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Maryfrances Wagner

Posted in Maryfrances Wagner with tags on August 31, 2021 by Scot



Missouri Poet Laureate: Maryfrances Wagner

Poetry in itself will not make you human. But I have always believed that poetry that shares a piece of the heart of the poet will. I found that poetry that others can identify with or that tells a story matters most. These are the poets I read and Maryfrances Wagner has been one of those poets.

The first living poet I was introduced to in 1970 came from a mimeographed poem handed out by a teacher . The poet was Richard Brautigan. The poem was It’s Raining in Love. It was clearly relatable to a 15 year old and certainly a piece of Brautigan’s heart. It had me hooked. That poem set me on a lifelong path to want more poetry in my life, to write more and to learn more. The teacher was Maryfrances Wagner.

Poetry comes to us as snapshots of life. One of the things she will tell you is that you have to be a good observer. Her writing is certainly influenced by nature, family and her former students. It is also influenced by her heart. You will find in her words, in her observations, in her snapshots the eye of a poet, in her struggles and triumphs the poetry that matters, the poetry that makes us all a little more human.

–Scot Young



Scot Young:  In your writing journey that led you up to being named Missouri Poet Laureate what moment or event stands out?

Maryfrances Wagner:  My writing journey has been for a very long time. I’ve encountered many highlights along the way. Last year I was given the award of Individual Artist of the Year through the state and MAC. Years ago, Raytown School District put me into their Hall of Fame for accomplishments. Every time I publish a new book, it’s always a highlight. I have to say, though, that standing in front of the state capital on August 10 for the bicentennial and reading my poem about Missouri was a great feeling. But, honestly, the greatest feeling is that moment when I know the poem is finished and is good.

Scot Young:  You taught English and Creative Writing for 30 plus years. What do you miss about that? What about that time makes your heat smile?

Maryfrances Wagner:  I’ve taught writing (creative, expository, and academic) on both high school, undergraduate, and graduate levels, and I’ve taught some literature classes as well, particularly American lit. I taught for over thirty years before finally retiring from the classroom all together. I still teach some writing workshops and work one-on-one with writers. I certainly don’t miss meetings or grading papers. A writing teacher is doomed to massive grading. What I do miss is the interchange with students. I miss good discussions where people get to voice varying opinions. I miss the sense of family that existed with my creative writing classes. I miss getting to know my students, and many I have stayed in touch with in one way or another. I miss writing along with my students and all of us sharing together.

Scot Young:  What was your first published poem and/or book. Talk a bit about that?

Maryfrances Wagner:  Well, I wrote lots of what I call bad poems for a long time as a young person, before I knew what a good poem was supposed to do. Once I realized I was going to keep writing poems, I decided I needed to learn more about poetry, so I took classes in college. My master’s degree focuses on creative writing, mainly poetry. I suppose the first poem I wrote that I’d call a real poem was “Ragazza.” I am from an Italian family, and all of my life my parents said I should marry a nice Italian boy. I didn’t know any nice Italian boys, though. At that time, I was in Raytown where I was the only ethnic person in the school. Every time my parents would talk about nice Italian boys, they never were able to come up with the name of one I might date. My father was always my hero, and I never would have spoken back to him or sassed him in any way, so I wrote “Ragazza” to tell him how I felt. I gave him the poem, and he said, “Is this how you really feel?” to which I said it was. After that, he quit saying I should marry a nice Italian boy but should choose the person right for me. So, in that case, that poem had a powerful effect. Apparently, it has some legs too as it appears in the Dream Book, an anthology of Italian American women and in the textbook Writing Across Cultures. All the same, I still write some bad poems. Not every poem you write is a hit.


A good Italian woman
will cover her dust-free house
with crocheted doilies,
bear dark-eyed sons,
know what to do
with artichokes and chickpeas.
Her floors will shine.
She will serve tender braciole
in her perfect sauce,
make her own cannoli shells,
bake biscotti for every wedding.
Supper will be hot at six o’clock.
She will always wear dresses.
She will not balance the checkbook.
He can doze behind the paper
while she washes dishes.
Because she will never leave him,
he will forgive her bulging thighs.
Because he will never leave her,
she won’t notice unfamiliar stains.

Italian men always know ragazze
who work the fields in Bivona.
For airfare one will come.
In time she will learn English.
In time they may learn to love.


Scot Young: Who were your early influences in your writing?

Maryfrances Wagner:  It all began with Edgar Alan Poe. I loved his poems and stories, and I started memorizing his poems in high school just for fun. I had “The Raven” memorized at one point. I used to recite it in my head when I was bored. I can’t do it anymore. Then I suppose Emily Dickinson, E. A. Robinson, Robert Frost, and Pablo Neruda after that. I really wasn’t exposed to living writers until college. There I discovered Gary Soto, William Matthews, Robert Bly and W. S. Merwin. Then I started exploring on my own and found Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sharon Olds, B. H. Fairchild, Maxine Kumin, Denise Levertov, Mary Rueffle, Li Young Lee, Yusef Komunyakka, and many others. I’ve read hundreds of poets, and I’d say that their influence shifts over the years. Writers feed us when we need them. As far as direct influence, it would be Robert Bly. I was fortunate to take a class with him in Port Townsend. The location was in a forest on the ocean. What could be better? He was the most amazing human being, full of energy, brilliant, encouraging, demanding, challenging, dynamic, and exciting. I spent twelve hours a day with him. We ate together, talked, did assignments, and the only time the eight of his students were not with him was during the time he sent us back to our rooms to write. We wrote three rough drafts of poems each day. The first one we always wrote with him. In the evenings we went to poetry readings and craft lectures with some heavy weights — Maxine Kumin, Denise Levertov, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, John Haines, W. S. Merwin, and others. It was the most creative time I can remember. I was on fire. At the end of the course, through the University of Washington, I had produced enough rough poems to go home and create a book. That became Salvatore’s Daughter. I sent him a copy, and published on the same day was his own book from that same summer class. He sent me his, and there we could see the very poems that had originated there at Port Townsend.

Scot Young: If you could sit down with anyone living or dead who would it be and how would it go?

Maryfrances Wagner: Benjamin Franklin. I’ve always loved Benjamin Franklin for what he gave to America, and his contributions have been significant. He was an inventor and gave us positive and negative electricity, the Franklin stove, bifocals, the musical instrument the glass harmonica, the lightning rod, and others. He was an original founding father and signer of our treasured documents The Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. He was a journalist and printer and wrote Poor Richard’s Almanac under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders. He founded the first circulating library so that anyone could enjoy books, he establish the first post office and became the first postmaster general, and he founded the University of Pennsylvania and the first philosophical society. He served as an Ambassador to France, which was significant in maintaining a good relationship with France. He did many other things that made life better for Americans. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to hang out with him for a day and follow him around just to see how he could shift so easily from one thing to another. He had great taste for great food, so a good dinner together would be in order as well.

Scot Young:    What advice do you have for the beginning poet?

Maryfrances Wagner: What I would say to beginning poets is to use poetry to express what you feel, what you see, what you know.  Be a keen observer.  Study everything you see and see what others always see but see it differently and notice what is always there but others miss.  Adding those details will make your poem fresher and more interesting.  The first thing I had to learn about poetry was the importance of imagery and metaphor and fresh language.  I had to learn to drop all of the easy, cliched wording and the vague “telling” words in order to draw the picture with images, and then those images convey the meaning and feeling of the poem.  The other thing I would say is to read, read, read.  Read as many poems and poets as you can.  Notice what they are doing and why you like what they are doing.  Imitate a poem you love in your own words to help you learn how to see as that poet sees.  Write about what interests you.  If you love nature, write about nature.  If you love science, write about science.  If you hate math, write about why you hate geometry.  Also, notice things that are a bit off, something out of the normal, and try to bring those two things together in an interesting way.  Not every poem you write will be a good one, and it may take a few tries to be satisfied with the poem, but don’t stop too soon.  Revision is the most important part of the process.  Keep working with the words so that there is sound going on even if the words don’t rhyme.  Keep cutting out the words you don’t need.  I always start by overwriting and then start cutting and cutting and paring it all back to the bare essentials.  I also think the best poems still have a narrative core to them, a story in some way.  This enables the reader to find his own way into the poem with his own experiences.  This makes the poem accessible to readers.


Some Poetry from Maryfrances Wagner



Leroy swaggers into my class without books
or pen, jams hands into his pockets, face
partly hidden under his black hoodie.
He stares at his desk after all questions.

Students step around him and his gym bag
to trade papers. They have always kept
their distance. His fight last weekend
after the football game gave them proof.

He waits for the principal to suspend him.
He’ll be gone five school days for the fight
behind the stadium, blood scrubbed clean
now from asphalt, bats, and knuckles.

A row of stitches jags across his eyebrow.
He rocks in his seat, glares. Heads bowed,
students write comments on rough drafts.
The register hisses. It is snowing.

I look up. Leroy opens his hoodie to show me
the rip in his sweater, sets a button on my desk.
We stare at each other. I rummage for a needle,
point to the window where light is best.

The ground outside is covered and unmarred by tracks.
I pin the rip along the seam near his waist, think
of how to situate myself, the angle so low. He
rests a hand on my arm. I kneel beside him and sew.

–from Dioramas



Victims Lose Direction

In a blizzard, snow surrenders its direction,
unsure if it’s snow or sleet, one with the wind.
A man once walked through a blizzard to bring me
a yellow rose and a package wrapped just like
a Bicycle deck queen of hearts.
He was unlike my father, except he knew
how to mend the broken, build what he needed.
Once he built a tetrahedron kite we flew
in an open field of wild flowers. With him
I cracked my first lobster, unsure about forks.
He rescued me from the undertow of a barge
when our canoe tipped on the Missouri River.
He helped me raise six baby rabbits
he recovered from a deserted nest.
He sent dozens of yellow roses.
Through that blizzard, his eyelashes iced,
his jeans crusted, he never lost his way.
That took knee-deep rice paddy mud,
unspearing men from pungi pits,
stepping on a Claymore mine.
After months in Army hospitals,
he folded an origami diamond, identical
to the engagement ring inside. But he couldn’t
mend nerve damage, soften welds of scar tissue.
In a blizzard, victims lose direction, see
what isn’t there, collide with what is,
become one with the sleet pocking away at them.
The bridesmaids wore daisies in their hair,
the groomsmen dress blues. Guests threw
rose petals as we stepped through a saber arch
supported by wounded vets, our smiles
mirrored over and over on the sharp blades.

–from Red Silk


The Results of Some Hoping

Ardith is last down the steps,
the only student lugging books in a fire drill.
Like a bird, she tilts her head at me, same way
her mother, Lydia, did twenty years ago.
Red-headed Lydia sputtered and wheezed
whenever she raised a hand, all of us shifting,
setting down pens, some hoping
she’d raise those eyes above clusters of tissues,
afloat on her desk like wilted gardenias.
I untangled her from hooks and latches,
but wished just once she’d open her locker
on the first try, not call out for me to wait.
Lydia, the only girl unable to run a lap,
dribble a ball, the single pep squad member
waving a crew-sweatered arm
among cheering v-necks, the lone girl
stumbling down bus aisles,
snagging her spiral on jackets.
At the door, Ardith leans
into her sliding geometry book.
A pencil and highlighter bounce off her elbow.
We shoo her into open air, scramble for books
fluttering pages behind her.
As she measures the last step with a toe,
her red hair spirals in the wind;
a flurry of Kleenex lifts from her purse like doves.

–from Red Silk




Bio:  Maryfrances Wagner has served as board member of the American Poets Series, co-editor of New Letters Review of Books and co-president of the Writers Place Board of Directors.  She has published nine collections of poetry including Salvatore’s Daughter (BkMk), Red Silk (MidAm), Light Subtracts Itself (MidAm), Dioramas (Mammoth), Pouf (Finishing Line), The Silence of Red Glass (Woodley), and The Immigrants’ New Camera (Spartan). Red Silk won the Thorpe Menn Book Award.  Her poems have appeared in many literary magazines including New Letters, Midwest Quarterly, Laurel Review, Beacon Review, American Journal of Poetry, Natural Bridge, Louisville Review, Cape Rock, Voices in Italian Americana, Poetry East, Chariton Review, Patterson Literary Review, Hiram Poetry Review, Nebraska Review, Birmingham Review, et. al., and she’s appeared in anthologies including Unsettling America:  An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry (Penguin Books), Kansas City Outloud II, Voices from the Interior, Bearing Witness: Poetry by Teachers About Teaching, Memories and Memoirs, Anthology of Missouri Women Writers, Chance of a Ghost, Art Uprising, and The Dream Book:  An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women, (winner of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation).  Her work for that book was chosen for American Audio Prose and was translated into Italian for Trapani Nuovo in Italy.  Her poems have won various prizes including the Stanley Hanks Poetry and Potpourri contests.  She has co-edited several anthologies, and Denise Low says of her, “Maryfrances Wagner is a literary advocate and community builder,” and she continues to help support the literary arts. In 2020 she was the Individual Artist honoree for the Missouri Arts Awards, the state’s highest honor in the arts, and she serves as Missouri Poet Laureate from 2021-2023.

For many years, she and her husband sponsored the Simpson House Readings, and they also sponsor the annual Crystal Field Scholarship Reading that contributes to a scholarship that she and her husband Greg Field set up for a creative writing student at UMKC.  She has served as Co-President of The Writers Place, Secretary of Kansas City Creates, board member of the American Poet Series, and currently serves as Vice President and Programming Chair for The Writers Place. She is the daughter of four Italian immigrant grandparents, and she lives with her husband Greg Field (writer, poet, visual artist, drummer) and their dog Annie Sexton, a rescued dog of seven breeds.

Three Poems by Maryfrances Wagner

Posted in Maryfrances Wagner on November 15, 2019 by Scot

High School Lunch Hour

Girls, heavy-breasted in halters,
hide behind the stadium ticket booth
with tank-topped boyfriends,
cup the hotboxed glow
of fat humped joints,
watch for the principal.

They favor talk of burrito supremes
and ways to skip sixth hour
over the Type A macaroni and cheese lunch.

They point to a jerseyed arm
flying a yellow box kite
from a third-floor window.
They know the tight pull
of a good kite string
before it’s suddenly gone.


About Missouri Clay

Wanted to ride
the meanest Hell’s Angel bike
gripping the belt loops
of a man who could
drink turpentine for breakfast.

Wanted to steal
my brother’s Tropic of Cancer,
hitchhike up Highway One,
hang ten at Hunnington Beach.

Wanted to be
a Mick Jagger groupie,
hang out backstage,
hump so long even
Mick wouldn’t leave.

But I followed wooded trails,
wrapped my legs around Missouri clay,
kept busy
saving it.




Someone has left open
a mailbox fronted
with barbed wire
twisted into a nest.
Six vellum notes lay
stacked and stamped.
A spider’s web,
woven across the wire
like a torn door screen,
has captured a fly, a moth,
and a hornet still thrashing.
Who will reach in there?

I didn’t cry when I watched
my father sew together
where barbed wire
tore open my dog’s throat.

Atop the mailbox,
a starling eyes me
and tilts his head.
The air steals breath.
Gum trees toss spiky balls.
Last year, they caused
my dog and me to fall twice.
Worry, no more certain
than a torn sack hanging
from a bush, cannot save us.

Auld Lange Syne’s End of Set by Maryfrances Wagner

Posted in Maryfrances Wagner with tags on February 5, 2012 by Scot

That last shot of tequila induces
head spins in the parking lot, makes us
wish for Tuesday or take backs.

We wake to the unfamiliar, learn the art
of exit, face the red-eye drive past car
wrecks, cross icy bridges of thought.

Last words spurt forth, microbursts
ugly as cold sores, cause for signing
papers, clearing out drawers.

In twenty years, they’ll roll their eyes
when we knit, wonder if winter’s,
darkness exhaled us whole.

We wave sparklers on the home lawn,
let the New Year slide in early with
stories we trade like sports cards,

stories we can choose,
more butter each year,
smooth and full in the mouth.

We lift the wine toast reminder,
that hint of black cherry,
that crisp structured finish.

Aunt Mary Postulates One Sunday at the Nursing Home by Maryfrances Wagner

Posted in Maryfrances Wagner with tags on January 22, 2012 by Scot

“You look like your mother today,” she says,
eyebrows arched.  “You’ve cut your hair.
It’s nice enough, but you need poof on top.
We don’t have faces for flat dos.  See how
Jimmy combed my hair.  I’ve got poof.
And I’m wearing Elizabeth Taylor’s cocktail ring.
Jimmy bought it for me on late night TV.
Jewelry of the Stars.  I’m getting Ava Gabor’s
brooch next.  Boy, she had a lot of affairs,
but she had great jewelry.  Speaking of affairs,
Marie Coleman was having one, three doors
down from us, and nobody knew.  I don’t get it.
People could have affairs in here at night.
No one ever comes around to check on us.
We could stop breathing and no one would know.
Necrophiles could neck in here all night long.
Never saw any reason for affairs.  Just a bunch of sex.
The jewelry they get would be nice, but boy, is sex
overrated.  Just a bunch of fiddling around in the dark.
What’s the big deal?  I’d rather go dancing, wear
a mink coat, yeah, white ermine, and diamonds.”