April 19 2017 03:33 PM

Dennis Hinrichsen named Lansing’s first poet laureate

Local poet Dennis Hinrichsen poses next to a Lansing-themed piano at the Lansing City Market. Hinrichsen has been named Lansing’s first poet laureate.
Bill Castanier/City Pulse

While it’s only been four years since poet Dennis Hinrichsen left Lansing Community College, he has already experienced a different city from the one he knew before he quit.

“The city is a different place when you aren’t working,” he said. “I’ve just gotten the feel for the rhythm of the homeless.”

Hinrichsen, who retired from LCC in 2013 after teaching nearly three decades, was announced today as Lansing’s first poet laureate. The position — created by a coalition of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), the Lansing Poetry Club and the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU — is designed to serve as an “ambassador for poetry” in Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties.

The two-year appointment offers a $2,000 a year stipend, and Hinrichsen’s duties include hosting workshops and readings and organizing community poetry projects.

With this position, Lansing joins a handful of other communities and cities in Michigan with poet laureates, including Grand Rapids, Port Huron and the Upper Peninsula. But Lansing’s poet laureate position is probably the first in the state underwritten by an economic development agency.

Robert Trezise, president and CEO of LEAP, believes naming a poet laureate sends a strong message about the region’s cultural environment.

“We are in global competition at all times for people to work here, and we have to demonstrate a diverse, sophisticated and fun environment to get people to move here and stay,” he said.

Hinrichsen was selected from a group of 12 poets who applied for the position. Applications were judged on both the quality of the poets’ work and their proposed plans for sharing poetry in the community. The selection was made by a committee of 12 writers, poets and arts leaders from the community. (Full disclosure: This writer was on the selection committee.)

Selection committee member Molly Signs-Rehmann, executive director of the Clinton County Arts Council, said she was impressed by how passionate and thorough the selection committee was in its review. Signs-Rehmann, a 2016 graduate of MSU’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, is especially looking forward to getting “kids excited about poetry.”

“The poet laureate is an amazing opportunity for Clinton County,” she said. “It’s another way for us to flesh out and build up our cultural offerings.”

Hinrichsen, who believed for much of his life that he was “never not going to be a poet,” has written seven books of poetry and two chapbooks, and his poetry has won several national awards. Hinrichsen taught writing, creative writing and poetry for 30 years at Lansing Community College. He prefers to say that he “quit” rather than “retired.”

“I quit to take care of cancer,” he said.

Hinrichsen often finds himself comparing poetry to music. On a recent trip to visit his daughter in Berkeley, Calif., he visited a record store and found himself sifting through records sorted by category. He immediately thought about how similar that was to classifying poetry.

“It’s not exclusive — there’s room on the bandwidth for everyone to add their voice,” he said. “Poetry can help with critical thinking skills, developing figurative language and creating new worlds.”

In his first year as poet laureate, Hinrichsen plans to work with middle school and high school students to write poetry that celebrates place.

“Writers would be asked to explore a sense of place through our local geography, history, etc.,” he wrote in his proposal. “The idea here is to find a hidden treasure, a hidden moment or a special or secret place. It might be as simple as loving the sound of freight trains at night.”

He said the emphasis will be on vision and seeing things clearly and in a fresh way.

Hinrichsen also expects to develop outlets for publishing local poetry and will conduct group readings of original poetry created as part of the poet laureate project. He also plans to work with local arts organizations like REACH Studio Art Center and Keys to Creativity to pair poetry with visual arts. Hinrichsen can be reached by email at lansingpoet@gmail.com.

Anita Skeen, director of the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU, said the selection of a poet laureate is important to the Greater Lansing region.

“It shows we recognize the importance of poetry, particularly because we don’t have a state poet laureate,” she said.

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