Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Support the Humanities! Comments from Ks. Poets Laureate

Poets Laureate of Kansas: Statement of Support for the Humanities
Eric McHenry, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2015-17
Wyatt Townley, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2013-15
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2009-2013

Denise Low, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2007-09

Eric McHenry
What does it mean to be fully human, and what is it worth? It is difficult to quantify the value of the humanities, but we know that investment there yields a big bang for the soul and for the buck. In the current cost-cutting climate, the value—indeed, the very existence—of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has been called into question, though it costs the average American 50 cents a year.  
 One local beneficiary of the NEH is the Kansas Humanities Council (KHC), with its 45-year track record of strengthening civic life. In 2016, KHC provided over 700 free programs to nearly 400,000 people in all 6 sections of the state. The benefit in terms of education, history, and culture is immeasurable, but the real crop KHC grows is community
Wyatt Townley
 KHC’s Poet Laureate of Kansas program, adopted in 2013 from the Kansas Arts Commission, is one of our nation’s 44 state poet laureateships. These programs point to poetry’s ability to explore essential values in an age of distraction. Poetry helps us find common ground and develop greater understanding of our shared home, from the tallgrass prairies of the Flint Hills to the windy high plains.                                                                        
 As poets laureate, we’ve crisscrossed the state many times, dodging blizzards and tornados to talk with fellow Kansans about things that matter. We averaged 50 public appearances a year—some at colleges, high schools, and grade schools, but most at small-town libraries and community centers. Anyone who thinks of poetry as elitist should ride along with us to Colby (pop. 5,387), or Kinsley (1,457), or Glasco (498), and see how many farmers, miners, nurses, children, and retirees fill up rooms.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
 Having a poet laureate costs Kansas taxpayers almost nothing (the modest travel stipend we receive is paid for entirely by private donors), but the position could not exist without the tireless support of the Kansas Humanities Council, providing staff and resources to help us reach new audiences, particularly in underserved and isolated areas. KHC supports the state economy, bringing people together—often across great distances—which in turn bolsters hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses.
Denise Low 
 Our state poet laureate program has a national reputation for excellence. We have organized conferences that brought dozens of other state poets and hundreds of participants to Kansas. We’ve published regular columns in newspapers statewide and produced award-winning anthologies featuring hundreds of writers for thousands of readers. Our thriving regional literary scene led the Association of Writers & Writing Programs to bring its 2020 conference—one of the biggest writers conferences on Earth, drawing some 13,000 attendees from around the world—to the Kansas City area.      
 We believe in poetry as deep literacy—an experience that engages mind, emotion, body, and spirit. We also believe in Kansas, and the essential work of our superb state humanities council and our national treasure, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Please do all you can—contacting legislators especially—to ensure their continuation for the good of us all.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Denise Low Reads from Turtle's Beating Heart and Ben Kessler reads from Rivers of Wind at Va. Book Festival

Thanks to Lulu Miller for moderating and presenting thought provoking questions to copanelist Ben and myself at the Virginia Book Festival, Fri. March Charlottesvile. The podcast program is called Touching Land and Nature. 1 hr. Soundcould.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Sappho poem about Sapphic lyric fragments

The New Yorker has an excellent poem about the fragmentary nature of Greek lyric poet Sappho's extant poetry--its "redactions" and more. She was from the island of Lesbos and lived about 630-570 before current era. I am looking forward to Stanley Lombardo's new translation, due out soon.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Wry Press publishes a Kenneth Irby poetry broadside

Thank you to Kyle Waugh, literary executor of Kenneth Irby’s estate, for making possible this broadside of an unpublished 1965 poem “Oh Grand Chord,” printed by Michael Klausman and Patrick Tillery of Wry Press in Longmont, Colorado. Among my favorite lines:

“our eyes in the air north     hold ducks”

Appreciation also to the Kenneth Irby family. Contact for further information.

For more on Ken Irby and his poetry on this blog: Ad Astra Poetry Project by Denise Low: Kenneth Irby (2007)-- biography, poem, and analysis ; a draft of my essay about typographies in Irby’s works and see Jacket2 for the final essay; a link to my New Letters On the Air interview with Irby (download for a small fee): ; and a collection of photographs of Ken from my archives, posted at the time of his death:

Friday, February 17, 2017

#AWP17 Presentation by Denise Low: Poets Laureate & Government Agencies

This was my presentation for the Associated Writers and Writing Programs panel Uneasy Alliance: Poets Laureate & Government Agencies, Feb. 9 in Washington D.C. Thank you to Patricia Clark for adding me to the panel. Several people asked me to post my remarks, and thank you for your kind encouragement.

I’m Denise Low, poet laureate of Kansas 2007-2009.  Poets laureate positions are now among
AWP-Photo by Fred Viebahn of Kimberly Blaeser, Denise Low
the most important public political positions. They do come for the poets first.
Kansas is a canary-in-the-mine state for the United States. It was crucial in the Free State battle of the 19th century. John Brown fired his first shots against marauding Missouri slavers in the Battle of Black Jack, 1856, near Baldwin City. A hundred years later, Brown versus Topeka Board of Education was the deciding legal case determining school desegregation. Kansas is a political hotbed.
In 2004, Kathleen Sibelius, secretary of health under Obama, was governor of Kansas. She established the poet laureate position. The Kansas Arts Commission, a state agency, researched the position for her and determined its scope. Jonathan Holden was the first Poet Laureate in 2005, and I was the second, starting duties in 2006 and continuing appearances until 2009. Duties included judging Poetry Out Loud, giving an ecumenical invocation for the governor’s arts awards, and many other wonderful activities. The Internet was newish, and I started a blog, still going, that dates to 2006. I posted poetry broadsides every couple weeks, eventually published as a book, To the Stars: Kansas Poets of the Ad Astra Poetry Project  (Washburn Center for Kansas Studies/Mammoth 2010, Kansas Notable Book) 
All went well. Caryn Mirriam Goldberg was chosen 3rd Ks. Poet laureate and began her term, summer of 2009. In early 2010, she organized (with my assistance, but she was the prime mover!) a conference of state poets laureate in Lawrence. 
Then, 2011, U.S. Senator Sam Brownback took office as governor. You may not have heard of him. He was a member of the Values Action Team and a leading social conservative in the Senate. He converted to conservative Catholicism in 2002 and is a member of Opus Dei. He, before Trump, subscribed to the policy of dismantling government institutions. He had presidential aspirations. 
Did I mention the Koch brothers are from Wichita, and they backed his career? If you have read Thomas Frank’s first book What’s the Matter with Kansas, you will see where I’m going. He explains how people are persuaded to vote against their own best interests, even if it means losing the family farm. Many family farms were lost.
One of the first things Brownback did was to defund the Kansas Arts Commission. He gave no reason. The KAC was well run and high profile in this rural state. Arts events were funded in remote areas where the tax base supports only bare essentials. In addition to the arts, the Koch brothers and Brownback despise public education. Home-schooled fundamentalist Christians are the ideal. So Brownback cut taxes to the point public education, the arts, the roads, health support for severely handicapped people, and social services were barely functioning. I can testify that after seven years, trickle-down economics in Kansas is a complete bust. This year Kansas has a 360 million dollar deficit, expected to be half a billion next year, in a small state. Brownback uses funding for schools to balance the budget, and they, once excellent, are faltering. 
Back to the arts commission. Brownback tried to establish a private arts organization that would approve fundamentalist Christian arts programs only. He appointed wealthy citizens to the board. Eventually, this failed—arts administration is not an amateur game. The tea party Kansas legislature even voted to fund the KAC, but Brownback vetoed the bill. The KAC is gone. Gone. Poets in the Schools, grants to artists, dance performances, art exhibits, concerts, quilt workshops--all gone.
Caryn Mirriam Goldberg, with allies, did a Kickstarter in 2011 to keep her position viable for a year. She approached many angels. Finally, the Kansas Humanities Council agreed to accept the program. This nongovernment organization is not at the whim of politics. With the KHC the focus of the position shifted from arts to humanities content, so there is more emphasis on community building rather than aesthetic/craft issues. No problem. To this day, the KHC is the home of the poet laureate, and the position is doing well. 
And Kansas people have awakened from the delusion that Brownback is helping anyone. His approval rating is way down, 18%. The Koch brothers abandoned his bid for the presidency, and even Trump has not put him in any position (we were hoping he would leave Kansas but feared for what he would do to the country). The legislature of Kansas is now, after 2016 elections, moderate Republicans and Democrats, so a slow repairing has begun. Tax cuts have been reversed by the state legislature, February, 2017.
There is a happy ending, perhaps. The poets of Kansas keep up an internet presence of poetry projects, and the latest theme, 2017, is resistance—you can see poems of resistance online at 150 Kansas poems, “Heartland! Poetry of Love, Resistance, and Solidarity.” Thank you to Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg for her heroic resistance to government sabotage and to the KHC for its support.
Do prioritize support for the arts. They do go after the poets first. The National Endowment for the Arts is in danger. Americans for the Arts is a general organization that supports all arts programs, especially the NEA. AWP is a member and lobbies each year through the Arts Advocacy Day initiatives on Capitol Hill, this year March 20-21. Making poetry is a political act. 

As poet laureate I went all over a large and diverse state, from inner cities in KC to sparsely populate High Plains areas. Libraries, arts centers, and schools all create a situation of deep literacy, critical to being a good, informed citizen. Today more than ever, this is an essential charge of our public life as writers. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Kevin Rabas Finds Lasting Moments in New Prose & Poetry Collection

The summer of 1968, I worked as a temporary postal employee in Emporia, Kansas, my hometown. Fellow workers despised me as a college-student temp, and so I spent my breaks alone, reading poetry in a nearby park. I had once played with the city band in the park's gazebo, and already it showed evidence of change--fresh paint and new benches. Cicadas chorused around me. Dazzle-blue sky patchworked the elms. Solitude was alive. Kevin Rabas catches this sweet taste of small-town life in his new book Songs for my Father: A Collection of Poems and Stories (Meadowlark Press, 2016). The book is authentically regional; it busts stereotypes. For example, golf courses are a natural fit for places where land is cheap, and every Kansas town over 1000 souls has a course. Rabas celebrates the intersection of natural forces—grass fires, here—with golf in this poem:
Prairie Hills Course
Hank Jones hauls by the bucketfuls
the black pock-marked eggs, the golf balls
that made it out of the range and into the prairie
and were rolled over by flames, when the country course
was windswept at the edge by fire, a fringe
of late June red and yellow, fire as high as Hank’s waist.

Here, Rabas select images and fragments of narrative to witness this odd, vivid moment. The single sentences sweeps through like a wind gust. Colors are elements of nature as well as gravity, distance, three-dimensional existence. Rabas describes “fire” in terms of human scale, without sentimentality—yet the import is clear. Big skies relegate humans to minor roles.
“Autoshop, Twilight,” “John North Ford—Emporia,” “’67 Mustang Fastback": more artifacts of the historic past occur in well tuned poems and prose. Rabas is a jazz percussionist and writes about music with heart and in-depth knowledge. The book brings back not nostalgia, but rather it restores some memories of perfect beauty. Yes
terday on the street I saw a 1979 AMC AMX in original olive green, mint condition, still a striking muscle car. This book will delight those familiar with the grasslands setting as much as the sight of a forgotten, perfect car. Others are also welcome.