Thursday, November 30, 2006

KSNT Poet Laureate Appearance

I told my Mon. 3 pm class how odd life is, that a shy person like myself, the quiet girl who always sat in the back, ends up in front of cameras and audiences. Somehow, the Kansas Arts Commission arranged my appearance on an 11 am tv magazine show in Topeka.

It was fun to see the set-up. The weather man really does wave around and point to a blank wall. The sound room somehow coordinates with the weather man and anchor to flash , no roll, video in coordination with the telepromter. There were two teleprompters. Neither had answers for me.

Also, the weatherman and anchor Jiou-Jiou Shen (sp?) were performers more than I expected. Yes, they spoke clearly, quickly, and with clean accents. But also they exaggerated their animation just a bit--not to the point of silent movie actors, but on the same continuum. I tried to amp up my own facial expressions a bit and act excited. I do not show outward emotions easily.

I answered questions like "How did it make you feel to be chosen poet laureate?" Boy, my feelings are a deep mystery to me, a collection of surges that change and mutate in memory each day. I invented something that I hoped sounded okay. I did get to thank Tom Averill for nominating me. I tried to express appreciation to Jonathan Holden and Greg German for all they have done. I described the position, what I hope to do, and then, whew, four of my five minutes of fame was up! Ms. Shen didn't look at her watch once, and she had the 240 seconds figured out exactly.

Ad Astra Poetry Journal 11.30.06

Today is one of those days when I just feel overwhelmed. Flat tire this morning. Snow & icy roads. Lots to do at work.

This early morning I worked a few hours on revising a chapter for a book on Native writers who are underappreciated. My piece is on the poetry of Heid Erdrich, who has two books, Fishing for Myth and The Mother's Tongue. She's Ojibwe of mixed German and French ancestry as well. Her poetry addresses mixed heritage life, urban Indian life, nature and the body, women's issues. All these, plus her skill and magic, make her worthy of more recognition. I'm shocked to find her two books have almost no reviews--just a few online mentions through the Minnesota arts site and a link through the Native American writer home page So I'm glad to be working on this, but early morning isn't long enough to finish the project today. There is so much critical work to be done for Midwestern writers and poets.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Ad Astra 2: Laureate Miscellany

Announcement of the poet laureate position--even though I won't move into it officially until July 2007--has been more of a change than I expected. For the most part, my work life does not center on teaching creative writing. Occasionally through the years, I have been able to teach one class a year. It's been three years now since I last taught it. My colleague Trish Reeves is a wonderful poet--winner of NEA fellowship and Cleveland Poetry Center Award for her first book--and she is a great teacher. So my own writing and public activities are usually outside Haskell Indian Nations University. Many folks there just do not realize my involvement, so it's been like exposing a double life in a way. This most private art form, lyrical expressions of feelings and thoughts, is also paradoxically public. After reading, I often feel like I've turned my self inside out and feel very vulnerable. That feeling is exaggerated now.

I feel more pressure to perform well and write well. Of course I am the same person and poet I was before the announcement! I am quite mortal.

Another miscellaneous thought--this position is so unique, with no analogous position for other writers or occupations--that few people seem jealous of me. I keep telling well wishers there should be laureates for other occupations!

And I am so touched by letters of congratulations that appear in the mail from friends, neighbors, the Lied Center, my state legislators, and others. I did not expect this level of public scrutiny!

One of my favorite stories of myself is years ago after publishing one of the very first things, I went to the Spencer Research Library to find a review of it. As I signed in, the librarian asked if I was THE Denise Low. I puffed up and said yes. My children were with me and were impressed. When the librarian brought out the magazine with the review, it turned out to be somewhat (okay pretty much so) negative! I deflated pretty quickly. So the laureate-ness is a nice moment among a spectrum of many many kinds of moments.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Yesterday my husband woke me at 6 in the morning to show me the newspaper articles in the local papers about the poet laureate announcement,

and from there on the day was full. Thanks to Mike Yoder for a great photograph for the paper. Sophia Maines and Ben White, the two writers, condensed my rambles very well.

Since I'm basically a shy person, but I love words--stories, poems, drama, nonfiction prose, all of it--so this pulls me into relationships with groups and individuals in ways I never expect. My husband is smart. When we were courting, he presented about six entertaining monologues, probably rehearsed, about his life and embellished them. He also was watching Humphrey Bogart movies and memorized great lines, and at romantic moments, he would deliver a line or two that sounded too good to be true. I caught onto what he was doing after awhile, and appreciated his ingenuity. He's also smart enough to come up with some of these lines and stories often enough to keep me content.

But the point being: as a shy person, I find myself in front of groups and cameras and microphones more than I ever imagined as a teenager putting a few lines of verse together. Yesterday there were 2 newspaper articles, a reception at Haskell Indian Nations University, where I teach, and a reading of Haskell students at the Johnson County Public Library in Overland Park, KS, which was recorded. The Lawrence Journal World online article also has a button that will play a recording of a short prose poem. This is not an era for the shy.

Other bits and pieces: I wanted the Haskell reception to be in the library because of how much libraries, and the books within them, have meant to me. It is a miracle, still, that I can walk into a building, wave a bar code over a scanner, and walk out with a pile of books. In my most poor days I could have this wealth. Gloria Graves is the acting director, James Jones the librarian (I don't know the technical titles), and Rhonda Levaldo, and they did a great job of hosting. The president Karen Swisher was gracious in introducing and presenting a plaque. My vice president and her division gave me flowers, as well as my depts. Roger Shimomura, esteemed friend and U of Kansas distinguished prof. emeritus and painter, found his way, and Janet Allen, a former student, and a good number of the Haskell family. Lori Tapahonso handed me the phone right before the event, and her mother Luci was on the other end, and it was so good to hear from her as well.

The Johnson Co. library reading featured Haskell students Alex Alvarez, Danny Reninga and alumni (and dear, dear friends) Jennie James and Bill James. What great work they all had. I may not get the spelling right here. But also author Diane Glancy attended, which was a treat. Jeannie and Tom Wilson host the series. Trish Reeves, creative writing prof. at Haskell arranged the reading, and my only regret for the evening is that she didn't read something of hers as well. This was part of the Writers Place readings, and the library said the reading would be available for Podcasts. I was tired but afterwards we went to the Thai Place down 87th a block for spring rolls and conversation about Haskell ghosts!

And another good moment yesterday was at the library Thanksgiving lunch, where I ran into former student Denny Gayton, now a KU grad. student, and I heard more of his research on Dakota oral traditions and mammoths and cosmology. His paper on this topic is on my husband's and my website for our small publishing co., .

Monday, November 20, 2006

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Lawrence Arts Center Reception Nov. 29, 5:30 pm

If you live in the area, please join the Imagination & Place Committee of the Lawrence Arts Center for the celebration of the poet laureate appointment. Please stop by if you can! Denise

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Denise Low's Ad Astra Poetry Blog

First, I am grateful for the honor of being selected for the next poet laureate of Kansas by the Kansas Arts Commission and Gov. Sibelius. Jonathan Holden is the first Kansas Poet Laureate, and his term runs until July, 2007. He has found wonderful ways to inaugurate this role, including a website, , and tel-net discussions of poetry with Kansas poets. More information is at

More information about my books can be found at .

To start, I want to post some of my writings in a serialized form for this blog, starting with this first essay from Words of a Prarie Alchemist. The print-text version is available from Steve Semken:

In this essay I try to express how important stories are to responsible connection to the environment. Do let me know what you think.


American Indian Geography and Literature: Considerations for Writers
by Denise Low
copyright 2006

American Indian people know about survival, and one of their most important tools is literature. The transmission of memorized texts, and sometimes glyphic texts, from one generation to the next sustains cultural identity. One essential strategy of Native storytellers is linking narratives to specific sites. Through stories, Native inhabitants can associate a landscape with moral behavior; history; community identity; and “myth”—the connection between human and spiritual realms. Indigenous Americans continue to preserve literary accounts, and even some languages, after more than five-hundred years of contact with European, African, and other cultures. This success is hard to ignore.

Indigenous American culture groups have distinct categories of literature, including types of narratives. Anthropologist Keith Basso, who works with Western Apache people of Cibque, Arizona, studies their literary genres. He lived with a community family, learned the language, and sustained his dialogue with elders for many years. One of my students at Haskell Indian Nations University was a member of his host family, and she respected his work. Over the years, Basso came to understand that rather than poetry, fiction and drama, of the western European tradition, Apache people first sort language presentations into three types: ordinary talk, prayer, and literature (“narratives”). They further subdivide literature into sacred accounts (“myths”), historic tales, present day sagas, and gossip.

Stories of the second type, about history, always correlate with geography. Basso learned that Western Apache historical accounts further conjoin landmarks with moral lessons: “Historical tales focus on persons who suffer misfortune as the consequence of actions that violate Apache standards for acceptable social behavior.” These tales are linked to places “by an opening and closing line that identifies a place-name where the events in the narrative occurred.” Thus, the places become affixed to the morality tales, in part because of the titles. Landscape is a compendium of teachings....

One such story appears in Diné poet Luci Tapahonso’s works, and in addition to geographical information, it reinforces the “special” knowledge that gives her nation a distinct historic identity. “Just Past Shiprock” connects a New Mexico place to a tragic tale. The title itself is a location, and then the narrator of the poem continues to give more detailed directions:

…there were flat mesas, gentle sandhills, and a few houses scattered at distances. Mary pointed to a mesa as we rounded a curve and asked, “See those rocks at the bottom?” We stopped playing and moved around her to listen. The question was the opening for a story.

What would be a casual remark to most travelers here is a signal to the Diné children to stop and prepare for a story, similar to the Western Apache formula for the opening of a historical tale. The narrator “Mary’s” comment is strong enough to stop a group of noisy children and get their attention. “Mary” then continues to describe the rocks’ color and texture as well as location:
The rocks she pointed at were midway between the ground and the top of the rock pile. The mesa loomed behind, smooth and deep ochre. The rocks were on the shaded side of the mesa.

This much description of geologic formations would not be necessary unless the storyteller expected the listeners to remember the place. Only after the setting is clear does the narrator of the story, tell about a young couple that lost a baby and buried her under the same rocks that the children see from the road. “Mary” finishes the story within the story with a final emphasis on the place: “Those rocks might look like any others, but they’re special.” This sense of “special” is understated here, but it creates an emphasis for the children to remember both location and its human dimension. It emphasizes the site’s role in tribal history.

At the end of Tapahonso’s “Just Past Shiprock,” the narrator refers obliquely to non- Diné people’s dismissal of the desert-like region and concludes “This land that may seem arid and forlorn to the newcomer is full of stories which hold the sprits of the people, those who live here today and those who lived centuries and other worlds ago.” Again, like Western Apache texts, time is fused with a place through the agency of a narrative account. Tapahonso consciously translates a Diné genre of place-stories, about a land “full of stories,” into English. Loss of a child is tragic, so this is a lesson in grief and recovery from grief as well, and the assertion that no life is forgotten. Tapahonso’s story is one example of how use of landmarks creates a memorable historic text....[to be continued]