Editor M.E. Silverman discusses Kansas poetry with three State Laureates–Wyatt Townley (WT), 2013-2015; Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (CMG), 2009-2013; and Denise Low (DL), 2007-2009.
I want to thank each of you for your time. Here’s a question I open with occasionally: In a grandiose style, how would someone introduce you to a crowded room?
(WT) Now this is question I have never been asked. Our governor might be lowered on a trapeze wearing a lit candelabra on his head, singing my bio. Or maybe a Rube Goldberg machine with gymnasts…?
(CMG) Oh, sheesh, just thinking about this makes me feel a little embarrassed. I suppose someone would say I’m very prolific, eclectic (I write in many genres) and energetic. The best introduction I ever got was from a student, who said I had a expansive mind, heart and soul.
(DL) Once John Jenkinson of Butler County Community College gave me the most bang-up introduction ever, very embarrassing. He talked about the poetry achievements—Poet Laureate of Kansas, fellowships, prizes, books from Woodley, BkMk Press, Ice Cube, Howling Dog, Cottonwood, Mulberry—but he also mentioned the critical works I’ve published, including several books of essays (from The Backwaters Press, Penthe, and Ice Cube) as well as an issue on Leslie Marmon Silko edited for American Indian Culture and Research Journal. He also covered the historical writings—a pictorial biography of Langston Hughes and research on Cheyenne ledger art (articles are in Kansas History, Studies in American Indian Literature, Plains Indian Literature Art-UC San Diego website). John covered it all. I founded the creative writing program at Haskell Indian Nations University, and while there served as department chair and dean. That administrative skill helped when I became board member and then president of Associated Writers and Writing Programs (2008-13). My husband and I have a small literary press, Mammoth. So, as they say on Facebook, it’s complicated. In a crowded room, I don’t stand out and usually just tell people I’m from Kansas and try to find out something new by listening.
How would you describe Kansas to someone who has never been there?
(WT) Kansas is oversimplified and undervalued. It is a place where the sky dwarfs the earth. (New York has that equation upsidedown!) The storms, the stars, and the sunsets are breathtaking. It is a place of mystery and paradox, a place of convection in the center of the country. Wind is what stirs this state—and wind is a mysterious force, invisible except in what it moves: hair, grass, corn, trees, houses, towns.
It sounds beautiful! My family spent a long week there and was quite charmed but also pleasantly surprised.
(CMG) Most places aren’t what you think they are, but in Kansas that’s a truth on steroids. This place is far more mysterious, beautiful, enchanted and surprising than 99.9% of people know (if that). Kansas opens out to the sky in ways you’ve never seen before, and the weather is more dramatic than just about any landscape you could traverse. We have the most kick-ass lightning storms on the planet, and the land here is rarely flat or boring (despite our reputation). The people here are outrageously imaginative, generous and wise, although they tend to be quiet about their vivid inner and outer lives.
(DL) Kansas is large and diverse, with many microclimates, both geographically and culturally. It is river country, with major wetlands areas as well as expanses of grasslands and farms with great soil. The sky and wind are also very important. Most of the population lives in the eastern third of the state, so access to rural areas is nearby. That awareness of large expanses of land just an hour away has an impact. Even in Kansas City, Kansas, one is never far from countryside.
What is the literary life like in Kansas?
(WT) It’s humming along, desk by desk, chair by chair, window by window, office by office. People are thirsty for readings—face-to-face shared experiences that move literature off the page—which may draw a hundred people in one town, a dozen in another. And the writers are truly supportive of one another, not competitive, with real generosity of spirit. Writing groups, clubs, and other organizations abound. With an active Poet Laureate program through the Kansas Humanities Council, over fifty colleges and universities, bunches of literary magazines and small presses, and scores of serious writers in all corners, the literary scene is reinventing itself all the time.
Fifty colleges and universities? What about the smaller areas? How are the literary scenes there?
(CMG) The literary life here, just like the land, is also not what you would expect. There are pockets of poets in Kansas where least expected. Go to Pittsburg, Kansas, in the far southeast corner of the state, and you won’t be able to shake a tree without two poets falling out. The same goes for many towns and cities and in-between spaces. Because this is a state which catalyzes the development of an inner for many of us — maybe because of the vivid weather and lack of a reputation as a tourism attraction — many of us are driven to poetry and other arts, which cultivate our poetic take on life.
(DL) Many microclimates. Something’s in the Topeka water system—they have such great poets, including Kevin Young, Ben Lerner, Amy Fleury, Cyrus Console, Ed Skoog, Eric McHenry, and more. Most places have very good school systems, arts centers, and libraries. For years, that has fed writing culture. A recent NEA poll showed Kansas has the highest percentage of population that participates in creative writing. Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, when poet laureate, created a renga project that included almost 150 different poets from across the state. My own poet laureate project was an anthology of Kansas poets that included Gordon Parks, William Stafford, James Tate, Albert Goldbarth, Charlie Plymell, B.F. Fairchild, Judith Roitman, Jim McCrary, more! Both of these poet laureate projects received Notable Book Awards from the state library and Kansas Center for the Book—more support for word arts.
Denise, would you expand upon the literary importance of Lawrence, Kansas?
(DL) In Lawrence, with the crossroads of writers at the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University, the writing community is large, diverse, and energetic. Today I saw on Yahoo.com’s “Voices” that Lawrence is one of three top liberal cities—along with Berkeley and Ann Arbor. There is a literary history also in Lawrence. Langston Hughes spent his boyhood, from 1902 to 1914 (according to city directories), in Lawrence. William S. Burroughs spent the last 16 years of his life in Lawrence and created quite a circle. Kenneth Irby, one of the associates of Robert Duncan and considered a Black Mountain-influenced writer, lives in Lawrence, teaches at KU, and his 75th birthday symposium attracted Lyn Hejinian, Ben Friedlander, Pierre Joris, and others. KU started an MFA program several years ago, and the impact on the town’s culture is larger than I expected.
Considering poetry in particular, what is Kansas poetry doing?
(WT) Some people are interested in making distinctions by region or other criteria, others in making connections. I’ve moved to the latter group. Poets in Kansas are doing the same thing as poets in New York, only with more space and better air. Basically we’re all making the difficult jump from invisible to visible, from nonverbal experience to the quintessentially verbal.
Yes, and as anyone knows outside of the east and west coast, a difficult task at times. It sounds like Kansas though is doing a lot of interesting things to facilitate this. Could you elaborate?
(CMG) There are communities throughout the state where poetry is alive and active, such as in Salina, where they are frequent readings and even a city arts foundation that supports writers in their development and publication. There are tens of dozens of writing groups here, there and yonder where people get together and write, or read their work, or critique one another’s work. In the last week, I read about long-term writing groups, some together for 25 years, in both Topeka and Lawrence, and such groups abound around the state. When I put out the call for poems on the http://150KansasPoems.wordpress.com website over the last three years, I received so many submissions that I had to turn away sometimes up to 90% of the poems submitted. Many people write, and more to the point, many, many, many people read. I’ve visit people who live in the far-western reaches of the state, where space is expansive and cheap, allowing them to build vast libraries over the years. With such good readers and writers, it’s no wonder that there’s a quality of listening here that’s particularly deep and attentive. People who live with weather that can kill you become excellent readers of the nuances of a sky or a poem. We look for juxtapositions in word and weather because we know that’s where the fire is.
(DL) I was talking with an experimental poet friend recently about the openness of the Kansas poetry scene. She mentioned how closed the San Francisco Bay area community is, compared to here. In the East, which I saw pretty closely as AWP board president, big awards and big money are at stake, so poetry is more of a competitive contact sport. Even immigrant Kansans have a cooperative spirit, still a sense of raising barns together or sharing tornado shelters or hunkering together to survive onslaughts of neobarbarians.
Neobarbarians (laughs)! What about regular reading series?
(DL) I help curate a series called “Big Tent,” held at the independent bookstore The Raven, which is named after the idea of three rings of aesthetics brought together under one roof. Some of us were in a writing group together, and we found our tastes were different, so we could not really critique usefully. We started to just read to each other, and then we expanded this to be Big Tent. Experimental writers and dramatists perform in the same program with conventional. We cross fertilize. Quality is really very good. When I go to more prestigious places, I usually find poetry is not better, but rather better publicized. I’m teaching an independent poetry workshop in Kansas City, and I’m surprised at how these mid-level writers are so well read, serious, and inventive. They write for the love of it, not career advancement. That authenticity colors their work.
How do you think Midwest poetry is seen by the rest of the poetry world in terms of regionalism compared to other geographic locations?
(WT) That’s not my business. My business, in the words of Emily Dickinson, is circumference.
I understand and love that quote. I was just wondering if you could elaborate more not on the generalizations but on the writers themselves who may not be as well known outside the state?
(CMG) I don’t really have a grasp on how the rest of the poetry world sees Midwestern poetry, but I do hear Midwestern writers categorize what Midwestern poetry is, and I find such generalizations to be generalizations: not always (or often) true. The idea that writing as Kansan means being understated, quiet, soft-spoken and whatnot seems to me to be a self-limiting and false summary of who we are. I think of poets such as Megan Kamiski, Judy Roitman or Jim McCrary, who tend to experiment with the limits of language and the space between words. I think of Ken Irby, who weaves poetry from language and landscape, often without a discernable map of the expected connections. I think of the ecstatic poetry of Ramona McCallum from Garden City, or the spiritually-electric poems of Thea Nietfield and Michael Nelson, or the sparkling clarity of the work of Roy Beckemeyer — all of whom aren’t yet as well known as they should be — and I see again how trying to generalize about a region tends to exclude so many of our emerging writers and simply run deeper ruts into the ground about our identity. There are symbols and metaphors, an awareness of the largeness of the sky and the volatility of the weather, and sometimes rhythms that align with the big wind here — and sometimes I can see signs of such things in many Kansas poets. But for the most part, I’m hesitant to put any region in a box as per its poetry, especially my own (despite Kansas being shaped like a box with a bite taken out of its northwest corner).
(DL) I have no idea what people really know about or think about Midwest poetry. I was at a New Mexico Poetry Society event last fall, and someone asked me if I had heard of Ken Irby, that he had a mutual friend Gerrit Lansing. So often, people have some idea of Lawrence being more than a cow pasture of the conservative hegemony. I suppose National Lampoon’s Family Vacation is the updated bucolic version of Kansas since Wizard of Oz. More often, poets from other parts of the country have a more comprehensive view.
I do find myself speeding up my rate of speech when I visit other places and doing more name dropping, just to keep from being bulldozed flat. If given a choice, Midwesterners wait for people to prove themselves, rather than being influenced by prestige markers. Marilynne Robinson has a wonderful discussion of the Eastern code of hierarchical social cues in her book of essays When I Was a Child I Read Books. We Midwesterners understand this system, but most often we choose to step out of it. As a result, Robinson argues, we look provincial. My son graduated from Yale Law School. Often people assume, because he doesn’t announce it regularly, that he did not go to a prestigious school. He understands Yale was a wonderful opportunity, but it does not define him. He is a good Kansan.
Thank you for delving into that more. Could you clarify a little more about the region itself and how it shapes your own writing?
(WT) I love the Midwest with its four seasons and wild weather. No matter how old we are, the arrival of each season is a wonder and a renewal. And all the extremes, blizzards to floods to tornados, push through us. The weather enters us with every breath. Wind is a big part of my work in both form and content—it is sustenance, punctuation, and underlying music.
I love that as wind and weather often creep into my poetry after living in rural Georgia. Caryn, how do you feel about the Midwest and how has it shaped your own writing?
(CMG) I moved to the Midwest when I was 19, and I fell in wild and life-long love with the sky and wind. Maybe it was the sense of freedom and space that I had craved all my life while growing up in Brooklyn and New Jersey. Maybe it was simply where my soul best aligned. Whatever it is, my poetry opened up and continues to open up. For years, I explained it to people as pertaining to my noisy mind being more at home where there was excessive space, but to be honest, I was always in love with the sky and wind. I began writing poetry at age 14 in central New Jersey, mostly focusing on trees and weather patterns. Over 40 years later, I’m still writing about the same subjects but with the advantage of much more experience with the living earth and its inhabitants, enough to show me how little I truly know. As far as the influence on my writing from this place, I think wind and weather has a big and foundational influence all the time. Li-Young Lee once wrote that he followed rhythms, which were like power lines that the birds — the words — landed on, and I’ve always felt the same way. I feel the rhythm and music of the poem first, and then the words come. At best, the words unveil more of the innate rhythm and help me write something, to paraphrase Kansas poet William Stafford, that’s inevitable, that feels like it’s always been here. The earth and sky also keep me in check when I get too crazy about the issues with being a writer in this world.
I like that idea of nature keeping us in check. Denise, does heritage and other aspects of the Midwest influence your own writing?
(DL) I value the relatively good and democratic education I have received in Kansas, Kindergarten through M.F.A. and Ph.D. The abolitionists who settled the state—some my own forebears—valued education highly. The continuity of an American Indian and freedmen African American presence have been important to my literary ideas—my grandfathers both had Native heritage. People who fly over the state miss many nuances, cultural as well as landscape. The gorgeous sunsets and sky sustained me through a somewhat difficult childhood. The existence of such extreme spaces created an aesthetic that I am still trying to uncover. My latest book of poetry, Mélange Block (Red Mountain Press, 2015), features a sequence of poems structured like geologic processes rather than British literary forms. This is a result of reading Charles Olson, Carl Sauer, Ken Irby, Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, others. The riverwater of the Kaw is the fluid I drink every day. I eat beef, bison, and poultry raised on the grasses around me. Most of the vegetables and fruits and nuts are from within this geographic area. So I am just another aspect of the land lumbering around for a spell until I return to soil.
I am a big fan of Amy Fleury’s poems ever since we went to McNeese State years ago. Besides your own work, are there other writers our readers should pick up?
(WT) I trust that people find their way to the books they need. I do urge them to follow writers they love, nest in their work, and let it house and nourish them. There are writers I think of as home—T.S. Eliot, George MacDonald, William Merwin, for starters. But returning to the point: a Libyan prisoner who was kidnapped and tortured was able to console himself and fellow inmates by reciting poetry. He felt that knowing a book by heart is like carrying a house inside your chest. People may have left poetry and children’s books behind, but their porchlight is always on. It’s never too late—and we’re never too old—to come home.
(CMG) I recommend Kim Stafford’s biography on his father, William Stafford, called Early Morning because of what a beautiful testimony it is on the creative process and how to live true and strong as a poet. Other writers I recommend include Wyatt Townley’s The Afterlives of Trees, Denise Low’s Ghost Stories, Stephen Meats’ Dark Dove Descending, William Sheldon’s Rain Comes Riding, and also several anthologies I edited, which feature herds of great Kansas writers, particularly Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems, and To the Stars Through Difficulties: A Kansas Renga in 150 Voices, and the website where all these poems were first shared (plus many more): http://150kansaspoems.wordpress.com. You can find many wonderful poets in these books, such as Nancy Hubble, Victoria Sherry, Ramona McCallum, Roy Beckemeyer, Ronda Miller, Laura Lee Washburn, Roderick Townley, Judith Roitman, Stephen Hind, Harley Elliott, William Karnowski and Caleb Puckett.
(DL) I’ve been reading Ronald Johnson’s The Shrubberies and ARK lately—Flood Editions has reprinted these. This is another amazing Kansas poet, born in Meade and died in Topeka with many travels in between. I have a short piece on Kantian recursive imagery in The Shrubberies coming out in Numéro Cinq. He was a major innovator in the 1970s, writing some of the best and earliest concrete poetry, erasure poetry, and graphic poetry. ARK is based on architectural structures of the building Watts Towers. His work is mashups of science, history, art, popular culture. He understands words as well as anyone I know, and he was doing it forty-fifty years ago.
All great suggestions. Of course there is William Stafford as Caryn mentioned. Could you elaborate on the importance of Stafford as central to the region and, of course, to poetry?
(DL) William Stafford’s work is important to Kansas and national readers as well. He did a lot with deep imagery and syntax. His best work has an Asian twist. He also features landscape as a major aspect of a poem, perhaps related to his own bit of Native heritage. He, like myself, grew up around subsistence hunting and fishing. The ripening of sandhill plums in late summer is a major community event. He has that morality streak of Kansans, making the right choice, as in “Traveling Through the Dark” or “Serving with Gideon.” Stafford is an important poet for not just his skill but also for his focus on purposefulness. Why do you or I write poetry? If it is merely ornament or amusement, fine, but the important work of a poet is to participate in the social contract. I want readers to connect more to real processes, not contrived narratives.
For the final question, let me throw a bit of a curveball here—Charles Bernstein wrote in The Argotist: “Poetry’s social function is to imagine how language works within its culture, while pursuing a critique of the culture”; this suggests that poetry can be a countermeasure to the reinforcement of cultural values at the heart of both popular entertainment and consumer politics. At the same time, poetry’s aesthetic function is to refuse even this “value” in the pursuit of what Louis Zukofsky calls the pleasures of sight, sound, and intellect.” How might contemporary poetry (especially in the region of Kansas) explore this?
(WT) That’s a false choice. It’s not either/or, but both/and…. Poetry is big enough to hold all schools and points of view. The act of writing a poem is itself a cultural revolution in its solitary plunge into the unknown, but the poem’s obligations are to itself only. Each poem invents itself as it arrives, moving through a difficult grid between the invisible and the visible. It’s born bloody, but with luck it’s breathing. That’s its main job.
(CMG) This is a spiraling curveball. Yes, I believe what Bernstein says is true about how poetry can both critique and reinforce culture. This has been a main function of the arts forever. Yet I also see poetry (as well as other arts) a kind of Mighty Mouse. Poetry can lift up the corners of culture so we can see what’s beyond our social constructs, and perhaps that’s some of what Zukofsky is pointing to in his statement. Poetry can show us the world beyond our storylines about the world. One of my favorite statements is from William Stafford, who says, “Treat the world as if it really exists.” At the same time, what is the real world outside of our messy projections, coming from our own fears, yearnings, ego and heartbreaks? I believe the answer is analogous to the many names for God that we have in Judaism, so many names on the basis that no one name can define the great creator. To me, that’s what poetry can, at its very strongest, do for us: each poem is a way to circle about the fire we can’t touch or name with just a word. Each poem can be another way to name what’s beyond us, and that’s why, as we read or write poems, we need to engage with our whole body, heart, soul, mind, what we know, what we don’t know, what we can and can’t say. This also connects to another Stafford quote: “Language can do what it can’t say.” Poetry can show us, through this essential quality of naming the unnamable, how to live and also, in terms of social critique, how not to live.
(DL) Okay, I have learned from some of the European writers, and I select those whose works I feel are compatible with Indigenous teachings. Bernstein also cites Walter Benjamin’s multiple axes in that interview, which I find very important from a Native perspective, a “chordal” poetics. The complexity of existence needs to be addressed, not just a political agenda. Two-dimensional writing—whether political slogans, pop-up ads, trendy flarf or an 18th century ballad— has profound limitations.
I appreciate Julia Kristeva’s writings, especially where she notes the importance of poets creating syntactical words and terms, which then articulate new realities. She writes in Revolution in Poetic Language:
But at what historical moment does social exchange tolerate or necessitate the manifestation of the signifying process in its “poetic” or “esoteric” form? Under what conditions does this “esoterism,” in displacing the boundaries of socially established signifying practices, correspond to socioeconomic change, and, ultimately, even to revolution? (16)
She goes on to specify social revolution as a process of language that includes “socio-symbolic order, splitting it open, changing vocabulary, syntax, the word itself, and releasing from beneath them the drives borne by vocalic or kinetic differences” (79-80). This addresses the cellular, even the molecular level of language. I heard an experimental poet say she was done with the sentence. I would say the kind of sentence that describes quantum-level physics and everything is very different from the one of fifty years ago. Words are light particles—static and dynamic at once. Words are social inventions, carry overt and covert histories, and they truly have efficaciousness. They are spells.
For me, the function of verse to create realities is more important than Zukofsky’s “pleasures,” although I would argue Zukofsky has more intention than ornament. A summer study group here in Lawrence worked with A summer of 2012, and the dimensions of that work are chordal. It is a revolutionary, anti-bourgeois work, not always easy to read. The poet’s own struggles are present and transparent in much of it. It is not a comforting work to read, and pleasures along the way are simultaneous but not primary, in my opinion.
Interesting. I agree. I want to thank you for taking the time to address these questions and issues with museum of americana and our readers. Is there a question you wished an interviewer would ask you? Of course, I am hoping you will also answer it now…
(WT) Wyatt, would you please send me your recent book, The Afterlives of Trees, to review?
Delighted to do so.
I would love to take a look at it and consider it. How about you, Denise?
(DL) I’ll end with a note of gratitude to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas, for adding my papers to their “New American Poetry” collection this year. The curator, Elspeth Healey, is among those who maintain literary history. This kind of support for literature is unsung but very essential for the evolving traditions.
Thank you. And you, Caryn, what would be your final question or thought?
(CMG) Why do you write, Caryn?
Great question. One we all wrestle with. So, don’t leave us in suspense—what is your answer to your question?
(CMG) Caryn, I’m so glad you asked me that question. I write because I have to write. I’m one of those people born hard-wired to create. As a child, I started with music and art, drawing and playing piano like a maniac. Then I switched to poetry. Now I tend to engage in multiple arts on my best days because it helps me feel more alive and more aligned with how to live. One of the quotes I resonate with most about why I write comes from Dylan Thomas’ forward to one his books of poems: “These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.” I feel the same way. I’m in love with the life force, rushing and pausing, fast and slow, through fields and trees, dogs and cats, coyotes and wild turkeys, thunder storms and bright dark blue afternoons. My writing is in praise of God, one way or another, and I’d be a damn fool if it wasn’t.
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Wyatt Townley is the Poet Laureate of Kansas. She has published five books, three of poems, including The Afterlives of Trees (Woodley Press), Perfectly Normal (The Smith), and The Breathing Field (Little, Brown). Her work has been read by Garrison Keillor on NPR, featured by US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser in his syndicated column, and appeared in venues from The Paris Review to Newsweek. Her website is www.WyattTownley.com
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is the 2009-2013 Poet Laureate of Kansas, and the author or editor of 16 books, including a novel, The Divorce Girl (Ice Cube Books); a non-fiction book, Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other (Potomac Books); The Sky Begins At Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community & Coming Home to the Body (Ice Cube Books); the anthologies An Endless Skyway: Poetry from the State Poets Laureate (co-editor, Ice Cube Books) and Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems (editor, Woodley Press); and four poetry collections. Founder of Transformative Language Arts – a master’s program in social and personal transformation through the written, spoken and sung word – at Goddard College where she teaches, Mirriam-Goldberg also leads writing workshops widely, and with singer Kelley Hunt, writing and singing retreats. Read more about her at www.CarynMirriamGoldberg.com
Denise Low, the 2nd Kansas Poet Laureate, has published 25 books, including Ghost Stories (The Circle -Best Native Am. Books of 2010; Ks. Notable Book). Heath Fisher writes: “Filled with vivid imagery of the land and the culture, and both verse and prose, Ghost Stories is an enchanting tribute to the plains and the history (Rain Taxi). Low’s Natural Theologies: Essays (The Backwaters Press, 2012) is the first critical review of mid-plains literature. Mary Harwell Saylerwrites: “The literature of the ‘New Middle West’ seems to adapt, innovate, and follow Low’s insightful view” (Rattle). Low is a former board member and past president of AWP. She writes articles, blogs, and reviews and also publishes a small press, Mammoth. Her heritages include British Isles, Delaware, and German. Recent writings appear in American Life in Poetry, Yellow Medicine Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, New Letters, Yukhika-latuhse, Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time (rENEGADE pLANET), I Was Indian (Foot Hills), and I-70. Read more about Denise at http://deniselow.blogspot.com or www.deniselow.com .