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Karla Morton followed a lifelong path of words to become Texas poet laureate

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Posted 11:33am on Wednesday, Jul. 28, 2010

For as long as Karla Morton can remember, she has carried on a torrid love affair with words. The way syllables trip off the tongue. The way a string of them can burrow into your psyche, cajoling a smile, prompting a tear.

Morton brings every ounce of that passion to her current place as the official poet laureate of Texas. Ever since the Fort Worth-born Morton began serving as Texas' guardian angel of one of literature's oldest art forms, she has been determined not to be your grandmother's poet laureate.

As Texas' first female poet laureate in 17 years -- according to state documents, the first bard assumed the title in 1932 -- Morton is already making her presence felt on the state's literary landscape. Though unpaid for her service, Morton, 45, has launched a "Little Town, Texas" tour that hits as many small towns as she can -- bringing her poetry and inviting others to write and recite their poems that she may eventually publish.

And Morton has channeled her experience with breast cancer to produce, perhaps, her most poignant collection of poems -- which she presents as verbal therapy to cancer victims across the state.

"I write from the heart," Morton says. "Robert Frost once said that all poetry begins with a lump in the throat. And that is what I strive for as well, touching some emotion in others, giving them a chance to feel. In that way, I find all poetry to be, ultimately, about healing."

In love with words

After only a few months as poet laureate, Morton -- armed with a website, a signature look of flowing hippie skirts and cowboy boots, and a writing style that some feel echoes Emily Dickinson's -- has already established the template of the new-millennium poet.

She recites her evocative, rhyming verse with the conviction of a literary evangelist. In June, she came out with a collection titled Stirring Goldfish, to be followed by this month's publication of Names We've Never Known.

Perhaps one of the reasons for Morton's burst of creative energy has been how many stories she has been squirreling away in her four-plus decades of living.

Her birth, at Fort Worth's All Saints Hospital, was shrouded in sadness. Only months before Morton was born, her father, Richard Mann, was killed in a car accident while driving to pick up her mother, Wanda.

Morton spent her elementary- and middle-school years in Arlington before attending Mansfield High School after moving to Rendon.

"Growing up, writing was always a passion of mine," she says. "It seemed like I always had a pencil and paper in hand. I always seemed to turn to words in times of distress and happiness."

The poet recalls being so enamored of words that she would go through the dictionary and press dried dandelions on such intriguing terms as "Barcelona," "desire" and "negligee."

"It was more the sound of those words -- 'negligee,'" she says, tasting every syllabic lilt in the word, "that fascinated me from very early on."

She cherishes a vivid memory of her fifth-grade teacher at Maxie Speer Elementary School asking her to write her first poem, on her favorite color. It would be titled White. She composed the poem in minutes and immediately turned it in to her teacher.

"She looked at me," Morton recalls, "and she just said, 'Wow.' And I remember thinking to myself that I wanted that kind of response to what I did again and again. That was my moment when I realized that I wanted to write."

By the time she entered Mansfield High School, her literary persona had to make room for her "band geek" pursuits of playing French horn and trombone, and her new passion for journalism as a cub reporter for the Mansfield News-Mirror.

"And that would be the first time that I saw my name as a byline in print," Morton says. "I'm here to tell you there is nothing more addicting to future writers than to see your work and name in print."

After her graduation from Texas A&M University, where she earned a degree in journalism, Morton married Stan Morton, whom she met while both worked at a hospital in south Arlington. Through her first years of marriage, Morton hitched herself to her husband's career path in the healthcare services industry -- which meant nomadic moves to Florida, North Carolina and Louisiana, before returning to Texas. By the time her first child, Matthew, was born in 1991, and with the arrival of her daughter, Kathryn, in 1993, Morton returned to her initial love of writing.

Determined to succeed

Being a published author means girding yourself for lots of rejection. And from 1991 to 2005, Morton says she could have wallpapered her home with rejection letters.

"That was when I learned how many years of hearing 'no' it takes before 'yes' can come along," she says. "I would get discouraged. Writing is not for the faint of heart. But I kept on saying to myself that God would not have given me these words if I wasn't meant to do something with them."

In 2005, Morton got her first break from an obscure journal, Write Around the Corner, which accepted her work Needle-Eyed Beast. A year later, Morton's work would be accepted by the highly respected Concho River Review at Angelo State University.

And suddenly, Morton got hot: Her poetry landed in a series of high-wattage Texas journals such as Regarding Arts & Letters at Stephen F. Austin State University, Southwestern American Literature at Texas State University and TCU's literary journal descant.

In 2007, Morton even strayed way outside the conventional poetry box by producing Wee Cowrin' Timorous Beastie, an epic-length poem set in 17th-century Scotland. Morton conceived of Beastie as a lengthy rhyming poem crucially set to a Celtic soundtrack. That meant an accompanying CD, which sent Morton off to meet with Canadian composer Howard Baer -- who produced the perfect melodic complement to her Scottish Highlands verse, which Morton recorded for the CD.

"I remember playing the CD of that poem in my car," recalls Margaret Chalfant, who as executive director of the Greater Denton Arts Council originally nominated Morton to be poet laureate. "It's such a wonderful epic full of love and drama and transporting you to the Scottish moors, and when Karla narrates it, with this perfect little Scottish accent, she totally draws you in."

Shaved head for courage

Morton's most personal poems, though, spawned from the harrowing crucible of breast-cancer treatment.

Morton's mind easily flashes back to May 2008 and what should have been a routine mammogram -- except that it revealed a tiny but aggressively malignant cancerous growth. Within three weeks, Morton underwent a biopsy, a lumpectomy and the first of a grueling five-month battery of chemotherapy, followed by four months of radiation.

"My approach during all of this was that I wasn't going out with a whimper," Morton says. "I was still alive. As armor, I started wearing my cowboy boots every day. I started cussing. I just firmly believed I was gonna live."

Challenging Morton's defiant attitude would be the invidious side effects of her cancer treatment, which included the loss of her signature mane of flowing blond hair.

She decided to one-up Mother Nature by pre-emptively shaving her head.

"As it turns out, I had a nicely shaped head," Morton says. "Yes, hair was an innocent bystander in all of this. But, I'd put on the biggest, funkiest earrings I could find, along with big sunglasses, and just sit out at my favorite coffee shop in Denton, sipping my favorite iced mocha. I began to really own that bareheaded look."

With the cancer eliminated, Morton used that searing experience as creative fuel for, some would argue, her most affecting poetry collection: Redefining Beauty. The collection contains 45 poems, with titles such as Honeysuckle, Spock Thinks I'm Sexy, Do You Really Think This Is Helping? and Cowboyed Up.

" Redefining Beauty is very much Karla stripped to the bone," says Alan Birkelbach, 2005's Texas poet laureate. "It is Karla using everything she has, including her poetry, to survive. It's poetry that boils Karla down to her very essence of strength and beauty."

And by doing readings of Redefining Beauty at hospitals throughout the state, "Karla is using her poetry as therapy, bringing hope and a kind of healing to people that desperately need it," Birkelbach says.

Perhaps Morton's angriest poem in the collection is I Will Not Hide.

"That one reflects one of the hardest parts about me being bald and going out without a hat or wig," Morton says. "It's that people refused to look me in the eye anymore. For people who look different, we end up getting ignored, which creates an awful, lonely feeling."

Perhaps Morton's most poignant poem from this revealing collection was the title work, Redefining Beauty.

"I wrote about feeling like a hairless creature, like an eel," says Morton, whose own hair eventually grew back brown and curly. "But eels are actually supposed to be blind and they wrap around each other, all but whispering to each other that they are the most exquisite creatures they've ever seen. It's all about our perception of beauty and what the world sees it to be."

Almost a year after Morton received her cancer diagnosis, she would get much more jubilant news while she was driving on Interstate 35, from Denton to Dallas.

"The caller wanted to congratulate me on being named the 2010 poet laureate," recounts Morton. "I began screaming: 'No way! No way!' I made her repeat it several times. I then hung up, pulled over to the side of the road, got out of my car and did my crazy-woman dance on I-35."

So far, Morton's most trailblazing act as poet laureate is the Little Town, Texas Tour. Like a one-woman barnstormer, Morton has set her sights on taking her writing to as many small Texas hamlets as she can drive to.

"With the title of poet laureate, and the ability to shape the position any way I wanted, I immediately thought about what I could do to give back to the community," she says. "I remember as a schoolgirl being so inspired by words, and so whenever I visit the schools, I urge everyone to actually take pen to paper and write a letter -- or, better still, a poem."

Her tour has included stops in, among others, Mansfield, Hardin, Laredo, Marfa, Alpine, Fort Davis, Bastrop and Lamesa -- looking to share her poetry at colleges and bookstores, VA centers and festivals, libraries, fundraisers, conventions, conferences, and, finally, cancer support centers.

Morton refuses to rest on her poet laureate laurels. Karla K. Morton: New and Selected Poems is scheduled for September publication by TCU Press. She also has agreed to write -- in poetry form -- a history of Denton. In the meantime, Stirring Goldfish shows Morton moving in a slightly different artistic direction. Inspired by spiritual and sensual Middle Eastern Sufi poetry, Goldfish acts as a miniature meditation of notions earthly and eternal.

Ever the restless activist, Morton also wants to use her office as a bold pulpit from which she can bring the healing power of words to the latest crisis affecting Texas.

Case in point is Morton's recent effort to reach out to the people of Galveston and other Texas coastal communities potentially harmed by the BP oil spill.

"It is such a horrible tragedy," Morton says, "that if I can do anything, like assemble a group of poets laureate to increase awareness of the potential harm from this environmental disaster to our coastal beaches, it would just help me do something beyond myself, as I help the rest of the state."

Poet that she is, Morton seems eternally wedded to one of the literary world's most durable ideals: the power of the pen.

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