ATHENS COUNTY, Ohio — Albany resident Stephanie Kendrick can now add “Athens Poet Laureate” to her list of roles, which include village council member and mother, among others.
The Athens Municipal Arts Commission named Kendrick Athens poet laureate in December 2022 for a two-year term. A lifelong southeast Ohio resident, Kendrick has been writing poetry since she was a little girl, but did not begin writing seriously until 2014.
She has since published two books. Kendrick also produces a newsletter, Periodical Poetry, which is available on her website and in print at a handful of local businesses in Athens and Albany. It publishes every other month and is accepting work from other writers, poets and reviewers.
Her upbringing in the Ohio River Valley has heavily influenced her creative career.
“We lived in very, very rural Appalachia. We had an antenna TV, my entire youth. So I wasn’t able to just sit and escape into cable,” Kendrick said. “I was outside, or if I was inside, I was bored. So I was just constantly reading. And then when you’re constantly reading, you are learning how to express yourself in this ‘world of words,’ I think.”
According to poets.org, 45 states have established poet laureates, but less than half of the 35 major U.S. cities have done so — perhaps making Athens’ poet laureate truly unique.
Kendrick succeeds Wendy McVicker as poet laureate. McVicker was preceded by Kari Gunter-Seymour, who is currently the state’s poet laureate, and Alison Stine, who also is a journalist and a fiction writer.
McVicker is excited to see what Kendrick accomplishes in her term.
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“I have known Stephanie for a while in our community poetry circles,” said McVicker, who recently interviewed Kendrick on her WOUB program:
Kendrick studied journalism and English as an Ohio University student, before becoming pregnant with her son.
“It was a surprise,” she said. “Through that journey, I paused school for a couple of years; my partner and I sort of took turns. So he finished his degree, and then I went back to school.”
A first-generation college graduate, Kendrick described herself as in “survival mode”: She wanted a degree that would provide sooner, rather than later. She chose social work.
“I saw a lot of opportunity in that; when I found when I was pregnant with my son, we utilized a lot of social services in order to sort of get out of this cycle of poverty, ourselves,” she said. “I really wanted to sort of give back to that system and be a part of that system that I saw as super beneficial.”
When she returned to OU, she created a specialized degree “that focused on Appalachian sociology and family studies.” She said she loves her job with the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities. The job led her to earn a master’s degree—and is a major inspiration for her goals as poet laureate, she said.
Her “big umbrella project is getting back to my love of social services,” she said. She wants to celebrate “social services through poetry” and “open up our understanding of what social services look like” — which, for Kendrick, also includes mutual aid, or instances where community members informally come together to support each other.
“I’m not just talking about children services or Job and Family Services, even though those are huge, important agencies,” Kendrick said. Libraries and schools also have social roles, she said. Businesses can act as a social service, she said, pointing to Avalanche Pizza as an example: When the pandemic hit, “they were handing out free food and bread starter daily.”
Her goal is “working to expand our understanding of social services and celebrating that through poetry.”
“I want to include a poem either by me or someone else in the community written for and about one of these organizations, and then supplement that poem with what the organization’s mission is, how people can get involved, or how they can give toward that mission,” Kendrick said.
While the pandemic limited McVicker’s ability to hold in-person events, Kendrick is hopeful that changing norms will make them more attainable during her term. She hopes to provide poetry programming for children at local events, a recurring open mic, and more.
The first community open mic is set for Wednesday, March 8, at Athens Uncorked, 14 Station St., Athens, at 6:30 p.m. Subsequent events will take place every second Wednesday of the month.
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