Category Archives: Poetry

Poets Laureate of Kansas Call For the Humanities

In the past few weeks, I’ve been working with three other former or current poets laureate of Kansas to craft our statement in support of the Kansan Humanities Council, and the National Endowment of the Humanities. As Wyatt Townley says, “Kansas is a microcosm of the national arts-and-humanities landscape and the plight it faces.” Please do what you can, and pass it on!

Poets Laureate of Kansas

Statement of Support for the Humanities

What does it mean to be fully human, and what is it worth? It is difficult to quantify the value of the humanities, but we know that investment there yields a big bang for the soul and for the buck. In the current cost-cutting climate, the value—indeed, the very existence—of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has been called into question, though it costs the average American 50 cents a year.

 

One local beneficiary of the NEH is the Kansas Humanities Council (KHC), with its 45-year track record of strengthening civic life. In 2016, KHC provided over 700 free programs to nearly 400,000 people in all 6 sections of the state. The benefit in terms of education, history, and culture is immeasurable, but the real crop KHC grows is community.

 

KHC’s Poet Laureate of Kansas program, adopted in 2013 from the Kansas Arts Commission, is one of our nation’s 44 state poet laureateships. These programs point to poetry’s ability to explore essential values in an age of distraction. Poetry helps us find common ground and develop greater understanding of our shared home, from the tallgrass prairies of the Flint Hills to the windy high plains.

 

As poets laureate, we’ve crisscrossed the state many times, dodging blizzards and tornados to talk with fellow Kansans about things that matter. We averaged 50 public appearances a year—some at colleges, high schools, and grade schools, but most at small-town libraries and community centers. Anyone who thinks of poetry as elitist should ride along with us to Colby (pop. 5,387), or Kinsley (1,457), or Glasco (498), and see how many farmers, miners, nurses, children, and retirees fill up rooms.

 

Having a poet laureate costs Kansas taxpayers almost nothing (the modest travel stipend we receive is paid for entirely by private donors), but the position could not exist without the tireless support of the Kansas Humanities Council, providing staff and resources to help us reach new audiences, particularly in underserved and isolated areas. KHC supports the state economy, bringing people together—often across great distances—which in turn bolsters hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses.

 

Our state poet laureate program has a national reputation for excellence. We have organized conferences that brought dozens of other state poets and hundreds of participants to Kansas. We’ve published regular columns in newspapers statewide and produced award-winning anthologies featuring hundreds of writers for thousands of readers. Our thriving regional literary scene led the Association of Writers & Writing Programs to bring its 2020 conference—one of the biggest writers conferences on Earth, drawing some 13,000 attendees from around the world—to the Kansas City area.

 

We believe in poetry as deep literacy—an experience that engages mind, emotion, body, and spirit. We also believe in Kansas, and the essential work of our superb state humanities council and our national treasure, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Please do all you can—contacting legislators especially (https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials)—to ensure their continuation for the good of us all.

 

Eric McHenry, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2015-17

Wyatt Townley, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2013-15

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2009-2013

Denise Low, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2007-09

Save the Humanities!: Everyday Magic, Day 894

Photo by Stephen Locke, used with permission

The kids were already in the front seats when I arrived at the Coffey County Library branch in Gridley, Kansas to present “Kansas Weather in Life, Literature, and Photography,” a Kansas Humanities Council (KHC) program. In this town of 341 people, the library is the place to be, and not just for kids. By the time I began, people aged 9 to 90 filled seats, ready to take in Kansas poetry and photography (via Stephen Locke) about how our extreme weather shapes our lives and builds our character. We also shared their stories of communities coming together in the face of wild storms, close calls, beautiful vistas, and what our weather tells us about who we all.

One of many KHC programs, Water/Ways focuses on the impact of water (and by extension, weather) on our history, traditions, daily lives, and in the face of climate change, our very future. Such programs also bring together communities, helping us find the essential dialogue, diversity, and unity that is the bedrock of democracy.

Now a wild storm is threatening all of America, especially far-flung rural areas where there is little to no funding for arts and humanities programs except from state humanities councils. With the current U.S. president calling for eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities, programs like the one I just did, that bring together people to share stories of hard-won wisdom and emerging visions, would vanish. As well, we would lose initiatives such as KHC’s “Migration Stories” on the experience of Africans in Midwestern communities, “Freedom of Speech in Kansas” on the importance of free speech,  “FLIKS” promoting short documentaries on unique stories in our state, a vibrant speaker’s bureau, a long-standing book discussion program that has reached people in every corner of the state, and the state poet laureate program (which is completely funded by private donors).

I’ve had the honor of being roving scholar with KHC since 1994, as a book discussion leader, speaker’s bureau presenter, and the 2009-13 Kansas poet laureate. Living in a 400-mile-wide state, I’ve rambled many miles to talk about everything from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, books that give us intimate portraits of American history, from African-American communities in the Everglades in the 1920s (Huston), to Japanese-American communities before, during and after internment in the 1940s (Guterson). Such discussions help all of us grapple with our collective identity as Americans.

I’ve driven through snowstorms and ecstatic displays of lighting, up and down the Flint Hills by starlight, and across the high plains on startlingly bright mornings to meet Kansans of all ages eager to talk about what the humanities tell them of how to live with greater verve and meaning. In traveling far and wide to also talk about books with Jewish content, such as Alfred Kazin’s Walker in the City, I’ve shared traditions and history of my own faith, and by extension, participated in powerful interfaith dialogues about life and literature.

I’m a humanities scholar because I believe in face-to-face dialogue, community-building that includes many perspectives, and intergenerational exchanges about lessons learned or ahead of us. I love how humanities councils enable us to mek connections between urban and rural residents, and people of various faiths, ethnicities, and histories so that we can truly engage in forming “a more perfect union,” as stated in the preamble to our constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To keep forming that more perfect union–along with safeguarding justice, tranquility, liberty, and yes, even prosperity–we must save the humanities, which provide us the gathering ground to more deeply understand our birthright along with ways to learn how to better be true to ourselves and our communities.

If you believe in the humanities–in other words, please contact your legislators today. Here’s a link to find contact information. And join us at humanities programs wherever you live: here’s a link to find your state humanities council. It’s so easy to tear down programs that give us greater vision, and so hard to build such programs. Let’s not lose what helps makes us more human.

Prevernal for the Vernal Equinox: Everyday Magic, Day 891

IMG_0172On this day of balance between winter and summer, I share this small poem about the just-on-cusp-of-changing prevernal world.

Prevernal

The dogs stop. The deer

over the loop of the field

pause. The highway rising west

clears. I wait. Let my breath make itself

visible. Count the turkeys frozen

against the cedars or mid-field

between woods and prairie.

The wheel of the season waits too,

then rolls toward its next click.

Time to go closer to what’s ready to bud out,

just last week milk deep in snow.

When the world resumes in birds

and greening trail, all crosses over.

Meets or doesn’t meet at the other side

where dreams stand on all four new legs,

then jolt into steps without considering

the weight of landing.

Ken Irby, Rest (Travel, Drink, Read and Write) in Peace: Everyday Magic, Day 861

IrbybyRobertAmoryLast night, unusually cool and refreshing for this time of year, I drove home late in the dark, remembering another such summer night over 25 years ago. My husband Ken and I were hamboing — a  Swedish couple’s dance more akin to flying than waltzing — across the Meadowbrook apartments parking lot while Ken Irby clapped his hands together, calling out, “Marvelous!” We were in the middle of one of those sublime Ken Irby evenings back then when we would go to his apartment, partake of a perfectly-prepared roast chicken, some wicked dessert, and for those who drank, too much wine and after-dinner sherry while talking of books and poets, adventures and more books. Somehow the topic of folkdancing, which Ken and I do, came up, and I said something about the miraculous hambo. Not having room between the roving stacks of books in Ken’s small apartment, we took to the parking lot.

Last night I got to join some of Ken’s closest friends, some of whom have been devoting themselves to his health and comfort over many months of illness, in a hospital intensive care room. I walked in to find Robert reading a passage from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (the 1855 edition, which surely would have mattered to Ken), on Joe’s cell phone, and I soon caught on that we were passing the phone around, each reading a passage, nine of us in a semi-circle around Ken. Whitman never sounded so strong, meaningful or relevant to me before although I’m a long-time fan. Hearing this poetry in different voices brought it thoroughly alive as we watched Ken raggedly breath, his pulse and heart rate slowly dropping on the monitor.

Ken and I met when I was assigned to his basement office in the bowels of Wescoe (before it was renovated) on the KU campus in 1986. A new teaching assistant in English, I was thrilled to know I would be sharing an office with a “famous poet” as well as another office mate. I was also told Ken could be difficult. But that difficulty wasn’t such an issue as long as I didn’t contest him using 80% of the bookshelves and file cabinets for hundreds of book he had out from the library on long-term loan based on the premise that who could possibly appreciate these books more than him?

Our third office mate changed regularly, beginning with a quiet, religious, sports-minded, weightlifter from Texas, who, upon meeting us, said, “You can tell a lot about a man by how he fills out his shirt.” Other office mates rotating through until our last, and best one, Andrew, who had a crazy enough sense of humor to match ours, and also supported me when I complained about Ken.

There was a lot to complain about: Ken was arrogant, self-absorbed, and haughty. He regularly favored men over women, sometimes humiliated women poets in public, and got belligerent when he drank too much (which he did often). As one of my friends, and a fellow women poet, and I recently agreed, he could be a fucking jerk, but he was our fucking jerk.  In ten years of rooming with him, he never read my poetry, and he was even less enthusiastic about my growing family. As he held court with his students, talking enthusiastically about Duncan or Whitman, he rolled his eyes at me when he saw me nursing an infant with one arm while grading papers with another. When I told Ken was pregnant with my third child, he raised his eyebrows, sighed dramatically, and with his deep velvet voice, yelled out, “Not again, Caryn!”

We actually had a blast together co-habitating in an 8′ by 8′ space, packed with three desks, three file cabinets, and a whole lot of shelves. We shared every ounce of English department gossip, tended to love and hate the same people, and were easily outraged on each other’s account. If someone did me wrong, Ken properly trashed them with his acute verbal speed and expansive vocabulary. We puzzled over the quandary of teaching, celebrated the students we liked best, and wondered what happened to the ones who went astray. We praised Rilke, who we both loved, and Ken made it a point to give me Rilke poetry on my birthday, because Rilke and I share the same birthday. In fact, Ken knew every famous poet’s birthday, and commemorated it. We talked Kansas up one side and down another, Ken frequently telling stories about Fort Scott, where he grew up. In readings we participated in over many years, Ken read from his poems, so strong, it seemed they always existed in some form. He also knew literature in such great and vibrant nuance and depth that he could (and did!) talk at length about most dead or living writers I mentioned, which was particularly helpful for me when I was studying for my comps. Over the years in that office, and the many more years since then, we updated each other on children — my kids, and his very beloved brother’s children — and caught up on people we knew, travels, and what he had been reading lately. Whatever Ken was, he was never boring.

Reading Whitman to Ken last night, I realized — as we all realize in those last moments with dear ones — that in the end, only love matters. Here this dear, complicated, paradoxical man, poet (read this homage to visitors from the farthest star), Kansan, teacher, and friend was dying, surrounded by poetry. Although we switched from Whitman to Rilke before we got to this passage from Leaves of Grass, I believe these lines speak perfectly to the Ken I knew. May he sound his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the next world, our affection for him trailing behind.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The Obstacle Course of April: Everyday Magic, Day 846

IMG_3486
Oy vey!

I spend a lot of time on my calendar, trying to ensure that I’m not putting myself out there too much at the expense of taking care of myself in here (this body, this home, this balance). Yet this year, somehow the convergence of all I scheduled for April eluded me. From February on, once I saw the totality of my over-commitment — 17 gigs — readings, talks, workshops, a keynote involving four flights, 1,400 miles of driving, and 7 states — I felt scared. How would I keep from getting sick and exhausted? Answer: I wouldn’t, and on April 29, I can say, that’s okay. Then again, for a poet and former poet laureate, plus someone who wrote a Holocaust book, April is kind of the bread-and-butter month of freelancing, thanks to the blessed and cursed poetry month designation, and Holocaust remembrance events. I’ve been telling friends that it’s a kind of obstacle course: run fast through the hoop, shimmy down and crawl under the rope, hoist myself up the pole, and go face-first down the water slide into the pool to swim 18 laps. I think running up and down small mountains while balancing an egg on a spoon is also involved. Each time I return from another journey, I high-five everyone I know, then begin re-packing my books, clothes, and notes for the next gig.

In person together again or for the first time at Eat My Words in Minneapolis
In person together again or for the first time at Eat My Words in Minneapolis

Some of us are hard-wired to leap over the cliff without remembering that’s a long way down, and it would have been wise to have packed wings. I’ve long realized that berating myself up for over-committing is a silly endeavor. I suck at beating myself into submission, and I wouldn’t want to give up these confluences of such meaningful work, beautiful stretches of mountains in the fog, loud music to sing to while driving across farmland, or people I get to meet and love in faraway places. In the last month, I’ve read tornado poems in a soulful Minneapolis bookstore to friends, family, online students I was meeting in person for the first time, and a Goddard student I hadn’t seen in years. I’ve laughed hard over gyros with old and new friends in Minnesota, complained about lunch and praised the beauty of the dogwoods while re-uniting with poetry therapy pals in North Carolina, watched spring leap forward in blossom and leaf from the northern to the southern border of Iowa, listened to people living with chronic pain read their powerful poems in Kansas City, and marveled at the dozens of prom-dress-attired couples filling Falls Park in downtown Greenville, SC. I’ve tasted nettle pesto for the first time in a Kansas library right before Stephen Locke and I presented our virtual tornado chase and associated poems and stories. I lucked into a private tour of Jay and Barbara Nelson’s stunning Strecker-Nelson gallery in Manhattan, KS, and just Monday, talked with a WWII veteran and a woman who grew up in Nazi Germany while presenting an Osher talk on Needle in the Bone. There

Sometimes a bagel is your destiny (named so here) at blurry-o-clock in the morning somewhere in South Carolina
Sometimes a bagel is your destiny (named so here) at blurry-o-clock in the morning somewhere in South Carolina

has been strong tea, too many carbs, occasional yoga, a round of antibiotics, a lot of hot baths, and serious thought about what kind of Spanx to wear. There’s also been an abundance of hugs, tears, deep talks, selfies taken with many a friend, and many manner of reunion or first-time connection. I would want to grow a bit more wiser when it comes to leaving spacious stretches of spring open. Maybe next year, I tell myself, and no matter what happens, even these blossom-weighted days and too-short nights have their gifts.

Teaching Writing for the Love of It: Everyday Magic, Day 841

Tom McAfee years before I met him
Tom McAfee years before I met him

Believe me, I wasn’t a good poet when I studied creative writing as an undergraduate. I don’t say this to be falsely humble: I wrote poems with lines like, “you are the rose to my thorns,” and like many 20-21-year olds, I focused on dramatizing my already off-the-charts feelings about relationships, trees, skies, and birds. If someone actually sat me down in 1979 and told me that, based on what I was currently writing, I obviously wasn’t cut to be a writer, I would have been devastated. Lucky for me, I had some great writing teachers, especially the late Tom McAfee, a Alabama-born aging alcoholic with a heart made half of vodka, half of gold, who would meet his poetry students in the Tiger Hotel bar to show us the kindness and craft and writing and teaching.

I’ve also had my share of teachers who didn’t give me the time of the day because I wasn’t one of the two top students in the class. One teacher screamed at me when, having to present a poet we loved, I talked about a poet he hated. Others led classes as hazing rituals, punishing and pushing out anyone who wasn’t man enough to take brutal deconstruction of his/her writing. I may have learned about the importance of precise images and active verb tense in such classes, but I didn’t learn much about what it takes to write.

On the other side, for the last 29 years, I’ve taught college-level creative writing at the University Kansas, Haskell Indian Nations University, and especially at Goddard College. I’ve also facilitated dozens of community writing workshops, retreats, intensives, and online classes, working with populations as diverse as Latina women and girls in Kansas City, to all bioregional organizers in an ecovillage. I’ve worked with a group of 10-year-olds and 84-year-olds in western Kansas, a dozen men in my living room, people living with serious illness at Turning Point, low-income women of color at a housing authority, and conference-goers exploring mythology and ecology through writing. To be honest, I find little difference between the most advanced college-level study and newbie writers in a senior center when it comes to what matters to the writers: to write in their own original and powerful voice using their best words to give voice to what brings their lives the greatest meaning and vitality.

In the last few days, the interwebs have been abuzz over a former MFA teacher’s tirade about the very “real” writers he taught, and how bored he was having to work with other students. Such an attitude is elitist, scornful, and potentially damaging when it comes to helping writers write, whether they’re in the world’s top MFA programs or in a small town coffee shop, trying to put their life’s strongest stories into words. It’s also the opposite of worthy teaching.

Teaching writing is a form of love, and like all real love, it’s fueled by listening, staying curious, and learning together. There’s a lot to talk about too — the craft of good writing in service of what’s on tap to be written and who’s writing it, traditions and trends and possibilities that help writers expand their relationship with language, and the process of making something out of nothing (as Steve Martin says about one of his novels, “I did pretty good, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank pages”).  The best teachers hold the space for people to learn to trust themselves as writers enough to take healthy creative risks, clear away distractions and ideas of what they think the writing should be, and listen carefully to what the writing wants to be. As a teacher, I talk a blue streak about craft, genres, other writers, and revision, but I also try to help students go further in their life-long development of their own best critical perspective on how to write and revise.

Both writing and teaching writing takes great discernment: feeling out what’s possible at the edge of what we know, dwelling all the time in not-knowing. It’s a little like divining for water, which also takes perseverance, patience, a return to the ground of our imagination, and a good dose of gumption. Sometimes the writing is astonishing, and sometimes the writer is priming the pump for something better in the future. Always, it takes courage and work to get something on the page, and that deserves respect, especially from people who teach writing.

I’ve witnessed so many writers over the years who, like me, didn’t seem to write anything particularly special at first, and then, over time and often in the container of an intelligent and compassionate community, found their way to poems, stories, novels, memoirs, plays and songs that knocked my socks off. At Goddard, I’ve had the honor of working with so many students over so many years who such strong things — spiritual memoirs about circling back to childhood visitations, mixed genre poetry and prose about thriving after surviving great abuse, speculative fiction about parallel universes, and collections of songs about overcoming oppression. In community workshops, I’ve sat breathlessly in circles around tables of varying sizes while someone read a poem about loving so deeply and looking so clearly at life with late-stage cancer. Through online classes, I’ve been dazzled by how communities of writers, who have never met in person, give each generous clear-seeing and inspiration while sharing their first sestina or most recent chapter.

Good writing is not in the hands of a few chosen by self-proclaimed judges of what’s worthy. Whether you started writing your first poem this morning or if you just finished your final story, writing is your birthright. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.

Celebrate This Kansas on Happy Kansas Day: Everyday Magic, Day 836

20110520_1115In honor of Kansas statement turning 154 years old, while Kansas land and sky is tens of thousands of years ago, I offer this poem, and one of Stephen Locke’s photos, also published in our collaboration, Chasing Weather: Tornadoes, Tempests, and Thunderous Skies in Word and Image.

Celebrate this sky, this land beyond measured

time that tilts the seasonal light. Dream the return

of the stars, the searing rise of summer or fast spread

of thunderheads, the secret-holding cedars and

witness rocks that migrate across the prairies.

We breathe the air of those who spoke languages

forgotten as the glaciers. We walk the fields

that once fed the fish of inland oceans.

We turn our heads away from where the raccoon

hid his family from the storm hundreds

of generations beforehand. This rain was once

a man’s last wish, this heat what warmed a weathered

rock enough for a woman to rest on with her baby,

these fossils, love songs of memory and longing

after the beloveds die. This horizon the homeland

of butterfly milkweed oranging in ancient sun.

This creek’s trail rerouted by deer and wild turkey.

This wooded curve the one favored by bluebirds

following last summer south. All we see,

the ghost and angel of billions of trails

through grasslands, the remnant of hard rains

where the grandmothers and grandfathers sang

of weather and loss, wars and births.

The bones of this land and the feathers of this sky

know us better than we know ourselves.

“Listen, This Day is MAGIC,” She Said: Everyday Magic, Day 827

“Listen, this day is MAGIC and I’m not kidding,” Kelley Hunt wrote today on Facebook, and I knew at once the truth of such moments.

It helped that I’m tunneling out of one of those bad colds that makes a gal feel like she’s been lost in the underworld with only some chicken soup, a lot of over-the-counter meds, and old movies of a young Brad Pitt fly-fishing in Montana (which isn’t a bad way to be lost). It also helped that the first phone call of the day was from one of my dearest and oldest friends who, that several projects I’m involved in are going remarkably well, and that the bath was the hot and coffee was strong.

Yet what Kelley wrote spoke to me not just about this day. Everyday, without cliche-ing the point, is magic in its would-be form, kind of like what I describe poems as for students: those little capsules you drop into water so they can expand into a sponge animal you couldn’t have anticipated. In a sense, every day given to us is its own poem: something we can open our wide perception and soften our big heart toward to find what’s beyond the obvious, hear the rhythm of the life force in our most local realms, and see image after image of reality in its singular, moment-by-moment originality. It takes a tilting of the head, willingness to let go of what we think the world is to connect with what actually is, and, most of all, gratitude.

I don’t say this lightly. It’s been a helluva fall with many deaths, lots of funerals, sad stretches of news, heart-breaking wreckage of the world in Ferguson, Syria, Liberia and other points, and sometimes, anguish in watching our beloveds suffer. Because of how fragile we are, how unpredictable life is, how difficult the journey and how strange the changes that insert themselves in our days, the gratitude to feel the magic of a moment, any moment, matters more. It helps us see in the dark, and as William Stafford writes, “It will take you into/ yourself and bless you and keep you.” So here’s to listening to the day and its magic even and especially when it’s hard to hear beyond what hurts.

For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid

There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot—air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being
afraid. That country is there, for us,
carried as it is crossed. What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That’s the world, and we all live there.

~ William Stafford

Sneak Preview: Marching with Zombies (from POEM ON THE RANGE): Everyday Magic, Day 808

IMG_0806At 7 p.m., Tues., July 29, we’re launching my new book, Poem on the Range: A Poet Laureate’s Love Song To Kansas through a reading at The Raven Bookstore. I’m honored to be co-launching with Roy Beckemeyer and his fine collection of poetry, Music I Could Once Dance To (both Coal City Press publications). Please join us  for some reading, some stories, some poems, a bit of wine and some cookies, and a whole lot of celebration! In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview from my book.

Undead Poet Laureate of Kansas,” I had Ken magic-marker onto a white shirt, and then, with a purse full of bookmarks to commemorate the occasion, I waved goodbye to my live husband and went with my eldest son to march with the undead. The Lawrence Zombie Parade brought together well over 500 of the living dead, including the undead Santa, undead Harry Potter, undead Batman accompanied by undead cowgirl, and many undead brides sporting rubber intestines spilling out of their satin and lace gowns.

The organizers in the gazebo at South Park gave everyone a lesson on how to shamble — drag one leg while leading with the other — and appropriate roars and groans worthy of a zombie. Then we were off, heading toward Massachusetts Street.

A woman holding the leash of an invisible zombie dog worked hard to keep her invisible pooch from attacking live dogs. Zombie parents pushed zombie babies. A toddler with perfect red horns growing out of his tow head giggled loud while someone said, “What an adorable little devil baby!” Drunken college kids brushed fake blood stained arms against old-time zombies. Outside the Toy Store, a team of employees, equipped with Nerf guns, kept the zombies at bay while a dignified zombie couple carried their live (and quite beautiful) chickens past the tattoo parlor.

My favorite was the entire undead cast of Gilligan’s Island. A zombie dad dragged his zombie daughter while everyone laughed. A hip couple walked by with a zombie ferret (make up was particularly impressive). Zombie 1950s dads walked by reading zombie newspapers.

Meanwhile, whoever read my shirt or bookmark, connecting what “undead” had to do with the state of the arts in Kansas, laughed and occasionally applauded. On this night, it was okay to be in a program that’s undead, particularly because I believe it will cross over from this hazy hemisphere into pure life. Besides, on nights like this one, I’ve got a lot of vivid company.

Oh Give Me a Poem Where the Buffalo Roam: Everyday Magic, Day 804

IMG_0806It started a year ago in the pool when during my long, slow parade of laps, I paused at the end of the pool. A speed-swimming man popped out of the lane beside me, and asked, in the kind of polite, British accent that it’s hard to refuse, if I ever considered writing a memoir about my poet laureate years. That man was Brian Daldorph, who runs Coal City Press, and a few days later, not to mention many laps thinking about it, I said yes to the book that would become Poem on the Range: A Poet Laureate’s Love Song to Kansas.

Like all book projects to the easily-optimistic, this one seemed kind of easy and fun. Fun it was, but “easy” quickly became a complicated term. I had many blog posts about my poet laureate time, but there was the work of transforming them into chapters, finessing words and paragraphs, and “killing darlings” (the writerly term for letting go of passages we’re attached to). I also thought the book wouldn’t be nearly so interesting without greater context, so I brought in some travelogue writing to give readers a sense of some of the communities I traversed, and best of all, poems from many gracious writers near and far. In the end, the book’s fishing expedition for Kansas poems (with excursions for poet laureate poems from other states) brought over 40 poems to bunk down in various chapters.

Then, of course, there are all the necessary tasks to turn a manuscript into a book, including finding a good cover image (thanks, Stephen Locke, for your IMG_0809wonderful photo!), design (thanks to the wildly-talented Leah Sewell), collecting blurbs from other writers, excessive proofreading (thank you, Brian!), and printing proofs and reading them repeatedly and then printing more proofs.

Yesterday, all eased into the book in Brian’s and my hands, with gratitude and poetry for all.

Upcoming readings:
3 p.m., July 10 – Astra Arts Festival, Independence, KS

7 p.m., July 29 (with Roy Beckemeyer and his new book, Music I Could Once Dance To, The Raven bookstore, Lawrence, KS

Get your book at The Raven or through Coal City Press