Indiana University graduate student chosen as official poet of the Indianapolis 500

Post courtesy of newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre:

In a game of word association, the Indianapolis 500 and poetry and are not obvious counterparts.

And yet for the 100th running of the race May 29, an official poet has been selected: Indiana University student and instructor Adam Henze.┬áThe race-day program will feature his poem “For Those Who Love Fast, Loud Things.”

henze headshot

Adam Henze is a Ph.D. candidate at IU Bloomington and a touring poet. Photo courtesy of James E. Moriarty

The poem was selected by a panel of writers in a contest co-sponsored by Indiana Humanities as a way of reviving a 1920s tradition.

Henze is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Literacy, Culture and Language Education in the School of Education at IU Bloomington.

A practitioner of performance poetry, he hopes his poem succeeds on both the page and the stage.

“I knew that if I won, my poem would have to look good in the racing program and sound good when heard over the track loudspeaker,” Henze said. “Plus, when I read my work, I don’t really settle for recitation. My goal is to make an empathetic connection with the audience, and I hope my performance resonates with fans come May.”

For race fans, the poem reads like an ode to their passion. It begins with these stanzas:

This poem is for the track folk who just love the smell of Ethanol.

For the Carb Day cut sleeve sporters, the Snake Pit dancers, and Coke Lot campers with bald eagle bandanas.

This is an anthem for the hearts that’ve surged at the scope of the Pagoda. For the hands that know the feeling of slapping the North Vista tunnel ceiling. For the lips that whisper along with Florence Henderson when she sings, yes. This poem is for the 500 fans who love fast, loud things.

The Arts, Culture and Youth Committee of the 100th Running Host Committee spearheaded this year’s poetry contest. Judges included best-selling fiction author John Green, former Indiana poet laureate Joyce Brinkman and Indianapolis-born poet Januarie York.

The judges also awarded second place and named 31 honorable mention poems, to create a starting lineup of 33 poems.

As the official poet, Henze received a cash prize of $1,000 and two tickets to the race. In addition to being featured in the race program, he will read the poem at the track during qualification weekend.

Henze, a professional poet for nearly a decade, is the director of Slam Camp, a poetry camp for high school students held at IU Bloomington in the summer.

He approached the contest like he approaches his graduate research. “In my past three years in the School of Education, I’ve been focused as a researcher on trying to use poetry as a form of inquiry,” Henze said. “Both poets and ethnographers use imagery and thick description in the field to examine people and culture. I just try to be a little more playful with the language.”

Henze began by interviewing his friend Evan Treece, a K-12 art teacher in Indianapolis and diehard race fan, to whom the poem is dedicated.

“When I first heard about the contest, I thought it would be a neat opportunity,” Henze said. “But once I saw how much this project meant to my friend Evan, and after I started believing more in the poem I was creating from our discussion, the more I wanted to share my words with the race community.”

Henze took notes and recorded and transcribed his interviews with Treece. Then, he spent the subsequent days going over his “data.”

“I believe approaching this poem as a qualitative researcher helped me to represent the rich history and nuance of Indy 500 culture,” Henze said. “I hope fans think I captured the spirit of the event.”

Even though the Indy 500 and poetry are not obvious bedfellows, Henze hopes the performative aspect of his poetry speaks to race fans who do not traditionally read or listen to poetry.

“I really wanted to write a poem that poetry lovers would appreciate and race fans would identify with as well. One of my favorite things about being a performance poet and teaching artist is taking poetry to new spaces and sharing it with people who typically don’t really read poetry,” Henze said. “That is why I incorporated a lot of rhythm and internal rhyme in the poem, in hopes of resonating with the crowd. I would love if race fans heard my poem and said, ‘Poetry is not always my thing, but I think this one sounds pretty cool.'”

Henze will read his poem at an event from 6:30 to 8 p.m. May 6 at the Indiana Humanities office in Indianapolis. The reading, which is free and open to the public, will include other Indianapolis 500 poems from the starting lineup. Guests are encouraged to register online.

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