Thursday, June 28, 2007

Appreciation for Jonathan Holden Coming in Midwest Quarterly

The Midwest Quarterly is publishing a special issue about the first poet laureate of Kansas, Jonathan Holden. Stephen Meats, long-time poetry editor of MQ, is putting together a collection of commentary about Jonathan, an interview, and other highlights. Its url is I have the opportunity in that issue to express my profound appreciation for Jonathan at some length.

Holden has been very supportive and gave me a gracious, kind introduction at the governor's arts awards in Topeka, June 7, for which I am very, very grateful. I have known and admired Jonathan for 30 years, when I first heard him read at Kansas State University, where he is a professor. I was a temporary instructor at KSU in the late 1970s, and I also knew his student Scott Cairns, who has become a great poet of faith. Jonathan has inspired several generations of poets.

Jonathan encouraged me to strive for excellence. His example of combining scholarship with writing made me aware of how much research, formal or informal, goes into good verse. His love of the art form was an inspiration also. As I reflected on his career for the MQ article, I realized how much he supported American aesthetics; women's values in poetry; and the inclusion of domestic within the tradition. He truly has impacted, through his own poetry and scholarship, the direction of American verse.

Because they own the copyright, I cannot reprint what I wrote for the MQ, but please do look for that issue. Greg German and Jonathan edited a selection of poetry for it, as well.

Here is a comment from Ted Kooser, which summarizes how many of us feel: "Jonathan Holden is one of our most intelligent poets... It is not always easy to be both brilliant and generous of spirit. It is our good fortune that Holden wears his learning lightly and with such unaffected grace and charm."

Again, my heart-felt appreciation for the commitment of this great mind, first poet laureate of Kansas. Here's a poem from his essential book of selected works Knowing (University of Arkansas Press)

Western Meadowlark

Through the open car window
Seven needles in a haystack
snatched by ear out of the moving
prairie, like you
already fading, passed, gone.
If I could find it, it would be
points of sunlight glancing
off a brooch so near shades
of gold in these moving
grasses I could scarcely distinguish
it from the grasses. Like you
it is always gone.

The bird pulled it off like a string
of catches on this flying
trapeze which keeps swinging
back. If birds’ songs simple mean
I’m here! I’m here!
then why a song so baroque?
How many notes did it have?
Which notes were extra?

In the Beatles’ “Blackbird”
You can hear a meadowlark, its song
canned as the slow-motion replay
of a pass reception on TV:
Love studied into pornography.
The bird falls off a see-saw,
hesitates, picks itself
back up on the rising board,
completes its song.
It does it again.

I prefer the song that eludes me,
This one which we are passing,
Banjo music picked out
Through wind and distance
Already falling behind

Gone and not gone.
--for Ana

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Arts Education Is Important to Balance

This is a recent article I wrote for Tribal College Journal's summer issue, vol. 18, no. 4, about the importance of the arts. You can subscribe and get information at this url (copyright Denise Low):

The issue also contains a very generous review by Jonathan Holden of my recent book Words of a Prairie Alchemist.

At Haskell Indian Nations University, the earthworks Medicine Wheel is a reminder of the balance of life. Art students and professors developed this natural installation of stones and mown grass in 1992. Its principles inform educational practices at Haskell. I appreciate how the Medicine Wheel supports all aspects of education. Intellectual, technological knowledge is represented by one direction of the wheel. Another side corresponds to physical education—and Haskell has a great sports tradition of Buster Charles, John Levi, Jim Thorpe, and Billy Mills, to name a few. Emotion and spirit are also represented by this philosophical model. Poetry and the arts especially address these realms of human experience.

As Poet Laureate for the state of Kansas 2007-2009, my primary charge will be to promote poetry, and I feel this means I begin at my home institution, where I am Interim Dean of Humanities and Arts. I also am an advocate for all the arts. As a dean, I observe how arts-related education provides essential balance to students’ lives, especially for Native students, but also non-Native students as well.

Much college instruction is preparation, not immediate accomplishment of goals. I was a first-generation college student, and I remember how disoriented I felt as I finished one semester and then another, heading into a vague future as an English major. I could not imagine what lay beyond a college degree. Especially freshman-sophomore years are demanding as students take distribution courses outside their fields. One Haskell art professor, tells me when students come to his class after spending hours in computer-based classes, they art class is the only one where they feel they are really doing anything “real.” Because poetry and other arts projects have beginnings and end results, these are classes where students can immediately apply techniques and finish final projects. At a time when retention efforts are paramount in the minds of faculty and administrators, this is, I think, an important lesson about helping students balance their schedules.

Arts education is synthetic, as opposed to analytic. Most often students practice critical thinking in classes—how to break down parts of a quadratic equation, for example. But in creating poetry or other artworks, students assemble ideas and create original, personally meaningful works. This divergent, nonlinear process provides for emotional expression. In addition, as students make choices about artworks, they reflect on who they are and how they order their lives. Just as cultures create meaningful stories, so individuals construct their own personal narratives. We are complicated beings, and the arts help us find direction. They help us understand our spiritual natures.

At the same time, arts-related courses encourage individuals to support each other in noncompetitive, cooperative ways. As an administrator, I find that good teamwork is one of the most essential needs for classrooms as well as academic department members. Pedagogy of arts classes includes a peer critique process. In poetry workshops, for example, students distribute copies of first drafts and listen to feedback from their classmates. Then they can review the comments and polish their poetic works. Students learn to respect unique points of view and encourage each other’s best efforts.

Arts students learn to respect diversity of styles. Their works are different from one other, not better or worse, aside from craft. Students appreciate the variety of solutions to an assignment, without numerical ranking. The arts field may seem a long ways from business and other commercial enterprises, but an important side benefit of arts classes is fostering group problem solving—social skills that are needed by tribal communities.

Poetry and many of the arts also present opportunities for public performance. Poetry appears to be so very personal, yet it connects to ceremonies, songs, and other community word arts. Haskell students, under the tutelage of Haskell faculty Trish Reeves and Lorene Williams, present readings of their original works at regional libraries, arts centers, conferences, coffee shops, and bookstores, as well as Haskell. They learn courage as they overcome their nervousness about speaking in public. They practice to become future leaders.

The arts encourage a compassionate spirit. I first learned this years ago when I taught a class Writing from Nature for children at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum. I took youngsters to a nearby pond where we observed red-winged blackbirds, turtles, sunfish, squirrels, rabbits, and butterflies. Then I asked them to write from the point of view of one of these animals. This taught them to use their imagination, and in the process, they learned to empathize with their subjects. At Haskell, as our creative writing students develop writings about their classmates, their families, their culture, and their surroundings, they imagine them more fully. They appreciate the four life stages of the Medicine Wheel, from childhood to old age, and they can imagine where they fit into them. With arts experience, students come to articulate for themselves their own values and spiritual beliefs.

Creation of art does demands discipline. Linear thinking is important in creating symmetry and craft. A poet or artist uses various intelligences in order to form a compressed piece of writing or object that reflects life. Elliot W. Eisner comments in his book Arts and the Creation of Mind: “Painting well requires thinking well” (232). Children indeed can create art, yet as student thinking matures, so do the products.

Education in poetry or other art forms is difficult to assess. Outcomes do not meet a single benchmark standard, and although some accomplishment occurs by the end of a semester, the ultimate outcome may be years in the future. Development of an aesthetic sense brings a lifetime of joy. As dean, I can measure the fact that creative writing, photography, graphic arts, drawing, and ceramics classes fill to capacity each semester. I often turn to the works of N. Scott Momaday, who explores the importance of the literary oral tradition to survival of sovereign tribal nations. He considers himself a “man made of words” as well as a painter.

Throughout the next few years as Kansas Poet Laureate, I will return to the wisdom embodied by the Haskell Medicine Wheel and attempt to understand how body, emotions, mind, and spirit can be part of each student’s educational experience. I hope to present this message of balance to Haskell and communities throughout the state.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Kansas Poet Patricia Traxler Writes about Her Father

One of the most distinguished poets in Kansas, in my opinion, is Patricia Traxler. Among her books are Forbidden Words (U of Mo. Press, 1998) and The Glass Woman (Hanging Loose, 1983).

I comment on the eroticism in her work in "Women's Many Dance Steps: Gender Differences in Poetry" (Review Revue 3.1

She has a well crafted, moving commentary in Newsweek about her father at this url

Friday, June 1, 2007

New Poem by Stephen Bunch

I received this poem-gift in today's email, and poet Stephen Bunch, who has been active in Lawrence area writing and publishing for three decades, graciously consented to reprinting it here:

At the Billy Graham Library

An animatronic cow intones
the life story of the stadium evangelist.
As if a ruminant, even one that speaks,
could know redemption or chew the cud
of any abstraction, unaware
of a meat-hook last judgment.
As if the songs of mechanical birds
were still to be heard in Byzantium.

He sends this bio: Stephen Bunch's work appears in a number of magazines and anthologies. From 1978 to 1988, he edited and published Tellus, a little magazine that featured work by Jack Anderson, Edward Dorn, Harley Elliott, Jane Hirshfield, Denise Low, Paul Metcalf,and Edward Sanders, among others, and Carpool, a chapbook by DonaldLevering. Under the Tellus/Cottonwood Review imprint with Denise Low, he also published a collection of poems by Victor Contoski (A KansasSequence).