Story by Jackie Mantey
Photography by Elizabeth Myers
He's been called the father figure of poetry in Kent, but I see a man sitting on burgundy crush carpet writing to-do lists and reading his mail. Buddha statues, horse books, local artwork, family photos surround him. Just another living room. Just another person. But ten minutes after our introduction, he says "poetry is a sleeper's attempt to become awake." And away we slip, into a world where it's okay for elephants to be green and to wake with clenched fists of yearning.
"He" is Major Daniel Ragain, but is better known as Maj. Maj is a 67-year-old native of southeast Illinois and a son of the fields and rivers there that still shape his heart. He now belongs to Kent, where he lives on a cozy, dead-end street by the Cuyahoga River. It's raw poetry that seeps from his pores, not academia or prestige. He calls his pursuit of a PhD. from Kent State in 1990 an "afterthought." To a stranger, that may appear ironic, as Maj teaches poetry at Kent State, but the classes he teaches are more like free lessons for a mind always searching for more.
"There are no masters; everyone's an apprentice," he says. "I teach in order to learn. There's never been a semester I haven't found a student who is a better poet than I. Poetry is not a shiny kingdom with a tiny door. Writing poetry is a birthright." That humility combined with a hunger for humanity makes people cling to Maj. His words suspend in the air, waiting to be dissected and digested as those listening see fit. And there are a lot of people listening.
It's a Friday night in late January, and a small hodge-podge of people and Labrador named Lilly are huddled near an electric heater in the North Water Street Gallery. They are poets from around the area who have gathered for a monthly poetry reading that's been a part of Maj's life for nearly 20 years. The readings used to be Brady's Café, a location which is now home to Starbucks. Maj and several of the poets still remember the takeover well. Maj calls it "an act of 21st century corpocracy."
The room is freezing, but Maj interjects, gesturing to near-empty bottle and a book on his lap. "We've got Whiskey and we've got poems." Despite the attendees' ranges in age, gender, lifestyle, everyone seems to know Maj. He's quick with a smile, a handshake, a kind word or a joke. As the reading starts, Maj's wife, LuAnn, rings a cowbell and shares a story to counteract stiff joints from the cold and the stiff faces from the nervousness of sharing their poetry.
He's almost majestic, as his seat in his wheelchair sets him an inch or two above everyone. They all watch intently as he speaks. It almost feels like a holy experience – a preacher giving an eager parish hope and advice.
Maj would hate that metaphor. Perhaps an incredibly modest individual, he doesn't seem to notice how important he is to the listening poets. "Doubt is your teacher," he says.
But so is Maj. As individual members of the small gathering finish reading from notebook paper and three-ring binders, they automatically look up to Maj – not necessarily to hear what he has to say, but because they just shared a part of themselves and know he will understand. "The poem you don't want to read is the one everyone wants to hear." "Where else other than a poetry reading can you say that?" "God dammit, that was a poem." Words of advice spill from Maj's lips, not condescendingly, but as if he just truly felt the thing or the comfort of their words. After one woman shares a four-page poem about what she would choose to have for her final meal, Maj laughs and says, "Well, it's a kiss and a hot dog for me."
It's all per norm for the man David Hassler calls "inseparable from the poetry community … the thread that runs through the life of Kent."
Hassler, a local poet and professor at Kent State, first met Maj in 1989 during a trip to the ill-fated Brady's café. Maj became a source of inspiration to his new friend.
"He has such an effect on people," Hassler says. "He opens their eyes and ears and wakes up their hearts."
Nothing is normal with Maj, Hassler says, including parties. He follows a different beat that everyone longs to hear. One time, when Maj had a get-together at his house, he started discussing how fascinated he was with women's feet – especially his wife's. Ten minutes later, Maj was painting all the women's toes at the party with Hassler as his nail polish apprentice.
Katie Daley, a poet from Cleveland and a good friend of Maj's had similarly entertaining anecdotes. They met during a poetry reading on "a boat in the Flats somewhere" and have been pen pals and mentors for each other since. Maj is known to send letters to people he's met – on napkins, postcards, anything he can get his hands on. Daley looks forward to them every time.
"I love the way he sees the world – magical and hopeful. He sees the poetry and beauty of it all," she says. "What sets him apart is his bright spiritedness. He's honest and willing to address the heartbreak of the world and hold it out for everyone to see."
Heartbreak. It's not something that sits on Maj's doorstep, but it has certainly gripped him with its piercing hand before. His brother, Michael, died in 1965 in a car accident and as an eight year old, Polio set flames to Maj's body.
But those and other pains were important, Maj says, because they were stepping on stones on the path to where he is now. Indirectly, those moments helped create a passion for words and an understanding of a deeper self – an essential element of his poetry.
His Polio diagnosis sanctioned him home schooled from fourth grade through eighth. Left with a solitude of self, Maj read everything he could get his hands on. Consuming Edgar Allan Poe to the point of tears and daydreaming of the woods past his bedroom window; reading poetry out loud for the first time and devouring Steinbeck, Hemingway; embracing the magic of being alone on the water by his house.
"Those years of being alone, I was contemplative and introspective," he says. "I felt this sadness and had an early recognition that it shouldn't be resisted. There was something secret and delicious about it… it could help me build an inner life."
Twenty-six years later, Maj wrote what he calls his first poem. "I had always been a journaler, but I just stayed up all night one time and wrote something for my father and hung it on my wall," he says. "The next morning I re-read it. Something strange had come though me; the voice was odd. I said 'this must be a poem'"
He was off, chasing his thoughts with pencil and paper. It was a means of exploring the world, exploring his self. Poetry, he found, was an ongoing conversation that transcends time and place. Writing poetry was humbling.
There's no secret formula to Maj's work. The inspirations for his poems can come from anywhere and can be written on anything. There is one thing, however, that always seems to get a poem going.
"The poem I am interested in is the poem that is an act of friendship and generosity," he says.
The majority of his pieces are written for someone or with someone in mind. His books feature dozens of poems to his wife, two children and three grandchildren.
"I write because it's the only way I know how to say it," he says. To Maj, poetry is a recorded series of transformations taking place – transformations that every person goes through and defines on their own accord. And that's what makes poetry wonderful. It's inquisitive and it admits that no one really has the answer. The inquiries are universal.
"On any block there will be two or three people alone writing poetry we will never know about," he says. "They're having a conversation with their own soul."
Maj makes me have a conversation with my own soul before I can visit him again. Two poems and a smile are his requirements for another interview. While reading my first attempts at poetry to Maj, I didn't feel intimidated or at all like an amateur. In fact, I was excited to share my words with him. That had never happened before. I now understood what everyone was talking about – there's no inkling of pretentiousness, self-righteousness, or attitude in Maj's realm. A month later, I get a letter.
"Jackie, thank you for the two poems which you brought and read here. So many poems have been read in this house, aloud. It is a beehive and the words are bees. So, what you said, gave breath to, will buzz around my house for a long time." Further in the letter, Maj writes that he has thought long and hard about his original response to a question of "what he wants to do with the rest of his life." His revised answer is poignant and brief.
"I want to find my soul out in the world… And piss a rainbow of beautiful rust twenty feet."