Award winning poet Mark Wagenaar ’03 couldn’t decide on a college, a direction or a major. He was, and is, a renaissance man with diverse interests who came to Graceland to do it all. Soccer, business, writing, literature and, most importantly, he made formational relationships that have helped him navigate his wild journey in life.
“Graceland soccer seemed like a very high level of play, and the college looked like a diverse place with caring professors and an extraordinary atmosphere — all of which turned out to be true,” said Mark. But Iowa was a long way from home and there were other local schools trying to sign him. “In the end, I flipped a coin.”
Beyond soccer, Mark hadn’t really considered what he would do in college. He began as a business major by default. By the time he fell in love with poetry and literature during Jon Wallace’s 20th Century Literature course, it was too late to change his major, so Mark opted for liberal studies with three minors to reflect his broadening interests.
Since graduation, Mark has done some traveling, played a couple years of professional soccer, and earned a few more degrees. He has had over 150 poems published by publications including The New Yorker and Southern Review, earned around 50 contest wins, runner-up or finalist showings, and had two books published.
“Voodoo Inverso,” from University of Wisconsin Press, was the winner of the Felix Pollak Prize, and “The Body Distances (A Hundred Blackbirds Rising),” which you can find from UMass Press this spring, was the winner of the 2015 Juniper Prize for Poetry. Mark has completed a third manuscript, “Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining,” which is already earning him contest wins, so Mark is hopeful this too will be published soon.
Mark has served as University of Mississippi’s 2014 Summer Poet in Residence, was named the 2015-16 Jay C. and Ruth Hall Poetry Fellow at University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Creative Writing, and won the 2015 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize. “It’s been a good ride,” said Mark.
The two most important events for Mark, however, have been his marriage to wife, Chelsea, who is also a poet, and the birth of their daughter, six-month-old Eloise Virginia. “She breaks my heart every time she smiles at me. Class of 2036 or so, I think, and definitely a striker — she’s too smart and quick to be a defender like her old man.”
While at Graceland, professors Jon Wallace and Barbara Mesle were especially influential for Mark, but he notes that there were many. “They made themselves accessible, and they challenged their students,” he said. “It has certainly inspired my pedagogy.”
Mark recalls one encounter that has stuck with him. “Praise from Jon was hard earned — and something to be proud of. We workshopped poems anonymously, and I still remember once after class, we walked out together, and he leaned over and said, ‘That scarecrow poem was yours, wasn’t it?’ I said it was, and he nodded and half smiled. ‘Okay, not bad.’ It was an endorsement. It was my first poem worthy of that title.”
Mark’s ties to Graceland are strong because of the relationships that were forged with faculty and fellow students. Graceland does that for people; provides the ground on which to find footing in life.
“I didn’t know that I’d be friends with my teammates for the rest of my life. Someday somebody who didn’t fail stats should add up the odds of a Canuck and a Colombian playing varsity soccer together, getting married in the same year (each marrying a woman well out of his league), and then having daughters a few days apart; because it seems impossible to me, but there’s so many Graceland stories just like that.”