Friday, September 7, 2018

Writerly Mentors: David Fenza, Ken Irby, Victor, Contoski, Stephen Meats, More

I just returned from visiting my older brother in Arizona. Our conversations ranged from politics to 
geography to writing. In high school, he had reported for  the Emporia Gazette, and since then he has perfected many kinds of writing, When he returned home after his first year at Harvard, he gave me writing assignments, such as, "Explicate Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony." I was twelve, bookish, and thrilled at the attention. His suggestion kept me busy for weeks, as I read liner notes, went to the library, and listened to the symphony over and over. This was July, when thunderstorms on the plains make an apt accompaniment to Beethoven’s grand chords. He was my first mentor.
As I became more interested in writing poetry, though, I found a landscape of misogyny. Some of the Black Mountain poets were active in my hometown (Lawrence, Kansas) at different times (Edward Dorn, Kenneth Irby), and also Beats writers, especially William S. Burroughs.  These men were often gracious, but I was not on their planet. The dearth of women’s voices in these schools has been discussed in other places. I sought women mentors, but there were few—not many had been able to penetrate the male kingdom. 
Plus, I was not an ideal mentee. Two active children blessed my life by age 24; at 32 I held a full-time English department position (five sections of composition a semester the first five years); and by 44 I had two failed marriages. I was busy and had an attitude. As I developed, oh so slowly, other writing mentors entered the picture.
Victor Contoski was my first college poetry teacher, and he gave everyone high grades. That allowed me to relax and focus on writing. He also encouraged publication, and through him, I found my first literary publisher, Dan Jaffe of BookMark at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.  Jaffe was tough, professional, and a true editor. He red-inked my first book manuscript beyond recognition—in fact, it became a chapbook. Now I thank him. He helped me understand how a book goes from typescript to edited, proofed pages.
Stephen Meats was another literary editor who took extra time to encourage a developing writer in the great “Midwest” (or whatever you want to call river towns anchored west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies). He was poetry editor of Midwest Quarterly. He liked a suite of poems I sent, asked for more, and published a selection as a chapbook. He and his wife are still treasured friends. His encouragement helped boost me into the poet laureate position of Kansas, and I am truly grateful.
David Fenza, former executive director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, is another male mentor who helped me integrate administrative skills into a non-profit arts environment. At my college, I was the English department chair and then dean of my division. I had basic knowledge of budget, personnel issues, and program development and assessment. Fenza helped me see a larger context in AWP, a national, 50,000-member organization, including arts advocacy (he worked with NEA and other groups). I had the opportunity to write an op-ed for the Kansas City Star, one of my weakest genres, at the same time I had poet laureate and dean deadlines. Fenza provided tactful assistance with this task. He was always professional, warm, funny, and smart. He understood the intersection of business and the arts. He is one of the most remarkable men I have met.
Kenneth Irby became one of my revered mentors, near the end of his life. His curmudgeonly strains of earlier years eased (once at a poetry reading he attacked my factual knowledge about the Pleistocene, incorrectly, but that’s another story). In the 2000s, I realized how much I had always liked his poetry despite everything and how we shared an affection for gin. That culminated in a “poetini” group, convened by Joseph Harrington, that met weekly to celebrate both. As I looked back across the decades of his writing, often inspired by shared deep geography, I appreciated the scope of his influence. What a healing to come to terms with Irby in his last years. I was lucky to interview him for New Letters on the Air a few months before death. AWP’s Writer's Chronicle published a selection of his poetry and more of the interview. 

Without these mentors, starting with my brother, I would be a much lesser writer. These men mentored with no guarantee of success, no payback, no hint of impropriety. Mentorship is an act of hope for an unseen future. The best gratitude is to pass on the gift of literature.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Jennifer Levin Reviews Denise Low's Shadow Light

Jennifer Levin reviews Denise Low's Shadow Light (Red Mountain Press, Editor's Choice Award) for Pasatiempo's "Subtext" section. This Santa Fe newspaper review begins with the poem "Sangre de Christo Novena," from the book:
Jennifer Levin


Saltillo tiles skein quick
            shivering filaments of rain.

Thin lizard bones and cholla needles
float down arroyos     August rosaries

Cloud banks unstack themselves behind
            a low-set moon.

Earth’s many gods stray among stars
            Lupus     Taurus     Ursus     Serpens
            Wolf     Bull     Bear     Snake.

Levin continues, "Low writes about the high desert with the intimacy of a local." Levin continues: "The poems in Shadow Light are heavily imagistic and sensory, focused on nature and the external world rather than Low’s interior life — though an “I” makes an appearance once in a while in order to anchor a short narrative in place. There is a sense of subtraction in the work, leaving reflection and interpretation in the hands of the reader. (August 10, 2018). For the full review, see "A Light at the End of the Shadow: Denise Low" 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

John Brown Press of KC Publishes Icelandic Poet Hjalmar Jonsson

Iceland is now a direct flight from my local airport in Kansas City, and friends post beautiful images Selected Poems, by 19th-century Icelandic poet Hjalmar Jonsson, gives a window into the fortitude necessary to survive isolation, cold, and hunger. The even graver difficulty is fellow humans. The collection also suggests the literary tradition that evolved in this environment. Hjalmar Jonsson, 1796 to 1875, is a poet still printed in schoolbooks, according to the editor of this book, Olafur Gunnarsson. Jonsson's work is part of the continuing tradition of the island. He did not publish in his lifetime, but in 1949, four volumes of his collected poems, rímur (short narrative poems), and prose in four volumes were finally compiled. This is the first "substantial" selection of his works to be translated into English. He is a serious critic of the wealthy, as this poem suggests:
from travels there. Life on a  near-Arctic Circle island is not as idyllic as recent tourists might suggest. This collection
Rich Man, Poor Man
If someone is a wealthy boor
and none too clean or bright,
big shots eating at their table
place him on their right.

The poor man with his cheeks so pale
receives a homage sweet,
beside some china chamber-pot
he's reserved a seat. (62)
This is an example of the scathing commentary on the wealthy, which is offset by a sense of resignation in the poems, as in this:
At a Funeral
Long I thought it vile, the grave,
Saw ignominy in dying.
Now it is a gift God gave,
A gift of peace to all who crave
salvation's freedom, sighing.
These short narrative lyrics are examples of the "rimur" or short, rhyming verses. He had a scathing tongue, sometimes used in a poetic competition: "When two Icelandic poets met, they often engaged in a poetry contest. The game was always to make the first part so difficult that the other was unable to finish the poem" (34). This is a hint at the tradition that lies outside the translation and often in oral tradition, not written.
The tradition continues, as a recent New York Times articles explains, quoting  Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson, a professor of Icelandic literature at the University of Iceland: "In earlier times, verses were an integral part of social gatherings and were often improvised, he said. Poetry contests were held, with the prizes going to the wittiest, sharpest verses. The most popular verse form, he said, is called “ferskeytla,” four rhymed lines that can be divided into two parts." Jonsson continues to be read and honored. Icelandic people read much poetry, and many are poets.
This book Selected Poems by Hjalmar Jonsson is amazing. It is an invitation to see a language related to English with its own traditions refined by the surrounding environment, both social and physical. Fred Whitehead conceived of this project, as he explains in a preface; David McDuff translated the poems; Olafur Gunnarsson selected and edited the book; and an "Afterward" by Hannes Hafstein tells much about Jonsson's life and poetic opus. The book is available through U.K. Amazon and John Brown Press, PO Box 5224, Kansas City, KS 66119, $16 + $4 postage. 91 pp, paperback.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Window Left Open by Jennifer Grotz Redefines Long Lines

I picked up a copy of this oversized (7 inches tall by 9 inches wide) book of poetry at Kramer's Books in DC,
and so glad I did. As an obsessed poet for most of my life (after my grandmother showed me her Kenneth Rexroth translations of Li Po and Tu Fu, and forgive the old-fashioned spellings), I look for new poets (to me) whose works teach different axes for entering the genre. This becomes progressively more difficult. So after scanning a few pages of this tome, my brain exploded and resettled into new patterns. I've already written a new poem organized somewhat after Jennifer Grotz's model in window left open.
This is to say the book invites readers in as participants rather than the author giving lectures that show off word acrobatics. Yes, many of the poems begin in natural settings, which is my bias, but nothing stops there. These are dynamic poems with many strategies to approach metaphors. Some are plain, like "...those/were the days when going outside felt like going inside" ("The Forest," 5). Some are fancy, like "What do daisies see with their feathery eye?" and about moths: "...perched tightly together like carnations, a fidgeting corsage of little engines. ..." ("Window Left Open," 45).
Also compelling is how the poet's lines loll across white space, unforced and unhurried, but never flat. Patterns arise and subside. The commentary is informative, adage-like pronouncements without ego. An example is how the poem "Locked" begins, "And yes it is necessary to admit/walking in the forest/the heart is a lock...." (6). The self-depracatory tone is natural and creates dialogue. This book was published in 2016, so it is not the newest new. For me, though, it is a book that will stay on my reading shelf a long time.
Jennifer Grotz is the author of two previous poetry collections. She teaches at the Univ. of Rochester and in the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College, and she serves as the assistant director of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. 
Window Left Open by Jennifer Grotz, Graywolf Press, 2016, 64 pp., $16.00 isbn 9781555977306

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Carolyne Wright reviews Jackalope by Denise Low for New Letters!

Much gratitude to Carolyn Lee Wright for her extended review, "Jackalope Walks into a Bar," in New
Letters. She extends the lore of Jackalope in important ways in addition to responding to my collection of short pieces--fiction or no?--in this book from Red Mountain Press. Many thanks! And the book is a steady seller at Small Press Distribution. 
The review is an artful piece, and it includes this commentary:
"In these interstices between fantasy and creatively tweaked fact, Low keeps her tone both lyrical and light; but shining through the humor—literary and Indian inside jokes, bawdy anecdotes, and gentle fun-poking at contemporary and historical indigenous and Anglo cultural figures—are glimpses of the very real oppression to which such oblique humor is one survival response.  In “Jackalope Walks into Custer’s Last Bar,” Jaq is offered the fanciest drink (“Custer’s Custard”) and is regaled with bitter anecdotes and jokes targeting this last-in-his-West-Point-class Civil War hero, who turned genocidal criminal against the plains tribes until his final demise at the Battle of Greasy Grass (aka Little Bighorn)."

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

DIAMANTES: How To Write a Diamond

This is from my April workshop cinquains, a mini-discussion of "diamante" poems, with appreciation for Wyatt Townley. When poet laureate of Kansas, she used cinquains as a project.

As a starting point for cinquains, take the “diamante.” This form, popular in public school poetry classes, is a diamond-shaped poem. Its five lines follow a set syllable count: 2+4+6+8+2 syllables. Here is one formulaic instruction:
 Line 1 - a one-word title (or 2 syllables);
Line 2 - a two-word phrase describing the title;
Line 3 - a three-word phrase describing an action relating to the title;
Line 4 - four-word feeling phrase about topic;
Line 5 – a one-word synonym for the title.
This form is pervasive throughout U.S. schools, usually centered on the page, and it can result in simple (and bad) poems like this:
Dog-breath
Rank drools
Fetid meat clinging
Disgusting stink spreads
Yuck!
This is an informal entry into this form. It does reduce the poem to the essentials of the “envelope” construction, with first and last lines enclosing the concrete details. It shows focus on the first line.
A more dignified variation is the American cinquain, very similar to the diamond version, has more attention to the turn at the end. Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914), an American poet influenced by Imagists, invented the form, based on the tanka. Here is one of her more dignified examples of a cinquain from her book Verse (1915):
Look up…
From bleakening hills
Blows down the light, first breath
Of wintry wind…look up, and scent
The snow!

The form is syllable count: two syllables in the first and last lines (trochees); and four, six, and eight syllables in the middle three lines in iambic rhythm. Crapsey’s poems consider the transitory nature of human life, due in part to her tuberculosis.  Her book Verse, of cinquains, was published in 1915, after she died. She had followers during her lifetime, but most people have forgotten works, which are seldom reprinted in anthologies. Nonetheless, her contribution to poetics is significant: she invented this popular form. 
Wyatt Townley, Kansas Poet Laureate 2013-2015, used this form for an online project. The Emporia Gazette printed her column about cinquains. She has this to say about the five-line form: “It’s a little like writing on a postage stamp.” Here is one of her own American Cinquains from her serialized newspaper project:
Body by Wyatt Townley
Which breath
is the last this
one or the one after
all you have undergone what’s not
to love

Townley, Wyatt. “Homewords.” Emporia Gazette. Accessed 9 April 2018. http://www.emporiagazette.com/news/article_9f06e4ad-5274-528f-a533-e09c218cd160.html
c. 2018 Denise Low Postings "Diamantes"

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Diane Glancy, Indigenous Writer Creates Pathways for Others

In 1984 I joined the English faculty of Haskell Indian Nations University (it was a
junior college then). I had just finished an MFA, so my colleagues tolerated me teaching Creative Writing, as overloads. They also directed stray literary mail to my desk.
So, one day Brown Wolf Leaves the Res and Other Poems by Diane Glancy, a special chapbook issue of the Blue Cloud Quarterly arrived on my desk. This was my introduction to Glancy, but by no means her first publication. From the chapbook’s biography, I found that in 1984, already she had published in over 90 journals, won the American Indian Theater Co. playwriting contest and honorable mention from the Five Tribes. She had earned an MA from Central State University in Edmond, Oklahoma—and I now know that she would receive an MFA at the University of Iowa in 1988. In 1984, this was her first book.
To give some context, not many Native-written books were on the shelves of the Haskell library, or anywhere. Momaday had published House Made of Dawn in 1968, and won the Pulitzer, but few other books by Native writers, besides as-told-to autobiographies, were available. In 1975, Duane Niatum published the poetry anthology, Carriers of the Dream Wheel, a beautiful volume with color illustrations by Wendy Rose. In its series, Harper & Row published books by Simon Ortiz, James Welch, Niatum, and others. Geary Hobson’s anthology The Remembered Earth, published in 1979, was very important and included writers from all regions of the United States, not just Albuquerque Renaissance writers. It exploded the perception that there were no Indigenous writers. In 1983, Joseph Bruchac edited the poetry anthology Songs from This Earth on Turtle’s Back, which includes Glancy, perhaps her first appearance in a national anthology of Native writers. I ordered this paperback as a textbook for Haskell.
I do want to witness to how courageous these writers and editors of the time were, how effective, how welcome. The doxology of Native as a primitive was everywhere, undisputed. At Haskell, where seniority determined all course staffing, a well-intentioned
Glancy and Carrie Cornelius in Norman, OK, Returning
the Gift Conference, Lifetime Achievement Award
White man taught American Indian Literature. Texts were traditional accounts and many stories by White authors about Indigenous Americans—think of Frank Waters, James Fenimore Cooper, Ruth Beebe Hill. When I questioned this teacher, he said there were no well-written books by American Indians. He did not object, nonetheless, when I began to order books by Natives. He continued to teach the cushier literature classes, so I integrated contemporary writers into my Basic Comp and Creative Writing classes, including the poetry of Diane Glancy. By 1999, I had more seniority, and when the anthology Visit Tepee Town: Native Writings after the Detours, edited by Diane Glancy and Mark Nowak, was published, I added it to reading lists. It includes post-modern works by Gerald Vizenor, Linda Hogan, Wendy Rose, Maurice Kenny, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Juan Felipe Herrera, Greg Sarris, and Peter Blue Cloud. My students and I explored these authors, and this was an essential text.
The publications Diane Glancy wrote and edited encouraged Haskell students from the start. Familiar attitudes helped them to engage with her works. The other Haskell English faculty in the 1980s taught Faulkner (a favorite of a Creek-Seminole professor), George Orwell, and New Yorker writers, so this poem by Diane Glancy, in contrast, was accessible:
Looking for My Old Indian Grandmother in the Summer Heat of 1980
The heat uncovers the window and attic-fan
that pulls in more heat.

It was like this in ‘54, they say,
and I remember, somehow, the hot, white air in the
percale curtains at the window.

It comes back to me now.
I think it was the year my grandmother died.

I look into the trunk, and under the rock
that is her grave.
It was in 1954. July 14.

Her hands and face turn hard before we arrive.
We are bleached clean from her responsibility.

It all happened before I was old enough to ask,
before she knew I would even want to know.

It was because I am more like her than the others
I want to know what rock it is
she left upturned.     (Songs from This Earth 77)

The narrator is close to the actual author, a Native stance familiar to Haskell students, not the stylized British-influenced literary persona. The poem begins with the body, the heat, and with natural forces—sun (implied), wind, rock. Family is present, alive in memory. Childhood is not left behind, but rather informs the present. Glancy’s narration reads the setting as a map of signs, from her grandmother’s face to the gravesite. Workings of the narrator’s mind turn and return to heritage as the she identifies her own future—deliberate and ongoing connection to her grandmother. Glancy enlarges the poem by use of oblique metaphors, “Her hands and face turn hard” reinforces the image of the “rock.” White assimilation, all too familiar to Haskell students, is clear in the phrase “We are bleached.” Alienation, fragmentation, the struggles of assimilation—these are themes quite real to Native readers and led to vibrant class discussions.
            The Salt Companion to Diane Glancy gives insights into axises of her work, and a vocabulary of critique. Chadwick Allen notes the “driving compulsion in these texts: to examine in detail a Christian faith embattled both from without and within; to explore a largely unknown indigenous descent; to describe the painful isolation of juxtaposed and asymmetrical identities” (15). Glancy is a border crosser, hybridizer, pasticher, and most of all authentic in her own values. Her writing is individual and communal. Notice how often Glancy collaborates with other editors and writers.
            In 1996 Glancy published Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears, and in the intervening 25 years, her innovations in that book now seem commonplace: ruptured narratives, polyvocality (the cast of narrators), intertextuality (Reverend Bushyhead’s list of needs for the mission, real estate records), deep geography (maps, ecology), historicism, hybridity. Cherokee syllabary and terms challenge hegemony of the settler language tradition. This novel embodies disparate strands about the forced relocations of the 1830s, earlier than any other book, and with great heart. I remember Glancy reading from the manuscript at the Newberry Library in 1990 and her emotion as she described the harrowing writing process. A few years later, I remember hearing younger Native women talk about Glancy’s career, and how important she was as a model for their own writing and academic success. She is one of our valued elders, active through decades of evolving Native literary expression. She deserves our profound gratitude for navigating through those tough early years, keeping faith, and continuing to lead with innovative projects.
            In 2009, as Glancy was in Lawrence for film editing of Dome of Heaven, we began the habit of lunch, and one day she asked if my husband Tom Weso and I were interested in her next poetry manuscript for Mammoth Publications. I was, and it developed into Stories of the Driven World, a transgenre collection of travelogue, storytelling, field notes, womanist texts, and faith-based accounts. One of my favorite poems is “Horned Being”:
There are nights they come back as human
it’s a transformation of sorts
they don’t want to come
but something in them makes the change
the transference to other
AWP, with Eric Gansworth, Picott, Evalina Lucero,
Santee Frazier. Diane Glancy right.
to see what it would be to walk on nearly two legs
with antlers still on its head
buckskin on its bones
the world is always moving the last field report said
he’d discovered changing slots
whatever they are
it was the last we heard
but scribbled on the pages we received
one leg amputated from a trap
one hand forward, the other back
the four directions for a navel.    (75)
 This is about interspecies transformations, from animal to human. Tom coincidentally had a painting that exactly matched the poem’s hybrid creature, which we used for the cover. The poems are intersections of settler and Indigenous, of faith and science, of stasis and motion. The narrator crisscrosses the landscape—questing, commenting, reflecting, celebrating.
            At Haskell, I saw many elders through the years—spiritual leaders, writers, alumni, tribal leaders. Most of them began the same way, as they spoke to Haskell students, “Indians are a very spiritual people.” That comes back to me as I think of Glancy’s work, which defies categorization. It is always spiritual. I turn to her own comments in the back of Pushing the Bear, which illuminate this quality. She recounts travels to the site of the old Cherokee capital north of Atlanta. She describes how the farms stolen from Cherokee people in the 1830s were burned by General Sherman twenty years later. She concludes, “Maybe, in the end, our acts cause little energy fields that draw their likenesses toward them” (Pushing the Bear 327). This interconnectedness is an aspect of faith. Glancy writes toward reconciliation. To conclude in her words, she writes in Claiming Breath: “I write with a split voice, of the experimenting with language until the parts equal some sort of whole” (xi). That “whole,” after 35 years, is a remarkable legacy for all writers.

Bruchac, Joseph, ed. Songs from This Earth on Turtle’s Back. Greenfield Review Press, 1983.
Glancy, Diane. Brown Wolf Leaves the Res and Other Poems. Blue Cloud Quarterly (vol. 30.1), ed. Brother Benet Tvedten, 1984.
-----. Claiming Breath. University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
-----. It Was Then: Elements of the Diagonal. Mammoth Publications (2012).
-----. Now It Is Snowing Inside a Psalm. Mammoth Publications, 2011.
-----. Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears. Harcourt, 1996.
-----. Stories of the Driven World. Mammoth Publications, 2010.
Glancy, Diane and Mark Nowak, eds. Visit Tepee Town: Native Writings after the Detours. Coffee House Press, 1999.
Hobson, Geary. The Remembered Earth. Red Earth Press, 1979
Mackay, James, ed. The Salt Companion to Diane Glancy. Salt, 2010
Momaday, N. Scott. House Made of Dawn. Harper & Row, 1968.

Niatum, Duane, ed. Carriers of the Dream Wheel, Harper & Row, 1975.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Denise Low, "How to Build a Memoir" article

HOW TO BUILD A MEMOIR by Denise Low
 You can write your life story in six words. Like flash fiction, short-short memoir is a new genre, especially the six-word memoir. Here’s an example, Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” A few words set the scene, classified section of a new
spaper. This suggests income-level and an urban setting. The characters are also suggested—the parent and the baby. The clincher is the sad end, “never worn,” so there is plot. The baby died. Six words give setting, characters, plot, and tragic ending. In 2006, Smith Magazine asked readers to write six-word memoirs in the spirit of Hemmingway. Here are some examples: “Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends”; “I still make coffee for two”; “Teaching 18-year-olds poetry; pray for me”; “Not quite what I was planning.” Twitter, NPR, and national publishers have sponsored six-word memoir publications. So, I challenge you to consider six words that create a memoir of your life, or a part of your life.
A memoir is a personal story about a dramatic or interesting part of a lifetime. I learned this classical definition of memoir when I read A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, first published in 1722, a novel, and not a truthful account. Defoe’s focus on the historic event creates the verisimilitude of memoir. It is an early prototype. Moments of genuine historic memoirs are embedded in Samuel Pepys’s diaries. Here is an excerpt from Diary Entry, September 2, 1666:
Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So, I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . .. By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So, I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . ..
So begins his recounting of the great London fire.
Pepys does several important things in this passage. He establishes his authority to recount the event—his high vantage point. His personal story exists within history, the dated entry, and geography. These are touchstones in a memoir. London in 1666. Barbara Boyen notes memoir is a historical subset of autobiography, “involving a public portion of the author’s life as it relates to a person, historic event, or thing.” (“What Is a Memoir,” Writing Nonfiction). Because people’s lives are not neat sequences, an important part of the process is editing out the useless information. Focus on a public event or social concern is a way to narrow the project. More on this later.
Here are some further considerations for memoir. The writer’s memory is the source for the writing, reliable or not. Dinty W. Moore writes, “Memoir has its roots in memory. Often, that memory may relate to childhood, with an adult writer looking back at her early life to consider how certain youthful experiences shaped and molded the person. . ..” (Truth of the Matter). That is an interesting paradox, the reflection on an earlier self, recounted after adult perspective. And then memory—how reliable is it, really?
As I was writing my first book-length memoir, The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival (University of Nebraska-Bison Books, 2017), I learned how memory as a source can cause difficulties. This came when I compared notes with siblings and cousins. Finally, I had to say, “This is how you remember it. My memory is different.” Memoir is not reportage. I did try to have at least one outside source for each major event, but my memory was the ultimate authority within this book. That contrast between the childhood self and adult narration creates the tension of memoir.
More on the role of memory—it is the far end of the historic fact spectrum. Patricia Hample and Elain May write, “Memoir and history regard each other across a wide divide. In effect, they’re goalposts marking the extremes of nonfiction. The turf that separates them—and connects them—is the vast playing field of memory” (Tell Me True). At a time of facts and alternative facts, the concept of subjectivity is vivid. False memories, implanted memories, confabulated memories—these all are terms for the fuzzy end of memoir, with factual historic events at the other end, on the way to mathematical equations.
Certain characteristics appear in most, if not all, memoirs. The point of view is an authorial “I” voice that engages the reader. If you write a memoir, or anything, the “voice” is one of the most important considerations—it needs to pull readers into the story. We all recognize a good storyteller’s voice. Also, a memoir is located in a geographic place and an historic time. These may be very important or background setting. Like social sciences of history and geography, a memoir includes verifiable facts—the public aspect of the memoir. It can use factional techniques; it shows rather than tells; and dramatizes through scenes with dramatic buildups, conclusions, and dialogue. Its style can be straightforward or adorned with heightened, poetic language.
One of the first masters of contemporary non-fiction prose is Truman Capote, whose In Cold Blood (1966) innovated fictional techniques to convey factual stories. The way the hybrid novel, and then the movie, portrayed the murders in Holcomb, Kansas, is controversial to those who live in that region. Selections and omissions of the storyteller create inconsistencies, slippage. Facts of the murder exist, and the law enforcement records of the criminals. Perspectives vary. A recent documentary interviews people who knew the Clutter family, who still mourn these very good people, in contrast to Capote’s focus on the murderers. I recommend Capote’s memoirist writings in Music for Chameleons, which includes his memoirist essay about In Cold Blood, "Handcarved Coffins." Then the movie Infamous (2006) is more about Capote than the crime, as is the 2005 movie Capote with Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Memoir is subjective to the highest degree, with main character shifts and more, and so always tentative.
Twenty-first century memoir is a hybrid form, mixing historic exposition with heightened language and fictional techniques. Literary nonfiction’s primary intent is beauty and/or entertainment over instruction. Genres of memoir can include: autobiographies, biographies, memoirs, diaries, letters, personal essays, personal critical essays, commentaries, reviews of works of art, nature writing, city writing, travel writing, science writing, true crime, meditations, journals, letters, and cultural commentary. Hybrid forms or “mixed genre” include fictionalized versions of the above or other combinations. Memoir exploits the rise of the lyrical essay in the late 20th century—Joan Didion’s writings are early favorites of mine, and there are many others. The essay may have many other topics than personal memory. The style of any good prose writer uses the lyricism of poetry.
Memoir is now part of a growing field, and market, of nonfiction prose. William Zinsser calls our time “the age of memoir” (Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir). Zinsser’s title emphasizes the creative side of truth-telling. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir was a sensation in 1999, making the bestseller list and winning the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Since then, sales for memoirs increased dramatically—Nielsen BookScan, notes an increase of 400 percent between 2004 and 2008—and readers’ appetites also have increased for kiss-and-tell, disaster, celebrity, political, and other types of memoirs.
Certain plotlines repeat in memoirs. Most common are childhood stories, those of coming of age, overcoming adversity, immigration, and rags to riches. Angela’s Ashes is a prime example of the latter. Survival memoirs can include medical adversities, accidents, and grief. Cancer memoirs are a genre unto themselves, as well as recovery from additions. More classical is the memoir that centers on historic events: a personal story set during Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnam Conflict, or the assassination of Martin Luther King. Topical memoirs have a personal story of a specific topic, like horse racing, life on Wall Street, traveling with the carnival, Hollywood careers, or food. My husband, Thomas Weso, has written a very successful food memoir, Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir (Wisconsin Historical Society Press), and the inclusion of recipes in this collection of family stories created a niche in the very popular food book category, which we were too naive to anticipate. Travel memoir is where a person describes a trip combined with personal stories. Double memoir is a story with the narrator sharing narration through letters or dual authorship. One of my professional workshop students, Alan Proctor, has an excellent memoir The Sweden File: Memoir of an American Expatriate based on his brother’s letters after he left the country to avoid Vietnam war-era military service. Lastly, a removed memoir is when the author narrates a story about someone else. My own memoir tells the story of my Delaware Indian grandfather, who suppressed his identity to survive Ku Klux Klan violence and other discrimination in Kansas.
            So, if you wish to write memoir, voice is most important in a memoir, focus is second, and third is overall architecture. Each story requires a unique organization. Here are ways to think about overall structure. Most follow a simple timeline, like Black Elk Speaks, diaries, journals, and letters. Another strategy is geographic or space orientation, for a travel memoir. Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon is an example. As in movies, flashbacks, can work well, like Sally Carrighar’s Home to the Wilderness. If you wish to try something fancier, braiding several stories together is an option, with alternating two or strands, and one of my favorites of these is Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich. Or you can unfold themes, like, for example, organizing spices by flavor—salt, sour, bitter, sweet, heat, earthiness.
The best way to learn how to write a memoir is to read them. During my research, I noticed some best practices.
  1. Think about why you are writing this memoir. For my family memoir, I wanted to explain my grandfather’s Native identity to my children and grandchildren, first. Next, I wanted to inform those who are interested in Kansas and Native histories. So, an important question is audience? Family or public? General audience or educated in your field? How you choose vocabulary and style will depend on your reader.
  2. Focus the setting. Choose a short time frame in a specific place. Don’t try to cover too much or skip around, unless you have a clear plan (braiding, flashbacks, etc.).
  3. What is your vantage point? Are you an adult looking back on childhood, or are you speaking with the voice of a child? Whatever you choose, be consistent.
  4. Use colorful description and scenes to show your story. These add texture. Use just enough summary exposition for clarity.
  5. Layer your writing. Simple bare bones of Grandmother attending a one-room schoolhouse in winter is of little interest. Create a plot, of the day the raccoon attacked your dog, for example. Add a layer of description of the room. Dramatize the characters by how they look, act, and speak (you can reconstruct dialogue).
  6. Reflect, briefly, at high points in your dramas. This personal assessment gives depth to the memoir. I have read too many amateur memoirs that give the facts without reflection, and these become very drab.
  7. End with a significant discovery. How are you changed? How are people around you changed?
All of us owe it to our children and grandchildren to leave some heritage stories, as these help young people orient themselves and develop pride. My grandmother left a wonderful short collection of stories about growing up in turn-of-the-century San Antonio. I have typed them up and shared with all the relatives. I have written my own memoir about my grandfather, and I believe it helps fill in some historical gaps for others in this region and for Native peoples. I encourage you to write your memoirs by using your best storytelling voice, focusing on a particular time and place, creating an outline, and filling it in with textured scenes, memorable characters, and maybe some dialogue. Your six-word memoirs are a first step. 
c. 2018 Denise Low. Please contact for reprint permission.

Denise Low teaches professional writing workshops on memoir. Contact kansaspoetry [at]gmail. Her memoir The Turtle's Beating Heart has earned favorable reviews from Kirkus, Library Journal, Forward Reviews, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Indian Country Today, World Literature Today, and many others.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sir Philip Sydney extols poetic qualities of English

On a snowy afternoon, I am reading Sir Philip Sydney's "In Defense of Poetry." He writes about the
superiority of English as a poetic language, something I had not considered, ever, after listening to Spanish, Cherokee, Greek, Welsh, Ojibwa, French, Chinese, Kiowa, and other languages. However, here is his argument:

  "Now of versifying there are two sorts, the one ancient, the other modern. (1) The
ancient marked the quantity of each syllable, and according to that framed his verse; (2) the modern observing only number, with some regard of the accent, the chief life of it stands in that like sounding of the words, which we call rime. Whether of these be the more excellent would bear many speeches; the ancient no doubt more fit for music, both words and tune observing quantity; and more fit lively to express divers passions, by the low or lofty sound of the well-weighed syllable. The latter likewise with his rime strikes a certain music to the ear; and, in fine, since it doth delight, though by another way, it obtains the same purpose; there being in either, sweetness, and wanting in neither, majesty. Truly the English, before any other vulgar language I know, is fit for both sorts. For, for the ancient, the Italian is so full of vowels that it must ever be cumbered with elisions; the Dutch so, of the other side, with consonants, that they cannot yield the sweet sliding fit for a verse. The French in his whole language hath not one word that hath his accent in the last syllable saving two, called antepenultima, and little more hath the Spanish; and therefore very gracelessly may they use dactyls. The English is subject to none of these defects. Now for rime, 54 though we do not observe quantity, yet we observe the accent very precisely, which other languages either cannot do, or will not do so absolutely. That cæsura, or breathing-place in the midst of the verse, neither Italian nor Spanish have, the French and we never almost fail of."


Friday, January 12, 2018

LINDA RODRIGUEZ PUBLISHES DARK SISTER: POEMS


LINDA RODRIGUEZ, author of award-winning poetry and prose, publishes with Mammoth!
88 pages $16.00 ISBN Perfect-bound paper 978-1-939301-66-6  
Pre-order now for discount! $10.00 plus shipping PayPal or check. Kansas residents: Click this for tax. Others click here! Mail order: Mammoth Publications, 1916 Stratford Rd. Lawrence, KS 66044 $13 postpaid. Books available Feb. 1.

“I want to say so much about Rodriguez’s poetic gifts. What talent! The most accomplished poet of our generation. A poetic voice for our time.” ~Rudolfo Anaya, author of Bless Me, Ultima and Albuquerque

Click this link to Mammoth Publications website for further details.


Dark Sister: Poems gives voice to the living presence of Cherokee teachings and history, passed down through Linda Rodriguez’s family. Rodriguez, author of the exciting Cherokee detective series featuring  Skeet Bannion (St. Martin's/Minotaur Press), turns to family stories and memory for her third book of poetry. She testifies about the borderlands that still exist between Cherokee people and heirs of Andrew Jackson’s soldiers; between Americans and their British Isles forebears; and between the frontera of Mexico and southern plains states of the United States. She spares no quarter as she remembers history and its embodiment in the present. She tells compelling stories about the last Beloved Woman, Trickster, and other traditional figures with the sure hand of an oral storyteller and with the lyrical intensity of a skilled poet. In Dark Sister, the ageless Cherokee language and Spanish blend with English to explain the complexities of life as a mixed-blood woman in the 21st century. This accessible book appeals to adults and young adult audiences with family stories, love stories, just-so stories, and more. 
 For her previous books of poetry, Skin Hunger (Scapegoat Press) and Heart’s Migration (Tia Chucha Press), Linda Rodriguez has received numerous recognitions, including the Thorpe Menn Award for Literary Excellence, the Midwest Voices and Visions Award, the Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, the 2011 and 2014 ArtsKC Fund Inspiration Awards, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Rodriguez has edited four anthologies, most recently The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, co-edited with Diane Glancy. Her poetry has appeared in many national and regional journals and on Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac, The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress, and New Letters on the Air. Her award-winning Skeet Bannion novels, all from St. Martin's/Minotaur, are: Every Broken Trust, Every Hidden Fear, and Every Last Secret, which won the 2011 St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition and was a Barnes & Noble mystery pick, featured by Las Comadres National Latino Book Club, and a finalist for the International Latino Book Award.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

New Letters publishes Denise Low's review of Lombardo's Sappho

I appreciate the elegant journal New Letter's publication of my review of Stanley Lombardo’s
translation Sappho: Complete Poems and Fragments (Hackett) for the new issue of New Letters. Here is a brief excerpt:
"Lombardo deliberately composes pages of the least complete fragments to preserve placements of text. This creates a field of inverse lacuna, as the few remaining words appear within the larger gaps of loss. This is a collage effect. Susan Howe’s 2017 book Debths has a similar, deliberate effect. She composes pages of white space and text clippings, some lines smudged beyond recognition. She explains the bricolage sections: 'Our eyes see what is outside in the landscape in the form of words on paper but inside, a slash or mark wells up from a deeper place where music before counting hails from' (22)." The complete text of the review is a PDF on the New Letters website.  New Letters v. 84, no. 1 (2017-18): 131-4.