Saturday, March 10, 2018

Diane Glancy, Indigenous Writer Creates Pathways for Others

In 1984 I joined the English faculty of Haskell Indian Nations University (it was a
junior college then). I had just finished an MFA, so my colleagues tolerated me teaching Creative Writing, as overloads. They also directed stray literary mail to my desk.
So, one day Brown Wolf Leaves the Res and Other Poems by Diane Glancy, a special chapbook issue of the Blue Cloud Quarterly arrived on my desk. This was my introduction to Glancy, but by no means her first publication. From the chapbook’s biography, I found that in 1984, already she had published in over 90 journals, won the American Indian Theater Co. playwriting contest and honorable mention from the Five Tribes. She had earned an MA from Central State University in Edmond, Oklahoma—and I now know that she would receive an MFA at the University of Iowa in 1988. In 1984, this was her first book.
To give some context, not many Native-written books were on the shelves of the Haskell library, or anywhere. Momaday had published House Made of Dawn in 1968, and won the Pulitzer, but few other books by Native writers, besides as-told-to autobiographies, were available. In 1975, Duane Niatum published the poetry anthology, Carriers of the Dream Wheel, a beautiful volume with color illustrations by Wendy Rose. In its series, Harper & Row published books by Simon Ortiz, James Welch, Niatum, and others. Geary Hobson’s anthology The Remembered Earth, published in 1979, was very important and included writers from all regions of the United States, not just Albuquerque Renaissance writers. It exploded the perception that there were no Indigenous writers. In 1983, Joseph Bruchac edited the poetry anthology Songs from This Earth on Turtle’s Back, which includes Glancy, perhaps her first appearance in a national anthology of Native writers. I ordered this paperback as a textbook for Haskell.
I do want to witness to how courageous these writers and editors of the time were, how effective, how welcome. The doxology of Native as a primitive was everywhere, undisputed. At Haskell, where seniority determined all course staffing, a well-intentioned
Glancy and Carrie Cornelius in Norman, OK, Returning
the Gift Conference, Lifetime Achievement Award
White man taught American Indian Literature. Texts were traditional accounts and many stories by White authors about Indigenous Americans—think of Frank Waters, James Fenimore Cooper, Ruth Beebe Hill. When I questioned this teacher, he said there were no well-written books by American Indians. He did not object, nonetheless, when I began to order books by Natives. He continued to teach the cushier literature classes, so I integrated contemporary writers into my Basic Comp and Creative Writing classes, including the poetry of Diane Glancy. By 1999, I had more seniority, and when the anthology Visit Tepee Town: Native Writings after the Detours, edited by Diane Glancy and Mark Nowak, was published, I added it to reading lists. It includes post-modern works by Gerald Vizenor, Linda Hogan, Wendy Rose, Maurice Kenny, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Juan Felipe Herrera, Greg Sarris, and Peter Blue Cloud. My students and I explored these authors, and this was an essential text.
The publications Diane Glancy wrote and edited encouraged Haskell students from the start. Familiar attitudes helped them to engage with her works. The other Haskell English faculty in the 1980s taught Faulkner (a favorite of a Creek-Seminole professor), George Orwell, and New Yorker writers, so this poem by Diane Glancy, in contrast, was accessible:
Looking for My Old Indian Grandmother in the Summer Heat of 1980
The heat uncovers the window and attic-fan
that pulls in more heat.

It was like this in ‘54, they say,
and I remember, somehow, the hot, white air in the
percale curtains at the window.

It comes back to me now.
I think it was the year my grandmother died.

I look into the trunk, and under the rock
that is her grave.
It was in 1954. July 14.

Her hands and face turn hard before we arrive.
We are bleached clean from her responsibility.

It all happened before I was old enough to ask,
before she knew I would even want to know.

It was because I am more like her than the others
I want to know what rock it is
she left upturned.     (Songs from This Earth 77)

The narrator is close to the actual author, a Native stance familiar to Haskell students, not the stylized British-influenced literary persona. The poem begins with the body, the heat, and with natural forces—sun (implied), wind, rock. Family is present, alive in memory. Childhood is not left behind, but rather informs the present. Glancy’s narration reads the setting as a map of signs, from her grandmother’s face to the gravesite. Workings of the narrator’s mind turn and return to heritage as the she identifies her own future—deliberate and ongoing connection to her grandmother. Glancy enlarges the poem by use of oblique metaphors, “Her hands and face turn hard” reinforces the image of the “rock.” White assimilation, all too familiar to Haskell students, is clear in the phrase “We are bleached.” Alienation, fragmentation, the struggles of assimilation—these are themes quite real to Native readers and led to vibrant class discussions.
            The Salt Companion to Diane Glancy gives insights into axises of her work, and a vocabulary of critique. Chadwick Allen notes the “driving compulsion in these texts: to examine in detail a Christian faith embattled both from without and within; to explore a largely unknown indigenous descent; to describe the painful isolation of juxtaposed and asymmetrical identities” (15). Glancy is a border crosser, hybridizer, pasticher, and most of all authentic in her own values. Her writing is individual and communal. Notice how often Glancy collaborates with other editors and writers.
            In 1996 Glancy published Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears, and in the intervening 25 years, her innovations in that book now seem commonplace: ruptured narratives, polyvocality (the cast of narrators), intertextuality (Reverend Bushyhead’s list of needs for the mission, real estate records), deep geography (maps, ecology), historicism, hybridity. Cherokee syllabary and terms challenge hegemony of the settler language tradition. This novel embodies disparate strands about the forced relocations of the 1830s, earlier than any other book, and with great heart. I remember Glancy reading from the manuscript at the Newberry Library in 1990 and her emotion as she described the harrowing writing process. A few years later, I remember hearing younger Native women talk about Glancy’s career, and how important she was as a model for their own writing and academic success. She is one of our valued elders, active through decades of evolving Native literary expression. She deserves our profound gratitude for navigating through those tough early years, keeping faith, and continuing to lead with innovative projects.
            In 2009, as Glancy was in Lawrence for film editing of Dome of Heaven, we began the habit of lunch, and one day she asked if my husband Tom Weso and I were interested in her next poetry manuscript for Mammoth Publications. I was, and it developed into Stories of the Driven World, a transgenre collection of travelogue, storytelling, field notes, womanist texts, and faith-based accounts. One of my favorite poems is “Horned Being”:
There are nights they come back as human
it’s a transformation of sorts
they don’t want to come
but something in them makes the change
the transference to other
AWP, with Eric Gansworth, Picott, Evalina Lucero,
Santee Frazier. Diane Glancy right.
to see what it would be to walk on nearly two legs
with antlers still on its head
buckskin on its bones
the world is always moving the last field report said
he’d discovered changing slots
whatever they are
it was the last we heard
but scribbled on the pages we received
one leg amputated from a trap
one hand forward, the other back
the four directions for a navel.    (75)
 This is about interspecies transformations, from animal to human. Tom coincidentally had a painting that exactly matched the poem’s hybrid creature, which we used for the cover. The poems are intersections of settler and Indigenous, of faith and science, of stasis and motion. The narrator crisscrosses the landscape—questing, commenting, reflecting, celebrating.
            At Haskell, I saw many elders through the years—spiritual leaders, writers, alumni, tribal leaders. Most of them began the same way, as they spoke to Haskell students, “Indians are a very spiritual people.” That comes back to me as I think of Glancy’s work, which defies categorization. It is always spiritual. I turn to her own comments in the back of Pushing the Bear, which illuminate this quality. She recounts travels to the site of the old Cherokee capital north of Atlanta. She describes how the farms stolen from Cherokee people in the 1830s were burned by General Sherman twenty years later. She concludes, “Maybe, in the end, our acts cause little energy fields that draw their likenesses toward them” (Pushing the Bear 327). This interconnectedness is an aspect of faith. Glancy writes toward reconciliation. To conclude in her words, she writes in Claiming Breath: “I write with a split voice, of the experimenting with language until the parts equal some sort of whole” (xi). That “whole,” after 35 years, is a remarkable legacy for all writers.

Bruchac, Joseph, ed. Songs from This Earth on Turtle’s Back. Greenfield Review Press, 1983.
Glancy, Diane. Brown Wolf Leaves the Res and Other Poems. Blue Cloud Quarterly (vol. 30.1), ed. Brother Benet Tvedten, 1984.
-----. Claiming Breath. University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
-----. It Was Then: Elements of the Diagonal. Mammoth Publications (2012).
-----. Now It Is Snowing Inside a Psalm. Mammoth Publications, 2011.
-----. Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears. Harcourt, 1996.
-----. Stories of the Driven World. Mammoth Publications, 2010.
Glancy, Diane and Mark Nowak, eds. Visit Tepee Town: Native Writings after the Detours. Coffee House Press, 1999.
Hobson, Geary. The Remembered Earth. Red Earth Press, 1979
Mackay, James, ed. The Salt Companion to Diane Glancy. Salt, 2010
Momaday, N. Scott. House Made of Dawn. Harper & Row, 1968.

Niatum, Duane, ed. Carriers of the Dream Wheel, Harper & Row, 1975.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Denise Low, "How to Build a Memoir" article

 You can write your life story in six words. Like flash fiction, short-short memoir is a new genre, especially the six-word memoir. Here’s an example, Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” A few words set the scene, classified section of a new
spaper. This suggests income-level and an urban setting. The characters are also suggested—the parent and the baby. The clincher is the sad end, “never worn,” so there is plot. The baby died. Six words give setting, characters, plot, and tragic ending. In 2006, Smith Magazine asked readers to write six-word memoirs in the spirit of Hemmingway. Here are some examples: “Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends”; “I still make coffee for two”; “Teaching 18-year-olds poetry; pray for me”; “Not quite what I was planning.” Twitter, NPR, and national publishers have sponsored six-word memoir publications. So, I challenge you to consider six words that create a memoir of your life, or a part of your life.
A memoir is a personal story about a dramatic or interesting part of a lifetime. I learned this classical definition of memoir when I read A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, first published in 1722, a novel, and not a truthful account. Defoe’s focus on the historic event creates the verisimilitude of memoir. It is an early prototype. Moments of genuine historic memoirs are embedded in Samuel Pepys’s diaries. Here is an excerpt from Diary Entry, September 2, 1666:
Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So, I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . .. By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So, I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . ..
So, begins his recounting of the great London fire.
Pepys does several important things in this passage. He establishes his authority to recount the event—his high vantage point. His personal story exists within history, the dated entry, and geography, and these must be touchstones in a memoir. London in 1666. Barbara Boyen notes memoir is a subset of autobiography, “involving a public portion of the author’s life as it relates to a person, historic event, or thing.” (“What Is a Memoir,” Writing Nonfiction). Because people’s lives are not neat sequences, an important part of the process is editing out the useless information. Focus on a public event or social concern is a way to narrow the project. More on this later.
Here are some further considerations for memoir. The writer’s memory is the source for the writing, reliable or not. Dinty W. Moore writes, “Memoir has its roots in memory. Often, that memory may relate to childhood, with an adult writer looking back at her early life to consider how certain youthful experiences shaped and molded the person. . ..” (Truth of the Matter). That is an interesting paradox, the reflection on an earlier self, recounted after adult perspective. And then memory—how reliable is it, really?
As I was writing my first book-length memoir, The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival (University of Nebraska-Bison Books, 2017) I learned how memory as a source can cause difficulties when I compared notes with siblings and cousins. Finally, I had to say, “This is how you remember it. My memory is different.” Memoir is not reportage. I did try to have at least one outside source for each major event, but my memory was the ultimate authority within this book. That contrast between the childhood self and adult narration creates the tension of the memoir.
More on the sketchy role of memory—it is the far end of the historic fact spectrum. Patricia Hample and Elain May write, “Memoir and history regard each other across a wide divide. In effect, they’re goalposts marking the extremes of nonfiction. The turf that separates them—and connects them—is the vast playing field of memory” (Tell Me True). At a time of facts and alternative facts, the concept of subjectivity is vivid. False memories, implanted memories, confabulated memories—these all are terms for the fuzzy end of memoir, with factual historic events at the other end, on the way to mathematical equations.
ertain characteristics appear in most, if not all, memoirs. The point of view is an authorial “I” voice that engages the reader. If you write a memoir, or anything, the “voice” is one of the most important considerations—it needs to pull readers into the story. We all recognize a good storyteller’s voice. Also, a memoir is located in a geographic place and an historic time. These may be very important or background setting. Like social sciences of history and geography, a memoir includes verifiable facts—the public aspect of the memoir. It can use factional techniques; it shows rather than tells; and dramatizes through scenes with dramatic buildups, conclusions, and dialogue. Its style can be straightforward or adorned with heightened, poetic language.
One of the first masters of contemporary non-fiction prose, is Truman Capote, whose In Cold Blood (1966) innovated fictional techniques to convey factual stories. The way the hybrid novel, and then the movie, portrayed the murders in Holcomb, Kansas, is controversial to those who live in that region. Selections and omissions of the storyteller create inconsistencies, slippage. Facts of the murder exist, and the law enforcement records of the criminals. Perspectives vary. A recent documentary interviews people who knew the Clutter family, who still mourn these very good people, in contrast to Capote’s focus on the murderers. I recommend Capote’s memoirist writings in Music for Chameleons, which includes his memoirist essay about In Cold Blood, "Handcarved Coffins." Then the movie Infamous (2006) is more about Capote than the crime, as is the 2005 movie Capote with Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Memoir is subjective to the highest degree, with main character shifts and more, and so always tentative.
Twenty-first century memoir is a hybrid form, mixing historic exposition with heightened language and fictional techniques. Literary nonfiction’s primary intent is beauty and/or entertainment over instruction. Genres of memoir can include: autobiographies, biographies, memoirs, diaries, letters, personal essays, personal critical essays, commentaries, reviews of works of art, nature writing, city writing, travel writing, science writing, true crime, meditations, journals, letters, and cultural commentary. Hybrid forms or “mixed genre” include fictionalized versions of the above or other combinations. Memoir exploits the rise of the lyrical essay in the late 20th century—Joan Didion’s writings are early favorites of mine, and there are many others. The essay may have many other topics than personal memory. The style of any good prose writer uses the lyricism of poetry.
Memoir is now part of a growing field, and market, of nonfiction prose. William Zinsser calls our time “the age of memoir” (Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir). Zinsser’s title emphasizes the creative side of truth-telling. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir was a sensation in 1999, making the bestseller list and winning the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Since then, sales for memoirs increased dramatically—Nielsen BookScan, notes an increase of 400 percent between 2004 and 2008—and readers’ appetites also have increased for kiss-and-tell, disaster, celebrity, political, and other types of memoirs.
Certain plotlines repeat in memoirs. Most common are childhood stories, those of coming of age, overcoming adversity, immigration, and rags to riches. Angela’s Ashes is a prime example of the latter. Survival memoirs can include medical adversities, accidents, and grief. Cancer memoirs are a genre unto themselves, as well as recovery from additions. More classical is the memoir that centers on historic events: a personal story set during Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnam Conflict, or the assassination of Martin Luther King. Topical memoirs have a personal story of a specific topic, like horse racing, life on Wall Street, traveling with the carnival, Hollywood careers, or food. My husband, Thomas Weso, has written a very successful food memoir, Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir (Wisconsin Historical Society Press), and the inclusion of recipes in this collection of family stories created a niche in the very popular food book category, which we were too naive to anticipate. Travel memoir is where a person describes a trip combined with personal stories. Double memoir is a story with the narrator sharing narration through letters or dual authorship. One of my professional workshop students, Alan Proctor, has an excellent memoir The Sweden File: Memoir of an American Expatriate based on his brother’s letters after he left the country to avoid Vietnam war-era military service. Lastly, a removed memoir is when the author narrates a story about someone else. My own memoir tells the story of my Delaware Indian grandfather, who suppressed his identity to survive Ku Klux Klan violence and other discrimination in Kansas.
            So, if you wish to write memoir, voice is most important in a memoir, focus is second, and third is overall architecture. Each story requires a unique organization. Here are ways to think about overall structure. Most follow a simple timeline, like Black Elk Speaks, diaries, journals, and letters. Another strategy is geographic or space orientation, for a travel memoir. Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon is an example. As in movies, flashbacks, can work well, like Sally Carrighar’s Home to the Wilderness. If you wish to try something fancier, braiding several stories together is an option, with alternating two or strands, and one of my favorites of these is Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich. Or you can unfold themes, like, for example, organizing spices by flavor—salt, sour, bitter, sweet, heat, earthiness.
The best way to learn how to write a memoir is to read them. During my research, I noticed some best practices.
  1. Think about why you are writing this memoir. For my family memoir, I wanted to explain my grandfather’s Native identity to my children and grandchildren, first. Next, I wanted to inform those who are interested in Kansas and Native histories. So, an important question is audience? Family or public? General audience or educated in your field? How you choose vocabulary and style will depend on your reader.
  2. Focus the setting. Choose a short time frame in a specific place. Don’t try to cover too much or skip around, unless you have a clear plan (braiding, flashbacks, etc.).
  3. What is your vantage point? Are you an adult looking back on childhood, or are you speaking with the voice of a child? Whatever you choose, be consistent.
  4. Use colorful description and scenes to show your story. These add texture. Use just enough summary exposition for clarity.
  5. Layer your writing. Simple bare bones of Grandmother attending a one-room schoolhouse in winter is of little interest. Create a plot, of the day the raccoon attacked your dog, for example. Add a layer of description of the room. Dramatize the characters by how they look, act, and speak (you can reconstruct dialogue).
  6. Reflect, briefly, at high points in your dramas. This personal assessment gives depth to the memoir. I have read too many amateur memoirs that give the facts without reflection, and these become very drab.
  7. End with a significant discovery. How are you changed? How are people around you changed?
 All of us owe it to our children and grandchildren to leave some heritage stories, in my opinion, as these help young people orient themselves and develop pride. My grandmother left a wonderful short collection of stories about growing up in turn-of-the-century San Antonio. I have typed them up and shared with all the relatives. I have written my own memoir about my grandfather, and I believe it helps fill in some historical gaps for others in this region and for Native peoples. I encourage you to write your memoirs by using your best storytelling voice, focusing on a particular time and place, creating an outline, and filling it in with textured scenes, memorable characters, and maybe some dialogue. Your six-word memoirs are a first step. 
c. 2018 Denise Low. Please contact for reprint permission.

Denise Low teaches professional writing workshops on memoir. Contact kansaspoetry [at]gmail. Her memoir The Turtle's Beating Heart has earned favorable reviews from Kirkus, Library Journal, Forward Reviews, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Indian Country Today, World Literature Today, and many others.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sir Philip Sydney extols poetic qualities of English

On a snowy afternoon, I am reading Sir Philip Sydney's "In Defense of Poetry." He writes about the
superiority of English as a poetic language, something I had not considered, ever, after listening to Spanish, Cherokee, Greek, Welsh, Ojibwa, French, Chinese, Kiowa, and other languages. However, here is his argument:

  "Now of versifying there are two sorts, the one ancient, the other modern. (1) The
ancient marked the quantity of each syllable, and according to that framed his verse; (2) the modern observing only number, with some regard of the accent, the chief life of it stands in that like sounding of the words, which we call rime. Whether of these be the more excellent would bear many speeches; the ancient no doubt more fit for music, both words and tune observing quantity; and more fit lively to express divers passions, by the low or lofty sound of the well-weighed syllable. The latter likewise with his rime strikes a certain music to the ear; and, in fine, since it doth delight, though by another way, it obtains the same purpose; there being in either, sweetness, and wanting in neither, majesty. Truly the English, before any other vulgar language I know, is fit for both sorts. For, for the ancient, the Italian is so full of vowels that it must ever be cumbered with elisions; the Dutch so, of the other side, with consonants, that they cannot yield the sweet sliding fit for a verse. The French in his whole language hath not one word that hath his accent in the last syllable saving two, called antepenultima, and little more hath the Spanish; and therefore very gracelessly may they use dactyls. The English is subject to none of these defects. Now for rime, 54 though we do not observe quantity, yet we observe the accent very precisely, which other languages either cannot do, or will not do so absolutely. That cæsura, or breathing-place in the midst of the verse, neither Italian nor Spanish have, the French and we never almost fail of."

Friday, January 12, 2018


LINDA RODRIGUEZ, author of award-winning poetry and prose, publishes with Mammoth!
88 pages $16.00 ISBN Perfect-bound paper 978-1-939301-66-6  
Pre-order now for discount! $10.00 plus shipping PayPal or check. Kansas residents: Click this for tax. Others click here! Mail order: Mammoth Publications, 1916 Stratford Rd. Lawrence, KS 66044 $13 postpaid. Books available Feb. 1.

“I want to say so much about Rodriguez’s poetic gifts. What talent! The most accomplished poet of our generation. A poetic voice for our time.” ~Rudolfo Anaya, author of Bless Me, Ultima and Albuquerque

Click this link to Mammoth Publications website for further details.

Dark Sister: Poems gives voice to the living presence of Cherokee teachings and history, passed down through Linda Rodriguez’s family. Rodriguez, author of the exciting Cherokee detective series featuring  Skeet Bannion (St. Martin's/Minotaur Press), turns to family stories and memory for her third book of poetry. She testifies about the borderlands that still exist between Cherokee people and heirs of Andrew Jackson’s soldiers; between Americans and their British Isles forebears; and between the frontera of Mexico and southern plains states of the United States. She spares no quarter as she remembers history and its embodiment in the present. She tells compelling stories about the last Beloved Woman, Trickster, and other traditional figures with the sure hand of an oral storyteller and with the lyrical intensity of a skilled poet. In Dark Sister, the ageless Cherokee language and Spanish blend with English to explain the complexities of life as a mixed-blood woman in the 21st century. This accessible book appeals to adults and young adult audiences with family stories, love stories, just-so stories, and more. 
 For her previous books of poetry, Skin Hunger (Scapegoat Press) and Heart’s Migration (Tia Chucha Press), Linda Rodriguez has received numerous recognitions, including the Thorpe Menn Award for Literary Excellence, the Midwest Voices and Visions Award, the Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, the 2011 and 2014 ArtsKC Fund Inspiration Awards, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Rodriguez has edited four anthologies, most recently The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, co-edited with Diane Glancy. Her poetry has appeared in many national and regional journals and on Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac, The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress, and New Letters on the Air. Her award-winning Skeet Bannion novels, all from St. Martin's/Minotaur, are: Every Broken Trust, Every Hidden Fear, and Every Last Secret, which won the 2011 St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition and was a Barnes & Noble mystery pick, featured by Las Comadres National Latino Book Club, and a finalist for the International Latino Book Award.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

New Letters publishes Denise Low's review of Lombardo's Sappho

I appreciate the elegant journal New Letter's publication of my review of Stanley Lombardo’s
translation Sappho: Complete Poems and Fragments (Hackett) for the new issue of New Letters. Here is a brief excerpt:
"Lombardo deliberately composes pages of the least complete fragments to preserve placements of text. This creates a field of inverse lacuna, as the few remaining words appear within the larger gaps of loss. This is a collage effect. Susan Howe’s 2017 book Debths has a similar, deliberate effect. She composes pages of white space and text clippings, some lines smudged beyond recognition. She explains the bricolage sections: 'Our eyes see what is outside in the landscape in the form of words on paper but inside, a slash or mark wells up from a deeper place where music before counting hails from' (22)." The complete text of the review is a PDF on the New Letters website.  New Letters v. 84, no. 1 (2017-18): 131-4.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Eric McHenry Wins Award from TLS

Eric McHenry Wins The Mick Imlah Poetry Prize 
Congratulations to Washburn professor and 5th Kansas Poet Laureate Eric McHenry, who is second-place-tie winner of the Mick Imlah Poetry Prize of the Times Literary Supplement. The prize is named after the former TLS poetry editor Imlah. TLS informs readers that “almost 4,000 poems” were entered in the contest. Judges were Alan Jenkins, A. E. Stallings and Andrew Motion. Katherine Lewis won first place, and Emily Yaremchuk shares the 2nd place award with McHenry. Jenkins notes of “Picking a Prophet” by McHenry: “[its] reasonable tone and unostentatious rhymes convey a sophisticated, almost offhand authority.” Third prize winner is Allen Braden. Jenkins supports the idea of poetry contests: “Art is not a competition; but a competition may encourage art, and reward it.” To read further details and read the winning poems, follow this link.

Eric McHenry grew up in Topeka, Kansas and earned degrees from Beloit College and Boston University. His first book of poems, Potscrubber Lullabies (Waywiser, 2006), won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and in 2010 Poetry Northwest awarded him the Theodore Roethke Prize. He is a contributing editor of Columbia magazine and has written about poetry for the New York Times Book Review, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe and Slate. He lives in Topeka with his wife, Sonja, and their two children, Evan and Sage, and teaches creative writing at Washburn University. In 2015 he was appointed Poet Laureate of Kansas. Audio files of two of his poems from the recent Odd Evening (2016, Waywiser) is at this link:  

See my comments about McHenry on a previous blog:

Monday, December 18, 2017

Kevin Rabas Curates Ks. Poetry for PoetryBay

Kevin Rabas, Poet Laureate of Kansas, assisted by Michael Pelletier, has curated Kansas poems for the
online magazine PoetryBay, connected with Long Island Quarterly. The special section is "A Snapshot of Kansas Poetry." The introduction to the project, “The News, Not Just from Kansas But All the World,” by Pelletier, begins with a quotation from my similar print project of almost 40 years ago: 
      “’Biologists have a technique of plotting a given amount of land and recording every member of a species within it during a specific length of time,’ begins Denise Low’s preface to 30 Kansas Poets (1979). She continues, calling that collection of poems ‘more a record of what is occurring within the perimeters of the state … than an attempt to define or categorize ‘Kansas’ poetry.’ We follow Low here in offering a small sample — perhaps more akin to a snapshot than a record — of contemporary Kansas poetry.
     “As with Low’s collection, it was not possible to include the work of every member of the species writing in Kansas today, though Low herself, a former Poet Laureate of Kansas, is included. Two other former Poets Laureate, as well as the current Poet Laureate, are also represented.”
 The poets are: Brian Daldorph, Adam Jameson J.T. Knoll, Denise Low, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Al Ortolani, Jared Schmitz, Joe Toth, Wyatt Townley, M.R. Pelletier, and Kevin Rabas.  These include Rabas, 3 former Kansas poets laureate (Low, Mirriam-Goldberg, Townley), a librarian, students, teachers of creative writing, and an electric company employee.
Here is one of my own selections from “A Snapshot of Kansas Poetry.” It is from my forthcoming collection
Shadow Light, which has won the 2018 Red Mountain Press Editor’s Choice Award:
Each tree shuffles a deck of cards
one suit each
     gingkoes for hearts
     maples for clubs.
My mother gambles for a last child.
One spring day I am born.
     Oak leaves are broken diamonds.
I turn ten yours old.
     I press scarlet leaves in wax paper
            flatten them with a hot iron.
I turn sixty.      
Each sawtooth
leaf edge
     Hackberries are spades.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Richard Robbins reads from new book Oct. 26, Raven Bookstore, Lawrence KS

Richard Robbins will read from his new book Body Turn to Rain: New & Selected Poems (Lynx House Press) at the upcoming Big Tent Reading Series, with Nino Cipri and Celeste Gainey--7 pm, 7th & Mass. Robbins's poems combine narrative with images to create surprise, as in this poem "Old Country Portraits." It appears to be a still life, suggesting a Vermeer portrait, a “lost sister” performing a trick on the family by snapping away the table cloth. The final trickery is the subtle interplay between the living and the dead.
Old Country Portraits by Richard Robbins © 2017
My lost sister used to try the trick
with the tablecloth, waiting until
the wine had been poured, the gravy boat filled,
before snapping the linen her way

smug as a matador, staring down
silver and crystal that would dare move,
paying no mind to the ancestor gloom
gliding across the wallpaper like clouds

of a disapproving front—no hutch
or bureau spared, no lost sister sure
the trick would work this time, all those she loved
in another room, nibbling saltines,

or in the kitchen plating the last
of the roast beef. How amazed they would be
to be called to the mahogany room
for supper, to find something missing,

something beautiful, finally, they could
never explain, the wine twittering
in its half-globes, candles aflutter, each
thing in its place, or so it seemed then,

even though their lives had changed for good.

Richard Robbins was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Southern California and Montana. He studied as an undergraduate with Glover Davis and Carolyn Forché at San Diego State University and as a graduate student with Richard Hugo, Madeline DeFrees, Tess Gallagher, and William Pitt Root at the University of Montana. He has published five full-length books: The Invisible Wedding was published in 1984 by the University of Missouri Press as part of its Breakthrough Series, Famous Persons We Have Known in 2000 by Eastern Washington University Press, and The Untested Hand in 2008 by The Backwaters Press. Radioactive City won the Bellday Prize and was published in 2009 by Bellday Books. Other Americas was released in 2010 by Blueroad Press. His Body Turn to Rain: New & Selected Poems is new in 2017.  Over the years, he's received awards and fellowships from The Loft, the McKnight Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America. From 1986-2014, Robbins directed the Good Thunder Reading Series at Minnesota State University Mankato, where he continues to direct the creative writing program. In 2006, he was awarded the Kay Sexton Award for long-standing dedication and outstanding work in fostering books, reading and literary activity in Minnesota.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Robert Day Celebrates 40th anniversary of The Last Cattle Drive

The Salina Public Library sponsored a celebration of Robert Day's seminal novel with a community reading of the book, author visit, dinner, movies, and a panel discussion Sept. 17, 2017, that included Fred Whitehead, Mary O'Connell, Leo Oliva, Robert Day, and myself. Here are my remarks. 

I have participated in formal and informal discussion of Robert Day’s Last Cattle Drive— in libraries (the Kansas Humanities Council TALK program), in prisons, in coffee shops, and around kitchen tables. I have lived with the book almost from its first publication. Ed Ruhe, the legendary Kansas University professor, introduced me to Day, Fred Whitehead, and Ward Sullivan—the model for Spangler—when I was in graduate school.
I remember Ruhe’s dining room table piled with books, with only small spaces left for plates. The cast was like a novel’s playbill. I remember being mesmerized as Robert Day shook my hand before dinner and then announced I was just a few handshakes away from Tolstoy. He recounted the lineage back to Nabokov, and then Tolstoy. It was magic.
Then Bob did what he does best, after a few magic tricks. He told stories into the night. I was enchanted. I read The Last Cattle Drive at that time.
I grew up in Emporia at the edge of the Flint Hills, cattle country. My relatives were involved in
ranching, and many neighbors. I went to the sales barn on Friday nights to watch auctions of livestock. I rode horses with friends. I enjoyed the half-tamed, unfenced yards that edged into “vacant lots” and back. I was no expert on details of ranching, but I knew the characters and general setting. Opal was my mother. Jed was either of my grandfathers. Spangler resembled a composite of crusty old fellas I lived around, including, say, William Lindsay White (son of William Allen) and my music teacher Professor Leopold Liegl. At KU, I knew the type of tenderfoot Leo represents. How I relished this book, about my world and not John Updike’s or J.D. Salinger’s world of upper-class New England angst.
The Last Cattle Drive is one of the few mainstream-published books that shows sentient beings in grasslands cattle country, in 1977. Just a handful of names are in this category, Willa Cather’s My Antonia was 1918, then there is a gap until William Stafford’s National Book Award-winning Traveling through the Dark, poems, in 1963. Wright Morris published Plains Song in 1980. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove series was 1985.Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses was 1992, Kent Haruf’s Plainsong was 1999, and in 2002, Annie Proulx published That Old Ace in the Hole. In film, Urban Cowboy appeared in 1980 and City Slickers in 1991—and its resemblance to The Last Cattle Drive, well, that is another story. Unforgiven, the definitive revisionist cowboy flick, was 1992. So, in 1977, Last Cattle Drive was the first novel to show contemporary 20th century life since Willa Cather.
A major accomplishment of The Last Cattle Drive is its update of the cowboy story. This is a classic United States story, as unique as jazz. The loner hero, the vagaries of weather and critters, the challenges of the people—all these are present.
Day roots his novel in storytelling, with love of his characters’ idiosyncrasies. No one is Garrison Keillor average. Leo tries, but he falls in with the stronger characters. Authenticity triumphs over the superficial. Most of all, the cowboy in the story, Jed, leaves a legacy that will live on, even after he dies in the end. People like Bob Day and some present company still push books aside to tell stories at table. New generations will continue this tradition.
Another note—the author Robert Day is very well educated. I remember as a young writer listening to him quote Rousseau, Jane Austen, and Terry Southern. The Last Cattle Drive borrows from Huckleberry Finn, Andy Adams’ fictional Log of a Cowboy (1903), historic documents, and pulp westerns. It is a sophisticated piece of writing that foretells the mashups and metafictions that are common today. He relishes blending high and low cultures in this well-wrought book.

This is a book that has reflection, wisdom, action, payoff, and warm characters. It made me feel more secure in my identity as a grasslands person when I first read it, and it influenced me as a writer tremendously. I have kept my region foremost in sight, and I have tried to maintain authenticity. I remember when Bob spoke to a Washburn University class decades ago and said he did not follow up the Last Cattle Drive with a sequel, because his writing did not take him that direction. He has remained true to his stories above all. That is a feat of heroic stature, worthy of Jed and all the cowboy ancestors. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017


Dennis Etzel is one of the most exuberant poets I know. His readings are enhanced by his genuine love of
 words/poetry/just causes/people. His partnership with wife Carrie as they raise 5 young sons is admirable. His awareness as a man raised by two lesbian mothers carries over into his life and his writings. He is an admirable human being, which is one aspect of him; he is also an admirable poet. Yes, he is a friend, so qualify my review in those terms.

His new book from Spartan Press is This Removed Utopia: Poems.  Yes, that is John Brown on the cover, the odd iconic activist saint of Kansas, from the state capitol building's murals by John Stuart Curry. This panel is entitled Tragic Prelude, apt for the book. Etzel has a fluid, unpretentious style that moves, engages the reader, and ess-turns into unexpected alleyways and cupolas. Domestic moments transform into regional awareness into history into rage against corporate machines. The book has six poems, including the long poem “A Short History of Topeka,” which includes this section, and the “Sam” is governor and former senator Sam Brownback:
Even Topeka has the pleasure of lawn and trees
outside of the mall’s obvious entrances, a carefree
winking after paid-off early retirements
help corporations in they syrupy blurs. Accept
that speed walking which hammers gerunds
into our language, promising the assertive
round of elegies. How does the need to claim
on your right feel to Kansas politics, the words
you use, your cushioned lips, those kisses
you tell? Do I need to mention Sam
in the midst of this ruin built decades ago?
Let the sun come through the dome window,
Let the doves of love fly above that window,
let the window resign to the floor, let hammers
be heard, unseen for comfort to our particles.

For a signed copy of This Removed Utopia, please use this link. Shipping and taxes included.

​Dennis Etzel Jr. lives with Carrie and the boys in Topeka, Kansas where he teaches English at Washburn University. He has an MFA from The University of Kansas, and an MA and Graduate Certificate in Women and Gender Studies from Kansas State University. My Secret Wars of 1984 (BlazeVOX 2015) was selected by The Kansas City Star as a Best Poetry Book of 2015. Fast-Food Sonnets (Coal City Review Press 2016) is a 2017 Kansas Notables Book selected by the State of Kansas Library.  This Removed Utopia (Spartan Press 2017) was published as part of the Kaw Valley Poetry Series. My Grunge of 1991 is forthcoming (BlazeVOX 2017). He has two chapbooks, The Sum of Two Mothers (ELJ Publications 2013) and My Graphic Novel (Kattywompus Press 2015). His work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, BlazeVOX, Fact-Simile, 1913: a journal of poetic forms, 3:AM, Tarpaulin Sky, DIAGRAM, and others. He is a TALK Scholar for the Kansas Humanities Council and leads poetry workshops in various Kansas spaces. Please feel free to connect with him at

Photo of Dennis Etzel at the Raven Bookstore by Denise Low