Ronnie K. Stephens to Read as Ozarks Poets and Writers Collective Featured Writer

By Robert Laurence

Ronnie K. Stephens

Ronnie K. Stephens

Imagine you’re in high school again. Tenth grade, say. English class. Suppose the teacher is a young man, full of enthusiasm, eager both to teach and to learn how to teach. Now suppose that, in addition, he’s a published poet. Suppose he’s Ronnie K. Stephens.

Ronnie K. Stephens will be the featured writer at the July 28 meeting of the Ozarks Poets and Writers Collective, where he will be reading from his poetry at Nightbird Books on Dickson Street in Fayetteville. The program begins at 7 p.m. Refreshments and books will be available for purchase; talk and entertainment will be free. The event is open to the public, and all are welcome. Donations, naturally, are welcome. Tenth-graders — in fact or in recollection — are especially welcome.

Stephens teaches in Keller, Texas — north of Fort Worth and south of Denton — one of the premier school districts in Texas, he says, and a place where he is able to learn from some of the best educators and administrators in the state. It’s also home, or near-to-home, for him and his family, an aspect of the place as important as its schools. He’s raising two 18-month-old twins — Helen Abigail and Molly Clementine — plus writing, plus teaching. Plus enrollment in a low-residency master of fine arts creative writing program at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. His life is full, though not too full to keep from fitting in a trip to his old writing place in Northwest Arkansas at the end of the month.

Stephens himself wrote as a 10th-grader, so maybe it’s not surprising that he turned to high school teaching. But his writing did not become serious until he attended the University of Arkansas, starting in 2002, where he came under the influence of Mohja Kahf, Doug Shields and Cat Donnelly, three local writers well known to OPWC audiences. He earned a bachelor’s in classical studies at UA.

He attended a writer’s retreat as a master of arts candidate in UA’s Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies interdisciplinary program. Stephens attended a writers’ retreat in Galway, Ireland, where poet Ilya Kaminsky changed his life, as he puts it now, pointing him toward ekphrastic poetry. (OK, OK. I had to look it up, too. Ekphrastic poems are words describing visual art.) He’s working toward a full-length collection of poetry accompanying Desarae Lee‘s fantastic illustrations.

When I asked Stephens what his 10th-graders are reading, he described a semester-long discussion of displacement — starting with Obasan by Joy Kogawa and Maus by Art Spiegelman — part of the approved Texas curriculum. (Surprised me.) He then supplements with a field guide issued to GIs during WWII titled How to Spot a Jap and two documentaries, A Time of Fear and Palestine 101 some songs from Sage Francis, Matisyahu, and K’naan, and poems from Kevin Coval and Franny Choi. Finally, the students study Malala Yousafzai, her life, her campaign and her near-death experience, as well as her Pakistani family’s decision to seek asylum in Britain following the assassination attempt. Not your father’s or mother’s 10th-grade English class. Certainly not mine.

When I asked Stephens for a sample of his poetry, he pointed me toward the online journal Paper Darts and a poem he calls “Things He Should’ve Said”:

“I am muted in your presence.
Your fingertips shock flat-lines into Pop Rocks.
Walk with me where we can paint trees
with leaves of smoldering jam
and spread tomorrow with our favorite marmalades
toasting one another with a split-top kiss.”

Please join the OPWC as we welcome Ronnie K. Stephens to the Nightbird lectern. Before and after his reading there will be an open microphone where members of the audience are invited to each share four minutes’ worth of poetry, prose, memoir or what have you. Stop by.

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This story is an updated, corrected version of one published in February by the Fayetteville Free Weekly. Stephens was scheduled to read for OPWC that month, but weather halted his traveling from Texas.