Saturday, January 31, 2009

National Book Critics Circle announces poetry finalists

The organization of book reviewers, NBCC, announced these finalists for their annual poetry prize:

August Kleinzahler, Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, Farrar, Strauss

Juan Felipe Herrera, Half the World in Light (University of Arizona Press)

Devin Johnston, Sources (Turtle Point Press)

Pierre Martory (trans. John Ashbery), The Landscapist (Sheep Meadow Press)

Brenda Shaughnessy, Human Dark with Sugar (Copper Canyon Press)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mary Stillwell Comments on Michael Novak

This response to the Nov. 2007 blog about Leavenworth poet Mike Novak reminds me of the contributions he made in the state:

"I ran across your page regarding Mike Novak (from December 7, 2006). Thanks for the posting. I was a student of Mike's at St. Mary College (then) in the 60s. He introduced me to contemporary American poetry (among other things) and encouraged me to write both fiction and poetry. I remember the day he and Julie brought Brian home so vividly. And I think the adoption of their two (along with Don Welsh's) informed our decision to adopt as well.

"Mike and I kept in touch sporatically. He invited me down to read nearly 20 years ago! Could it have been that long? We emailed every now and then. When we lived in Omaha, Mike stopped by for a couple of days to visit--poetry, politics, & gossip--on his way somewhere else. (He always called me by my family name, Mary Kathryn.)"

Mary Stillwell is a Nebraska writer, and thanks to her for this memory of Mike and his strong political views, matched by his humor.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Arts Are Important for the Obama Administration

This ran in the KC Star Jan. 21, in the special Obama section. My profound thanks to David Fenza for vital help with this—though all infelicitous phrasings are my own.

When asked to write about the election of Barack Hussein Obama, I meant to discuss my personal pride in being a Kansan like Obama’s mother and grandparents. Then I realized that as Kansas poet laureate, I have a greater responsibility to discuss the importance of poetry and the arts in general.

I was delighted that Obama included poet Elizabeth Alexander in his inaugural ceremony. This is a potent symbol. Also, he has a position paper that supports arts education, an artist corps, increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, cultural diplomacy, health care for artists and tax fairness for artists. This shows that the 44th president is aware that the arts enhance our public lives. He must be aware of the economic benefits of supporting the arts.

Every mayor knows that if you want to revitalize a downtown neighborhood, you put a pod of artistic activity there to help: theaters and galleries, and then the restaurants follow, and then sometimes new dwellings. I have seen this happen in Lawrence, Salina, Wichita and other Kansas towns.

A single fellowship can make a great difference. The NEA’s investment of a $7,000 in novelist Bobbie Ann Mason was one of the most effective uses of federal money ever. With her fellowship, she wrote a novel called In Country, which became a best-seller. The movie version, with Bruce Willis, was filmed in Mayfield, Ky., and the arrival of the crew brought millions of dollars to the town and the state’s economy. The movie was its own economic success, as well as a moving portrait of challenges that faced American families with veterans of the Vietnam War.
A $7,000 federal investment of an NEA literary fellowship led to hundreds of millions of dollars of commerce, countless jobs, and literary and cinematic tributes to our veterans and their families.

This illustrates how the arts are, unexpectedly, big business. Research by Americans for the Arts indicates that arts and culture organizations generate $166.2 billion every year, plus tax income of almost $30 billion.

In Salina, Kansas, population 45,676, nonprofit arts organizations generated almost $24 million for their organization and event-related expenditures. This delivered more than $2 million in local and state tax revenues, according to Americans for the Arts.

Please help President Obama in his efforts to support the arts. Please understand that national economic well-being, as well as personal well-being, is at stake.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Historic Days & Celebration of Kevin Young, Author of Dear Darkness & Other Volumes of Poetry

Dear Poetry Friends:
On this historic day, as we finish celebrating Martin Luther King Day and turn to the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama, please join me in celebrating one of the most outstanding of the young generation of poets to be educated by Kansas public schools, Kevin Young.

He received an excellent background in Topeka schools, attended Harvard, and then received an MFA from one of the leading creative writing programs at Brown University. He still has family in Kansas—William Tuttle, the Kansas University historian, is his father-in-law. Every time I see Bill, he updates me on the perfect grandchild and Kevin’s family’s news. I have had the pleasure of watching Kevin develop as a poet since he was in junior high. I have a poem of his from those junior high days, which I’ve promised not to reprint. I see Kevin at creative writing conferences, and he is a fine performer of poetry.

Oh yes, do look for a commemoration article I wrote for the Kansas City Star to comment upon the importance of arts in Obama’s administrative priorities.

Denise Low 2007-2009 Kansas Poet Laureate

Text Version

KEVIN YOUNG (1970 - )


KEVIN YOUNG (1970 - )

Kevin Young, born in Nebraska, spent middle and high school in Topeka before attending Harvard University. He is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, and he is a renowned poet and editor. He has won Guggenheim, NEA, and Stegner Fellowships. Young was once a student of mine in a summer creative writing workshop for middle school students at Washburn University. When he was still a teenager, Thomas Fox Averill of Washburn sponsored Young to edit a book of poetry by Kansas poet Edgar Wolfe. These early opportunities make a difference for youngsters, as his career shows. I hope this example encourages teachers and community arts program leaders.

Young’s poetry shows influences of Langston Hughes and the blues, with lean lines and sharp images, but he definitely has his own voice. This poem appears to be set in the Kaw River valley, where ash trees grow. The meditation on childhood begins with a “welcome” from the woods. He describes chicken-of-the-woods fungi on fallen trees, which seem to be listening ears. Beyond sight woodpeckers can be heard—which references John Keats’ nightingale. The pivot in the poem comes before the halfway mark, with the question: “Where is nature human?” The narrator looks down from canopy heights to the ground, and the mood darkens. With the poem’s nightfall, aging begins, and also a process of confusion. Young uses vivid comparisons to explain this mystery: strips of bark on the ground are a coded text. Darkness is like dangerous depths of water. In the last two lines is another shift, as mosquitoes bite: “Wish /them well. Wave.” The poem tells us to embrace the dark.


Autumn & the leaves turn
to people—yellow, brown,
red—then die. Only ash
trees stay white, standing—

the woods welcome you, trail
like a tongue, half-hidden.
Ears cover fallen trees:
pale mushrooms, listening.

Stop & you can hear
the peckerwoods high up.
Where is nature
human? On the ground

bark thin & pale
as paper, coded Morse.
You are lost, path
unmarked. It grows

dark, you older, night
around you like a lake
you’ve swum out too far
into—tread moonlight

while the bugs begin
taking your blood
for their children. Wish
them well. Wave.

Education: Kevin Young graduated from Topeka West High School. He has an A.B. in English and American Literature (Harvard University 1992) and MFA in Creative Writing (Brown University 1996).
Career: Kevin Young's books are Most Way Home (William Morrow, 1995), National Poetry Series; To Repel Ghosts (Zoland Books 2001), finalist for Academy of American Poets prize; Jelly Roll: A Blues (Alfred A. Knopf 2003), finalist for 2003 National Book Award in Poetry; Black Maria (Alfred A. Knopf 2005); and Dear Darkness (Alfred A. Knopf 2008). Young edits anthologies from Harper Perennial and Everyman. Young's poetry and essays have appeared widely in print & electronic media.
____________________________________________________________________________________________© 2009 Denise Low, AAPP 29 © 2008 “Childhood,” Kevin Young, from Dear Darkness: Poems (Alfred A. Knopf), reprinted with permission of the author © 2007 Denise Low, photograph

Friday, January 2, 2009

Editing Resolutions for the New Year 2009

Lana Myers of Newton has been writing a biography of Kansas poet May Williams Ward, who edited The Harp, a national poetry magazine in the 1930s. These are her guidelines for poets submitting to the magazine, and I think they hold up well in 2009. I resolve to polish, polish, polish. DL

HINTS TO WRITERS by May Williams Ward:

Do polish. There is nothing sacred about the first draft which you write. Change, improve, to give your exact shade of meaning.

Do emphasize climax, dramatic arrival somewhere.

Do be brief if your theme allows.

Do read aloud in decided sing-song to discover places hard to pronounce and faults in meter.

Do try for rich sound-texture by varying the vowels. The liquid consonants l, m, r, n, are pleasing; k, t, b, etc., harsh. Too many s sounds hiss or buzz.

Do leave something to the imagination. The best poems have an inner meaning, unexpressed, parallel to the outward meaning.

Don’t use threadbare rhymes such as love—above.

Don’t spoil your climax by failing to stop; and point no morals.

Don’t use too much the hackneyed 3-4 meter. It is hard to overcome the handicap of having your poem go to the tune of “Mary had a Little Lamb.”

Don’t use the old-fashioned “thee,” “e’en,” “ere,” etc.

Don’t invert the order of words. “Serene sky” is better than “sky serene.”

Don’t be Victorian with flowery words and phrases. Modern poems are simple, direct, nearly like speech.

Don’t fail to give thought to your title. It is your show-window.

Don’t think your poem is clear unless the idea can be stated in one short prose sentence that makes sense.

Don’t be too tender toward your poem because it is yours. Weeds may grow in any garden. Finest blossoms come from careful pruning. Robert Graves says: “When in doubt, cut it out.”

[from unpublished MS “Notes Toward an Autobiography,” pp. 33-34, WSU Collection]