Friend and poet Stephen Bunch, former editor of Tellus,
sent this response to news of the Robert Bly 80th birth
day party,posted below. Stephen works with Continuing
Ed.at KU these days and still writes solid, inventive
He recalls the days when KU was a crossroads for
traveling poets Robert Creeley,Robert Duncan, Galway
Kinnell, Allen Ginsberg, and Diane Wakoski. George
Kimball ran for sheriff. Ed Dorn and his dog drank at
the Rock Chalk tavern.
Thanks,Stephen, for this memoir and links.
Hi, Denise, I enjoy your 'blog.
I remember Bly's reading at KU in 1969, when he read
primarily from "The Light Around the Body" and "The
Teeth Mother Naked at Last." I can't describe how
heartening it was for a person of my generation (19
at the time) to hear such a voice with such poetic
and moral authority declaiming from his generation.
I don't remember if I sent you this memoir earlier,
but it encompasses that semester when Bly and other
poetic champions landed in Lawrence.
In yesterday's news, linked above, comes word that a
storied Lawrence, Kansas, watering hole may be about
to vanish from the north edge of the University of
Kansas campus. Among its distinctions the Rock Chalk
Café, now known as The Crossing,holds a place in local
Edward Dorn's poem "The Cosmology of Finding Your
Spot" celebrated the Rock Chalk and its denizens
http://www.ku.edu/heritage/beats/dorn.html and was
published (typos and all) as a broadside in
connection with a reading in support of the Draft
Resisters League in 1969. The reading occurred just
across the street from the Rock Chalk, at the United
Campus Christian Fellowship building. As I recall,
Robert Bly also read that evening. Robert Creeley,
Robert Duncan, Galway Kinnell, and Diane Wakoski
also came through Lawrence that spring.
George Kimball, poet, sportswriter, Yippie
candidate for Douglas County sheriff in 1970,
presided at the Rock Chalk
He wore a revolver in a holster on his hip and had one
eye. His campaign slogan was that he would keep an eye
on crime. He lost the election, but a fellow Yippie
write-in candidate was elected justice of the peace.
After he announced he would marry gay couples, the
state of Kansas quickly eliminated retroactively
the office of justice of the peace.
In the early '80s Allen Ginsberg was the honored
guest at a large lunch gathering at the Rock Chalk
(by then it may have become the Crossing, I don't
remember). At lunch he signed my old copy of "Grist"
magazine, edited and published by John Fowler out of
the old Abingdon Bookshop,which was formerly just
down the street from the Rock Chalk. This particular
issue of "Grist" contained an excerpt from "Wichita
Vortex Sutra." Ginsberg then joined Kemp Houck,
English professor at the time (before dropping
out of academia to become an anti-nuke activist),
and me that afternoon to record an interview about
his memories and thoughts regarding Charles Olson.
Unfortunately,Kemp managed inadvertently to erase
much of the tape. Somewhere in my files is a
transcript of the tail end of the interview. That
evening AG read to a standing room only audience,
probably around 800 or so,in the Kansas Union
Ballroom, also just down the street from the Rock
Chalk Cafe. William Burroughs and Andrei Codrescu
were in attendance. Steven Taylor played guitar.
The Rock Chalk was a center of culture, celebration,
and commotion during the Vietnam era. An energy
radiated from it every bit as perceptible as the
sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon
Rising" thumping from its jukebox, which I could
hear from my future (and current) wife's bedroom
window a half block away down Oread Street in 1969.
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
He says many too-kind things about my upcoming role of Kansas poet laureate, July 1, 2007. Then he ruminates about what poets laureate can accomplish: "A poet laureate helps bring the values of verse to the people and honors the idea that 'despised poems,' as William Carlos Williams once termed them (he was being ironic--sort of), are not quaint, out-moded things but rather that the form remains a vibrant one, worthy of our attention.'"
Eberhart calls for the state of Missouri to renew its effort to create a poet laureate position. Please help him by commenting on the article at the KC Star website.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
"Robert Bly, who attended his first poetry reading in 1953 at the 92nd Street Y,was back at the Y Monday night, on stage this time, for an evening celebrating his eightieth birthday, his poetry, his translations, his friendships, his long marriage, his family, his legions of mentees and supporters. The Y's 'Tribute to Robert Bly,' was coproduced by Alison Granucci and Blue Flower Arts.
"Gioia Timpanelli, writer and a founder of the worldwide revival of storytelling, spoke of her 30-year friendship with Bly and kicked off the evening with renditions of two of his favorite stories. Not surprisingly, they were magical and mysterious tales featuring creatures with trickster talents.
"Donald Hall read Where We Must Look for Help, from Bly's 1962 first collection, Silence in the Snowy Fields, ('the crow, the crow, the spider-colored crow, the crow shall find new mud to walk upon.') and reminisced about their undergraduate days at Harvard: 'I first met Robert in 1948. He was Bob Bly then. He was tall and skinny and red-headed, wearing a three-piece suit with a string tie. He never smiled. I was terrified of him....I found out within the year he was terrified of me, too.' The two have been writing letters back and forth for nearly 60 years, Hall estimates some 20,000 letters between them (now, there is a book project...).
"Galway Kinnell spoke of Bly's serene composure and his love of children--in particular Kinnell's two year old daughter, who offered Bly a flower when he came to visit. 'He plucked the petals off and ate the whole thing. She was completely enchanted. She pulled out another flower.I think he ate three flowers.' He read from 'The Teeth Mother Naked at Last,' which he introduced as 'a poem I regard as the greatest war or anti-war poem written in the twentieth century.'
"Coleman Barks described a recent trip to Iran, where he was given an honorary doctorate from the University of Teheran for his translations of Rumi and Hafez. He insisted that Bly, his mentor, who had introduced him to Rumi's work, be honored, as well. So the Iranians gave Bly a plaque and the two shared the stage. (Bly had to return his ceremonial blue robe; Barks got to keep his black robe with 'Captain America'wings.) Li-Young Lee, honored Bly's dense style: 'The paradigm is DNA, more and more information in each line.'
"Judith Davidson Moyers noted how she and Bill Moyers found in Bly the perfect catalyst for a public television series about poetry, and called Bly 'something of a shapeshifter' as she introduced the evening's second act: Bly interviewed by Bill Moyers. The opening question: 'What do you get up for in the morning?' Bly's answer: 'I still have the habit of writing poetry. I have poems from 1952 I haven't finished yet.' The two, relaxed, kicked the conversational ball back and forth, alluding to their long marriage (Moyers, 52 years; Bly, 51), their early awareness of each other in the 1960s (Moyers, in the LBJ White House when Bly was leading protests against the Vietnam War, said, 'I remember reading your FBI reports'), Bly's activism against the war in Iraq, the joy of 'kindred spirits.'
"The finale: Bly reading, masterfully, then chocolate cake, and poets and writers celebrating."
By Jane Ciabattari http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com
Monday, December 18, 2006
sip water from melting ice
and I see their red breasted life
in this gray-mist twilight
just after we buried a brother.
with the priest, “our daily bread”
while birds found clear elixir.
Now I pour a scotch and drink
liquid coals to remind myself
This is all I can imagine
and the pine tree’s fronds
and bobbing feathery doubles
reflected outside the glass.
C. Denise Low. Published 17 Dec. 2006 in the Kansas City Star (F10)
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Roger Shimomura is a long-time resident of Lawrence, and I remember one of his first art shows in the University of Kansas Spooner Museum, about 1968. The majority of his work concerns Japanese American experience, especially Japanese American internment camps of World War II. He was a child then, and he also draws on his grandmother's diary of that time. He now is distinguished faculty emeritus from the KU art department. The Smithsonian archives his papers, and he has had shows and performance-art pieces all over the country. He and his artist wife Janet Davidson-Hues have an apartment in New York City, where he met the subject of this award-winning documentary, Jimmy Mirikitani.
Like Shimomura, Mirikitani is a survivor of the internment camps, when Japanese Americans were uprooted by the U.S. government and held in prison camps 1942-1944. They lost homes, farms, and other assets; the majority of this 110,000 group were U.S. citizens, including Mirikitani and Shimomura. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_American_internment). Mirikitani also lost all his Japanese relatives in Hiroshima.
Shimomura found Mirikitani's artwork on E-Bay by coincidence, before 9/11/2001. By coincidence, the homeless artist's street "gallery" was near Shimomura's apartment and near the twin towers. Shimomura saw the street artist whenever he was in the city. Also, a film editor, Linda Hattendorf, began filming Mirikitani's life for a documentary.
This film became The Cats of Mirikitani. The opening scenes are beautifully put together and moving--a polished documentary. And then the destruction of the twin towers, eerily captured here, shifts the story into acute political commentary. Parallels between the explosions of Hiroshima and of the towers frame the rest of the images. Mirikitani's barely contained anger and grief over his own internment and war losses increase the film's voltage as well.
The real star, however, is Mirikitani's artwork. It is lush, bright, detailed, and skilled. His landscapes of the Tule Lake internment camp are geographically accurate and horribly beautiful; the drawings also reach vectors into psychological landscapes. The artist draws cats in memory of a child who died in the camps.
The camera shows Mirikitani working 12 and 14 hours a day on his drawings and paintings, so the variety of his images--portraits, flower-and-bird paintings, street scenes--accumulates a stunning visual impact. This is a painterly documentary with emotional power.
My husband Thomas Pecore Weso says Hattendorf creates a happy ending for the film. Indeed, it is very moving to see the healing that occurs as the filmmaker gives Mirikitani shelter from the poisonous aftermath of the twin towers. The two become domestic partners in her tiny studio apartment. She finds social services for him at a retirement home. There he teaches drawing and eventually takes up residency. He meets with an estranged sister, and he attends a reunion at Tule. The camera documents this narrative progression. And as Mirikitani's inner pain unfolds, the role of artmaking as his expression for all these years takes on greater significance.
Mirikitani's life, in his 80s, has improved. He had a one-man show at the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle, summer 2006, and he attended the premiere of this documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award. (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/artsentertainment/2003120337_jimmy12.html). Yet Mirikitani's internment camp years and aftermath and the horror of Hiroshima cannot be dismissed. The impact of the twin tower attacks cannot be dismissed.
The U.S. government modeled Japanese internment camps on 19th century American Indian reservation life--despite the constitution that guarantees life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This film will make it less easy to dismiss these U.S. historic policies.
The Haskell Indian Nations University film club will show The Cats of Mirikitani in Lawrence in February, 2007. It is showing in Vancouver Dec. 17-22, 2006; it will run in New York City early spring 2007 (TBA); and PBS will broadcast it May 8, 2007.
For further information: http://www.thecatsofmirikitani.com/
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
The first photo is Doug Crawford-Parker and Ann Haehl. The second is Jeanie Wilson, Stephen Bunch, and Louie Galloway.
All over the country, groups meet to discuss poetry--both their own and others in the tradition. There is that paradox again: lyric poetry arises in the private, inward moment; yet for the moment to find completion, poets seek listeners, to close the communication circle. We are not content with our own inward monologues.
I have been in a poetry group off and on for 3 decades. One of the first ones was a women's group, with Caryn Mirriam Goldbert, Judith Roitman, Erleen Christensen, Sally McNall, Mary Klayder, Jane Hoskinson, Reva Friedman, and several others. We met regularly for about 5 or 6 years, and I learned a lot. Group dynamics are also part of the experience. Some went on to become serious poets, and a few quit. Most are still writing.
Sunday I met with a Lawrence group organized by Gary Lechliter and meeting at Elizabeth Schultz's house. Thomas Zvi and Jeanie Wilson drove in from Ks. City, as well as Karl Rhoden and Lindsey Bowen-Martin. Brian Daldorph was there, Doug Crawford-Parker, Ann Haehl (and I remember being in a women's group with her in the 1970s!) Stephen Bunch (publisher of TELLUS in the 1980s) and many more. (Forgive me the names I forget here!) Daldorph read from the recend edition of Kansas City Voices and was generous-spirited to also read works by another poet! Haehl read fine, cleanly edited work. The Wilsons recently published their book of alternating poems The Door Into the Dream, described by the Kansas City Star: "A satisfying marriage of image and metaphor from husband-and-wife poets." The Star named it as one of their 100 notable books of 2006.
I tried out an excerpt from the translations I'm working on with Mohamend ElHodiri of work by Egyptian poet Muhamed Afifi Matar. This gave me confidence to keep going with the Walt Whitmanesque form I've chosen rather than ballad-like forms that would capture the music but lose the meanings. An audience really helps!
Photos by Denise Low and copyright.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
The trailer was fast-paced and had a very condensed suggestion of the narrative, which Willmott describes: “‘Bunker Hill’ is about what happens in a small Kansas town when technology stops functioning, and you’re forced to deal with your own fear and insecurity. In a lot of ways we’ve been living in a Western like this for the past five years.” The post 9/11/01 climate of terrorism is brought home, even in the short trailer. Small town social groups splinter into factions. Orwell's Animal Farm is a referent here, but with cowboys in a too-real, unromantic, gritty West.
The highlights of the party, for me, were (1) the turnout of the film/theatre folks from the area, many of whom I didn't know; (2) the turnout of other arts-committed folks, like Chris Howell of the Ks Arts Commission, Stan Herd, Greg Hurd (who co-wrote the script), Louis Copt; (3) the generosity and inclusiveness of Willmott; (4) Kelley Hunt's singing of a song from the movie (and she's also an acress in the film) and (5) James McDaniel's final gracious speech congratulating and encouraging the arts in NE Kansas and exhorting the crowd to appreciate Lawrence as a national arts community.
Another point made by Willmott and McDaniel: this is not the end of filmmaking. Already, plans are in the works for a film about Wilt Chamberlain in Lawrence. Within the community, he is credited with de-segregating not only sports but also public places.
More on Kevin Willmott, film professor at KU, is at http://www2.ku.edu/~kuthf/willmott.html
and his filmography (Confederate States of America, 9th St., etc.) is at
Saturday, December 9, 2006
Elk Medicine By Denise Low
Sunday, December 3, 2006
That male elk across the creek
wooed the dozen females
and made their calves.
They sprawl the meadow.
He looks up, lowers his antlers,
grazes another mouthful.
Then looks again.
One of the last cows
goes to ground. Rests maybe
as the herd drifts to water.
She stays while they wade.
Finally, sun lower, she rises
with her damp, unsteady child--
his powerful medicine.
Denise Low, who lives in Lawrence, was recently named the next Poet Laureate of Kansas. copyright Denise Low
Friday, December 8, 2006
Farewell comments for Karen Swisher
During the time we spend with each other, we enter into relationship with each other—become family, as we say at Haskell. We share experiences, successes, failures, hopes. We blend our life energies with each other, we learn each other’s habits, we learn each other’s talents: and we enter into a lifetime covenant of memories. Although we may leave this room at , we will not leave each other’s thoughts. Our stories, our dreams, our way of thinking, our future memories are all influenced by how we have shared this time together. Dr. Swisher is a part of this shared collective memory.
In her years at Haskell, Dr Swisher has been a consultant, a colleague, and a leader for us. She will always be part of Haskell –both its history and its future. Without her there would not be the bright possibilities we have before us. We have excellent accreditation. We have collegiate programs and grants and research and conferences and curriculum and graduates. We have an increase in Native faculty. We have a leader who allowed us to develop university goals. We have a leader who will always be woven into the fabric of daily practices at Haskell and who will always be part of our life experience.
I have gratitude for all these academic gifts from Dr. Swisher. I also will remember her insistence on civility and kindness. She has encouraged us to be positive about one another. I remember when she has offered me a place to sit when I felt out of place. She insists on courtesy in meetings, and she is always willing to listen to every individual. She values all of us. This has set the tone for the campus, and it is a wonderful precedent—the basis for all successful University and institution interactions.
I hope Dr. Swisher will return often. I expect to see her at basketball games, at Thunderbird Theatre plays, and at poetry readings. I expect her to remain a visible, inspirational example of how the Haskell family survives, prevails, and triumphs.
The local paper did this article:
c. Denise Low
Thursday, December 7, 2006
Here is a poem by Michael Paul Novak from A Story to Tell (Kansas City: BookMark Press, 1990; I remember editor Dan Jaffe's pride when he published this book).
Taps at Fort Leavenworth
The clear bell of the trumpet
Is a recording, but the cannon shot
That follows is real as death.
It rings in my ears as I keep
Moving in a world at attention.
The saluted flag tumbles
Majestically down as if it were
A symbol, something significant.
In the disciplinary barracks
The prisoners' day is not done.
The sun shines in their cells,
An insult to order.
I'm driving out, observing
The speed limit, like a believer
And hearing for miles and miles
The silence of guns.
c. Christina Novak, Brian Novak
I went to Leavenworth last night for the informal service for this fine poet, born July 6, 1935 and died Dec. 2, 2006. Almost everyone spoke about their connections to Novak. His daughter told how her dad had kept his feelings private, so she expressed to several members of the group how much they had meant to him and how he spoke of them to her. One was a "best friend." One was singled out as "ethical." She used more details, and those who knew the individuals enjoyed the disclosure.
I remembered his role in the community of Kansas poets and writers. He was an active member of the Kansas Writers Association, which was composed of writers from college creative writing programs across the state and professional writers. It was a state-level organization modeled after the national Association Writing Programs www.awpwriter.org. He was always funny, darkly so, and greatly intelligent. This photograph comes from that conference. I will miss his spark.
Here is the Kansas City Star obituary Dec. 5, 2006:
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
An Argument for NAGPRA
Buyer Beware at Southeby’s
I heard Geronimo’s boots left town
and his wife’s and daughter’s boots
went with them—a family of shoes.
They had lived silently in an artist’s
basement collection for years
safe, except for one flood.
Now they are for sale. The label says
“Geronimo bought cowboy boots
and threw away these moccasins.
They are fringed deer skin, knee-high.
Chiricahua. 1886.” In this leather
that Trickster made stories:
The time he cut off one wife’s nose
for fooling around
The time he slipped off a mountain
when surrounded by the army
The time he shapeshifted
in a photographer’s studio.
He knew medicine that made him
invisible but just when they thought
he was finally gone he returned,
calm within a watermelon garden.
For his final trick he pretended
to lose his mind, the price
for all that power but instead
he was practicing how to stay alive
in all kinds of skins, first buckskin
and now—domesticated cowhide.
Saturday, December 2, 2006
Brian has worked as an organizer of readings for years in Lawrence. He also edits Coal City Review, and he has published strong collections of his own writings. During his own brief reading, he mentioned he has taught poetry writing at the local county jail for five years. He and the editors of Kansas City Voices embody the assertion of independent voices against corporate publishing interests. Their work is so important.
I was happy to hear readers from KC and to acquaint myself with Porubsky, a railroad conductor by day and a free-thinking poet all the time. My own dad worked on the railroad, and his writing made me nostalgic for that travelers' lifeway.
Porubsky's $10 book Voyeur Poems can be ordered through firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photographs fit seamlessly into the text, as the archetypal human figures in them echoes the sense of distanced and mediated sight. This is a great debut book--Porubsky has a fully formed narrative voice throughout, and he controls long lines well. The poet's voyearistic doppelganger discloses eroticism, intimacy, and humor, as in the ending of "The Walkin' Away Solo Blues: "You watch her walk off/ along the creack you though you made/and her shadow comes back/ and sits down to gnaw at you for a while/ and you abide./ yes, you oblige." This is a young poet to watch.
Thursday, November 30, 2006
It was fun to see the set-up. The weather man really does wave around and point to a blank wall. The sound room somehow coordinates with the weather man and anchor to flash , no roll, video in coordination with the telepromter. There were two teleprompters. Neither had answers for me.
Also, the weatherman and anchor Jiou-Jiou Shen (sp?) were performers more than I expected. Yes, they spoke clearly, quickly, and with clean accents. But also they exaggerated their animation just a bit--not to the point of silent movie actors, but on the same continuum. I tried to amp up my own facial expressions a bit and act excited. I do not show outward emotions easily.
I answered questions like "How did it make you feel to be chosen poet laureate?" Boy, my feelings are a deep mystery to me, a collection of surges that change and mutate in memory each day. I invented something that I hoped sounded okay. I did get to thank Tom Averill for nominating me. I tried to express appreciation to Jonathan Holden and Greg German for all they have done. I described the position, what I hope to do, and then, whew, four of my five minutes of fame was up! Ms. Shen didn't look at her watch once, and she had the 240 seconds figured out exactly.
This early morning I worked a few hours on revising a chapter for a book on Native writers who are underappreciated. My piece is on the poetry of Heid Erdrich, who has two books, Fishing for Myth and The Mother's Tongue. She's Ojibwe of mixed German and French ancestry as well. Her poetry addresses mixed heritage life, urban Indian life, nature and the body, women's issues. All these, plus her skill and magic, make her worthy of more recognition. I'm shocked to find her two books have almost no reviews--just a few online mentions through the Minnesota arts site and a link through the Native American writer home page http://www.hanksville.org/storytellers/HErdrich/. So I'm glad to be working on this, but early morning isn't long enough to finish the project today. There is so much critical work to be done for Midwestern writers and poets.
Friday, November 24, 2006
I feel more pressure to perform well and write well. Of course I am the same person and poet I was before the announcement! I am quite mortal.
Another miscellaneous thought--this position is so unique, with no analogous position for other writers or occupations--that few people seem jealous of me. I keep telling well wishers there should be laureates for other occupations!
And I am so touched by letters of congratulations that appear in the mail from friends, neighbors, the Lied Center, my state legislators, and others. I did not expect this level of public scrutiny!
One of my favorite stories of myself is years ago after publishing one of the very first things, I went to the Spencer Research Library to find a review of it. As I signed in, the librarian asked if I was THE Denise Low. I puffed up and said yes. My children were with me and were impressed. When the librarian brought out the magazine with the review, it turned out to be somewhat (okay pretty much so) negative! I deflated pretty quickly. So the laureate-ness is a nice moment among a spectrum of many many kinds of moments.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
and from there on the day was full. Thanks to Mike Yoder for a great photograph for the paper. Sophia Maines and Ben White, the two writers, condensed my rambles very well.
Since I'm basically a shy person, but I love words--stories, poems, drama, nonfiction prose, all of it--so this pulls me into relationships with groups and individuals in ways I never expect. My husband is smart. When we were courting, he presented about six entertaining monologues, probably rehearsed, about his life and embellished them. He also was watching Humphrey Bogart movies and memorized great lines, and at romantic moments, he would deliver a line or two that sounded too good to be true. I caught onto what he was doing after awhile, and appreciated his ingenuity. He's also smart enough to come up with some of these lines and stories often enough to keep me content.
But the point being: as a shy person, I find myself in front of groups and cameras and microphones more than I ever imagined as a teenager putting a few lines of verse together. Yesterday there were 2 newspaper articles, a reception at Haskell Indian Nations University, where I teach, and a reading of Haskell students at the Johnson County Public Library in Overland Park, KS, which was recorded. The Lawrence Journal World online article also has a button that will play a recording of a short prose poem. This is not an era for the shy.
Other bits and pieces: I wanted the Haskell reception to be in the library because of how much libraries, and the books within them, have meant to me. It is a miracle, still, that I can walk into a building, wave a bar code over a scanner, and walk out with a pile of books. In my most poor days I could have this wealth. Gloria Graves is the acting director, James Jones the librarian (I don't know the technical titles), and Rhonda Levaldo, and they did a great job of hosting. The president Karen Swisher was gracious in introducing and presenting a plaque. My vice president and her division gave me flowers, as well as my depts. Roger Shimomura, esteemed friend and U of Kansas distinguished prof. emeritus and painter, found his way, and Janet Allen, a former student, and a good number of the Haskell family. Lori Tapahonso handed me the phone right before the event, and her mother Luci was on the other end, and it was so good to hear from her as well.
The Johnson Co. library reading featured Haskell students Alex Alvarez, Danny Reninga and alumni (and dear, dear friends) Jennie James and Bill James. What great work they all had. I may not get the spelling right here. But also author Diane Glancy attended, which was a treat. Jeannie and Tom Wilson host the series. Trish Reeves, creative writing prof. at Haskell arranged the reading, and my only regret for the evening is that she didn't read something of hers as well. This was part of the Writers Place readings, and the library said the reading would be available for Podcasts. I was tired but afterwards we went to the Thai Place down 87th a block for spring rolls and conversation about Haskell ghosts!
And another good moment yesterday was at the library Thanksgiving lunch, where I ran into former student Denny Gayton, now a KU grad. student, and I heard more of his research on Dakota oral traditions and mammoths and cosmology. His paper on this topic is on my husband's and my website for our small publishing co., www.mammothpublications.com .
Monday, November 20, 2006
Saturday, November 18, 2006
First, I am grateful for the honor of being selected for the next poet laureate of Kansas by the Kansas Arts Commission and Gov. Sibelius. Jonathan Holden is the first Kansas Poet Laureate, and his term runs until July, 2007. He has found wonderful ways to inaugurate this role, including a website, http://www.kansaspoets.com/ , and tel-net discussions of poetry with Kansas poets. More information is at http://arts.state.ks.us/
More information about my books can be found at http://www.mammothpublications.com/ .
To start, I want to post some of my writings in a serialized form for this blog, starting with this first essay from Words of a Prarie Alchemist. The print-text version is available from Steve Semken: http://www.icecubepress.com/
In this essay I try to express how important stories are to responsible connection to the environment. Do let me know what you think.
American Indian Geography and Literature: Considerations for Writers
by Denise Low
American Indian people know about survival, and one of their most important tools is literature. The transmission of memorized texts, and sometimes glyphic texts, from one generation to the next sustains cultural identity. One essential strategy of Native storytellers is linking narratives to specific sites. Through stories, Native inhabitants can associate a landscape with moral behavior; history; community identity; and “myth”—the connection between human and spiritual realms. Indigenous Americans continue to preserve literary accounts, and even some languages, after more than five-hundred years of contact with European, African, and other cultures. This success is hard to ignore.
Indigenous American culture groups have distinct categories of literature, including types of narratives. Anthropologist Keith Basso, who works with Western Apache people of Cibque, Arizona, studies their literary genres. He lived with a community family, learned the language, and sustained his dialogue with elders for many years. One of my students at Haskell Indian Nations University was a member of his host family, and she respected his work. Over the years, Basso came to understand that rather than poetry, fiction and drama, of the western European tradition, Apache people first sort language presentations into three types: ordinary talk, prayer, and literature (“narratives”). They further subdivide literature into sacred accounts (“myths”), historic tales, present day sagas, and gossip.
Stories of the second type, about history, always correlate with geography. Basso learned that Western Apache historical accounts further conjoin landmarks with moral lessons: “Historical tales focus on persons who suffer misfortune as the consequence of actions that violate Apache standards for acceptable social behavior.” These tales are linked to places “by an opening and closing line that identifies a place-name where the events in the narrative occurred.” Thus, the places become affixed to the morality tales, in part because of the titles. Landscape is a compendium of teachings....
One such story appears in Diné poet Luci Tapahonso’s works, and in addition to geographical information, it reinforces the “special” knowledge that gives her nation a distinct historic identity. “Just Past Shiprock” connects a New Mexico place to a tragic tale. The title itself is a location, and then the narrator of the poem continues to give more detailed directions:
…there were flat mesas, gentle sandhills, and a few houses scattered at distances. Mary pointed to a mesa as we rounded a curve and asked, “See those rocks at the bottom?” We stopped playing and moved around her to listen. The question was the opening for a story.
What would be a casual remark to most travelers here is a signal to the Diné children to stop and prepare for a story, similar to the Western Apache formula for the opening of a historical tale. The narrator “Mary’s” comment is strong enough to stop a group of noisy children and get their attention. “Mary” then continues to describe the rocks’ color and texture as well as location:
The rocks she pointed at were midway between the ground and the top of the rock pile. The mesa loomed behind, smooth and deep ochre. The rocks were on the shaded side of the mesa.
This much description of geologic formations would not be necessary unless the storyteller expected the listeners to remember the place. Only after the setting is clear does the narrator of the story, tell about a young couple that lost a baby and buried her under the same rocks that the children see from the road. “Mary” finishes the story within the story with a final emphasis on the place: “Those rocks might look like any others, but they’re special.” This sense of “special” is understated here, but it creates an emphasis for the children to remember both location and its human dimension. It emphasizes the site’s role in tribal history.
At the end of Tapahonso’s “Just Past Shiprock,” the narrator refers obliquely to non- Diné people’s dismissal of the desert-like region and concludes “This land that may seem arid and forlorn to the newcomer is full of stories which hold the sprits of the people, those who live here today and those who lived centuries and other worlds ago.” Again, like Western Apache texts, time is fused with a place through the agency of a narrative account. Tapahonso consciously translates a Diné genre of place-stories, about a land “full of stories,” into English. Loss of a child is tragic, so this is a lesson in grief and recovery from grief as well, and the assertion that no life is forgotten. Tapahonso’s story is one example of how use of landmarks creates a memorable historic text....[to be continued]