Saturday, May 20, 2017

Denise Low Reviews Michael Poage's Selected Poems

Comments by Denise Low
When I met Michael Poage 20 years ago, I snapped to attention when he mentioned his study with Richard
Hugo and Madeleine DeFrees in Montana. Their tandem tenure at the MFA program produced some of my favorite writers, like James Welch, Sandra Alcosser, Kim Barnes, Art Homer and Richard Robbins. Poage has his own voice and technique, well-honed by his training. Gerard Manly Hopkins is an author whose works suggest Poage’s lines. Each poem has an internal working, like a separate clockwork. They are encriptions that intrigue readers to follow intriguing sequences where paradox upsets balance. His early books of poetry are letterpress beauties from Black Stone Press, Handbook of Ornament and Born. Since these early works, he continues to develop his handiwork, with a more global framework. He describes his travels, often for humanitarian and/or literary projects:
“For the past 40-plus years I have continued to write and have given readings and workshops in several states as well as in Mexico, Latvia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina.. . I also participate in progressive social justice activities in the U.S. and abroad.  I was part of the Gaza Freedom March in Cairo in 2009, went to the West Bank in 2010, and traveled to the Gaza Strip with Physicians for Social Responsibility in April, 2012 working as a trauma counselor. . . . I work with the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, have done community development work in northwest Mexico, taught English and worked with Church World Service in Bosnia.”
Madeline DeFrees endorsed his recent collection The Average Level of Happiness: “These terrifyingly honest poems confront the essential loneliness of the human condition…that of the ghost fish, Miss Kansas, or a suicide bomber.  And, as always the poems are full of surprises generated by the simplest of everyday occurrences such as starting a new address book or forgetting what day of the week it is.”
Here are two sample poems by Michael Poage, reprinted with permission from his Human Ink: The First Five Books 1975-2005 (Wichita: Blue Cedar Press, 2017)

NOT EVEN IN A BLUE MOON

There are continents
looking for a sign
of faithfulness
to the end.
And there is you.
The walk you promised
yourself along the edge
of one land mass
also brings you close
to your voyage.  My
adventure will be to sit
on this front porch
and taste the passion
of the thunderstorm
rolling across the prairie
from the west,
from all we never touched.

THE BLACK SEA
It looked blue to me
but as you all know
I have been wrong
before.  No one I
talked to on the
Turkish coast could
give an explanation
for the name.  It seems
one of those mysteries
we face when we are
the least bit alert
or very lost.  When climbing
out of our painful
selves we often will
attempt a bargain, make
a deal between where
we have been and what
we can’t quite see
ahead.  In this case
trying to bluff is very
dangerous.  None of us
really has what some
call a “poker face.”
We give it dead away.
Just go the way of the
Prophet named Oti
(we think), and this wisdom:
“Poetry is like driving a truck
5,000 miles to a town
worse than yours.”

Michael Poage has worked a variety of jobs: grocery store clerk, manual laborer, elementary school teacher, office clerk, sheep and cattle rancher in Montana, and 25 years as pastor to three United Church of Christ congregations in Kansas. He currently is an instructor of English at the Intensive English Language Center, Wichita State University, where he lives with is wife Gretchen Eick. He has ten collections of poems published and a selected works, Human Ink (Blue Cedar Press, 2017). B.A., Westmont College, 1967; MFA, U. of Montana, 1973; M.Div., San Francisco Theological Seminary, 1985 www.michaelpoage.com  Michael Poage
PO Box 48715  Wichita, KS  67201


Friday, May 5, 2017

Denise Low's writing workshop: On Whimsy in Poetry

© 2017 Denise Low,  from a forthcoming collection, How to Write Mood in Verse


Riddles are embedded in the earliest Anglo Saxon oral literatures. Webster’s defines a riddle as: “A mystifying, misleading, or puzzling question posed as a problem to be solved or guessed often as a game” (3rd ed.). Beyond puzzles and questions, a riddle is, according to Edward Hirsch, “both an interrogative and an expressive form, possibly the earliest form of oral literature—a formulation of thought, a mode of association, a metaphor.” Hirsch asserts that riddles are universal contests of wits, from Oedipus Rex to the present. He describes riddles in the Sanskrit texts and the Hebrew Bible. In any case, riddles use double entendres and other circumlocutions to suggest a word or phrase. These can be instructive, but more often they are pure whimsy. They also delight as they instruct.
Wordplay, from nursery rhymes to bawdy limericks, appeals to people’s love of games. A well wrought riddle is in itself a thing of interest, if not beauty. They are verbal versions of the game “charades” and perfect for a long evening’s entertainment.
                In the history of British poetics, riddles begin with a set verse form. The mood of whimsy, though, does not limit itself to a single form. Contemporary riddles sustain the love of puzzles and solutions—in many forms.

Anglo Saxon Riddles
The two-part line, three beats each side, is a common Anglo Saxon verse form; rhyme depends on alliteration. The Exeter Book o Riddles, 1000 years old, contain dozens of riddles, some graphically sexual.

[Bookworm]


Moððe word fræt--      me þæt þuhte

wrætlicu wyrd      þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn ,
þæt se wyrm forswealg      wera gied sumes ,
þeof in þystro,      þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol .      Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra      þe he þam wordum swealg.
A moth ate songs--wolfed words!
That seemed a weird dish--that a worm
Should swallow, dumb thief in the dark,
The songs of a man, his chants of glory,
Their place of strength. That thief-guest
Was no wiser for having swallowed words.



The bookworm, or moth caterpillar, can consume velum manuscripts, yet the oral tradition of songs and chants, when held in memory, are beyond such destruction. The book reader may also be no wiser after chewing up such a “cwide” or cud.
                Here is an example of a bawdy riddle, in the same verse form in the original but lost here. It rivals any limerick, even after all these centuries:

Riddle 45, Exeter Book
I have heard of a something-or-other,
growing in its nook, swelling and rising,
pushing up its covering. Upon that boneless thing
a cocky-minded young woman took a grip with her hands;
with her apron a lord's daughter covered the tumescent thing.

Here are a couple Mother Goose riddles that have simple end rhymes, and they are in modern English. They are still as old as anyone can remember; perhaps the couplets echo the early Anglo-Saxon two-part line:

A Sieve
A riddle, a riddle, as I suppose,
A hundred eyes and never a nose!
 A Star
Higher than a house, higher than a tree.
Oh! whatever can that be?

These are simpler than the Exeter riddles, designed to appeal to children. These train the imagination as well as the ear for rhythms of the English language.
 Contemporary Riddles
Emily Dickinson writes some of the first serious riddles in U.S. poetry. The riddle form gives this poem a tone of irony rather than gloom:

Under the Light yet under
Under the Light, yet under,
Under the Grass and the Dirt,
Under the Beetle's Cellar
Under the Clover's Root,

Further than Arm could stretch
Were it Giant long,
Further than Sunshine could
Were the Day Year long,

Over the Light, yet over,
Over the Arc of the Bird --
Over the Comet's chimney --
Over the Cubit's Head,

Further than Guess can gallop
Further than Riddle ride --
Oh for a Disc to the Distance
Between Ourselves and the Dead!

The topic of the poem, the “Dead,” is held back until the end. It is indirect, repetitive descriptions of the unknown with parallel lines, alliterative like some Anglo Saxon verse. The architecture of the poem, then, creates a suspense. Dickinson also injects whimsy into the details, like the “Beetle’s Cellar.” Then the contrast to the last line is most extreme. This is an adult poem that borrows the light verse form and subverts it.

I borrow a child’s riddle form for this long, sectioned poem about “eyes.” Even though the answer is in each section, the uncovering of unexpected places for eyes is the point of the wordplay:

Eye Riddles, by Denise Low


Laser-dot red eyes among green
euonymus sheaves:
A vireo darts herky jerky
                on spliced-video film.
Looped once, looped twice:
                Tweet. Silence. Tweet. Silence.
+
Peony buds drip sap
                striped billiard balls
                red white green white
eyes squeezed shut.
+
Lookout chipmunk
                its kohl-lined eyes
                point the way
                past pine’s
                bare slash.
Tail taut
                black bead eyes
                look
                out.
+
A cat’s vertical eyes
are tandem gyroscopes
level just so.
Its body circles
unmoved elliptical
twin stars.
+
Dog eyes are brown honey
traps.
+
Snake eyes
slit yellow moonlight
make two wires
skewering
tossed ivory
cubes.
+
Kelly green poison veins
feed on plump potato flesh.

Below nubby eye bumps
Cuzco-line alien lifeforms glow.
+
What
my father
saw that night
                the door jamb
                painted
                Evil Eye
                in invisible ink.

He tells me
“The Devil is real.”




Contemporary riddles work through contrasts, accumulation of details, extended metaphor—all to lead readers to discovery. The Bible has riddle contests, literal battles of the wits (Daniel, Solomon, Samson). Hirsch dates Sanskrit riddles to book 1 of the Rig-Veda (1700–1100 BCE). Riddles are among the oldest poetic forms. They adapt from comic to serious themes; they take shape in myriad patterns.


Hirsch, Edward. “Riddle.” Academy of American Poetry.org. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/riddle-poets-glossary
Low, Denise. A Casino Bestiary (Spartan Press, 2017).
Robinson, Fred C. "Artful Ambiguities in the Old English 'Book-Moth' Riddle," Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation for John C. McGalliard, ed. L.E. Nicholson and D. W. Frese (Notre Dame University Press, 1975), pp. 355-62.
“The Exeter Book of Riddles”-Flowers of History: Incidental notes after the eclectic histories of Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris. University of Chicago.edu
“Old English Riddles.” Swarthmore College Department of English.

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 23.in 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.

 http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/the-problem-with-sappho

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 wrypress@gmail.com 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 http://deniselow.blogspot.com/2007/12/ad-astra-poetry-project-9.html ; a draft of my essay about typographies in Irby’s works http://deniselow.blogspot.com/search?q=kenneth+irby and see Jacket2 for the final essay; a link to my New Letters On the Air interview with Irby (download for a small fee): http://deniselow.blogspot.com/2015/07/denise-low-interviews-kenneth-irby.html ; and a collection of photographs of Ken from my archives, posted at the time of his death: http://deniselow.blogspot.com/2015/08/kenneth-irby-dies-july-30-2015.html

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.