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Ronnie K. Stephens

Ronnie K. Stephens

Ronnie K. Stephens To Read As Ozarks Poets and Writers Collective Featured Writer

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, and a recent graduate from a prestigious MFA creative writing program. Suppose he’s Ronnie K. Stephens.

Ronnie K. Stephens will be the featured writer at the monthly meeting of the Ozarks Poets and Writers Collective, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 24. He will be reading from his poetry at Nightbird Books on Dickson Street in Fayetteville. 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. Tenth-graders – in fact or in recollection – are especially welcome.

Stephens now teaches in Keller — 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.

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 tenth-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.

As a grad student in UA’s Programs in Creative Writing and Translation, he attended a writers’ retreat in Galway, Ireland, where Ukrainian-American writer Ilya Kaminsky changed his life, as he puts it now, pointing Stephens 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 illustrating Desarae Lee’s fantastic pen-and-ink drawings.

When I asked Stephens what his tenth-graders are reading, he described a semester-long discussion of displacement, starting with Joy Kogawa’s Obasan by and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, part of the approved Texas curriculum. (Surprised me.)

He then supplements with a field guide issued to GIs during World War II, titled How to Spot a Jap, and two documentaries, A Time of Fear about Arkansas’ Japanese relocation camps and Palestine 101 on the the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He includes some songs from alt musicians Sage Francis, Matisyahu, and K’naan, and poems from Kevin Coval and Franny Choi. Finally, the students study teenage Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, her life, her campaign and her near-death experience, as well as her family’s decision to seek asylum in Britain following the assassination attempt.

Stephens’ is not your father’s or mother’s tenth-grade English class.

When I asked Stephens for a sample of his poetry, he pointed me toward the on-line 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.”

Stephens when living in Fayetteville served on the board of the Ozarks Poets and Writers Collective. Before and after his reading there will be an open mic 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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