Poet spends summer in Oxford

by Lanie Anderson

Mark Wagenaar, the University of Mississippi’s Summer Poet in Residence – warmly called the “SPiR” by the English department’s faculty and staff – will make his Oxford debut June 19 at Off Square Books.

Wagenaar, currently a doctoral fellow at the University of North Texas, is the most recent of eight poets chosen for the summer residency. The residency lasts four weeks from June 15 to July 15 and provides the SPiR ample time for writing, while requiring some appearances and summer class visits. The SPiR receives a travel reimbursement, an honorarium of $3,000, and housing at Plein Air.

Beth Ann Fennelly, poet and director of the university’s M.F.A. program in creative writing, and Ann Fisher-Wirth, fellow poet and professor, selected Wagenaar for the residency based largely on “Voodoo Inverso” – Wagenaar’s first and only book of poems – that Fennelly praised as “beautifully written and thoughtfully organized and structured”. “I thought the book was stylistically different from what the professors here are already doing, which is nice,” Fennelly said, “because the SPiR is a great opportunity to bring in a fresh perspective for the students.”

Wagenaar described “Voodoo Inverso” as a collection that grapples with “joy and sorrow, beauty and sadness”. “I’m very much drawn to the world’s hurt and the world’s beauty,” Wagenaar said. “I look upon the landscape of the world and hope to tell part of that story that there is a lot of hurt but that I think redemption is possible.”

Another aspect of “Voodoo Inverso” that Fennelly found interesting was Wagenaar’s ability to grapple with spirituality in his poetry. “Younger poets these days seem, to me, not to address religious themes directly or to only address them ironically,” Fennelly said. “[Wagenaar] was able to write these interesting, compelling, and complex poems that also engaged with a difficult investigation.”

For Wagenaar, poetry is about a journey, and a big journey in his life has been that of faith. “As Robert Frost said, the poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom,” Wagenaar explained. “For me, one big source of surprise and delight has been my walk with God.”

Wagenaar will be living in Oxford with his wife, Chelsea Wagenaar, also a poet and UNT doctoral fellow, and both plan to use the time away from home for writing and polishing their poetry. “I don’t know if I can put a price on the opportunity to have a month to work,” Wagenaar said, “but I won’t be a guy writing in his room 16 hours a day. Maybe I should, but I’ll also be putting my tourist hat on and steeping myself in the town, the school, and the tradition.” Hailing from Canada, Wagenaar also admitted that his wife, a North Carolina native, would be his tour guide: “She’ll be teaching me as well [about the South].”

Fennelly called the reading at Off Square Books next week a “fun celebration” of Wagenaar and of poetry in Oxford. “During the school year, there are lots of readings and events for students, but the summertime is a bit sleepier,” she said. “We try to have this rather significant one in the summer to keep everyone’s enthusiasm and inspiration fresh.” Before the reading, Wagenaar will be presented with a broadside of one of his poems designed by Professor Jan Murray.

Wagenaar’s hopes for the reading are simple. “I hope to offer some poems that speak to the human condition,” he said. “I would [also] love to surprise and maybe have you laugh a little bit and think about reading a bit of poetry this coming week.”

About Jon Rawl

Publisher of the Oxford Citizen, a Journal Inc. company.