussion.
I am talking
how we move east
at about 65, and you move
north, at what—
point zero, point one?
Nothing to distract you
but a smell of water,
or the pool of the moon
on your back
like a dark headlight,
you reckless driver.
Building a Legacy
In fact, Stewart has guided the course of “New Letters” with exceptional results.
Since he took over 15 years ago, the magazine has tripled its yearly circulation to 12,000, making “New Letters” one of the top-read literary publications in the country. In 2008, “New Letters” won the prestigious American Society of Magazine Editors Ellie Award in the essays category. Other nominees were “The New Yorker,” “The Atlantic” and “Harper’s.”
“That was quite a big deal,” Stewart says. “There are only a handful of literary magazines that have won national magazine awards. We’re not like a news magazine. We’re not just writing feature articles about miscellaneous subjects. All that’s great. I honor all of that. But ‘New Letters,’ as a literary journal’s job, is really to advance the art form itself.”
Stewart was at the Ellie Awards ceremony in 2008 at Lincoln Center in New York, and he gave the acceptance speech for the winning “New Letters” essay, “I Am Joe’s Prostate,” by Tom Kennedy. He revealingly pointed out to the audience: “Anytime you can describe a piece of writing as terrifying and hilarious at the same time, you’re talking about literature, because you can’t categorize it.”
Likewise, despite being a de facto literary magazine, the content of “New Letters” resists easy classification, thanks to the increased variety of material that Stewart has overseen in its quarterly pages.
“In many ways, what I’m working with here — a literary print journal — is an old-time, archaic art form,” Stewart says. “But we have interviews, commentaries, essays, short stories, poems, art, book reviews. A good magazine should just have a lot of different kinds of things in it. I think that’s one of the joys of being a magazine.”
Another delight for Stewart is physically holding the latest edition of “New Letters” magazine in his hands.
“The print version, in my view, is an artistic object itself,” he says. “The way we try to lay it out — the order, the flow, the juxtaposition of materials, the artwork, the quality of the paper, the whole thing — it is a profound experience. Sometimes writers will say, ‘Oh, can you just give me an offprint of my short story, so I can send it around to friends; I don’t want the whole book.’ I won’t do it. I say, ‘I’m not going to dismember this magazine. If you want to send your friends the short story, send them the whole magazine.”
Since 1983, Stewart has also served as founding director of the Midwest Poets Series, which invites notable poets to Kansas City to read and discuss their work for audiences at Rockhurst University.
“We bring in people, sometimes after they’ve made it big and sometimes before they’ve made it big,” Stewart says. “Derek Walcott, who died this spring, won the Nobel Prize for Literature only a few months after he was at the Midwest Poets Series. It just goes to show, you don’t know. You bring in these really good people, solid people with national reputations, and they’re kind of moving along and making ways for themselves into the future. I like to think that that uplifts the entire literary scene here in Kansas City. I think it’s very important.”
Poet or not, the most famous purveyor of wordplay that Stewart ever encountered without planning to was Chuck Berry, widely known as the Father of Rock and Roll.
It was a meeting — actually, a physical confrontation — that occurred when a college-aged Stewart and his friend, along with their dates, were picnicking on Berry’s rural property in Wentzville, Mo., just outside of St. Louis. They had been greeted by Berry’s father and given permission to go down by the lake, although apparently not to use a canoe.
Stewart and his friend took a ride in the canoe, and “Chuck Berry comes running full-speed down the hill, screaming at us,” Stewart remembers. “So we get to the shore and we jump out. And he’s hot mad. And he’s pushing me and he’s got his fists up. And I kind of shoved him back and I put my fists up, because I thought he was going to take a swing at me. And he wanted money from us for taking his canoe.
— Robert Stewart
“We’re under this tree. It was very intense. And, I mean, we’re there. And I thought, ‘I’m not really a fighter.’ I did not want to fight this guy. And so I said, ‘Alright, we’re out of here.”
Stewart’s poem, “Fighting Chuck Berry” — a bittersweet evocation of youth and the tricks that opinionated memory can play — was written many years later, after a visit with the same friend who was in the canoe with him that day.
“I’m visiting my friend, who still lives in the St. Louis area, and he’s telling the story,” Stewart says. “And he says, ‘There’s 20 black guys following Chuck Berry down the hill.’ And I went, ‘No, it was just one guy.’ And I thought, this is classic St. Louis, frankly. And I had to put it in the poem, because it kind of makes the poem, that this misconception years later has taken place. But I checked it with my date at the time, who became my first wife, and I said, ‘Were there 20 black guys?’ And she said, ‘No, it was just Chuck Berry by himself.’
“But I can’t publish this poem, even though it’s online — I didn’t know it was online. I can’t put this poem in a book or anything, because my friend reads my books. And I think it makes him look bad, you see.”
What is the written word really worth? Only everything you can put into it, even if you can’t share the result with the friend who inspired you. That’s intense. That’s poetry. o