By Jan Biles
MANHATTAN -- Class rosters and photocopies of his latest book of poetry float in a sea of paper strewn on the office floor of Kansas
State University professor and poet-in-residence Jonathan Holden. His brown briefcase and wooden cane lie among the white.
A student enters the office, wanting to sign up for Holden's poetry writing
class. He looks through his desk drawers and rearranges paper trying to find a sign-up sheet or other documents that will tell him the course number as he jokes about being the proverbial absent-minded professor.
The disorganized world of Holden, though, becomes defined when he begins to talk about crafting poems.
"All the best poetry I know is intellectual. It's not so much about emotion as it is about beauty," he said. "The theme of most
contemporary poetry -- and mine doesn't differ -- is desire of various kinds. Writers write in order to have contact with the world, to find the best verbal formula for something."
Holden, who teaches two poetry writing classes at K-State, recently was selected over 12 other candidates to be the state's first poet
laureate, which he says "pleases me more than it should." His two-year term starts July 1.
Karen Brady, program consultant for the Kansas Arts Commission, said Holden was selected because of the
strength of his poetry and the artist statement he submitted during the nomination process.
Holden was chosen by an eight-member panel that included two Kansas Arts Commission members, three Kansas poets, one
representative each from Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' office and the Kansas Humanities Council, and William Kloefkorn, then-poet laureate of Nebraska.
In his artist statement, Holden proposed the development of a Kansas Poets Shoptalk Series that would center on video teleconferencing
Kansas poets as they read and discuss their poetry. The readings would be live and could be accessed at 25 sites across the state.
He suggested that a DVD of those conversations could be produced and provided to adult reading groups and classroom teachers at high
schools, community colleges and state universities.
"Furthermore, my telenet advisers assure me it would be possible to design an interactive Web site, complete with audio and video
streaming, for continued discussion and 'shoptalk,' " he wrote in his artist statement.
Holden said he began writing poetry while an undergraduate student at Oberlin College. Soon, his poems were garnering awards: Devins Award
for "Design for a House," 1972; Associated Writing Programs Annual Award Series in Poetry for "Leverage," 1983; Juniper Prize for "The Names of the Rapids," 1985; and Vassar Miller Prize for "The Sublime," 1995. He received two National Endowment for the Arts
fellowships: a $5,000 fellowship in poetry and a $25,000 creative nonfiction writing fellowship.
In 2000, he was one of the three judges for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
Holden describes himself as a Wordsworthian poet whose writing comes from remembering the important moments, or epiphanies, in his life. A
poem, he said, should surprise both the writer and the reader.
"I try to re-imagine the experience, and then try to describe the experience," he said. "When you're reliving an experience, you have to
relive it totally, so much so that sometimes you forget where you are."
"Some of my best poems are about the real world," Holden says.
"It's an odd cliché, the real world -- the real world,
as opposed to the unreal world."
Once he has described the experience, he revisits his writing and picks out "the good stuff."
"And hopefully, if I'm lucky, a poem is there," he said. "But you have to be lucky."
Holden said the biggest influence on his writing was his father, Alan Holden, an award-winning physicist who worked at Bell Telephone
Company and won the Millikan Award for his book, "Crystals and Crystal Growing." His father died in 1985.
"In the late 1950s, after Sputnik, there was a tremendous movement to upgrade the teaching of science and math in American education," he
said. "Doubleday started a popular series about science. My father wrote the one (on crystal growing). It still makes royalties, about $300 a year."
As his father became more famous, he spent more time working at home. Holden remembers his father sitting at their dining room table
and writing equations.
"He lived for his work," he said. "I was taught to make your living doing something you love doing. It is hard to do. To get a job as a
poet-in-residence at a university is hard to get. Many are called, and few are chosen. Well, I managed to get chosen. The luck of it is incredible."
In addition to poetry, Holden also has published a novel, literary criticism and an autobiography. He is working on his second memoir,
"Momma's Boy: The Journey Toward Identity of an Identical Twin." Holden's identical twin, Stephen Holden, is a New York Times critic who has appeared on such television shows as "60 Minutes," "20/20," "NBC Nightly News," "Entertainment Tonight" and Bravo's "Biography"
series. In 1986, his brother and six other writers won a Grammy for Best Albums Notes for "The Voice: the Columbia Years," a Frank Sinatra anthology.
In his role as Kansas poet laureate, Holden's name will be placed on a roster of touring Kansas artists compiled by the Kansas Arts
Commission and sent out to various agencies and groups throughout the state.
"I will be available," Holden said, "like a natural resource of Kansas."
Jonathan Holden, Kansas' first poet laureate, is an English professor and poet-in-residence at Kansas State University. He earned his
doctorate degree in 1974 at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
His works include "The Old Formalism: Character in Contemporary American Poetry," 1999; "Knowing: New and Selected Poems," 2000; "Guns and
Boyhood in America: Memoir of Growing Up in the '50s," 1997.
He has received numerous creative writing awards and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.
Back To Top