Sunday, January 28, 2007

Gordon Parks's Son To Speak Jan. 29, 7 pm

David Parks will speak about his father's life 7 pm Monday, Jan. 29, in the Lawrence Public Library auditorium, 707 Vt. St. This is a Monday, not Tuesday, as the Lawrence Journal-World reported. The program is free, and copies of the fictionalized autobiography The Learning Tree will be distributed for free, also.

In the library "Connections" newsletter, David Parks is quoted as saying: "The Learning Tree is the most important book that my father wrote becuase it was a stepping stone for him personally and professionally. It allowed him to write about the experiences he lived growing up in Kansas in the 1920s and it let to his directorial debut as a filmmaker."

I met David Parks last fall at the first Kansas Book Festival in Wichita, and he is an outstanding speaker with a fascinating life story as well. He talked about the Shaft movies and how they shaped the entire family's future. The movie business is so difficult and competitive that most partnerships are family members. As a child and young man growing up in New York, David helped his father and siblings make and promote movies. This business continues.

This event will center on The Learning Tree. Sean Alvarado has encouraged me to also look at the Gordon Parks memoir Choice of Weapons. I need to get to the library and check out a copy! Although his film and photography careers were more celebrated than his other achievements, Parks also wrote fine poetry. In one interview I read years ago, he said he enjoyed writing poetry more than any other art form. One of my favorites of his is this:

The Funeral, by Gordon Parks

After many snows I was home again.

Time had whittled down to mere hills the great mountains of my childhood.

Raging rivers I once swam trickled now like gentle streams

and the wide road curving on to China or Kansas City or perhaps Calcutta

had withered to a crooked path of dust

ending abruptly at the county burial ground.

Only the giant that was my father remained the same.

A hundred strong men strained beneath his coffin

when they bore him to his grave.

Here's the link to the Lawrence Journal-World article:

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Donald Hall at Rockhurst Jan. 24

The Convocation Hall at Rockhurst University was filled last night and national poet laureate Donald Hall gave a moving reading. His recent work has concerned the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, and he read these and other selections from his recent selected poems White Apples and the Taste of Stone. He turned the entire reading into a memoir, beginning with selections from his early life and ending with recent visits to Kenyon's gravesite, "Tennis Balls." He paced the reading extremely well, and he told just the right balance of background story to enhance the drama. He amplified text with his quiet yet precise delivery--okay, with a few voices and dramatics, but mostly straightforward. It was memorable. It was healing. It was better than the book, but if you weren't there, the book does include a CD of the poet reading a dozen pieces.

Monday, January 22, 2007

National Book Critics Circle Awards Announced

Here are the nominations for poetry finalists for the NBCC, and for further information, see

Daisy Fried, My Brother is Getting Arrested Again. (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Troy Jollimore, Tom Thomson in Purgatory. (Margie/Intuit House)
Miltos Sachtouris, Poems (1945-1971) (Archipelego Books)
Frederick Seidel, Ooga-Booga (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
W.D. Snodrass, Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems (BOA Editions)

KC Star Article on Donald Hall Visit

John Mark Eberhart of the Kansas City Star has an excellent interview with Donald Hall in the Sunday paper. This 78-year-old national poet laureate is doing very few appearances because of poor health. Do try to make one of his two events if you can! Since I can't cut and paste the article, here is the url:

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Salina Spring Poetry Series Preview

The Salina, Kansas Arts & Humanities Commission and the Salina Public Library plan these readers for the month of April, at Capers Cafe, 109 N. Santa Fe, 7:30 pm:
  • Robert Hershon of Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, April 3
  • Amalia Ortiz, Performance Poet, San Antonio, April 10
  • John Jenkinson, Butler Co. C.C., featured reader; Lisa Moser, Friends Univ., New Voices Award, April 17
  • Amy Fleury, Washburn Univ. and Dennis Etzel, New Voice Award Choice, Topeka, April 24

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Overview of the Poet Laureate Position

First, I am so touched and so grateful to everyone who made Jan. 17 at the Lawrence Arts Center a moving community event. I'm posting my remarks that evening about the poet laureate position and my plans for it:


To me, one of the most striking things about the poet laureate position is how unique it truly is. Despite electronic communications and commercialization, this quaint post still exists and indeed flourishes. I wish there could be a Laureate for each occupation. This uniqueness underscores how essential poetry is to the human spirit.

The poet laureate position has a long European history. A king’s poet or “versificator regis” was part of a royal household. In 14th century Rome, Petrarch, who invented a sonnet form,
was called a poet laureate. Richard the Lion Hearted had a court poet, and Chaucer had a pension and allotment of wine to serve the court of Edward III. Spenser served Elizabeth I, and John Dryden was the first officially appointed poet laureate. Ben Jonson in 1619 declined a pension and took his payment as wine only, and no cash. So far the state of Kansas has not offered this option to me, nor have they offered cash beyond a modest stipend for related expenses. A Topeka radio station disc jockey wondered just how much the state of Kansas was paying someone to be poet laureate, and believe me, it is not a salaried post. My state is known for being frugal.

In America, a position Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress was created in 1937, and Kansan and KU graduate William Stafford held that position. In 1985 Congress changed the name to The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and their guidelines state: “During his or her term, the Poet Laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.” The current Poet Laureate is Donald Hall, who will speak in Kansas City Jan. 24. Nebraskan Ted Kooser spoke at KU and the KC area in 2005-6, during his tenure. The American approach to the national and state poet laureate positions is to value individualism. The US laureate mission states: “Each Laureate brings a different emphasis to the position.” Various projects have included teaching school children, discussion of the African diaspora, placing poetry in public places such as airports and buses, and many other forms. Most often public appearances in themselves raise public awareness, and I understand Ted Kooser made 100 appearances in a year.

There are poet laureates for cities, San Francisco. We could indeed create a poet laureate position for Lawrence or any other community.

The governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius, appointed the first poet laureate, Jonathan Holden, in 2005. In Kansas, the arts commissions stipulates: “The Poet Laureate program of Kansas is intended to serve the cultural tradition of officially recognizing a citizen poet of exceptional talent and accomplishment. The program will also encourage the appreciation of poetry in Kansas by making the Poet Laureate available to a wider audience throughout the state.”
Holden, a distinguished professor at Kansas State University and friend for 25 years, addresses the needs of the Poet Laureate position in terms of the size of this state, through a series of teleconferences. Holden writes of this project, on the site:

"To promote the practice of poetry in the state of Kansas, I propose a series of poetry readings and conversations by and about Kansas poets. The Kansas Poets 'Shoptalk' Series will consist of readings of contemporary poets, as well as readings and discussions of past Kansans, in order to provide an historical perspective. In this way, we can create a Kansas-wide community of poets who have access for continued discussion and 'shoptalk' to the finest and most knowledgeable poets across the state no matter the location.”

This shoptalk series has outlets in just about every town in Kansas over 10,000 except.
Lawrence. There are two more of these planned, and if you live in the Lawrence area, please let Greg German know if you want an teleconference site in Lawrence—he wants at least half a dozen people in order to justify the fees. One of these conferences will honor Holden. German can be reached via the kansaspoets website.

Thomas Fox Averill nominated me for this position, and I am grateful to him! The position runs from July 1, 2007 to July 1, 2009. My own plans are to continue some of Holden’s initiatives, including the website; a few shoptalk sessions; participation in the second annual Kansas Book Fair in September and the first River City Book Fair in Lawrence (October 2007); and personal appearances.

In addition, I have talked with the Center for Kansas Studies at Washburn University about an internet and print media project that would result in an anthology of Kansas poets. The Kansas Ad Astra Poetry Project would begin with a weekly e-mailed poem by a Kansas poet, to be delivered to libraries, schools, and other subscribers and also published on the Kansas Poets website. Libraries and schools would be encouraged to print out copies to post. I would select from living and historic poets and include short biography, the poem, and commentary. At the end of the term, the Center for Kansas Studies is interested in printing the collection of these pieces as a representative publication of Kansas poets. This anthology can be distributed to school and public libraries across the state, according to the Center for Kansas Studies. I have also begun, through encouragement of my women writers group, this blog, which lists events, commentary, reviews, and poems.

Poetry holds our communities together and sustains our spirits. It celebrates the land, and our loves, and it mourns our losses. Words create our ability to survive. N. Scott Momaday named his autobiography, Man Made of Words, and I think this title comments on our unique identity as human beings. We all are made of breath and flesh. Poetry binds these together.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Langston Hughes chat with Lawrence Journal World

This morning I had my first experience as a live chat-ter with the local newspaper. My husband and I co-authored a book on Langston Hughes in Lawrence, and as we near his birthday, Feb. 1, and in conjunction with Martin Luther King Day, I was asked to participate at the paper offices. Here's the link to this online interview:

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Eagles Day Jan. 21, 2007

Annually the Jayhwak Audubon Soc., the Corps of Engineers, the Chickadee Checkoff, Westar, and ICI Perf. Products sponser this event to celebrate the presence of eagles in Lawrence and the area. This event is 11 am to 4 pm Sun. at Free State High School in Lawrence. Presentations will be Woodsy Owl 11 am, Wildflowers of Dg. Co. noon, Monarch Butterflies at 1, Bald Eagle Nesting in Ks 2 pm, and live eagles at 3. In addition, tripes to view eagles at Clinton Lake are at 9 or 3. Cook's BBQ will provide food for sale. I have never been disappointed in one of these programs.

I just returned from a trip to Arkansas and saw a couple magnificent eagles perched in trees by water. They move south as the freezing line drops so they can have access to open waterways for fishing.

I keep trying to get the right touch of eagle-energy in a poem. This was one of my early attempts, from about 1980, when they were so rare we drove out toward Lecompton to find them:

Pilgrimage of Eagles

I dream of eagles winging over the river

and know northern waters are frozen shut.

The same band of eagles returns

to cottonwoods on the Kaw.

They forgive us our cities and persist,

following open waters just past the edge of ice.

Each year we journey up River Road

to watch them circle clouds like Gods,

drop, and take fish.

They silence the children.

When snow arrives from the northlands

they appear and enter our dreams.

We sense them for miles away

like geese flying over at midnight--

voices calling from just beyond conversation.

Eagles bring sleet, a curtain of darkness:

the long season of what remains

after wind strips away familiar summer.

We learn to listen for them in the dark,

within the quietest moments of sleep.

c. Denise Low

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Poet Laureate Reception Jan. 17 Wed.

My good friends at the Lawrence Arts Center, and especially the Imagination & Place Committee there, are hosting a reception to celebrate the Poet Laureate position and my selection for it, starting July 1, 2007. Tom Averill, who nominated me, will speak, as well as Caryn Mirriam Goldberg, Director Ann Evans, and Thomas Pecore Weso (my husband). All are welcome, and I appreciate this kind attention. This was previously scheduled for last fall but got snowed out. Some friends have asked when this would be rescheduled, and they have asked if I would read a bit, so that will be part of the events. I promise not to ramble on. And the food is always good at these events! Denise

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Poetry Contest: Judging

When I was 20 years old, I entered a contest with my one favorite poem--something about shopping carts and orange slices. I felt it was edgy and original. And I wanted validation. With much emotional investment, I entered it into Contest X, and then I waited all summer for the anointment of the judges. When the great void continued to be silent, I finally realized it was not chosen for an award, and then I spent another six months in despair. Fortunately, Contest X did not have an entry fee, so I was not out cash. And many years later, as I judge contests for the Solomon Valley Arts Alliance (Nov. 2006) and the Langston Hughes Literary Awards (last week), I remember how charged the experience was for me, and how little I understood of the process.

Now that I am on the other side of the desk, I try to remember how I once felt. As a judge, I enjoy reading the entries, even those that are not polished and those that "lose." Entering a poetry contest is helpful for writers at any level of experience.

First, I think a contest should be a chance to sort out your best poems, polish them, print them out neatly (in 12 pt. Times New Roman font only), revel in them, and see how they work together. You are creating a portfolio of your works every time you enter a contest, so this is a good practice. Then, whatever the outcome, I hope you don't go through the summer of emotional trauma that I put myself through. If you win, believe the judges were fair. If you lose, do not let this be a conclusive comment on your work.

All sorts of things happen during the committee process of most contests. Numerical ratings are strictly adhered to or become a starting point for discussion. One person may dominate a committee and push through a favorite (I've seen this not recently, but in the past). One time I sat on a committee where the agreement was the poets did not show enough variety. Another time almost the same committee said a contestant's poems were too diverse and did not show focus. You get the idea. Think of the last committee you were on and how clean and neat its process was.

Sohere are just a few things to consider when entering contests, as well as your own mental health:
  • Use spelling checks, editing checks, and proofing to make sure your work is letter perfect. Especially with poetry, each comma and each word matter. Grammar does matter. Even a minor spelling error, these days, is enough to prejudice judges against a piece of work.
  • Make the work look professional with 12 pt. Times New Roman font. Please, no fancy fonts.
  • Follow the contest directions carefully. Some contests will toss any entry that puts a name on the pages when that is not allowed. Follow the format directions and the page limit.
  • Present only your best work. I recently overlooked a pretty good set of poems because, in order to fill out all X number of pages, the poet must have reached into the bottom drawer and pulled out several tepid poems and then put them near the front. I almost quit reading. Even if you are a few pages short of the maximum allowed, stick to your very best.
  • After these basics, look at a local or national magazine that carries poetry and read some samples of what is being published. Of course you want to be original, but also you are writing within a tradition that is thousands of years old. If you want to use rhyme, really make sure it is helping the ideas behind the poems. Form and content need to match, and in American English, rhyme tends to evoke children's poetry or rap. Be aware of how your work fits into the larger world of poetry. Read other poets (and also buy their books and help support the cause!).
  • If you don't win, think of how you can use this portfolio in your own circle of fellow writers.
When I judge, I really try to set aside my own personal taste and take poems on their own terms. I have selected poems for awards that are in forms I do not personally write or care for. I have tried to be open to a wide variety of topics. I'm a Taurus and this is not easy!

Also, I try to select works that most consistently achieve control of language, skill with poetic forms, choice of significant topics, and passion. A non-poet was on a panel with me recently, and I appreciated her reminder that the point of poetry is communication. When you ask someone to read your poem, which is the most difficult medium to read, you ask that person to invest themselves. It should be worth the effort.

Have you caught the underlying point here--that writing poetry is not easy? There are very few children poetry prodigies. But we keep trying, and we can continue to learn how to author verse into all stages of our lives.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

"Deer Magic" in Dec. 31 Lawrence J-W


they appear

by stealth

and disappear.

They shift into vision —

glimpse of antlers,

dark tails,

and then gone,

the air empty.

In the wetlands

we find a print

crimped in mud,

weighted by a rack.

I believe in them:

mottled bodies

not quite formed

in mist

then gone

before rain clouds

drop over us all.

— Denise Low

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

KU Poet Victor Contoski Retires

My first college teacher of poetry, in 1978, was Victor Contoski, a professor at the University of Kansas. He encouraged his students almost unconditionally; he instructed; he insisted we purchase copies of literary magazines and imagine ourselves in their pages; and he encouraged us to learn how to write reviews. He was a Santa Claus figure, and he was a happy Taurus with a small orchard around his house. When the poetry class met at his house, we passed around a screwtop jug of wine. Stephen Bunch writes of Contoski that he remembers: “His laughter, good nature, encouragement, the big jug of wine that would circulate around the room (boy, you couldn't do that with students anymore, I imagine).

Among his students in the 1970s were Stephen Bunch, Donald Levering, Diane Hueter Warner, Kim Weldon, David Weed, and many others.

I read Contoski’s work then, in the late 1970s, and it was a contrast to his classroom geniality. His deep imagist poetry took me into a place of post-World War II dark ironies. He was greatly influenced by his Polish wife’s experiences during the war and his own experiences teaching in Poland during the Cold War. He heard first-hand stories during his return trips. A gallows humor underlay the outlook of survivors, and this humor seeps out from Contoski’s works. I recall his poem “Teeth,” which was one of my favorites of his early verse:

1.Kiss the one you love.

Behind the lips

teeth are waiting

Like a man with a weapon

Waits in a dark alley.

2. They are not knives

but clubs.

They come down on meat

like a lead pipe

on the head of a woman.

3. Sometimes in dreams

they wither and turn soft

like rotten cactus.

They curl up and fall out

like men refusing to fight

an unpopular war.

4.If you are beaten long enough and hard enough

your teeth will be knocked out.

Then you can use them as chessmen:

Front teeth, pawns;

Back teeth, pieces.

5. They line up in the mouth

like soldiers for inspection.

Ever since I can remember

they have surrounded the tongue,

reminding what is soft

of what is hard.

(© 1973 by Victor Contoski. Reprinted with permission.)

At the time, Contoski told me that he knew the beaten men from section 4, from the Cold War days in Poland when dissidents went to prison.

This poet’s opus includes an historic perspective, such as his poem “The Sack,” which has sections dedicated to Troy, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Inquisition, Lucretia Borgia, Benedict Arnold, Hitler, and Nixon. He has written in the style of long poems divided into sections (after Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”), and these are weighty, important pieces of writing. He taught me to consider a book of poetry not as a file of poems to date, but rather as shaped around larger themes.

Contoski also taught me to look at Midwestern writers closely, especially William Stafford, Robert Bly, and Ted Kooser. He imparted a sense of excitement about creating a literature for a part of the country that was most often overlooked by outsiders—and also misunderstood as flyover country. He scorned East Coast elitist poets who were writing about their dinner parties. He himself wrote haunting, vivid and unsettling poems about rain, stars, frontier history, and snow, like “Sunset”:

Since long before the white man

rode out onto the prairies

the sun has been going down.

A towering cottonwood sways in the breeze

Rocking rocking the cradle in its branches.

The hero’s eyes turn glassy.

His hand waves vaguely

toward something in his breast

as his knees buckle.

The giant coming down the beanstalk

feels it start to sway beneath him.

He looks down and sees Jack

with a silly grin and a hatchet

looming suddenly larger and larger

as the sun over

goes down and down and out.

(© 2000 by Victor Contoski. Reprinted with permission.)

In this poem the European folklore figure Jack enters into the grasslands landscape, reincarnated as a Wild Man figure, and now at home in a cottonwood tree as well as a beanstalk.

As a teacher, Contoski had strong opinions, ones that most often stood up to my tests, and also he had the right avuncular touch with those who did not agree with him. This gave students a chance to find clear boundaries among the chaos of first poems. There was also flexibility and acceptance. He began workshop critiques with the phrase “If this were my poem, and I wish it were, I would change this—” I owe him much for his kind guidance.

Contoski, at 70, has retired from teaching. He continues to explore potentials of the subconscious and conscious mind. He tells me he has begun to write poetry again. I look forward to seeing it.

His books of original poetry are Astronomers, Madonnas, and Prophesies (Northeast/Juniper Books, 1972); Broken Treaties (New Rivers Press, 1973); Names (New Rivers Press, 1973); A Kansas Sequence (Tellus / Cottonwood Review Press, 1983); Midwestern Buildings: A Collection of Poems (Cottonwood Press, 1997); and Homecoming (New Rivers Press, 2000). He has also edited and translated Polish-related writings.