Evidently, it takes 8 poets, which is what we had for our Southwest Kansas Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems caravan, which took us across Kansas and over the edge of the world. Traveling in my van with Wyatt Townley, Roderick Townley, Liz Black, Ronda Miller and Karen Ohnesorge (whose last name, in German, literally means, “Whatever!”), I headed west, way west, early Friday morning. We were well-supplied: girl scout cookies, dark chocolate, gourmet rosemary-parmesan butter bookies, clementines, coffee, and in case of real emergency, two bags of frozen peas (for Liz’s knee).
First stop: Salina, where (after sharing stories of all the times any of us got arrested), I met the logical end result of telling Ronda I had never read poetry in Salina. Half-way through our sandwiches at Moka’s, Ronda had me up on the table reciting a poem to the lunch crowd after her shining introduction. Note to self: be careful what thoughts you say out loud but be ready to share a poem anywhere at anytime.
Next stop: Garden City. Here, we fell in love, remarking to each other that we could and might live here. Downtown was charming and full of life, the sky was large and loving, and Ramona McCallum, who organized all the Garden City events, was a sparkling fountain of delight, passion and joy. We also met up with Lee and Dennielle Mick from Cawker City (Lee is in the book with, of course, a poem about a giant ball of twine). After an astonishing Mexican dinner (Garden City: best restaurants in Kansas, and thanks to Ramona for raising funds to feed us), we gave a reading at the State Theater, a historic site being remodeled, where we had the pleasure of sharing poems with 70 people. Then, we marched down the street to the arts center, where we merged with a show of 10 fabulous women artists, sold books and ate too many cream puffs. Ramona soon has us whisked off to various homes, churches and guest houses for the night where each of us found two full gift bags: pens, pottery, lip balm and even stool softener from the local health food store.
The next morning, we trekked to Garden City Community College where I led a workshop on Writing in Community. Usually when I do such workshops, I get to meet with 10-15 people, but in Garden City, where people understand the value of poetry and Ramona is a whirlwind of outreach and purpose, we had 50 people ranging from tweens to elders. After moving the tables out and out and out, we immersed ourselves in writing, the writing life and the best cinnamon rolls on the planet (still hot too). Maybe it was the sugar talking, but after introductions, I was wondering if we had time to house-shop. The workshop was a feast of friendship and stories, and afterwards, of course, it was time to eat, so we went to the best Vietnamese restaurant in the world (Thanks for covering our lunch, special donor!).
Next up: Ulysses, where Liz grew up, and where the land changes to slopes of tumbleweed and stretches of endless skies and feedlots. The air dries out, especially in this drought year when the annual rainfall is closer to 2-3 inches, and the sky expands. The most beautiful sunset combined with more Mexican food in downtown Ulysses and then a reading at the lovely Artery, a cooperative gallery, where we met with several dozen Ulyssesians, drank wine, ate cookies and marveled at the art and hospitality. A night at Single Tree Inn (Sex and the Sing Tree, Roderick suggested as we played with the name) brought us sleep and a morning where many of us shared how much we don’t like or do morning well. Ulysses is especially stark and beautiful, and unlike any part of Kansas I’ve seen before. I loved hearing how Liz grew up in a dug-out without electricity and with an outhouse beneath the outrageous stars.
Next stop: Dodge City. Here, we were supposed to read at a local coffee shop, but no one in Dodge City seemed to know this. All was well because a) it was on our way, and b) we got to eat yet again. Having no actual audience who came for us, we assailed the strangers having lunch in a small room where we stood, one at a time reading a poem, between them and the front door. Most of them were quite polite even if they were surely realizing there were no escape routes.
The ride home was long, punctuated by more eating, and full of long talks about how we grew up, whether we preferred Mounds or Almond Joy, new ways to promote our writing, dancing days, growing up tall or short, young adult children and the marvels of migrating birds and rising Flint Hills.
800 or so miles later, we’re landed back into our homes and lives, but already I miss my fellow caravan-ers and I love how when we get together, poetry prevails.