Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review: Douglas County Jail Blues published by Coal City Review (Oct. 2010)

Brian Daldorph, editor of this collection of poems by inmates at the Douglas County Correctional Facility (Lawrence, Ks.), presents a decade of writings from his and Michael Caron's writing class. The collection is raw and honest. The images are like bricks--indeed a strength of the group of writings is the original, confrontational descriptions. Voices of the twenty-plus writers collect in these pages and narrate a counter-reality of American failure and anguish. Mike Caron writes about the project: "Words on paper can be an effective alternative to smashing fists in concrete walls or screaming obscenities." Caron has it right--these poems are immediate and necessary. This is where poetry resides, in the incarnation/incarceration of spirit within walls of flesh.
The blues, referenced in the title, are a strict musical form, 8 bars; the prisoners use regular forms as often as free verse. The editor's touch is light, so authenticity is preserved. At the same time, this is a group of poems with evidence of thoughtful revision/reflection. Here is one that shows the kind of punch many of these word-bombs create:

Danegrus Dane: Confession of a Killer
It's like this, I tried everything
but nothin' worked, everywhere I
looked they had me surrounded
where the shadows lurk. What I don't
understand is why every time I look out
the window I'm the guy standin' there
holding that big silenced Desert Eagle
with the laser sights & teflon-rubber grip.
I'm the one comin' to get me & all I got:
the gold bars, the diamonds & all that
blood money. So much money like you've
never seen. So much more blood. I guess the
best way 2 kill a killer is 2 send another;
I guess that's why they sent me,
the most dangerus of 'em all. Good, at least
it'll be quick, at least
I don't think I'll let me suffer.

In Lawrence at the Raven Bookstore and Jayhawk Ink. To order, send $10 check or money order to Brian Daldorph, Coal City Review, English Department, University of Kansas, Lawrence KS, 66045.

Nearly Unbearable Grace: The Poetry of Joy Harjo

Simon J. Ortiz: A Poetic Legacy of Indigenous Continuance

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

THE FIELD OF PLAY by Steve Heller

Steve Heller is director of the MFA in Creative Writing Program, Antioch University Los Angeles. Please acknowledge Steve Heller as author in reproductions of any part of this tribute.

This past Saturday the football teams of Northwestern University and University of Illinois met on a neutral field in Chicago. Northwestern’s record stood at 7-3 overall, but only 3-3 in the Big Ten. The Wildcats had already qualified for a post-season bowl game but were out of contention for the conference championship. Illinois stood at a mediocre 5-5, needing at least one more victory in order to meet the minimum NCAA eligibility for post-season play. The game has already been played, the outcome decided. But this story is not about who won and who lost.

The game was played at Wrigley Field, which from 1921 to 1970 was the home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears. Wrigley is much better known, of course, as the historic home of baseball’s loveable losers, the Chicago Cubs, whose last World Series Championship came in 1908. Despite the Cubs’ century of frustration, Wrigley Field has a rich baseball history. Hall of Famers Gabby Harnett, Hack Wilson, Ferguson Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, and Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks, all played there. But this story isn’t about baseball either.

Wrigley Field is known for its classic jewel box shape, ivy-covered outfield walls, and its home runs when the wind is blowing out. Ernie Banks called Wrigley “the friendly confines.” Because of Wrigley’s size and shape, the football layout for Chicago Bears games was north-to-south, accommodating the full dimensions of a football field, plus barely adequate room beyond each sideline and end zone. However, because the Cubs had subsequently added seats along the first and third base lines, the layout for the Northwestern-Illinois game had to be east-to-west. As a result, the southeast corner of the east end zone nearly abutted the right field wall. Despite heavy padding on the wall, Big Ten officials determined that the east end zone was unsafe for players. A decision was therefore made to have every offensive play run toward the west end zone, thus requiring teams to trade sides of the field with each change of possession. The special ground rule had implications for game strategy, of course—but this story isn’t about strategy or even sports. It has something to do with safety, but mostly it’s about something bigger than that.

When I heard the game between Northwestern and Illinois would be played at Wrigley Field, my first thought was: What would Phil Heldrich think about this?

Aaaa, it’s gonna be a flea circus, I imagined Phil crabbing in a flat nasal tone, dismissing the whole notion with a toss of his right hand. They’ll bounce off right field like pinballs (forgive my mixed metaphor). Every time somebody scores, the zebras will have to duck.

Phil had grown up in Chicago, “a beer’s throw from Wrigley,” as he put it. Despite what I already knew he would think about the reconfiguration of the park for a single college football game, I wanted to ask him: Would you go to the game anyway?

Go? His eyes would flash, shoulders stiffen. Of course I’d go to the game!

Of course he would have. Phil Heldrich was my student in the MA in English Program at Kansas State University. The day he first walked into my office in Denison Hall (since demolished) back in the fall of 1991, neither of us could have predicted the future that lay before him.

“I think I need to withdraw from the program” were his first words to me, before he’d even settled into a chair.
“Well, that seems a little rash,” I said, or something like that. “Classes haven’t even started yet. What’s the problem?”
“I don’t really like literature,” Phil admitted with a grimace. “I mean, I’ve read literary books, but they’re not really about anything.”
“Well, that could be a problem, because literature is about everything. Who do you like to read?”

He folded his arms across his chest. “Stephen King.”
I shrugged. “That’s a place to start.”
Phil squinted at me like I was a bug in his soup. “See, the thing is . . . I thought this was going to be a creative writing program. You know, workshops, agents, editors, how to get published, that sort of thing.”
“We have creative writing workshops; you’re enrolled in one.”
“Yeah, but you have to take all this lit too. I don’t know if I can stand it.”

I reached for the nearest bookshelf and grabbed a copy of The Great Gatsby.
He shook his head vigorously. “I’ve read it already.”
“Read it again,” I said, pressing the book into his hands. “Not for class, just for yourself. And when you read it, I want you to think about these things . . .”

Please understand: No magical transformation occurred here. The conversion of Phil Heldrich from cynical consumer of popular literature to dedicated literary artist and devoted teacher took a long time and involved at least two English departments. And it was never complete. “Good writing is good writing,” Phil liked to say. For years, he served as Chair of the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture and American Culture Association, leading efforts to examine all aspects of the many cultures that inform our lives. But somewhere along the way, Phil definitely drank the literary cool aid. He overcame his previous lack of serious reading, the initial skepticism of many faculty (including me), and, most of all, his own negative view of the literary life. Over a period of years, Phil became, in his own way, a man of letters. He completed not only his MA at Kansas State but a PhD in English at Oklahoma State University. He joined the English faculty of Emporia State University, and co-directed the Creative Writing Program with Amy Sage Webb. He won numerous awards for research and teaching, and eventually moved on to become Associate Professor of English at the University of Washington in Tacoma.

Phil studied fiction with me, but he wrote and published in almost all genres, including literary criticism. His book of poems, Good Friday, won the X. J. Kennedy Prize, judged by Kennedy himself. His book of essays, Out Here in the Out There: Essays in a Region of Superlatives, won the Mid-List Press First Series Award for Creative Nonfiction. He published individual stories, poems, essays, and critical articles far too numerous to mention. He became, in short, an accomplished literary artist. In my 30+ years of teaching, he is also the student who progressed the most, the writer who did the most with what he had.

By now you’ve probably guessed that Phil is no longer with us. On November 11, 2010, nine days before Northwestern played Illinois at Wrigley Field, Phil died of complications related to spinal cancer. He was 45 years old. He battled the cancer for more than two years, but kept that battle secret from most of his friends and colleagues, including me. When the news was finally leaked to me by a former colleague, I attempted to contact Phil. But I was too late. Not long after I’d begun to wonder what he would think about the upcoming football game at Wrigley, I learned he was dead.

One of things I had the privilege of observing Phil learn was the power of irony. Like Housman’s athlete who died young, Phil’s renown did not outrun him. He was productive to the very end, teaching classes and writing stories, poems, and articles until his body simply would not allow it. He remained on the field, playing as hard and as well as he could, regardless of obstacles, until the field itself crumbled around him. He is survived by his wife Christine, his daughter Alexendra, and by many hundreds of friends and former students who admired him. He is, and will remain, a model for everyone who dreams of becoming a writer. Today I call upon all my students, past and present—as well as readers and writers of literature everywhere—to read Phil Heldrich and to reflect on the examples of his life and art. The field Phil learned to play in was indeed friendly—and, I believe his life and work teach us, unconfined. #

Another tribute is at:
Comment from E. Washington University:

Saturday, November 20, 2010


  • Nov. 30  Reading by Kevin Rabas and Cheryl Unruh, Lawrence Public Library and co-sponsored by The Raven Book Store. Poet and jazz musician Kevin Rabas co-directs the creative writing program at Emporia State University and is co-editor of Flint Hills Review. His second book of poetry, Lisa’s Flying Electric Piano, was chosen as a 2009 Kansas Notable Book. Award-winning author Unruh’s essays on subjects that Kansans know and love—nature and landscape, weather, seasons, small towns and fond memories of childhood—have been collected into a book, also titled Flyover People. If you too appreciate “life on the ground in a rectangular state,” you will enjoy this book. Unruh is originally from Pawnee Rock, graduated from KU, and now lives in Emporia.
  • Dec. 1 Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde panel, Johnson County Library, KC, 9875 87th St., 7pm with Robert Butler, film critic for KC Star; Jennifer Phegley, University of Missouri-Kansas City; Robert Trussell, theater critic for KC Star; and Ann Volin, Rockhurst University. Moderator John Mark Eberhart
  • Dec. 2 Holiday Big Tent Reading Megan Kaminski (poet), Kelsey Murrell (playwright), Kevin Frost (playwright), Alexis Smith (poet). 7 pm at the Raven Bookstore. See:
  • DEC. 3 Dec. 3 Imagination & Place anthology release and reading, Writer's Place in Kansas City, 7 pm Independent arts group since 1999 presents third anthology: Imagination & Place: Seasonings. The theme is spices of life in relation to place. These spices may be herbal or chemical; they may evoke time and cycles. &
  • DEC. 4 Poetry reading by Serina Hearn & Denise Low. 6 pm. Contact for details. Hearn and Low release new books by Woodley Memorial Press of Washburn University. Hearn’s Atlas of Our Birth, a KC Star Notable Book, is her second book. Low’ Ghost Stories of the New West gathers poetry about heritage and frontier history. Here is a poem by Serina Allison Hearn:


I found her impaled
In midnight’s grey bandages
of mortality,
a garden
pitchfork emerges
from her head,
carpenter nails pounded in deep
paralyze her wings, arms;
and a saw blade -
that miracle of technology
forty-fives below the heart:
keeps her from singing the world anew
as the great Roman road of progress
continues to pave over the memories
of the fallen; their ancient wisdom,
customs, landscapes shattered,
a butterfly, under the hammer
of construction.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Yony Leyser's Burroughs movie premieres in NYC and gets a prime NY Times Review

 New York Times critic Stephen Holden gives a two-page review of this independent film, ending with comments about Burroughs's time in Lawrence: "Late in life Burroughs softened somewhat, recalls James Grauerholz, his companion and executor of his estate. They moved to Lawrence, Kan., where Burroughs, an avid gun fetishist, took up visual art and produced 'shotgun paintings,' made by shooting a can of spray paint placed in front of a plywood board." The film opens Nov. 17 at the IFC in NYC. (Holden, by the way, is the twin brother of Kansas 1st poet laureate Jonathan Holden.)
The review gives highlights of the interviews with Ginsberg, John Waters, Patti Smith, and other famous friends, but when you see the movie itself, the footage is amazing. Tom Pescio and Wayne Propst are two Lawrence friends of Burroughs who recorded his shooting trips, his friendly meals, and visits from personages who stopped by the house on Learnard St.
Congratulations to Yony Leyser, the filmmaker, who started this project when he was a journalism student at the University of Kansas. Holden says of Leyser's film that "While burnishing the Burroughs mystique, 'A Man Within' assiduously tries to humanize an author whom it is all too easy to view as an avenging nihilist, a black hole of icy misanthropic contempt." Those who knew Burroughs later in life saw a softer man than this, with genuine sensitivity to others, especially his cats. He enjoyed conversation and had a brilliant intellect.
 My husband Tom Weso and I attended a fund-raising early viewing of a first cut in Chicago, where it was evident Yony had support of the narrator, Peter Weller and many others. Yony has persevered, and the film is opening across the country this fall. It plays in Lawrence Dec. 4 at Liberty Hall. Other screenings are:
25-Nov Los Angeles, CA Downtown Independent

10-Dec Dallas, TX Texas Theater
13-Dec Albuquerque, NM The Guild
13-Dec Greensboro, NC Circus Cinema
17-Dec Eugene, OR Bijou Art Cinema
Jan-ToBeAnnounced-Chicago, IL Music Box Theater
TBA-Boston, MA
TBA-San Francisco, CA

Saturday, November 13, 2010

William J. Harris poem "Practical Concerns": Print and U-Tube Link

William J. Harris


From a distance, I watch
a man digging a hole with a machine.
I go closer.
The hole is deep and narrow.

I ask the ditchdigger if I may climb down
and ask the bird a question.
He says, why sure.

It's nice and cool in the ditch.
The bird and I talk about singing.
Very little about technique.

Louis Copt filmed Harris’s poem “Practical Concerns”:

Selected Publications of Wm. J. Harris: The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic (1985), Hey Fella Would You Mind Holding This Piano a Moment (1974), and In My Own Dark Way (1977).

Kansas Univ. Associate Professor Harris has also published poetry in fifty anthologies, and some of the more recent work appears in Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies (2004) and Every Goodbye Ain't Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans (2006). He is the editor or co-editor of The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (1991, 2000), Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of African American Literary Tradition (1997) and a double issue of The African American Review on Amiri Baraka (Summer/Fall 2003).

For more on painter and film maker Louis Copt: 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

****Denise Low and Catherine Anderson read Friday, Nov. 12, 8 pm The Writers Place of Kansas City. Low will read from her new book Ghost Stories of the New West: From Einstein’s Brain to Geronimo’s Boots.

****Woodley Memorial Press of Washburn University publishes Ghost Stories of the New West, by Denise Low. Prose and poetry about disembodied spirits who still inhabit the frontier. Low, 2007-2009 Kansas Poet Laureate, is an award-winning writer with a sense of history and deep geography. Available at the Raven, Jayhawk Ink, and Prairie Lights, as well as ISBN 978-0-9817334-9-4

For the Maiden Aunts and Bachelor Uncles

For an uncle called Big Miller
killed by Lenape Indians in Ohio.
For Lenape uncles killed by Big Miller.

For Cherokee aunts killed by Jackson’s soldiers.
For soldiers drowned by Water Monsters—
the antlered giant fish in deep rivers.

For the cowboy Edwin who died of typhoid.
He lost his chance to gamble, brawl, sin,
and be redeemed.

For the nameless toddler great-uncle
who tipped the boiling coffee pot
and scalded himself to death.

For Great-Aunt Annie who passed
amid a great rush of breath
taking also her sister’s Christian faith.

For those dead from snakebite, pox,
frostbite, horse kick, stampede, cholera
gunshot, grass fire, and bad water.

For their sunken burials on grassy hillsides.
Dawn sunlight erases chiseled names
and embellishments of marble wild roses.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


The Lawrence Arts Center and the Raven Book Store announce their sponsorships of the 2011 Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award. Two awards of $500 each will be given annually, one in the area of poetry and one in the area of fiction.

APPLICATION DEADLINE IS DECEMBER 10, 2010 All manuscripts will be submitted electronically, via email. Please submit the materials according to SUBMISSION GUIDELINES as an attachment to the following email address: See details at

Writer Eligibility:
• Writers of poetry or fiction
• Writers currently living in Douglas County and who have lived here for one year prior to submission of materials
• Writers who are 21 years old or older
• Writers who have published a book-length volume of poetry or fiction are not eligible. (Self-published works are exempted.)
• Previous winners are not eligible.

Selection: Selection will be based on artistic quality as presented in materials submitted and will be made by a committee of outstanding regional writers. The committee reserves the right to issue no awards.Sponsors of the Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award: The Raven Bookstore and The Lawrence Arts Center.

Growing up in Lawrence prepared Langston Hughes (1902-1967) to understand the difficulties of a racist society as well as the complexities of life itself. He responded by writing in diverse genres--poetry, fiction, drama, memoir, travel narrative--and in diverse styles, drawing on the rich culture of African Americans and the many voices of American democracy. His writing reflected this diversity--shifting from the psychological and political to the lyrical, the tragic, the humorous, crossing literary boundaries, always experimental, always seeking to express a clearer, more memorable vision of the reality he experienced. The Langston Hughes Award seeks to encourage and support poets and writers who, today, are continuing to present their life experiences creatively through poetry, stories, and non-fiction prose. Surprise us. Move us. Help us see ourselves and our lives in new ways.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mother as Metaphor Panel: My British/German/Delaware/Mother, Myself

Here is an excerpt from the great panel Kathryn Kysar, Shannon Olson, Morgan Grayce Willow & I presented at the Iowa City Conference "Nonfiction NOW." Great conference, and thanks to the organizers.
...Native thought, as I understand it, is this: Metaphor is very close to, almost identical with, reality. “The Earth is a mother” is a literal, not figurative, sentence. Every day, water and food—grains, fruits, and meats—go through my system. I breathe. I am the same substance as the earth, and I undergo the same processes as any other aspect of this creation. Leslie Marmon Silko writes about this literalness of the Earth’s matrix: “The dead become dust, and in this becoming they are once more joined with the Mother. The ancient Pueblo people called the earth the Mother Creator of all things in this world. Her sister, the Corn Mother, occasionally merges with her because all succulent green life rises out of the depths of the earth….A rock shares this fate with us and with animals and plants as well” (Yellow Woman and a Beauty of Spirit 27). The emergence of new life from old is a real, fundamental law of our planet.
A second understanding from Native philosophers is that visible and invisible experiences are one. So the present and the afterlife; this world and the world of spirit; physical reality and imagined reality—all these have equal valence.
And another is: time is exists in its own incomprehensible dimension, without being sorted into past, present, and future linear grammar.
And finally, a fourth thought from Native tradition: transformation is continuing motion—seasons, personal identities, social movements, global trends. Nothing is static. This may be the fundamental theme in all Native literature.
     All these descriptions from Native writers describe my personal experiences with my mother more closely than any other worldview. First: Metaphor is more an elaboration of reality than a parallel shadow. The British literature idea of metaphor that I learned in graduate school collapses, as I look at literal creative energy in a more encompassing way.
I literally began life as my mother. I was a tiny bead of her reproductive body tissue, an egg, deep within her torso, where I grew. I was born out of her body, and for months did not understand myself as separate. My immature brain could only perceive my body as an extension of hers. Indeed, that separation of bodies and consciousness has not been complete. I look very much like my mother, except for coloring. In many ways, I am still my mother. I speak her dialect of American English, my mother tongue; I have her body type; I cook her recipes—and indeed use some of her pans, spoons, and jars; and in my garden are her sage, lemon balm, mint, daylilies, and iris—offspring of her plants from forty years ago. Of course I have struggled with this overlap in our identities. Of course I have had different education and life experiences. Yet at my core, pieces of me are still my mother, in a very literal sense. Some of these are not immediately perceptible. . . .

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Friday, November 12, 2010, 8:00 PM Riverfront Reading: Catherine Anderson and Denise Low

Catherine Anderson is the author of two poetry collections, The Work of Hands and In the Mother Tongue (Alice James Books). Denise Low, 2007-2009 Kansas Poet Laureate, has published 20 books of poetry and essays. She is a board member of the Associated Writers & Writing Programs, and has taught creative writing at Haskell Indian Nations University, the University of Kansas, and the University of Richmond.