Having been nominated for laurels a few times now, I have--somewhat vaingloriously, I admit--allowed myself to consider what I might do if the honor were ever offered. This last time I went so far as to consult with my wife. Of course, I'd want to continue writing poems which reflect my beloved and confounding home state, but I'd also like to increase the likelihood that the best beginning poets--those who need financial support the most and are least likely to receive it--don't give up on poetry too soon.
I know I'm fortunate to be able to do what I do. As the middle son of freshly divorced elementary schoolteachers, it would have been easy for me to pile up so much student loan debt during my undergraduate years that the only reasonable future for me would have been to go to law school or to enter the workforce as a 40 hour a week salary man. That I was able to focus fresh out of college on being a poet is in good part because of the generosity of my great uncle, John Reilly. When the death of his stepfather left him the man of the family, my Uncle Johnie dropped out of the 8th grade to work in the oilfields around Bakersfield. He proved to be a supremely talented machinist, and a canny businessman, but--even as he devoted himself to the career which made him a multi-millionaire--he also worked to make sure that others would have a chance for the education he had missed. During the Depression and afterwards, my uncle paid to make sure that all the schoolchildren of Whittier, California--regardless of their race or ethnicity or their parents' ability to pay--would have milk to drink at lunch. In the 1960s and '70s he set up scholarship funds first for deserving local Japanese-American students and later for college-bound students on the Navajo Reservation. In 1976 he did the same for me.
At first, my uncle considered loaning me the money for my college costs, but eventually he made me the offer for which I remain grateful: I would receive nothing in his will; however, as long as I maintained good grades, he would pay for my room, board and undergraduate tuition. He died at the end of my junior year, but--thanks to his preparations--I graduated from Stanford without a cent of debt and spent the next year writing poems, applying to MFA programs in creative writing, and surviving on peanut butter sandwiches and the kindness of friends. And then, because I wasn't already weighed down with student loans, I was able to accept the offer of admission from the Iowa Writers' Workshop even though other schools offered me better financial aid packages.
The money my Uncle Johnie paid for my undergraduate education was a gift, but he made it clear he hoped that someday I would do something similar for someone else. A number of years ago, I heard about a class at the Stanford Business School on philanthropic entrepreneurialism, and I wrote a letter to the professor. I mentioned how not being burdened by student loan debt had made it easier for me to pursue my dream of being a poet, and I told her that the first question student writers invariably ask me about writing as a career is how I managed early on to balance the need for time and energy to write with the need to earn money for food and rent. Because, I explained, talent alone isn't enough to make it in the arts, I was asking her to consider setting up a fund to make the first few years of student loan payments of promising young Stanford graduates in the arts. I never got a response, but a few years later when our oldest nephew was graduating from college with a degree in music and the dream of being a rock star, I made a wild proposal to my wife. I asked her if she would consider foregoing buying me a Christmas present that year and instead giving that money (and then some) to our nephew to pay the first two years of his student loans.
Our nephew is now the lead singer and songwriter of Bronze Radio Return. They're music festival favorites and are working on their third CD. His sister recently graduated from art school with a degree in jewelry and metals, and my wife and I gave her the same amount for her student loan payments. None of us know yet how successful she will be, but--even if she never makes a living as a jewelry designer--she won't spend her life wondering what she might have become had she given it a try.
So, here is what my wife and I have decided: if I were to be named Poet Laureate of California, we would offer to donate money either to establish in full, or to begin to establish through a matching grant (we don't know how much of an endowment such a program would require), the Laureate's Prize--an annual prize that makes the first two years of student loan payments for a promising poet who is graduating that year from Stanford University with a bachelors degree. In order to spread the benefits of the progam, I would also offer to give a poetry reading free of charge (except for my travel costs) at any fully accredited, four year, non-profit college or university in California which would endeavor to establish such a prize during my tenure as Poet Laureate of California.
I'm probably just dreaming, but I would love to have the chance to make good on that promise. I'd like to think that the proliferation of such prizes might result in future poets laureate and in any number of well-adjusted, poetry-loving whatever else's (who knows what new categories of jobs there will be even five years from now?) who once upon a time had the chance to dream big in poetry and took it.
Causes Kevin Hearle Supports
The Heyday Institute
The California Legacy Project of Santa Clara University
City Arts of San Mateo