Smile Politely

Meet Will Reger: Urbana’s inaugural poet laureate

Last month, I spoke with Urbana’s arts and culture coordinator, Rachel Lauren Storm, about the City of Urbana’s s new poet laureate program and what it would mean for our community.  And now, here we are — envelope, please — introducing the 2019 inaugural poet, Will Reger. 

Fun facts

Reger plays the flute, uses Twitter to spread poetry, and YouTube to bring live readings (and live music) to your desktop or device. He’s also a history professor, which means he knows a little something about tragic flaws, great civilizations, and the human condition. 


Born and raised in the St. Louis, Missouri area, Reger earned his Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois. Trading gown for town, he lives in Champaign, Illinois, with his wife and children.

His local poetry presence

A co-leader of CU Poetry Group, Reger has been active in MTD Poetry, CU Haiku in the News Gazette, and Poets at the Post, a monthly open mic held at the Iron Post in Urbana.  He has read at The Urbana Free Library, Boneyard Arts Festival, Imbibe Urbana’s Love for All Poetry Crawl, SPEAK Café, Respect the Mic, and as part of an annual reading at Danville Correctional Center.

His published work

Reger has published over 100 poems both in print and on-line, including in Front Porch Review, Chiron Review, Zingara Poetry Review, Passager Journal, Eclectica Magazine, The Blue Nib Literary Magazine, Broadkill Review, Cagibi, Innesfree Poetry Journal, and the Paterson Literary Review. His first chapbook is Cruel with Eagles, a self-published volume of poems illustrated by his daughter, Gretchen Valencic.


When he’s not writing or reading poetry, you can find him teaching within the Department of History at both Illinois State University and Parkland College.

What’s the buzz about him? 

Mayor Diane Wolfe Marlin is certain that “Will will bring a lot of good energy to the role of the poet laureate. The City of Urbana will benefit from Will’s steadfast commitment to supporting local writers and advancing poetry projects in the community.” Rachel Lauren Storm shared that he

impressed the jury with his proposal to generate deeper collaborations in and between Urbana’s various poetry organizations, create greater visibility for the art of poetry through public readings and panel discussions, as well as spearhead a visual art project that would result in local poetry being displayed as visual art throughout the city.

What will Urbana’s poet laureate do? 

Here’s the actual “job description” or mission of the poet laureate: 

Celebrate Urbana’s vibrant arts and culture scene through the work of a poet who elevates the art of written and spoken word, as well as conducts outreach activities, special programs, and presentations of individual works. The role of the Poet Laureate is to build upon the City’s local poetry scene, foster appreciation of poetry in all its forms, and support Urbana residents and visitors in deepening their appreciation of the art of creative writing. 

Sounds like Reger will have a busy year. 

His upcoming year as poet laureate

Reger’s own vision for his year as poet laureate includes three significant initiatives. A  youth poetry competition, collaborations with local bookstores and public libraries to help guide acquisitions of dynamic poetry collections, and, using poetry to help support organizations that benefit those impacted by war and incarceration. 

I was lucky enough to get a few minutes of Will Reger’s time during these busy first days post-annoucement. Here’s what he had to say about his influences, his idea of the poet’s role in society, and what he’s most looking forward to as the first poet laureate of Urbana. 

Smile Politely: What are you most looking forward to as poet laureate? 

Will Reger: The thing that motivated me most (and which you could say I am looking forward to most) is giving more people in the community the kind of experience with poetry that I’ve had.  Poetry has been a part of my life, really, since I was four, but it has taken many different forms over the years. For the last six years I’ve been involved with the CU Poetry group, which began as a very small group, only three people. Jim O’Brien and Steve LaVigne (now in Missouri), and myself. It has grown to be such a satisfying and nurturing group of people who read and critique poetry each week. I would love to be able to replicate that group for others, especially young people.

SP: What do you think is the poet’s role in society today? Or, on a local level, in his/her own community?

Reger: I think the poet’s role in society today can manifest as nearly anything. Some poets get involved in movements and activism, some poets play a role in the broader music, arts, and literature scene. Some poets are interested in healing themselves. Some think poetry is a game to be played with like-minded folk. If there is a connecting tissue between these various strains of poet, I think it is to make the world in some way more clear, more beautiful, more aware, more joyful. Poetry is meant to be shared. It exists in a language that sets it off as something dedicated, something intended to inspire or enlighten (or even confuse) the hearers and readers. It transforms experience in a way that makes it transmutable to others, although not in any sort of one to one manner. In poetry, one person can discuss his sexuality, another can celebrate his ancestors, a third can critique social injustice, and a fourth poet can immortalize a moment or a lovely thing that caught her attention. If I have any sort of contribution to make in this regard as poet laureate, it would be to stand by as many of these poets as I can, and facilitate and celebrate their efforts. 

SP: What has poetry (reading and writing it) mean to you?

Reger: Poetry, for me personally, has come to mean a great deal. I have many clusters of poems that have approached or attacked various areas of life or problems in life or great joys of life from different angles. I write about many of the same things over and over, and it seems like each time I find a new way or even a better way to say what is meaningful. Part of that involves bringing up images and metaphors and telling stories from my life that have value to me internally. It also becomes particularly interesting when these personal stories and images from my past start to mean something independent of my history, or when they resonate with what other poets have written, when what is personal to me becomes emblematic of the human experience. Poetry is a way to plug into the wider human current. I was telling a friend of mine the other day that I probably truly became a poet in the 7th grade because I would make up little songs and rhymes to amuse my friends during P.E. Looking back on that, I think that was the truest experience — the poet entertaining the people in the immediate moment.

SP: Who are some of your favorite poets?

Reger: I started out in high school reading exclusively the older American poets. Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, E. A. Poe, Edward Arlington Robinson, and so on. In college, I met Howard Nemerov, a St. Louis poet, who has had some influence over my writing, but I have also become a fan of Robert Lowell, Galway Kinnell, W. S. Merwyn, Marilyn Hacker, Adrienne Rich, Donald Hall, Charles Simic, Sharon Olds, Naomi Shihab Nye, Chase Twitchell, and many, many others. I also admire younger poets like our own Janice Harrington and Steve Davenport, and people in the CU Poetry group whose words I hear regularly in my head — Jim O’Brien, Ann Hart, Nikki Byrnside, Marva Nelson, Tim Waller, Vic and Vern Fein, and many others. At some point, this becomes a more or less pointless list of names, unless you understand that each of these people have struck the same “poetry bone” and echoed meaningfully in my head. 

SP: What do you most hope to share with young writers in our community?

Reger: What I would like to share with young writers, poets and others, is the great truth I discovered while writing my dissertation — I call it the 11th commandment — write first, fix later. For poets, that means especially, a bad poem on paper is better than a great poem you made up and forgot. Carry paper and pen everywhere, and scribble down anything that comes to mind. You can work it into a poem as time goes by. I still have a line about a paisley wing chair in the back of a pick up truck from 1985 or so, that belongs somewhere in a poem.  I haven’t given up hope that poem will be written. I want young people to love the language, soak their minds in good language, and capture what results and work with it until they are happy it says something meaningful to them that they can share if they want to.

Here are more ways to learn about Will Reger:

Public reception for Will Reger, Urbana Poet Laureate
W July 10th, 5 to 6:30 p.m.
Analog Wine Bar
129 N Race Street

Photo from Urbana Arts and Culture Program’s Facebook page

More Articles