When Purdue University Fort Wayne’s Curtis L. Crisler was a student on campus, he once walked into the office of George Kalamaras, tossed some of his work onto the professor’s desk and asked, “Am I a poet?”
“George stated, `Your work is about love!’ And I knew he got it. Yet, he couldn’t tell me I was a poet,” Crisler recalled. “It was up to me to find that out.”
There’s no doubt now that Crisler’s a real—and great—poet, acknowledged by his peers on Thursday after being named Indiana’s Poet Laureate by a committee made up of representatives from seven universities and colleges across the state and the Indiana Arts Commission’s executive director. The committee’s decision was unanimous.
Crisler also follows Kalamaras who served as the state’s poet laureate in 2014 and 2015. Only eight people have received the honor since 2005 when a bill establishing an official selection process was passed by the Indiana General Assembly.
“I think it’s a great thing for the university to have two poet laureates from the same place within 10 years,” Crisler said. “I hope that reflects how our creative writing program works within English and Linguistics.”
After being a finalist for the honor in 2020, Crisler was notified of the accomplishment in December, but wasn’t allowed to tell anyone except his mother until last week’s announcement. He spent the entire night responding to phone calls and emails of congratulations.
“The department is honored to have Curtis named poet laureate of Indiana,” said Hardin Aasand, chair of the Department of English and Linguistics. “He joins a previous PFW faculty member, George Kalamaras, in having this honor bestowed, and we couldn’t be more delighted. Curtis’s poetry and his creative voice are powerful expressions of a Midwest urban sensibility that he has been crafting throughout his career, and he has received national recognition for the power of his vision and the eloquence of his poetic voice. We are extremely proud of Curtis for receiving this prestigious award, and we are honored to have him in our department.”
After 32 years on the faculty, Kalamaras retired from PFW in 2022. Crisler graduated in 1999 with a degree in English creative writing. He came back to campus to teach in 2004. Part of how he serves the university today is by helping students find their voices and confidence.
“I want you to own your voice, know your voice, know who, why and how you are you,” Crisler said. “I don’t want you going out ignorant of what is out there, too. If you are not ready, I’ll tell you.”
He started writing almost 50 years ago as a Gary fourth-grader with a poem about Jackie Robinson for Black History Month. The author of 13 books and contributor to countless anthologies, Crisler is working on five more including a young adult book, a novel, and a trilogy of novels for girls. He recently finished “Doing Drive-bys on How to Live in the Midwest,” which was published Dec. 31.
Crisler’s art is sometimes blunt, always challenging, with vivid perceptions that examine Indiana life and stereotypes—full of emotion and passion, best when read aloud to experience their full impact. His work leans heavily into what he calls a theme of urban Midwest sensibility, which he describes as “The community and creativity of the varied relationships of descendants from the first through second waves of the southern migration, exploring their connections to place environment, history, family, and self.”
Being named Indiana’s Poet Laureate is not a lifetime achievement award for Crisler, who writes every day—poems, fiction, dramas, and essays—and believes he’s still in his prime at age 58. He sees the honor as a responsibility to help inspire others to take up the pen. His goal is to deliver an Indiana Chitlin Circuit presentation every month in a different part of the state, inviting other poets to join him for readings, discussions, and encouragement.
“I’m still writing a lot, and I’m still trying to get work out there,” Crisler said. “You have to share poetry with others. It moves from one body to another body.”