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Marcus Cafagna, published poet and reviewer, Associate Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Missouri State University, is one of the many writers participating in the Missouri Literary Festival, a celebration of arts, literature and literacy, Oct.2-4 at Hammons Field and the Creamery Arts Center. KSMU’s Randy Stewart talked with him recently in the KSMU studios.
Asked how he became interested in poetry and writing, Cafagna says his mother probably planted the seed by reading stories to him at night. But he gives most of the credit to a 7th-grade English teacher who, after a poetry assignment, took Marcus aside and said, “I think there’s something here for you”--“and that planted the bug,” says Cafagna. At the time he was feeling something of a creative void--he had recently given up on trying to learn to play the violin, which he did at his mother’s insistence. “I played badly!” he says bluntly. He begged his mom to let him quit, hoping instead to play the guitar--which also didn’t work out for him.
Cafagna admits that some poems “are difficult to read, and therefore, to understand,” but feels part of the problem for many people is their lack of exposure to really accessible, straightforward modern poetry. He agrees with former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins that most contemporary American poets are writing fairly straightforward poems designed to elicit some sort of “visceral” reaction from the reader, be it sadness, shock, or often--as in the case of Collins himself--laughter. Cafagna tries to “de-mythologize” poetry in his classes. “Much of what’s being written today, if the average person were to read it they would be pleasantly surprised.”
By way of illustration, Cafagna read one of his own recent verse-poems. It’s about his son Diego, named after the Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera. Seems 3 ½ year-old Diego shares more than a name with the famous artist: he loves to draw on the walls of the Cafagnas’ living room, kitchen, his bedroom… in red crayon, no less! “My wife and I wonder if these random lines and circles are his protest against a grown-up world that says ‘No!’ to the same artistic impulse as Rivera’s,” goes one line of the poem “Diego, the Muralist.” Luckily, most of the drawing/coloring implements Diego uses for his impromptu wall murals are washable(!), but sometimes Cafagna and his wife Jen are reluctant to do so: “Just yesterday on the front door, he drew what appears to be a series of storm clouds… Jen and I admire what he’s drawn, as if in molten wax our boy has blessed the scorched air above Mexico with clouds that might soon deliver the blessing of rain, and the miracle of the desert blooming green.”
In his work with the MSU Creative Writing program, Marcus Cafagna hopes the students will be encouraged to “develop their writing talent, become more familiar with published writers, and hopefully, for many of them to go on to be poets or fiction writers themselves--whether that means writing for themselves or possibly doing something more ambitious, like publish in a literary journal or publish books.” Generally, he hopes the program fosters an appreciation of poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and drama. As part of Missouri State’s General Education program, Creative Writing is actually one of the largest programs on campus, with students across virtually every discipline at least taking an introductory Creative Writing course at some point. Cafagna says it “really makes for an interesting mix in the classrooms… it’s a great opportunity to watch them develop and progress as writers.”
At the Missouri Literary Festival, Cafagna will give a reading--he’s the “warm-up act” for Billy Collins, in fact (no pressure there, eh, Marcus??). He’ll also introduce another poet, Kevin Prufer from University of Central Missouri-Warrensburg; and he’ll be part of the Saturday evening “Writers’ Ballroom” meet-and-greet for the public to meet and talk with the writers attending the Festival. “I’ve been very impressed with the lineup that’s coming here--looks like quite an event, and something I know I’ll enjoy. Well, what I should say is I’ll be a happy listener to many of the writers--I’m sure that’s what I’ll spend most of my time doing!”