Shaun Griffin: Nevada State Poet Laureate

Shaun Griffin is the new Nevada State Poet Laureate. In 2014, he was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. He hosts the radio show “A Writer’s World” on KWNK 97.7 FM on the first and third Sundays of the each month at 5 p.m. 

 What initially brought you to poetry?

When I was in high school, I was smitten with a girl who didn’t even know I existed.  And I wrote my first poem to her. I had no idea it was a poem. It just burst out of me. Years later, in graduate school, we were robbed, and they stole my jewelry box, and the poem was torn in half, which is all I have left.  But I was given a lifetime of joy when I discovered the art form.

I understand you plan to bring art to those who might not have access to it.

For years, decades really, I have been teaching poetry in prison. I would love it if we could offer a poetry writing workshop in all of the state’s facilities. We (the Nevada Prison Education Project) are making some headway on that front. This spring and summer, we have the first creative writing workshop being offered at Florence McClure, the women’s prison down south (in North Las Vegas). The reason for doing this is really quite simple—it saves lives. It gives the men and women their dignity back. When they get the opportunity to express themselves, to really address who they are, what they have buried for so long, something powerful emerges. They experience agency in a place where there is so very little of it. And that is the threshold of understanding how to move on from this place into a life of responsibility. Without doing so, taking a hard look at oneself, very little changes on a yard with a 60% recidivism rate.

What other plans do you have?

I hope to encourage poetry reading and writing wherever it might flourish and generally help remove the sometimes “off-putting” mystique that surrounds the art form. I have worked in schools and libraries across the state. I think people want a way to express themselves, but too often poetry gets crowded out by the instant flicker of the cell phone, the laptop, the demand for one’s attention. Just taking a few minutes to read a poem is an act of intention, something that requires effort because of this constant stimulus. And yet, when you do, there are entire worlds to be absorbed and almost always, a poet has spoken what it is you are most concerned with. It is not important to have a scholar’s attention; it is important to have a curious mind, an open mind to enjoy a line from Dickinson or any poet.

What have you learned from teaching in the prison?

I’ve watched grown men cry at having written or read a line of poetry that spoke their personal truth. Nothing I could say was more profound than listening to them describe how a line from a poem brought them to their knees. And then listening to them teach the other men this almost magical process, how to write or read a poem so that they too could begin to be “artists.” Art is mostly seen as a private club—you need special keys to enter. It is only private if you have never touched its mind-altering quality. I remember a line from Yeats: “the mind altering alters all.”

Where should people keep an eye out for poetry with Sundance Books closing?

Libraries, any place where people and books gather, but I would start with libraries. Many libraries have reading series. There are many local reading scenes, coffee houses, open mic nights, jazz and poetry nights. Almost every college has a poetry writing group, and there are many at high schools. Ask an English teacher where people are gathering. Both Reno and Las Vegas have poet laureates. They are hosting many events. Reach out to them. The scariest step is the first one. Take it.