Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Robert Day Celebrates 40th anniversary of The Last Cattle Drive

The Salina Public Library sponsored a celebration of Robert Day's seminal novel with a community reading of the book, author visit, dinner, movies, and a panel discussion Sept. 17, 2017, that included Fred Whitehead, Mary O'Connell, Leo Oliva, Robert Day, and myself. Here are my remarks. 

I have participated in formal and informal discussion of Robert Day’s Last Cattle Drive— in libraries (the Kansas Humanities Council TALK program), in prisons, in coffee shops, and around kitchen tables. I have lived with the book almost from its first publication. Ed Ruhe, the legendary Kansas University professor, introduced me to Day, Fred Whitehead, and Ward Sullivan—the model for Spangler—when I was in graduate school.
I remember Ruhe’s dining room table piled with books, with only small spaces left for plates. The cast was like a novel’s playbill. I remember being mesmerized as Robert Day shook my hand before dinner and then announced I was just a few handshakes away from Tolstoy. He recounted the lineage back to Nabokov, and then Tolstoy. It was magic.
Then Bob did what he does best, after a few magic tricks. He told stories into the night. I was enchanted. I read The Last Cattle Drive at that time.
I grew up in Emporia at the edge of the Flint Hills, cattle country. My relatives were involved in
ranching, and many neighbors. I went to the sales barn on Friday nights to watch auctions of livestock. I rode horses with friends. I enjoyed the half-tamed, unfenced yards that edged into “vacant lots” and back. I was no expert on details of ranching, but I knew the characters and general setting. Opal was my mother. Jed was either of my grandfathers. Spangler resembled a composite of crusty old fellas I lived around, including, say, William Lindsay White (son of William Allen) and my music teacher Professor Leopold Liegl. At KU, I knew the type of tenderfoot Leo represents. How I relished this book, about my world and not John Updike’s or J.D. Salinger’s world of upper-class New England angst.
The Last Cattle Drive is one of the few mainstream-published books that shows sentient beings in grasslands cattle country, in 1977. Just a handful of names are in this category, Willa Cather’s My Antonia was 1918, then there is a gap until William Stafford’s National Book Award-winning Traveling through the Dark, poems, in 1963. Wright Morris published Plains Song in 1980. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove series was 1985.Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses was 1992, Kent Haruf’s Plainsong was 1999, and in 2002, Annie Proulx published That Old Ace in the Hole. In film, Urban Cowboy appeared in 1980 and City Slickers in 1991—and its resemblance to The Last Cattle Drive, well, that is another story. Unforgiven, the definitive revisionist cowboy flick, was 1992. So, in 1977, Last Cattle Drive was the first novel to show contemporary 20th century life since Willa Cather.
A major accomplishment of The Last Cattle Drive is its update of the cowboy story. This is a classic United States story, as unique as jazz. The loner hero, the vagaries of weather and critters, the challenges of the people—all these are present.
Day roots his novel in storytelling, with love of his characters’ idiosyncrasies. No one is Garrison Keillor average. Leo tries, but he falls in with the stronger characters. Authenticity triumphs over the superficial. Most of all, the cowboy in the story, Jed, leaves a legacy that will live on, even after he dies in the end. People like Bob Day and some present company still push books aside to tell stories at table. New generations will continue this tradition.
Another note—the author Robert Day is very well educated. I remember as a young writer listening to him quote Rousseau, Jane Austen, and Terry Southern. The Last Cattle Drive borrows from Huckleberry Finn, Andy Adams’ fictional Log of a Cowboy (1903), historic documents, and pulp westerns. It is a sophisticated piece of writing that foretells the mashups and metafictions that are common today. He relishes blending high and low cultures in this well-wrought book.

This is a book that has reflection, wisdom, action, payoff, and warm characters. It made me feel more secure in my identity as a grasslands person when I first read it, and it influenced me as a writer tremendously. I have kept my region foremost in sight, and I have tried to maintain authenticity. I remember when Bob spoke to a Washburn University class decades ago and said he did not follow up the Last Cattle Drive with a sequel, because his writing did not take him that direction. He has remained true to his stories above all. That is a feat of heroic stature, worthy of Jed and all the cowboy ancestors. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017


Dennis Etzel is one of the most exuberant poets I know. His readings are enhanced by his genuine love of
 words/poetry/just causes/people. His partnership with wife Carrie as they raise 5 young sons is admirable. His awareness as a man raised by two lesbian mothers carries over into his life and his writings. He is an admirable human being, which is one aspect of him; he is also an admirable poet. Yes, he is a friend, so qualify my review in those terms.

His new book from Spartan Press is This Removed Utopia: Poems.  Yes, that is John Brown on the cover, the odd iconic activist saint of Kansas, from the state capitol building's murals by John Stuart Curry. This panel is entitled Tragic Prelude, apt for the book. Etzel has a fluid, unpretentious style that moves, engages the reader, and ess-turns into unexpected alleyways and cupolas. Domestic moments transform into regional awareness into history into rage against corporate machines. The book has six poems, including the long poem “A Short History of Topeka,” which includes this section, and the “Sam” is governor and former senator Sam Brownback:
Even Topeka has the pleasure of lawn and trees
outside of the mall’s obvious entrances, a carefree
winking after paid-off early retirements
help corporations in they syrupy blurs. Accept
that speed walking which hammers gerunds
into our language, promising the assertive
round of elegies. How does the need to claim
on your right feel to Kansas politics, the words
you use, your cushioned lips, those kisses
you tell? Do I need to mention Sam
in the midst of this ruin built decades ago?
Let the sun come through the dome window,
Let the doves of love fly above that window,
let the window resign to the floor, let hammers
be heard, unseen for comfort to our particles.

For a signed copy of This Removed Utopia, please use this link. Shipping and taxes included.

​Dennis Etzel Jr. lives with Carrie and the boys in Topeka, Kansas where he teaches English at Washburn University. He has an MFA from The University of Kansas, and an MA and Graduate Certificate in Women and Gender Studies from Kansas State University. My Secret Wars of 1984 (BlazeVOX 2015) was selected by The Kansas City Star as a Best Poetry Book of 2015. Fast-Food Sonnets (Coal City Review Press 2016) is a 2017 Kansas Notables Book selected by the State of Kansas Library.  This Removed Utopia (Spartan Press 2017) was published as part of the Kaw Valley Poetry Series. My Grunge of 1991 is forthcoming (BlazeVOX 2017). He has two chapbooks, The Sum of Two Mothers (ELJ Publications 2013) and My Graphic Novel (Kattywompus Press 2015). His work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, BlazeVOX, Fact-Simile, 1913: a journal of poetic forms, 3:AM, Tarpaulin Sky, DIAGRAM, and others. He is a TALK Scholar for the Kansas Humanities Council and leads poetry workshops in various Kansas spaces. Please feel free to connect with him at

Photo of Dennis Etzel at the Raven Bookstore by Denise Low

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Heartland Poetry of Love, Resistance, and Solidarity: RHIANNON ROSS presents "More Ways"

I'm honored to be guest editor of the collective project for the Kansas poetry website Heartland Poetry of Love, Resistance, and Solidarity, founded by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg. I've curated poems by Debbie Theiss  (forthcoming) and Jemshed Kahn (preceding), and now for this 3-week period, Rhiannon Ross. Visit the website for Kahn's poem, and savor Ross's offering. Theiss is in the batter's box. Stay tuned for more guest editors' selections!

There are more ways to terrorize
than stack bricks on the border higher than Denali.
More sinister ways to banish.
Darth Vader lurks on the screen
and with a flourish of a golden pen
rewrites the narratives of children’s lives.
Lizet, whose name means “beauty” and sounds like love,
composes words that weep her Mamá’s tears,
confesses worries desperate as packed suitcases
waiting by the front door.
“Mamá says if she goes, I go with her.”

Rhiannon Ross teaches youth poetry workshops for In Our Own Words, a Missouri Arts Council-funded program. She serves on the Riverfront Reading Series committee, the Jump Start Art KC board, and as a regional co-coordinator for Poetry Out Loud. She received a 2012 Rocket Grant for community project Vox Narro.