Friday, December 7, 2018

Steve Bunch Shares Allen Ginsburg, Ed Dorn, Other Lawrence Literary History

Here are Steve Bunch's Lawrence literary memories of the Rock Chalk Cafe, which served Ed Dorn, the Fugs, Allen Ginsberg, many other literati over the years. It begins:
Steve Bunch

"Edward Dorn's poem "The Cosmology of Finding Your Spot" celebrated the Rock Chalk and its denizens ( ) and was published (typos and all) as a broadside in connection with a reading in support of the Draft Resisters League in 1969. The reading occurred just across the street from the Rock Chalk, at the United Campus Christian Fellowship building. As I recall, Robert Bly also read that evening. Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Galway Kinnell, and Diane Wakoski also came through Lawrence that spring."
I remember the reading at the UCC, and how suave Dorn was, how cooly activist. His wife Jennifer Dorn was with him, also a respected poet, and she impressed me. Do I remember what he read? Yes--parts of Gunslinger he was working on at the time. He made me think differently about history of the West, my home region. It was a long way from Gunsmoke and Palladin, although there were some of the same characters. He had a grasp of the history that informed his discussion as well of the poets, and I admired that. Here is a review from the Guardian by Patrick McGuinnis of Gunslinger, and it begins:

"Gunslinger is perhaps the strangest long poem of the last half-century: a quest myth wrapped around an acid-inspired western comic strip adventure in which a gunslinger, astride a drug-taking, talking horse called Levi-Strauss, searches for Howard Hughes ("they say he moved to Vegas / or bought Vegas and / moved it. / I can't remember which"). Charles Olson had insisted, in the wake of Pound, that where Europe had history to make poetry with, America must take geography. Dorn's contribution to the Great American Long Poem – Pound's Cantos, WC Williams's Paterson, Olson's Maximus … – was Gunslinger, which appeared in five sections over six years. The American west was Dorn's imaginative home, and his poem is an extraordinary feat of imagination, humour, allusion and lyric invention. It takes the standard fare of a good if surreal western (brothel madams, saloon brawls and gunfights) and melds it with high philosophical riffs."

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Denise Low Reviews Maryfrances Wagner's THE IMMIGRANTS' NEW CAMERA

Maryfrances Wagner’s collection The Immigrants’ New Camera: A Family Collection has a
glossary of Italian words in the back, a useful addition as she writes her family’s immigrant experiences and afterlife in Kansas City neighborhoods. The poet tells wonderful stories in this book, compressed into poems and amplified with poetic intensities. Always the phrases give both narrative and mood, as in this poem about her aunt:
I Bring Aunt Mary a Christmas Tree
Oh, what a good Italian woman you are.
You’ve baked biscotti and iced them nice,
pink and green just like I love. And they
taste just like your Aunt Rosie’s. I wear
that lap quilt you made me to dinner.
I’m afraid someone might take it, though.
I can’t believe all of the stuff you bring.
I loved the pizza and the pizzelle,
but I don’t have anywhere to put
those family pictures. You can take those
home. I don’t recognize some of them.
What’s that behind your back? A little tree?
You call that a Christmas tree?
It’s nice that you put blinky lights on it
and decorated it with reindeer and candy canes,
but it’s not more than a foot tall! Troppo piccolo.
Uncle Johnny brought home big trees.
Sometimes we had to cut the tops off.
I used to put tinsel and ornaments on the tree.
They were big and beautiful. Ask Jimmy.
This hotel is too small. I’ll be glad when we
go home. These pigra maids take forever when I ring.
Uffa! What’s that? A crystal star? Too many lights.
Shut that thing off before I quit breathing, and don’t
hang that mistletoe in the doorway. I don’t want
some old coot in a wheelchair grabbing me
on the way to dinner. We’ve got enough
Wagner’s use of dramatic monologue works well here, deftly wrought so the narrator’s presence is just a whisper in the background. The forte voice of the aunt carries the poem, as she voices her judgements. Along the way, details of life in a nursing home create another thread in this dense poem. Wagner balances lyric with narrative perfectly.
                No poem in this collection is simple. The stories may appear to be about making wine in the garage or school memories. The overlays of language, however, as well as the implied emotions complicate any topic.
One of my favorite poems is one where Wagner describes miscellanea left in her father’s drawers after his death. The catalogue elaborates more about grief and character than the objects. The poem “My Father’s Nightstand” begins:
I empty the dead drawers
and sort what my father kept close:
Chapstick, shoestring, book of stamps.
Flashlight, two keys, Allen wrench.
The orphaned keys, the wrench, and the flashlight all suggest mortality, the final law.
                Wagner collections family stories from all her previous collections in this new book. They interact with each other, so repeated characters, like Zia Rosie and Nonno, develop into full-fleshed companions. Most of the people in the book are dead, so there is an eerie quality of ghost stories also in this interesting and complex book.
History of Italians in the United States often overlooks the Midwest. This book helps to expand the cultural nuances of this region. The family members, however, are familiar archetypal characters that all can relate to. This book is enjoyable on the page, and Wagner will present readings of it in the Kansas City area, not to be missed.

Dec 6, book release party at Westport Coffeehouse, KC, 41010 Pennsylvania St., KC, MO, 7 pm. At 8:00 will be a short reading, and Robert Stewart, Jenny Molberg, and Cameron Morse will be present. Enter through the Green Room or come downstairs through the coffeehouse. If you can't stay the whole time, at least drop by.

The Immigrants’ New Camera: A Family Collection by Maryfrances Wagner, 174 pp., Spartan Press, 2018, $15.00.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Denise Low Reviews Lechliter's Photos of Ghosts: Poems

 At the beginning of this month, Gary Lechliter organized a where he debuted a new collection, Photos of Ghosts: Poems (Spartan Press). It is superb. I have followed Lechliter’s work for decades now, and he carves deeper shadows and higher reliefs. One of his classics is about his brother’s funeral, “The First Born,” where he wonders at their abiding differences despite an almost identical upbringing: “We lived in the same small clapboard house, / ate the same food, pissed in the same toilet, / bathed in the same old claw-foot tub” (p. 6).  After a catalogue of fraternal connections, he ponders the differences, “Maybe it was the religion you clung to, / that hard faith I walked away from.” He lifts the poem from the biographical into a larger sphere when he further iterates the differences between the narrator’s doubt and the brother’s belief. The poem ends: “Earth is fixed, it seems likely that I’ll / see you soon, perhaps in some plausible / heaven for the faithful and yes, the / agnostic, the Jew, the Buddhist, and / Muslim, the gay or straight.”
                Lechliter grew up in southeast Kansas, not far from my own hometown. He writes about the places I knew and in that language, as in this unsentimental nature poem “Horsefly”
                                On wrongs swift vengeance waits. Alexander Pope
The fucker I smacked and left to die,
belly up on the ground, waits for
the labor of ants to carry it off.
It’s not unlike the one that blooded
me as I played in my grandmother’s
garden hose on a summer day.
That one made off with boy flesh.
And all I could do was weep and howl,
which brought my father out to the
lawn, where he chased it with the
newspaper’s help wanted ads,
but could not smack the villain.
So now I must call this menace
I’ve flattened an icon of vengeance
and leave it in the mulch, where
the widow and fatherless grubs
will come to honor the knowledge
that only fools linger.      (p. 7)

The Alexander Pope epigraph helps to set up a tradition and also to contrast to it, as the opening “The fucker” makes it clear this is not a sanitized or nostalgic experience. Sarah Smarsh’s memoir Heartland is redefining the way outsiders see rural folk, and this poet gives testimony to a complex, vivid site where human dramas match the extremes of weather. This is a wise book, for readers from any place.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Denise Low reviews Pat Daneman's "After All," on widowhood, women, mythos.

Pat Daneman is one of my favorite poets, probably not well known outside a devoted circle of to 
family and Kansas City friends (I am one of these), in part because she publishes her first book this year. Buy it, especially if you are a person over 50 or a person who has lost a family member or if you are a woman. That should cover just about everyone. Her writing concerns, often but not always, her loss of a spouse. This is not the only theme, but it makes the book essential reading. Take this poem, which could refer to night jitters in general or specifically to grief:

Night Knitting by Pat Daneman
Always good to have a row cast on—the night will come
when I’ll need the reassurance of brown or purple wool,
needles’ industry between sleeplessness and the immensity

of the world asleep. Even if snow is knitting its own caps and capes,
even if wind is undoing every knot,
I will have a pool of lamplight,

the back of a soft chair like an arm around my shoulders.
As I sit wishing for someone to talk to,
I will have the small stitches to count,

The clack-of-bone conversation, the thing—
what is it?—
falling from my hands.     c. 2018 Pat Daneman

Daneman understands the cadence of long lines, their internal sounds and patterns, like waves. She uses a conversational mode that invites readers into her narratives. This poem drops the “It is” that would make the first line grammatically complete. So the monologue begins as though the reader were present, almost as real as the missing partner. The music made by “reassurance,” “industry” “sleeplessness,” “immensity,” and “asleep” in the opening stanzas make this poetry, not prose. Then the wonderful fabulation of snow knitting forms parallels the narrator’s wool creation. Daneman is not done. In the third stanza, the poem turns into a seance, raising the specter of the dead man, whose arm is no longer around her, and whose conversation now is “clack-of-bone” rather than words. The final thrum in the poem is the passage of time, with snow “caps and capes” being undone and the indeterminate “what is it?—” that passes through her hands. This poem offers kindly advice—how to survive the insomniac nights—and it grieves not just a personal loss, but the nature of loss itself.  “Living in the Marriage Museum” is another tour de force, about the leftover contents of drawers and cupboards after a death.
                These poems help me find ways to think about loss. “To Anne Sexton” and “The Women in the Kitchen” are poems that parse women’s experiences elegantly. All the poems are small myths that populate a familiar cosmos. Each has a place. Each is necessary. Many hundreds of books of poetry are published each month by industry giants and by indie authors. Trust me. This is a high-quality, moving, book.

After All by Pat Daneman. FutureCycle Press 9781942371595 Print $15.95. Available on Kindle.

PAT DANEMAN is a freelance writer and editor.  Her recent poetry appears in the anthologies New Poetry from the Midwest and Kansas Time+Place, and the journals Moon City Review, Stonecoast Review, Comstock Review and Bellevue Literary Review.   Her chapbook, Where the World Begins, was published in 2015 by Finishing Line Press.
c. 2018 Denise Low, review. Please request permission for reprint and give acknowledgement.

Thursday, October 4, 2018


John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowships, unofficially known as “genius” grants, recognize “exceptional creativity” and come with awards of $625,000 each, distributed over five years.
Natalie Diaz draws on her experience as a Mojave American and Latina to challenge the
mythological and cultural touchstones underlying American society.
About Natalie's Work Natalie Diaz is a poet blending personal, political, and cultural references in works that challenge the systems of belief underlying contemporary American culture. She connects her own experiences as a Mojave American and Latina woman to widely recognized cultural and mythological touchstones, creating a personal mythology that viscerally conveys the oppression and violence that continue to afflict Indigenous Americans in a variety of forms.
In her first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (2012), Diaz reflects on her brother’s drug addiction, drawing upon Mojave, Greek, and Christian symbols to describe his destructive behavior and its effect on her family. Her brother is alternately a charismatic Icarus persuading his parents to let him come home again, the figure of Judas betraying his family, and most hauntingly, an Aztec god who devours his parents every morning. In “My Brother at 3 A.M.,” addiction is personified as the Devil, seen by her brother in his hallucinatory state and then by her mother as she recognizes her son’s brutal and desperate condition. Other poems in the collection focus on Diaz’s childhood on a reservation.  “Hand-Me-Down Halloween” is an angry eruption of language that ensues in the wake of the speaker being taunted by a white boy for wearing a secondhand Tonto costume. She takes a more satirical and wry approach in “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie,” folding a biting critique of economic inequality, stereotyping, appropriation, body-image issues, and consumer culture into a series of tableaux centering around a Barbie of Mojave identity trying to fit into a standard Barbie universe.
Diaz ends the book with poems about an unnamed beloved, and in more recent poems she has continued to explore expressions of Indigenous love in nature, family, and community. Other recent poems, such as “American Arithmetic”—about police violence against Native Americans—and “The First Water Is the Body”—written in honor of the Standing Rock protesters and her own Mojave people—engage directly with the bodily oppression of Indigenous Americans and the urgency of survival. Diaz is a powerful new poetic voice, and she is broadening the venues for and reach of Indigenous perspectives through her teaching, cross-disciplinary collaborations, and language preservation efforts.
Biography Natalie Diaz received a B.A. (2000) and M.F.A. (2006) from Old Dominion University. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Diaz’s poems and essays have appeared in such publications as Narrative Magazine, Guernica, Poetry Magazine, the New Republic, Tin House, and Prairie Schooner, among others, and she is an associate professor in the Department of English at Arizona State University.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Writerly Mentors: David Fenza, Ken Irby, Victor, Contoski, Stephen Meats, More

I just returned from visiting my older brother in Arizona. Our conversations ranged from politics to 
geography to writing. In high school, he had reported for  the Emporia Gazette, and since then he has perfected many kinds of writing, When he returned home after his first year at Harvard, he gave me writing assignments, such as, "Explicate Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony." I was twelve, bookish, and thrilled at the attention. His suggestion kept me busy for weeks, as I read liner notes, went to the library, and listened to the symphony over and over. This was July, when thunderstorms on the plains make an apt accompaniment to Beethoven’s grand chords. He was my first mentor.
As I became more interested in writing poetry, though, I found a landscape of misogyny. Some of the Black Mountain poets were active in my hometown (Lawrence, Kansas) at different times (Edward Dorn, Kenneth Irby), and also Beats writers, especially William S. Burroughs.  These men were often gracious, but I was not on their planet. The dearth of women’s voices in these schools has been discussed in other places. I sought women mentors, but there were few—not many had been able to penetrate the male kingdom. 
Plus, I was not an ideal mentee. Two active children blessed my life by age 24; at 32 I held a full-time English department position (five sections of composition a semester the first five years); and by 44 I had two failed marriages. I was busy and had an attitude. As I developed, oh so slowly, other writing mentors entered the picture.
Victor Contoski was my first college poetry teacher, and he gave everyone high grades. That allowed me to relax and focus on writing. He also encouraged publication, and through him, I found my first literary publisher, Dan Jaffe of BookMark at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.  Jaffe was tough, professional, and a true editor. He red-inked my first book manuscript beyond recognition—in fact, it became a chapbook. Now I thank him. He helped me understand how a book goes from typescript to edited, proofed pages.
Stephen Meats was another literary editor who took extra time to encourage a developing writer in the great “Midwest” (or whatever you want to call river towns anchored west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies). He was poetry editor of Midwest Quarterly. He liked a suite of poems I sent, asked for more, and published a selection as a chapbook. He and his wife are still treasured friends. His encouragement helped boost me into the poet laureate position of Kansas, and I am truly grateful.
David Fenza, former executive director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, is another male mentor who helped me integrate administrative skills into a non-profit arts environment. At my college, I was the English department chair and then dean of my division. I had basic knowledge of budget, personnel issues, and program development and assessment. Fenza helped me see a larger context in AWP, a national, 50,000-member organization, including arts advocacy (he worked with NEA and other groups). I had the opportunity to write an op-ed for the Kansas City Star, one of my weakest genres, at the same time I had poet laureate and dean deadlines. Fenza provided tactful assistance with this task. He was always professional, warm, funny, and smart. He understood the intersection of business and the arts. He is one of the most remarkable men I have met.
Kenneth Irby became one of my revered mentors, near the end of his life. His curmudgeonly strains of earlier years eased (once at a poetry reading he attacked my factual knowledge about the Pleistocene, incorrectly, but that’s another story). In the 2000s, I realized how much I had always liked his poetry despite everything and how we shared an affection for gin. That culminated in a “poetini” group, convened by Joseph Harrington, that met weekly to celebrate both. As I looked back across the decades of his writing, often inspired by shared deep geography, I appreciated the scope of his influence. What a healing to come to terms with Irby in his last years. I was lucky to interview him for New Letters on the Air a few months before death. AWP’s Writer's Chronicle published a selection of his poetry and more of the interview. 

Without these mentors, starting with my brother, I would be a much lesser writer. These men mentored with no guarantee of success, no payback, no hint of impropriety. Mentorship is an act of hope for an unseen future. The best gratitude is to pass on the gift of literature.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Jennifer Levin Reviews Denise Low's Shadow Light

Jennifer Levin reviews Denise Low's Shadow Light (Red Mountain Press, Editor's Choice Award) for Pasatiempo's "Subtext" section. This Santa Fe newspaper review begins with the poem "Sangre de Christo Novena," from the book:
Jennifer Levin

Saltillo tiles skein quick
            shivering filaments of rain.

Thin lizard bones and cholla needles
float down arroyos     August rosaries

Cloud banks unstack themselves behind
            a low-set moon.

Earth’s many gods stray among stars
            Lupus     Taurus     Ursus     Serpens
            Wolf     Bull     Bear     Snake.

Levin continues, "Low writes about the high desert with the intimacy of a local." Levin continues: "The poems in Shadow Light are heavily imagistic and sensory, focused on nature and the external world rather than Low’s interior life — though an “I” makes an appearance once in a while in order to anchor a short narrative in place. There is a sense of subtraction in the work, leaving reflection and interpretation in the hands of the reader. (August 10, 2018). For the full review, see "A Light at the End of the Shadow: Denise Low" 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

John Brown Press of KC Publishes Icelandic Poet Hjalmar Jonsson

Iceland is now a direct flight from my local airport in Kansas City, and friends post beautiful images Selected Poems, by 19th-century Icelandic poet Hjalmar Jonsson, gives a window into the fortitude necessary to survive isolation, cold, and hunger. The even graver difficulty is fellow humans. The collection also suggests the literary tradition that evolved in this environment. Hjalmar Jonsson, 1796 to 1875, is a poet still printed in schoolbooks, according to the editor of this book, Olafur Gunnarsson. Jonsson's work is part of the continuing tradition of the island. He did not publish in his lifetime, but in 1949, four volumes of his collected poems, rĂ­mur (short narrative poems), and prose in four volumes were finally compiled. This is the first "substantial" selection of his works to be translated into English. He is a serious critic of the wealthy, as this poem suggests:
from travels there. Life on a  near-Arctic Circle island is not as idyllic as recent tourists might suggest. This collection
Rich Man, Poor Man
If someone is a wealthy boor
and none too clean or bright,
big shots eating at their table
place him on their right.

The poor man with his cheeks so pale
receives a homage sweet,
beside some china chamber-pot
he's reserved a seat. (62)
This is an example of the scathing commentary on the wealthy, which is offset by a sense of resignation in the poems, as in this:
At a Funeral
Long I thought it vile, the grave,
Saw ignominy in dying.
Now it is a gift God gave,
A gift of peace to all who crave
salvation's freedom, sighing.
These short narrative lyrics are examples of the "rimur" or short, rhyming verses. He had a scathing tongue, sometimes used in a poetic competition: "When two Icelandic poets met, they often engaged in a poetry contest. The game was always to make the first part so difficult that the other was unable to finish the poem" (34). This is a hint at the tradition that lies outside the translation and often in oral tradition, not written.
The tradition continues, as a recent New York Times articles explains, quoting  Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson, a professor of Icelandic literature at the University of Iceland: "In earlier times, verses were an integral part of social gatherings and were often improvised, he said. Poetry contests were held, with the prizes going to the wittiest, sharpest verses. The most popular verse form, he said, is called “ferskeytla,” four rhymed lines that can be divided into two parts." Jonsson continues to be read and honored. Icelandic people read much poetry, and many are poets.
This book Selected Poems by Hjalmar Jonsson is amazing. It is an invitation to see a language related to English with its own traditions refined by the surrounding environment, both social and physical. Fred Whitehead conceived of this project, as he explains in a preface; David McDuff translated the poems; Olafur Gunnarsson selected and edited the book; and an "Afterward" by Hannes Hafstein tells much about Jonsson's life and poetic opus. The book is available through U.K. Amazon and John Brown Press, PO Box 5224, Kansas City, KS 66119, $16 + $4 postage. 91 pp, paperback.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Window Left Open by Jennifer Grotz Redefines Long Lines

I picked up a copy of this oversized (7 inches tall by 9 inches wide) book of poetry at Kramer's Books in DC,
and so glad I did. As an obsessed poet for most of my life (after my grandmother showed me her Kenneth Rexroth translations of Li Po and Tu Fu, and forgive the old-fashioned spellings), I look for new poets (to me) whose works teach different axes for entering the genre. This becomes progressively more difficult. So after scanning a few pages of this tome, my brain exploded and resettled into new patterns. I've already written a new poem organized somewhat after Jennifer Grotz's model in window left open.
This is to say the book invites readers in as participants rather than the author giving lectures that show off word acrobatics. Yes, many of the poems begin in natural settings, which is my bias, but nothing stops there. These are dynamic poems with many strategies to approach metaphors. Some are plain, like "...those/were the days when going outside felt like going inside" ("The Forest," 5). Some are fancy, like "What do daisies see with their feathery eye?" and about moths: "...perched tightly together like carnations, a fidgeting corsage of little engines. ..." ("Window Left Open," 45).
Also compelling is how the poet's lines loll across white space, unforced and unhurried, but never flat. Patterns arise and subside. The commentary is informative, adage-like pronouncements without ego. An example is how the poem "Locked" begins, "And yes it is necessary to admit/walking in the forest/the heart is a lock...." (6). The self-depracatory tone is natural and creates dialogue. This book was published in 2016, so it is not the newest new. For me, though, it is a book that will stay on my reading shelf a long time.
Jennifer Grotz is the author of two previous poetry collections. She teaches at the Univ. of Rochester and in the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College, and she serves as the assistant director of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. 
Window Left Open by Jennifer Grotz, Graywolf Press, 2016, 64 pp., $16.00 isbn 9781555977306

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Carolyne Wright reviews Jackalope by Denise Low for New Letters!

Much gratitude to Carolyn Lee Wright for her extended review, "Jackalope Walks into a Bar," in New
Letters. She extends the lore of Jackalope in important ways in addition to responding to my collection of short pieces--fiction or no?--in this book from Red Mountain Press. Many thanks! And the book is a steady seller at Small Press Distribution. 
The review is an artful piece, and it includes this commentary:
"In these interstices between fantasy and creatively tweaked fact, Low keeps her tone both lyrical and light; but shining through the humor—literary and Indian inside jokes, bawdy anecdotes, and gentle fun-poking at contemporary and historical indigenous and Anglo cultural figures—are glimpses of the very real oppression to which such oblique humor is one survival response.  In “Jackalope Walks into Custer’s Last Bar,” Jaq is offered the fanciest drink (“Custer’s Custard”) and is regaled with bitter anecdotes and jokes targeting this last-in-his-West-Point-class Civil War hero, who turned genocidal criminal against the plains tribes until his final demise at the Battle of Greasy Grass (aka Little Bighorn)."