Aliki Barnstone

Dr. Aliki Barnstone, Missouri poet laureate and a University of Missouri professor, talks to language arts students at St. Joseph Central High School on Wednesday afternoon. Barnstone has held the position since 2016.

Dr. Aliki Barnstone wants young people to know they have a creative voice within them. Missouri’s poet laureate understands something about precociousness.

A major publishing house released her first book of poetry the year she turned 12. The introduction was written by poet Anne Sexton, who won a Pulitzer Prize the previous year.

In her vision for the unpaid job of poet laureate, Barnstone wanted to empower students to write or do anything creative.

“If you have something that is all yours, that comes from you, and that you can shape and you can grow with, it protects you from the forces that are hard on you,” she said in St. Joseph on Wednesday afternoon.

Barnstone, a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, spoke to language arts students at Central High School.

The visit marks one of the last she will make as the state’s fourth poet laureate. Her tenure actually ended a year ago, but she stayed on until a new laureate could be appointed by the governor, a selection with which she has helped.

In speaking around Missouri, Barnstone said she has enjoyed gatherings like the one at Central (“I just love the young people,” she said) and discovers in the students an obstacle in their efforts to be creative.

Social media and other noise are to blame.

“I’m not trying to wax nostalgic here, but kids these days don’t have the privacy to be children,” the poet said. “At a very young age, they’re shaping a persona. Each one is a little child star. ... They don’t have a chance to develop an internal life and have privacy to make mistakes.”

The daughter of a poet and an artist, Barnstone recounted a childhood that included an atmosphere of creativity and quiet time. Not everyone has to be a poet, she told the students, but everyone has poetry within them.

“Self-expression is kind of square one. But beyond self-expression, you’re participating in a very long tradition. Everybody knows some poetry even if they don’t know the history of poetry,” she said. “Poetry is, it’s like dance or singing ... it’s embedded in our souls.”

Students on hand for her remarks appreciated what the poet had to say about the

creative process.

“I just like to put my emotion into everything that I do and make it my own,” Gideon Wood, a Central senior, said. “I saw that with her. She liked to talk about her life a lot and related her poems to stuff that was happening in her life. ... And that’s something that I like to do.”

Cameron Hanson, another senior, said she identified with Barnstone’s discussion of finding an inner voice.

“I kind of turn to God and look for his voice and kind of incorporate it into my own work,” she said. “And I also look at other artists’ work and get inspiration from that.”

Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt established the poet laureate position in 2008 as an encouragement of literacy and the reading and writing of poetry. Barnstone accepted the position in 2016 after Gov. Jay Nixon’s appointment.

She teaches creative writing and other subjects at the university in Columbia. Barnstone did her undergraduate and master’s work at Brown University, later getting her doctoral degree from the University of California at Berkeley.

Her visit here was arranged by St. Joseph Persisterhood, a group to which she spoke on Wednesday evening.

Artistic pursuits, the poet said, can be powerful for young people.

“They can have a sense that, in and of themselves, they are perfect as they are,” Barnstone said, “and they don’t need to be anything more except for what they want to be.”

Ken Newton can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.