In December 2003, the Governor of Illinois named Kevin Stein Illinois Poet Laureate, filling the position previously held by Howard Austin, Carl Sandburg, and Gwendolyn Brooks. In that capacity Stein co-sponsors Illinois poetry competitions for Emerging Writers as well as grade, middle, and high school students. He also created the Poetry Now! project that has donated funds to nearly 50 Illinois libraries for the purchase of poetry by Illinois writers, designed and now maintains two laureate websites promoting the state’s poetry, and has offered over 170 in-state readings and presentations.
As poet, critic, and editor, Stein has published eight poetry collections and chapbooks, three scholarly books, two poetry anthologies, and numerous poems and essays published in journals as well as anthologies. This work has received acclaim from reviewers, including notice by Julia Keller in the Chicago Tribune and Mark Eleveld in the Chicago Sun-Times.
Stein’s newest collection, Wrestling Li Po for the Remote, is forthcoming in spring 2013 from Chicago’s Fifth Star Press. Yusef Komunyakaa calls that volume “a tour de force . . . of mercurial wit and quickness, politics and aesthetics“ in which “nothing seems to escape this poet’s flawless ear and keen eye.” Other recent collections include Sufficiency of the Actual (University of Illinois Press, 2009), which Bob Hicok notes as a “compelling and large-minded book,” and American Ghost Roses (University of Illinois, 2005), the latter earning praise from David Wojahn for its "impeccable craft" and by Edward Hirsch for its "particularly American . . . way of fooling around to get at something deep and necessary." In addition, American Ghost Roses garnered the Society of Midland Authors 2006 Poetry Award.
Two other collections, Chance Ransom (2000) and Bruised Paradise (1996), also appeared in the University of Illinois Press Poetry Series. Earlier, his first poetry volume, A Circus of Want (University of Missouri Press, 1992), earned the Devins Award for Poetry. Elsewhere, his poetry has been honored with the Frederick Bock Prize awarded by Poetry, the 1998 Indiana Review Poetry Prize, and four Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards including the 2007 award for his poem "Middle-aged Adam's and Eve's Bedside Tables." In addition, Stein has been the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship and three such fellowships granted by the Illinois Arts Council, as well as grant support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2004 he was awarded the Vernon Louis Parrington Medal for Distinguished Writing. His poems and essays have appeared widely in journals such as American Poetry Review, Boulevard, Colorado Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, Southern Review, and TriQuarterly.
In addition to poetry, Stein has published scholarly works, including the essays of Poetry's Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age (University of Michigan Press, 2010). This book rejects the currently trendy notion that poetry is dead and instead argues for its lively hereafter in our increasingly digital age. Private Poets, Worldly Acts (Ohio University Press, 1996; rpt. 1999) examines the intersection of public and private history in the work of nine American poets, including Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, Frank O'Hara, Philip Levine, and Rita Dove. This volume was named a 1997 Recommended Book by Amazon.com, the citation applauding how the book's "insightful visions" lift readers "beyond just reading a poem - to reading between its lines." Also, Stein's James Wright: The Poetry of a Grown Man (Ohio University Press, 1989) remains the benchmark study of this important American poet.
Stein extended his scholarly interests by editing two anthologies of Illinois poetry. In 2007 Stein edited Bread & Steel, the first-ever audio CD poetry anthology of 24 Illinois poets reading from their works. With the late poet G. E. Murray, Stein also edited Illinois Voices: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry (University of Illinois Press, 2001). This volume offers the first comprehensive anthology of Illinois poetry's twentieth-century heritage. Following the publication of Illinois Voices, Murray and Stein traveled throughout the state to lead discussions and readings from the anthology at libraries in locales such as Chicago, Charleston, Peoria, Springfield, and Urbana.