‘It’s the godmother’s turn’

Ruelaine Stokes takes up the mantle of Lansing’s poet laureate


No more than five minutes after becoming Lansing’s fourth poet laureate, Ruelaine Stokes summoned up thunder.

Those who gathered at the Robin Theatre to see Stokes accept the symbolic laurel from outgoing laureate Masaki Takahashi last week didn’t think they needed a reminder to breathe.

But they did.

Palms out, voice warmed to a healing mist, Stokes crouched into conjuring mode.

“Breathe in,” she said. “That is a blessing. Breathe out. That, too, is a blessing.”

After a lifetime of dedication to practical language education for English as Second Language students, and a founding role in Lansing’s thriving poetry scene, she likes to bring it back to first principles.

Bob Trezise Jr., president and CEO of Lansing Economic Area Partnership, which initiated and operates the Lansing poet laureate program, at the Robin Theatre event.
Bob Trezise Jr., president and CEO of Lansing Economic Area Partnership, which initiated and operates the Lansing poet laureate program, at the Robin …

“What we do is this amazing thing,” she said to the group. “We take thoughts and feelings from inside our head and send them through the air to another person, and they get them inside their heads, and we take this for granted. It’s really astounding to be a human.”

For her first performance as laureate, Stokes, who is 79, chose a poem harking back to her youth in Livingston, Montana, a beloved diner and a cup of coffee she described as a “circle of heat in the midst of the great frozen plains.”

“I know nothing,” Stokes humbly declared — thinking, perhaps, of the expectations and possibilities that come with being poet laureate.  “Only that you are sitting at my table, tears in your hand, wanting something more. I offer this coffee, this cup, this light, breaking like laughter at your feet on the floor.”

The audience fell silent.

“Language has amazing power,” Stokes told the group. “A poem is one of the most powerful forms language takes.”

At that moment, a thunderclap boomed outside the theater, rattling the floorboards. There was no rain.


Marching orders

There is a dreaded moment in many arts-based events where the funder takes the microphone.

Shirt untucked, heart on sleeve, Bob Trezise Jr. defied the stuffed-suit stereotype at Tuesday’s celebration.

Trezise, chairman and CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership and a self-confessed “wannabe poet,” is also the chief instigator the of Lansing’s poet laureate program.

“We are the only economic development agency in America that has had the audacity to start and run a poet laureate program,” Trezise said.

It all sprang from Trezise’s frustration that Michigan was one of a few states in the nation to lack a poet laureate, a gap that was only filled by the state Legislature in 2021.

Michigan did have a poet laureate back in the 1950s — folksy, sentimental Edgar Guest, a reporter and columnist for the Detroit Free Press, widely known as the “people’s poet” (and a favorite of the fictional Edith Bunker from “All in the Family”). Besides writing over 10,000 poems, Guest inspired a memorable couplet, often attributed to Dorothy Parker: “I’d rather flunk my Wassermann test/than read a poem by Edgar Guest.” (The Wassermann test is for syphilis.) The titles of two of Guest’s poetry collections, “A Heap O’ Livin’” and “Just Folks,” speak volumes.

After Guest died in 1959, the state’s poet laureate chair went into mothballs, despite multiple attempts to bring it back. (It was re-established in 2021 by the Legislature at the request of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. In 2023, Detroit-based poet Nandi Comer became the state’s first laureate since Guest’s time.)

Meanwhile, throughout the 2000s, poet laureates sprang up in thousands of places in the U.S. and around the world, promoting literacy, language education and self-expression in an explosion of readings, workshops, concerts, events, books, poetry slams and other forms.

Trezise and Stokes shared their frustration when they both attended a Rally of Writers conference about 10 years ago.

Stokes told Trezise that she and two other poets, Anita Skeen and Laurie Hollinger, were lobbying for a state poet laureate.

“We were so determined to get a poet laureate for Michigan,” Hollinger said. “This is one of the most beautiful states in the country, with so many poets and such a legacy.” Hollinger directs the Center for Poetry, part of MSU’s Residential College for the Arts and Humanities and a key partner in Lansing’s poet laureate program.

The trio of poets had plans to bombard the state Legislature with postcards, but state Sen. Sam Singh, then a state representative, told Hollinger not to bother, because the bill was in a committee “where bills go to die.”

Trezise knew that other cities, including Grand Rapids, had poet laureates.

“I never understood why we’re not considered with the big boys,” Trezise said.

He also knew that Lansing has a thriving poetry scene, with a poetry club going back to 1938, a burgeoning hip-hop and slam poetry culture and hundreds of poetry events throughout the year.

Laura Apol, the poet laureate during the pandemic, signing books at a fund-raising event for the Greater Lansing Food Bank.
Laura Apol, the poet laureate during the pandemic, signing books at a fund-raising event for the Greater Lansing Food Bank.

Dennis Hinrichsen, who was named Lansing’s first poet laureate in 2017, credited Trezise with the idea of getting a laureate for Lansing.

“We talked about cultural life here, how important it is,” Hinrichsen said. “The goal was to add poetry to that, along with the sculptures and murals and other things.”

Stokes, Skeen and Hollinger went to Grand Rapids and other cities to see how other poet laureate programs were set up. They forged a partnership with LEAP, as funder of the project, the Center for Poetry at MSU’s Residential College for the Arts and Humanities and the Lansing Poetry Club.

Everyone agreed that it would not be an honorific title or ceremonial job, but more like a set of marching orders. Even Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the world’s earliest poet laureates, was expected to organize poetry readings for the king. (He was paid in wine.) Lansing’s poet laureate would have a more ambitious docket: “engaging with the community through readings, workshops and other events, not just for poets or people interested in poetry, but for everyone,” Hinrichsen said.

They decided that the laureate would serve two-year term, a balance of stability and variety. Poets would submit their applications to the Arts Council to be reviewed by an external selection committee.

Hinrichsen’s legacy as the first poet laureate can still be seen, in the form of poems etched in sidewalks around Lansing.

“Dennis built the foundation,” Stokes said. “He did a spectacular job with the sidewalk poetry, and did a lot in the three counties, having readings and workshops in St. Johns, Charlotte, taking poets out to Williamston and Eaton Rapids. He did a great job of connecting all these places and I’d like to build on that.”

Lansing’s second poet laureate, Laura Apol, had to adapt to pandemic reality mere weeks after taking the position in early 2020. Shortly after the lockdown, Apol sent out the call to area poets, asking them to send videos of themselves reading their poems. The impromptu project evolved into an intimate chronicle of a frightening and unprecedented crisis and, for many, a lifeline out of pandemic isolation. Apol also set up a four-week Writing Retreat at Home that picked up international buzz and grew to unexpected proportions.

“You’d see some of your neighbors and other participants from Greece, the U.K., Bangla Desh, Mexico,” Stokes said. “It was quite amazing.”

Lansing third poet laureate, Masaki Takahashi, plugged the city into the boundless energy of slam poetry, primarily in his regular series of mixed-poetry events, The Poetry Room.

On Saturday, five days after handing the laurel to Stokes, Takahashi oversaw the Lansing Poetry Festival at the downtown Capital Area District Library, with Richmond, Virginia, poet laureate Roscoe Burnems.

“This must about the 50th nationally known spoken word poet Masaki’s brought to town,” Hollinger said. “Lansing’s on the spoken word circuit now, thanks to Masaki.”

“He’s been outspoken, uncompromising, exactly the way a poet should be,” Trezise said. “He even gave a presentation to my board of directors, all in their suits and ties, and he did an incredible job. He really worked hard to leverage his position.”


Like it was a treat

Despite their obvious differences in age, approach and style, Takahashi and Stokes found common ground at last week’s laurel handoff.

Summoning the fierce energy that fired up his two-year tenure as laureate, Takahashi revved up to slam poetry rhythm and expressed his frustration over a video of a white man who got millions of approving views on YouTube for ordering a meal in perfect Chinese:

“He had the privilege to learn a language I spent forced to forget. For him, Chinese was just a new hobby. For me, English meant survival.”

Takahashi’s struggle to master English, and with finding a voice of his own, resonates with Stokes’ life and career.

“I thought that was a great poem to go on to thanking someone who’s spent all of their lives teaching ESL students,” Takahashi said.

In the 1990s, Stokes already had a master’s degree in English from MSU, but she fell in love with the rewards and challenges of teaching English as a second language, a relatively young academic field at the time.

A passage from Stokes’ poem “My Black Linen Jacket” offers a glimpse of her modus operandi — and makes you wish you’d had her as a teacher.

“Chalk in hand, I circle an adjective clause, show how it clings to the noun it loves, while the adverbials slouch off to the end of the sentence, keep a low profile.”

Stokes taught for decades at Michigan State University, Lansing Community College and the Refugee Development Center in a variety of community programs with refugees, immigrants and international students.

“It’s a fabulous way of life,” she said. “I felt like I was staying in one place and the world was coming to see me. The students helped me grow up.”

She knows what it’s like to struggle to find a voice. She grew up in Livingston, Montana, in a home she described as “harsh and unpredictable.” Voracious childhood reading fed her love of language.

“I disappeared into books,” she recalled.

Her vocabulary and writing skills earned her a four-year scholarship at Stanford, but she was unprepared for the experience. She struggled with shyness and even considered suicide.

A ray of light struck her in a poetry class at Stanford, taught by poet Arthur Yvor Winters.

“I was sitting in class when he started to read this poem by Emily Dickinson,” Stokes recalled. The poem begins, “There’s a certain slant of light, Winter Afternoons.”

“Suddenly, his voice and this poem were the only things in the room,” she said. “I could see and feel what he was talking about.”

In 1978, while attending MSU, Stokes went to a downtown Lansing gallery and heard three young poets — Lee Upton, Rosa Arena and Leonora Smith.

“I’d never really seen women before, exhibiting that much mental freedom, the ability to talk about things people don’t usually talk about, and show how they’re funny, or bizarre, or hilarious,” she recalled. “They were having so much fun. It was so exuberant. I was blown away.”

Stokes went to Upton’s poetry workshop, even though she didn’t consider herself a poet. In her time with Upton, she learned to tap into the “potential for power and pleasure” locked into the natural human voice.

“I learned, from watching and listening to her, that there was a zone you could get into, and you could connect with the words in a certain way,” she said, lowering her voice playfully to a Darth Vader pitch. “And the power of the muse just flows through you.”

While teaching at LCC, she found that the 13th-century Sufi mystic poet Rumi lit a quiet fire in her students, while fulfilling practical pedagogical goals. When the time came to write a dissertation to get a master’s degree in teaching ESL, she combined her two linguistic passions into a blueprint for using poetry to help students learn pronunciation.

She worked out a system, using four- or six-line poems like this one: “Lovers find secret places inside this violent world where they make transactions with beauty.”

“Rumi has this remarkable ability to put great, incredible thoughts in a few words,” Stokes said.

When she came back to class after break, she would find the students writing poems from their own countries on the blackboard, in the original languages, and translating them into English. They had so much fun that they created a bilingual booklet of poems at the end of the semester.

One day, a colleague ran into Stokes in the staff room and told her an anecdote she still treasures.

The colleague saw one of Stokes’ students, walking down the hall with a big smile on his face.

“What’s up?” she asked him.

“Test today,” he said.

“And you’re smiling?”

“Then we had a poem.”

Stokes laughed at the memory.

“Like it was a treat!” she said.


Ugh, hidden meanings

For all four of Lansing’s poet laureates, the job of celebrating poetry didn’t start with their tenure, nor will it end.

Peter Ruark of the Lansing Poetry Club, established in 1938, recounted that Stokes was “thrust into” the role of club president in 2015, when a vacancy suddenly opened. Right away, she created online and live workshops and fundraisers for refugee development services and other non-profits.

“She’s taken it in a lot of places,” Ruark said. “She’s really made the club what it is today.”

The club holds lively open mic nights on the third Sunday of each month in the lounge of University United Methodist Church.

“I love the variety and genuineness of the voices there,” Stokes said. “People really trust that the audience really wants to hear what they have to say.”

A constant flow of projects keeps Stokes involved and grounded in Lansing life. Last year’s “My Secret Lansing” writing contest and the resulting book gathered dozens of poems and prose celebrating life in Lansing by established and new writers. Stokes lives in South Lansing with her “artistic and life partner,” Ten Pound Fiddle impresario and Eastside Lansing Food Co-op manager Sally Potter.

Takahashi will continue running The Poetry Room, and Stokes will continue to pop in, both as a performer and a listener.

“Masaki has done a great job of creating space that welcomes and nurtures young poets,” Stokes said. “I’m as happy listening to poets as I am performing.”

Ruelaine Stokes often used the rhymes and rhythms of poetry to pump zest into the classroom, and help her students grapple with English pronunciation in her decades-long career as a teacher of English as a second language  at Michigan State University (pictured) and Lansing Community College.
Ruelaine Stokes often used the rhymes and rhythms of poetry to pump zest into the classroom, and help her students grapple with English pronunciation …

At Tuesday’s event, Trezise recalled “trembling” at the energy of The Poetry Room. Hollinger has also basked in the energy of Takahashi’s events and performed on stage.

“There are so many upcoming poets in this community now, and a lot of it’s due to the Poetry Room,” Hollinger said. It’s a cross-section of Lansing. You’ve got old broads like me, high school kids coming up to the mike, folks from every walk of life.”

For Takahashi, things won’t change much with the passing of the laurel.

“I’ve done the same thing before, during and after being poet laureate,” Takahashi said. “That’s to encourage people to tell the story they want to tell. Lansing has a rich story and culture that people want to hear.”

At Tuesday’s celebration, Stokes coyly asked for a little time to come up with a vision.

“I’ve only been poet laureate about three minutes,” she pleaded.

But she was sandbagging. Come to think of it, she said, she did have a few “scraps of ideas.”

The “scraps” included a state poetry conference in Lansing, poetry camps for kids in summer, art exhibits that incorporate poetry, programs that get poetry into stores and businesses, theatrical projects that combine spoken word and music, pop-up poetry events, especially in restaurants and cafes.

She also envisioned a “poetry university” where poets learn writing and “public presentation in a variety of contexts,” from publishing to recording, producing, teaching and marketing.

“But maybe that’s too big,” she allowed.

At Tuesday’s event, Trezise announced that LEAP will continue to fund the poet laureate, but it would hand off running the program to the Arts Council of Greater Lansing. The council’s director, Meghan Martin, said she was glad of the opportunity to “honor the literary art in a way we have already honored the visual arts and the performing arts.”

One of Stokes’ first priorities is to go on a listening tour to gather ideas from area poets, “along with people who are indifferent to poetry and people who don’t like poetry.”

Stokes knows the haters are out there. She keeps in mind a sobering experience she had years ago, while teaching ESL at MSU with international students. The textbook assigned to the class had too many chapters to cover in one semester, so she invited the class to help her choose the chapters they wanted to focus on.

“There’s a chapter on poetry,” she enthused, assuming it would sell itself.

“Ugh, hidden meanings,” came a groan from multiple corners. The poetry chapter didn’t make the cut.

“It was funny, but I was so disappointed,” she said.

When poets get abstruse or complex, a lot of people turn them off, but Stokes has a ready defense.

“We say and think the same things over and over again,” she said. “Those poets are trying to get us to look at things fresh. Some people prefer that more complex poetry.”

It’s not her style, though.

“I would love it if I could write poems that were a little more mysterious,” she admitted. “Not tremendously mysterious. I like some mystery. But a lot of times I feel I don’t have enough time and I need to get to the heart of the matter.”

Fortunately, it’s easier now than ever to make the case for poetry, thanks largely to the rise of hip-hop and slam poetry.

Poets sometimes distinguish literary “page poetry” from live “stage poetry,” but the boundary has always been fluid.

“Originally, poetry was an oral art,” Stokes explained. “Rhyming and rhythm were ways to make the stories more memorable.”

With the creation of books, poetry became a more literary art, but in recent decades, rhythm and rhyme have surged back in ways undreamt of by Homer and Sappho.

“The hip-hop, spoken word, slam poets, brought it back around,” Stokes said. “They have revitalized American poetry.”

That makes being poet laureate even more fun.

“Stage poets and page poets can learn a lot from each other,” Stokes said. “Some people can function well in both worlds; some are more in one world than another. But it’s a great time to be a poet in our country because there’s so much creative energy out there.”

One of the sources of that energy, Takahashi, wished his successor good fortune.

“It’s the godmother’s turn,” Takahashi said. “She calls it in. I think it’s a great handoff. I don’t know what her plan is, but whatever she does, I hope she makes it gigantic.”


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