Poet brings blue collar sensibility to post as Lansing's first poet laureate

Poetry has a place in Lansing as the city inaugurated its first poet laureate in April: National Poetry Month.

Dennis Hinrichsen joins the growing list of bards across Michigan who are using the power of words to strengthen the culture of their communities. The 60-something native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has made Greater Lansing his home for more than 30 years, spending the past decade as a resident of the Moores Park Neighborhood near REO Town.

Hinrichsen taught creative writing for 27 years at Lansing Community College. He also mentored pre- and early-teens in LCC's gifted and talented program for several years. In between, he published seven books of poetry and two chapbooks. Many of his poems derive from family dynamics and the physical presence of being in the world. Others concern surroundings and place. Most, he says, are tethered to personal lyric, with recent poems exploring social or political themes. 

"Poetry can be the perfect thing to celebrate where we live and the larger environment," says Hinrichsen. "We're all just scratching at cave walls but with better technology, and trying to figure out what it means to be alive in our time and in our place."

Poetic ambassador

Hinrichsen will receive $2,000 a year to serve as Lansing's ambassador for poetry, leading projects and inspiring creativity within Ingham, Clinton and Eaton counties.The Lansing Economic Area Partnership sponsored his two-year appointment, alongside the Lansing Poetry Club and the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities Center for Poetry at Michigan State University.

"Lansing has such a rich cultural identity with such a vibrant music and art scene," says Laurie Hollinger, assistant director of the Center for Poetry. "Having a poet laureate pulls the whole scene together. Having someone like Dennis puts us at the top of the list."

Michigan is one of just five states without a poet laureate. Several Michigan cities boast a poetic ambassador, including Grand Rapids, St. Clair Shores and Detroit, as well as the entire Upper Peninsula. Edgar A. Guest was the state's last poet laureate, appointed by the state Senate in 1952 and serving until his death in 1959. 

"Our city and region are great at thinking progressively and creatively about our future prosperity," says Bob Trezise, CEO of LEAP. "So a poet laureate for Lansing is very symbolic of who we, as a community, are becoming."

Hinrichsen says the honor of being Lansing's first poet laureate allows him to inspire others to celebrate the art in everyday life. His first-year project will focus on "Poems of Place,"—encouraging people to write about places or landscapes in the region that are hidden, secret or carry special meaning. 

"You could write about an abandoned barn, or fishing with your dad, or the sound of a train at night," he says. "You could write a poem of resistance, or something that embraces the diversity we see in our tri-county area."
Hinrichsen's initial steps are to build an interactive website and launch a Facebook page. He hopes to develop video and audio, too, that people can access through social and other media. In time, he'll go on the road, visiting schools and community centers to engage kids and adults as part of his overarching poetry project. He'll also engage audiences through occasional readings, the first being the May 5th Arts Night Out in Old Town.

"Poetry isn't just something that we do to write and publish books," he says. "It's a project that includes all community voices, with everyone's voice as equal as the next."

Poetry for all

Hinrichsen's egalitarian outlook toward poetry could be traced to his Midwestern roots. Or the origin may stem from Western Michigan University when an arts and ideas general studies class influenced his choice to study English instead of math.

Inspired by a poetry-inclined professor, Hinrichsen began keeping a journal as a sophomore. The pages included plastic forks taped to pages or colors to inspire writing about food or the sky. His classmates and teachers told him he should keep writing and take a creative writing class. He did both and started to read modern poetry. It was then, he said, that he had an experience that changed the direction of his life.

"I read a poem that just blew me away," he says. "It was a poem by James Wright, and he said something like 'when I stand upright in the wind, my bones turn to dark emeralds.' I was about 21 or 22, and it connected with me. It was like the words were magical and created a physical experience in me."

Hinrichsen knew then he wanted to write well enough to create those types of experiences in others. He changed his major to English, and began applying the beauty and structure he knew from math to building poetry. He earned a bachelor's with an emphasis in creative writing, and a master's in fine arts from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. For 10 years, he worked as a technical writer in Boston, then moved to Greater Lansing to teach creative writing at LCC until his recent retirement.

President of the Lansing Poetry Club Ruelaine Stokes says Hinrichsen understands the architecture of poetry, as well as the sonic qualities that affect the way sound and meaning interact. 

"He's a working-class guy from Iowa farming country and just a brilliant craftsman when it comes to poetry," Stokes says. "And he's a wonderful, wonderful teacher who has the ability to work with many different kinds of people."

Stokes is confident of Hinrichsen's ability to strengthen the popularity of poetry across the community. Her overall hopes are that more people realize their inherent artistic nature, and see that ability is not just a mysterious quality that's doled out at birth. 

Hinrichsen acknowledges that his chosen path as a poet hasn't been easy. The pay is low, and recognition often comes through obscure channels. But he chose it, he says, as a way to stay alert, and to be aware of the world around him. Not a day goes by that he regrets being a poet. In fact, he says, he never wants to not see the world through a poet's eyes. 

"It's just the idea that by putting black marks on a blank page you can command someone's attention and make them feel something," he says. "Poetry is simply magic." 

And of leading a poet's life in general? Hinrichsen says his life doesn't consist of sitting in open-air cafes or composing in a studio over a cup of coffee. Instead, his life follows a model more akin to William Carlos Williams, a poet who worked as a full-time doctor and often grabbed time in between patients to compose on a typewriter he kept hidden in a desk drawer. 

"I do laundry, I make milk runs, I make the bed," says Hinrichsen. "I write in kitchens and in airports. Often, I record poems while I walk. Van Morrison said something really cool once, that writing is blue collar work, meaning that you do the work to get things done."

Hinrichsen's first reading as Lansing Poet Laureate will take place during Arts Night Out in Old Town on May 5. Community members are invited to meet and greet Dennis and project partners from 5-8 p.m. in the MICA Gallery, 1210 Turner Street in Lansing. Information about the Lansing Poet Laureate and future events can be found here. 

Excerpt from "Dialysis"
A poem from Skin Music

Blood wants an angel but all it has is Monday,
my mother

three states away,
        left arm snaked and buttonholed

        for dialysis.
        What do they dream—mother

        and blood—those long hours

Permeable membrane there same as here:
potassium expelled, magnesium,

wreckage of husband,

What is collected: reverse Eden
in a jar.

Just 5 seconds ago I batted away a honey bee.
Now it’s back,

my kneecap sweet
as rhododendron.

The bee’s flight: long trail of zigging then on a rope
to the hive,

its news: nectar everywhere.


Ann Kammerer is News Editor for Capital Gains and writes occasional features. 

Photos © Dave Trumpie

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.

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