Kansas Poet Laureate’s visit to Wichita State radiates love of homeland and jazz


Kansas Poet Laureate Kevin Rabas reads his poetry at the Ulrich. His performance included jazz-infused poetry during which Rabas played percussive accompaniments to his writing.

It’s 10:45 a.m. on a Wednesday, and the Poet Laureate of Kansas is playing drums in the Ulrich Museum.

Poet Laureate Kevin Rabas, who’s toured 42 Kansas venues during his two-year tenure, will forever have music running through his veins. During his performances, he often brings along a band to back up his poetry. It’s only natural for a poet who, as a young jazz musician, would spend his days navigating Kansas City jam sessions to gain valuable experience playing with a host of talented performers.

“I used to go to about six to eight a week,” Rabas says. “Sometimes two or three a night.”

That’s especially noteworthy when you consider that Jam sessions could run as long as twelve hours — sometimes going deep into the early hours of the morning.

Here at the Ulrich, you can see the light in Rabas’ eyes as he sprinkles in musical anecdotes among his pieces. One such piece is “At the Jam,” which reflects on a time Rabas misheard a fellow musician at a jam session.

“The thing I thought he was saying was ‘play out’ — play more vigorously, play louder, play more notes, when really he was saying ‘lay out’ — stop playing, you fool!”

The humorous, jazzy edge runs through much of Rabas’ work. Almost as central to Rabas as a poet is the state of Kansas itself.

“I was born in Kansas, lived in Kans . . . I’m seventh-generation Kansan,” Rabas said. “It’s really a part of my life. I try to write about ordinary and extraordinary Kansans in my work.”

It’s not just talk, either. Rabas gives back to the state through far more than just his words. He’s worked with “Bards Against Hunger” to use poetry to fuel food drives and helped lead “Letters to a Young Poet,” a project that put young poets in touch with established poets to share experience (the correspondence is currently being editing into an anthology).

Now, Rabas stands ready to pass on the torch to the next Poet Laureate of Kansas, who will be inducted this May. It’s only fitting that he closes out his talk with one of the most impactful and stunning pieces he’s written as Laureate: “Kansas Awakening,” a piece for Laura Kelly’s inauguration as governor, which he finishes to loud applause. It’s hard not to find Kansan hope and pride in his words, reprinted with permission here:

Kansas Awakening

by Kevin Rabas

Walk the early green

fields and run your fingers

across the wheat’s whiskers

and you will know this land

is not ours, but we belong

to these fields and this simple

dirt, and when we shake hands —

rough hands, smooth hands — we can

feel that heat, blood run

through the blue-green chutes

of the heart. This land

pulses with us — the city

office towers with their yellow

lights always on,

the wind turbines, pinwheeling

to the breath of God,

the Main Street teens, music

up, windows down,

dragging that strip of blacktop

in the night in a one light town —

and at dawn the sidewalks

full of noisy kids

in backpacks with lunch sacks

walking to the yellow buses

that honk hope

and to the tough-shouldered

grain elevator, its white pillars

and ribs, that flashes

a lonely light, but holds

abundant, golden grain –

to all these and more

we say welcome: you belong

to this state, like we do, somewhere

in the middle, at the heart

of a body awakening

and coming into its own.