Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Denise Low online poetry writing workshop begins Jan. 14, 2014

Natural Laws of Poetry Writing Workshop 2014
Denise Low, Jan. 14, 21, 27, Feb. 4.
Natural Laws of Poetry Writing Workshop 2014
Denise Low, Jan. 14, 21, 27, Feb. 4.
Why has the sonnet remained popular? What forms arise in experimental poetry? Frederick Turner and Ernst Poppel, in “The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time” (Poetry 1983), state the poetic line, “nearly always takes from two to four seconds to recite, with a strong peak in distribution between 2.5 and 3.5 seconds.” This writing workshop is an open investigation of the “neural lyre” of our body and how it responds to verse--and what this means for a poet. Ears, brain, and eyes are starting points. Weekly sessions begin with a presentation on poetics, discussion, and “assignment” (always feel free to bring your own project). The rest of the time goes to workshopping the “assignment” with peers through Google Groups. In addition, I will provide personal feedback on one poem or related group of poems a week (email). Respond at your convenience during the week, in pajamas if you wish. At the end of the course, you will be able to write and recognize poetry that appeals to more directly to readers.
  • Week 1-Ears. Line length, the body as a “neural lyre.” Choosing genres: Lyrics, Odes, Epics
  • Week 2-Brain, part I-sensing of reality (Consciousness). Care and feeding of your three brains: reptile, mammal, human. Choosing the right words for your content
  • Week 3-Brain, part II-imagined reality (Imagination). Closed circuit and alternate realities: making words come to life. Casting the spell with the three C’s—compression, continuity, and consistency.
  • Week 4-Eyes. Inspiring the spirit with close-up observation of objects, with focus on the works of William Stafford. Precision, revision and revelation in your poems.

Technical requirements: A Google mail (gmail) account. From that you can access documents (like this) on Google Drive. Group interactions take place in Google Groups (link provided). Your email account will alert you to all interactions.
A word about “assignments: Some of you have ongoing projects and contrived assignments will slow you down. Always feel free to bring your current work into the workshop. Please bring current writing, not old notebooks from high school (yes, I have had this happen).
Poetry or prose? This class can apply to prose as well as poetry, so feel free to join if you are a prose writer.
Cost: $35/session ($70 nonrefundable due at beginning of workshop, $70 due midway. PayPal is preferred). Contact Denise Low at kansaspoetry@gmail.com for enrollment and questions.


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Jacket 2 biography of Denise Low Is Up

Jacket 2 will publish papers in honor of Kenneth Irby one day soon. I'm looking forward to this as a reader, contributor of one essay, and fellow imbiber at Thurs. martini nights. Also, I'm looking forward to, in 2014, a piece of mine in Numero Cinq, about biological structures of Ronald Johnson's first poem in The Shrubberies. Viva poesia.

Denise Low

Denise Low, second Kansas Poet Laureate, has published twenty books of poetry and essays, including Ghost Stories (The Circle of Minneapolis Best Native American Books of 2010; Kansas Notable Book). She edited Kansas Poems of William Stafford...

Saturday, December 7, 2013


As the year winds down, I remember some of the exciting books published. Here is one, which I reviewed for New Letters (see link). Dg okpik is Inuit and mashes together Russian, English, Norse, and Inuit language/traditions to represent the Arctic experience. Amazing. http://www.newletters.org/UserFiles/File/79.3%20PDFs/Low_okpik%20Review.pdf


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Michael Poage Poem: "The Palestinian Circus School"

We thought it was snow
In the air but it was ash
Falling as the olive trees
Burned. Then the soldiers
Standing along the fence,
Like teenagers shy at a dance,
Talked and smoked and
Boasted of turning back the
Silent protest against the
Five hundred year old trees
And fifty life-times of death
By fire and a storm of tears
And angered swollen
Hearts. So we grabbed
Hold of the arms from
The other as the swing came
To us knowing there would
Be no safety net if we fell.
Michael Poage teachers for the Intensive English Language Institute at Wichita State University. His MFA is from the University of Montana, where he studied during the time of Richard Hugo and Madeline DeFrees. His Master of Divinity degree is from San Francisco Theological Seminary. For the past 40-plus years he has written and given readings in several states as well as in Mexico, Latvia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina.  He has traveled and worked in Mexico, much of northern and southeastern Europe, and the Middle East.  He was part of the Gaza Freedom March in Cairo in 2009, went to the West Bank in 2010, and traveled to the Gaza Strip with Physicians for Social Responsibility in April, 2012 working as a trauma counselor.  He lives in Wichita. Reprint of this poem is with his permission. See www.michaelpoage.com for books of poetry, more poems, and career and contact information.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"Striking Bone" Illustrates an American Renga

A renga is a five-line poem--haiku of 3 lines + 2 line couplet. Japanese has a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable count for the five lines. American English varies this with some liberties, as shown below. The poem then is passed to the next person (sake is included in the traditional Japanese setting but not here), who composes a poem that responds to previous verse (word, sound, image, or idea). And then the poem is passed to the next writer, to build a  conversation. In this renga, seven poets participate: Denise Low, Ken Eberhart, Barbara Montes, GeneAnn Newcomer, Diane Willie, Erika Zeitz, and Alan Proctor. Feel free to send me more verses and join in:

Lost? Yes, again the stars fall
on 13th Street where a house, now demolished,
was my home. I was young.

Funeral dirges sound from the new building
and hearses ferry the dead to and from. I was young

and swung on the backyard tire swing
one late October afternoon under red leaves
drifting like red stars to my feet.
I was young and then I was gone like the house.
An old woman remains in my place.
     Denise Low
When I remember you,
my thoughts do not bring
you back from the dead; no
amount of nostalgia could
reanimate your body.

You were a just a thought
once: mother’s eyelashes,
father’s cigarette smoke.
Memory cannot make you
again, like their lust once did.
     Ken Eberhart
But 89 years
should have been enough
to leave a trail, an imprint
stronger than birds' feet on sand,
or mice darting from baseboards.

     Barbara Montes
Still this does not mean
I will stop looking for you,
You are in my sheets
I pull back at night,

my dreams, even before I fall asleep.
At my breakfast table you are
the drink that touches my lips.
As I leave home each day,
the breath I can't quite catch.
     GeneAnn Newcomer
Yet, only the aura of its frame
Pulses and gives life with a heartbeat
Breathe, Breathe, Breathe, I say.
Don’t live among the memories
Death is no place to be, I say.
     Diane Willie
As old as the stars,
My eyes wash the empty space,
Tears for memory.
What was lost, I fight to find again,
Slow, slow my breath and sight.
Wherever I sit, back and forth,
I swing.
     Erika Zeitz
You are there in the heart's
echo, the blood's ping striking bone,
memory's temple where the magpie
settles on my shoulder
after a long flight from home.
     Alan Proctor

© 2013 Denise Low. Reprint permission may be granted for non-commercial uses. Please contact Mammoth Publications for further information--mammothpubs [at] gmail.com

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review of Lo que trae la marea/What the Tide Brings: Un Libro de Cantos y Mitos by Denise Low

Lo que trae la marea/What the Tide Brings: Mouthfeel Press; first edition (August 30, 2013), 174 pages, $14.95, ISBN-13: 978-0984426881. Review first published in Border Senses in English and Spanish. Here is the Spanish version, by Denise Low.  © 2013 Denise Low. For reprint permissions email kansaspoetry@gmail.com
En su primer libro de ficción, Xánath Caraza redefine el significado de personaje.  ¿Son los individuos equivalentes a sus cuerpos mientras toman café con cardamomo?  ¿Están los personajes hechos de sueños o recuerdos?  ¿O linajes familiares?  Cualquiera que sea la respuesta, esta innovadora escritora muestra nuevas formas de definir la experiencia humana, especialmente la experiencia de las mujeres.

                El primer microrrelato, “Voces en el mar”/”Voices in the Sea”, marca el tono: Una joven mujer deja a su amante el día de navidad.  Se sube al autobús pero lo único que puede escuchar es el mar y un motor: “recordaba el inconfundible batir de las olas mezclado con ese último beso mientras el autobús empezaba a arrancar.”  Los elementos se mezclan con el drama humano, como aquí, un aguacero deslava “huellas de humo efímeras”, el humo del autobús.  Con pocas páginas, Caraza describe la pasión, los viajes, la inestabilidad de los esfuerzos humanos.  Estos temas son recurrentes en varias combinaciones a través de los cuentos.
                El libro está lleno de magia.  En la historia que le da título al libro, “Lo que trae la marea”/ “What the Tide Brings In”, una joven huérfana crea una vida para ella misma en su pueblo costero, mas aún los espíritus de sus padres nunca están lejos.  Esta joven es solitaria y más y más es atraída al lugar donde el bote de sus padres desapareció.  Su nombre, Perla/Pearl, resuena con el mar y finalmente cambia a esa dimensión.  La resolución del cuento es impredecible y obsesionante.  En “China Poblana” el personaje principal, una captiva de India retenida en México, crea su propia doble identidad hasta que su única realidad es el recuerdos de la infancia.  Ella dice, “Me llaman Catarina de San Juan pero ese no es mi nombre verdadero.”  Ella describe cada una de las circunstancias donde propietarios de esclavos cristianos y dueños de burdeles la llaman así y cómo cada vez ella rechaza ese nombre falso.  Finalmente, ya como una mujer anciana, reclama dignidad.  Los mundos irreales de abuso desaparecen con la negación de rendirse a su idioma.  El recuerdo se convierte en un paraíso mágico desde la hipocresía.
                Los cuentos tienen estructuras poéticas, construidas a través de capas de imágenes líricas.  Estribillos se repiten como en versos.  Estas técnicas realzan el impacto de los personajes.  Anticipe tanto sentir sus historias como aprender de ellos.  Los temas son emigrantes, viajeros, dificultades que enfrentan las mujeres, el océano, dioses aztecas y más.  La lluvia o la humedad permea los lugares hasta que la humedad parece acumularse en las páginas.
                  Especialmente deslumbrante es la habilidad de Caraza para crear significado a través de la substracción.  En un cuento un hombre es devorado por un felino de la jungla.  En ningún lugar está descrito pero sí lo están otros peligros de la noche en la jungla –escorpiones y coralillos.  Aquí y en otros lugares, las omisiones de la autora permiten a los silencios hablar. 
                Esta colección debutante es sorprendente.  La fineza del contar es un placer en cada página.  La importancia de los temas de emigrantes se transforma no tanto en una declaración política como en una historia épica de la sobrevivencia de la gente.  A pesar de que estos cuentos no están ligados entre sí y ocurren en varias geografías –China, Europa, los Estados Unidos y México—todavía la continuidad permanece con la figura de la heroína.  Ella es una mujer que viaja a través de las miserias entre el mundo de los vivos y el de los espíritus.  La sombra de la Llorona conjura un hechizo en estos cuentos donde ocurre pérdida pero el mundo natural ofrece tanto consuelo como bellezas inesperadas.  Este es un libro de cantos y mitos.
Denise Low-Weso
 Xánath Caraza is a traveler, educator, poet, and short story writer. Caraza is an Award Winning Finalist in the Fiction: Multicultural category in the 2013 International Book Awards. Her book Conjuro (Mammoth Publications, 2012) was awarded second place in the Best Poetry Book in Spanish category and received honorable mention in the Best First Book in Spanish, Mariposa Award category in the 2013 International Latino Book Awards. She was named number one of the 2013 Top Ten New Latino Authors to Watch (and Read) by LatinoStories.com. She won the 2003 Ediciones Nuevo Espacio international short story contest in Spanish and was a 2008 finalist for the first international John Barry Award. She is the author of Corazón Pintado: Ekphrastric Poems (TL Press, 2012) and Silabas de viento, forthcoming from Mammoth Publications. Caraza writes the US Latino Poets en español column. She is an advisory circle member for the Con Tinta literary organization and has curated the National Poetry Month, Poem-a-Day project, for the organization since 2012. She is a former board member of the Latino Writers Collective. Caraza has participated in the X Festival Internacional de Poesía de la ciudad de Granada 2013, Floricanto Barcelona 2011 and 2012, Festival de Flor y Canto 2010, USC. Originally from Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, she has lived in Vermont and Kansas City. She has an M.A. in Romance Languages, and lectures in Foreign Languages and Literatures at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Denise Low, Walter Bargen, Luci Tapahonso, Jon Davis, & Michael Glaser to read Sun. Nov. 3 at I.A.I.A.

Red Mountain Press and the New Mexico State Poetry Society are launching an initiative to establish a state poet laureate in New Mexico. To further this effort and to celebrate the laureates already among us, we are planning an event on Sunday, November 3, 2013, at Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, 1 pm, with reception to follow. Santa Fe poet laureate, Jon Davis, will read his poem to open the program. Four poet laureates, Walter Bargen (Missouri), Michael Glaser (Maryland), Denise Low (Kansas), and Luci Tapahonso (Navajo Nation), will discuss the merits of instituting a poet laureate position for the state of New Mexico. The panel discussion will be followed by the laureates reading from their own works and a social hour of conversation and book signing. Come and help New Mexico join forty-six other states that recognize the literary arts through an official poet laureate program. See Red Mountain Press for details and browse their books:

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Several years ago, on a gloomy winter evening, I went to the local public library rather than staring into dark windows or watching reality TV.   I leafed through the poetry section, not expecting much, when I ran across a Graywolf Press book with a snazzy cover. I opened it and found a poem about a Topeka bar, Jeremiah Bullfrog. I thought it must be a coincidence, one of many bars named J.B., but as I read more, Topeka place names jumped out at me, juxtaposed with super heroes. Wow. Bear in mind that downriver from Topeka, in Lawrence where I live, we have awe and fear for our neighboring metropolis of high crime rates, conservative legislators, and an inexplicably talented poet pool (Kevin Young, Ben Lerner, Cyrus Console, Ronald Johnson, Ed Skoog, Eric McHenry, Amy Fleury, more). I had missed Gary Jackson as he went through the Washburn University’s undergraduate program and then the MFA program at the University of New Mexico. Currently, he is assistant professor at College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C. His work is accessible, funny, and strong. Here are some recent links:
Jennifer Chang features Gary Jackson in her Poetry Society “New American Poets” column this week. She begins with a discussion of his first book, which won the Cave Canem prize:
“Reading Gary Jackson's Missing You, Metropolis returned me to my one experience with comic books: reading Archie in the sad cacophony of a music school waiting room, I'd pass the time rolling my eyes at Betty and Veronica, revering the easy indifference of Jughead, and wishing I were older so that I'd never have to take another piano lesson again. But, for Jackson, comic books are not merely a lifeline for weird kids; otherwise this would not be as good a book as it is. Comic books—their constellated mythologies and fantastical alter egos—evince human complexities, the difficult ugly truths about ourselves that we'd rather ignore, and they school the book's speaker in the bravery of connecting to others and, thus, to ‘the whole goddamn world.’" For more, follow this link:
A play adapted from the book was produced in Topeka, Feb. 2013: http://cjonline.com/news/2013-02-15/superheroes-populate-poetry-based-play
NPR featured a poem from Metropolis:
Nightcrawler Buys a Woman a Drink By Gary Jackson

You're staring, jaw-dropped at my tail. And yes,
it's a good twenty inches long and moves

like a serpent in heat. Touch it. I'm no devil, honey,
I don't got no souls, just the smoothest, bluest fur
you've ever seen. Don't mind my buddy here, he looks angry
all the time, and he's got eyes for the bottle of Jameson

and the short-haired blonde playing pool near the gorillas.
What do we do? Over a few drinks I could tell you about the time

we traveled to the blue side of the moon or when we fought
the Juggernaut right here in this bar. Yeah, the fangs are real.

Rub your finger over them, touch the deviled tongue.
Caress my fur with your skin, let me keep your body warm

in the dark. It's your night, honey. Show me a woman not afraid
of a mutant man. Let me mix into your bloodline.

Gary Jackson links:
Link to book Missing You Metropolis on Graywolf website : https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/missing-you-metropolis
Washburn University map of Kansas literature: http://www.washburn.edu/reference/cks/mapping/jackson/ 
YouTube poetry reading, 2008, U of New Mexico, 10 min.
2012 Interview in Political Fiber

Sunday, October 6, 2013

See KC Star Review of 4 Books of Poetry about War: Parada Ayala, Russell, Bargen, Rathburn

Sept. 10, 2013
La Luz De La Tormenta/The Light of the Storm by Carlos Parada Ayala (112 pages, Zozobra Publishing, $12.00)
The Year of What Now by Brian Russell (96 pages, Graywolf Press, $15.00)
Trouble behind Glass Doors: Poems by Walter Bargen (103 pages, BkMk Press, $13.95)
A Raft of Grief: Poems by Chelsea Rathburn (72 pages, Autumn House Press, $17.95)

Poets still fall in love, but some also live in war zones and report on those conflicts. Carlos Parada Ayala writes of Central American wars, while Brian Russell’s battlefield is the oncology department. Walter Bargen and Chelsea Rathburn turn to domestic sites of tragedy.
Poems in Carlos Parada Ayala’s first book “La Luz De La Tormenta/The Light of the Storm” demand attention. His slashes of color create unforgettable images, like his comparison of love to “a bloody crucifix/on a bishop’s chest” (“Pulse”). Parada Ayala presents important topics that match his dramatic language. As an El Salvador native, he was witness to the 1970s to 1980s civil wars. This tragedy is the backdrop for this bilingual Spanish and English collection.
His poem “Whale” presents apocalyptic visions of destruction: “Palm trees crumble/like spent matchsticks” and “The sky explodes and shatters.” These images are both  memories and continuing  nightmares for the narrator, who awakens to find himself adrift in peacetime. What remains as he stands in the market is “an endless and vile melancholy.” Memories keep the war alive, years into the future.
The book illustrates war and, finally, recoveries. “Day of the Dead” is a poem that begins with despair but ends with optimism. Parada Ayala writes: “I carried my country on my back like a sack/full of ill-fated chapters.” He laments the common graves and “quetzal birds extinguished.” But the last stanza asserts: “Now I rise with my head held high,/carrying my country in the deepest part of my chest, a sanctuary for my people.” In a “Letras Latinas Blog” interview, the poet writes: “‘Day of the Dead’ is my prayer to keep up the hope.”
Parada Ayala shows how the effects of war last a lifetime, an important lesson as military initiatives continue across the globe.
Another kind of war is one within bodies, in the form of disease. Brian Russell’s first book “The Year of What Now” recounts a battle with cancer. The book explains how the measured world of medical violence is as unsettling as any other. The narrator watches in horror as painful procedures become routine. Anyone touched by ravages of cancer treatment can relate to this sequence.
Russell shows how the hospital world has its own rules of engagement. In “Tepid” the narrator states, “I still can’t bring myself to watch/them stick the needle in your back.” He compares the patient to “the tortured trunk of a wind ravaged tree” with “ashen limbs.”
Russell’s book, nonetheless, is not dreary. The caretaker elicits admiration. Gallows humor eases pain. The narrator compares cafeteria dining with a chain restaurant down the road, “where the food is equally inedible,” and the jab at institutional food is an easy joke. Also, the normalcy of “wonderfully obnoxious” families is unexpected  respite from slow grief.
To spoil the ending, the treatments are successful. In “You’re Welcome” the narrator writes, “you’re not dying/faster than the rest of us,” and so the book’s narrative shifts from crisis to commentary about everyone’s eventual death.
A further spoiler: the narrative is contrived, not autobiography, despite the eye-witness perspective. In an interview with Graywolf Press editor Jeff Shotts, Russell describes his inspiration: “I see the husband and wife as homages to people in my life who have been altered by serious illness. While many poems draw from lived experience, the work as a whole is one of the imagination.” Russell’s inventiveness and his heart make him a poet  to remember.
“Trouble behind Glass Doors” is Walter Bargen’s sixteenth book of poetry. He excels at anecdotal verse, where incidents that could be coffee group stories expand into larger moments. The most arresting of these poems are masterpieces about crimes and other domestic wars experienced as daily news.  
“Neighbors” is one of the most chilling. It begins “When a neighbor shows up at his door/Wearing a black ski mask, carrying something large /And automatic . . . .” The rest of the story can be extrapolated from a newspaper front page. In this particular story, one faction imprisons the other in a nightmarish replay of the Holocaust.
In Bargen’s poem “Overdose,” he notes how “hardly anyone/bothers to look up from their newspapers,” as a drug user creates a scene in a mall. Bargen shows how a perfectly ordinary setting can turn sinister. In this public square, jaded crowds avoid engagement.
Bargen is Missouri’s first poet laureate, and the volume includes some autobiographical poems from that experience. In “Poet as Grand Marshall of the Fall Parade,” the unathletic poet contrasts his odd public role with that of a celebrity sports figure. He considers adding football pads to his suit. Even such lighter poems have an edge of social critique, as Bargen shows how banal Midwestern communities have misplaced values. These accompany a culture of violence.
Chelsea Rathburn, in “A Raft of Grief,” finds personal struggles can be stark, inner battles as she writes about alcoholism and divorce. The poet uses many tricks of poetic language to create safe distance from anguish.
“Sweet Nothings” is about women telling tales on past lovers. They find “the old wounds feel a little softer/with a laugh track, so the stories keep coming.” Reminiscences about “Italian lingerie,” pillow talk, and a dominatrix role entertain the group.  The humor evaporates, however, as one notes: “‘he said he owned/me for the hour—they only play at giving up control.’” The see-saw of Rathburn’s poetic lines emphasizes the dramatic momentum of anger.
The poet uses a “laugh track” again in “This Poem Has Had Too Much to Drink.” At first, the extended comparison is slapstick: “This poem can’t talk to strangers/until after the third gin and tonic” and “This one fell into a bush at the party.” Finally, as the narrative arc reaches conclusion, the problems continue in new form: “This poem is in recovery and can’t stop talking about it.” This is one of many inventive, fresh approaches in the book.
One of the last poems, “The Mother of Beauty, Etc.,” has a striking image that recapitulates the dangers of amour. A couple kiss in the woods, until they realize a nearby “white shape watching” is a deer’s skull. Life and death intertwine, as they find themselves “studying the bones” rather than each other.
Rathburn has a sure voice, one that will continue to be heard, like those of these other poets who look beyond confections of simple love poems.  

Denise Low, Kansas City Star


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Jim Stevens Explains Wisconsin Mounds in THE BOOK OF BIG DOG TOWN

Review by Denise Low  ©2013 Denise Low. Contact for reprint permissions kansaspoetry[at]gmail.com
In The Book of Big Dog Town: Poems and Stories from Aztalan and Around, Jim Stevens explains visionary states as he experiences the 11th century site of Aztalan in Wisconsin:
One day I decided I wanted to go across the Crawfish River, to the sacred site on the bluff. After some time in the glacial kettle there, playing a song on my flute, I was walking back toward the river. The wind, tailing me, began replaying my song. All of these things were for me a new way of experiencing the world.   (4)

The ancient city of mounds, where songs take on their own lives, mirrors the arrangements of stars. The poet refers to three earthworks mounds that echo the points of Orion the Hunter’s belt in “The Hills and the Three Stars.” With this book of prose and poetry, Stevens completes earth and sky alignments with a third element—the human voice. This is an important book, one that uses language to unify the
seen and the unseen. His words creates new experiences in the fourth dimension of the readers' minds.

Stevens writes foremost about place. The poems and stories reflect on Aztalan and its surroundings. The poet understands the intangible pull of sites beyond measurable grids of magnetism. “Wind and Country” begins: “Above the river and east of the town / He is hearing closely the way of the wind.” This poem continues to look more deeply into the geography, as he finds, “The path here is named Keeping Us Whole / Where spirit hills are calling to the stars.” Indeed, the narrator of this transcendent experience  explains how a song “opened up the doorway between worlds.” Earth is not a separate element from the heavens.

The poet uses an easy, loping cadence in his writings. His dance of words keeps the beat, embellished with spins and dips along the way. The language is unpretentious and conversational—until Stevens unfurls a fancy metaphor, like “It is a far place where only the yellow bird goes / Carries him into this world on a spine of flowering wings.” The simple “yellow bird” becomes both a winged being and a blossom.

Most of all, Stevens is a guide to spiritual history of North America. His experience of family Seneca traditions adds to the dimensions of the book. He also draws on European American sources like Clayton Eshleman to explain, “’as one sees into a shifting field, there is a desire to see through it’" (Juniper Fuse).  His stories reveal how Aztalan is similar to Cahokia, a large mound city outside St. Louis. This book resonates with Alice Azure’s similar renewal of Cahokia, Games of Transformation (Albatross Press, 2011). Both books challenge the erasure of human experience before European settlement of the Americas. The Book of Big Dog Town also connects Aztalan’s earthen pyramids to related Mexican and Central American sites, where stars also mirror the arrangements of people’s dwellings. Stevens references Younger Brother Obsidian, a Mayan Daykeeper of the 9th century: “And here is my friend the stealer of time / With his father rain all that is left in the words / “With his rivulet-faced aunts who wait ? Among sparkling tinges of broken glass / For the sake of Younger Brother Obsidian . . . .” A Seneca longhouse is not distant from the continuity of Guatemalan waterways, winds, birds, and trees: “And there comes the hermit thrush of the clouds / Stately in her deep grieving resolve / Just when the soul-tree is in its proper longhouse / And the cedar wind is rattling the walls / So tightly bound until the light shines through.” Light shines through this entire book as Stevens illustrates how history is an ongoing legacy, not lost on a static timeline.
THE BOOK OF BIG DOG TOWN: POEMS AND STORIES FROM AZTALAN AND AROUND. Fireweed Press (Madison, Wisconsin) 2013. 64 pages. $15.00
©2013 Denise Low. Contact for reprint permissions kansaspoetry[at]gmail.com


National Book Foundation Announces Long List of Poetry Books

The National Book Foundation has announced the long list for the National Book Award in poetry. Finalists will be announced Oct. 16. The list ranges from somewhat to very very experimental. The essence of poetry is exploration, and this list shows that quality is necessary for recognition. Judges are Nikky Finney, D.A. Powell, Jahan Ramazani, and Craig Morgan Teicher. Best of luck to these skilled innovators.

2013 NBA Longlist for Poetry:
Frank Bidart, Metaphysical Dog, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Roger Bonair-Agard, Bury My Clothes, Haymarket Books
Lucie Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion, Alfred A. Knopf
Andrei Codrescu, So Recently Rent a World, New and Selected Poems: 1968-2012, Coffee House
Brenda Hillman, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, Wesleyan University Press
Adrian Matejka, The Big Smoke, Penguin Poets/Penguin Group USA
Diane Raptosh, American Amnesiac, Etruscan Press
Matt Rasmussen, Black Aperture, Louisiana State University Press
Martha Ronk, Transfer of Qualities, Omnidawn Publishing
Mary Szybist, Incarnadine: Poems, Graywolf Press
 For more information, see: http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2013_p_pr.pdf

Sunday, September 15, 2013

JAMES MECHEM, Wichita Beat Writer, MEMORIES by Denise Low

JAMES MECHEM, 1980s. Photo c. Denise Low
James Mechem was full of surprises. I met him about 1980 at a Kansas Writers Association conference—a wonderful group kept together by Emporia State professor Keith Denniston. Most of the state’s creative writing departments were members, and independent writers were welcome. James was a mainstay of Wichita arts and letters, a bit of a ham, and he participated often.
                Imagine a Salina tavern, poorly lit and a smoky haze pooling over the booths. James Mechem stands up to the microphone. He is a solidly built man, so I expected, well, something very male. Instead, he spoke with a tender and raspy voice, just a hint of Ella Fitzgerald. Soft yet distinct enunciation. Smoky—another layer within the bar’s smoky wreaths. The story was slightly erotic, about lesbian lovers. In those days, feminism was newish and gay love was mostly under wraps. Throughout his performance, no one breathed.
               After he read, I approached him and asked if he were a gay woman, a not completely ridiculous question in the dim light. But no. He was married, had five kids, worked as a tech writer for airplane companies. He just liked women. He admired his wife tremendously, and when I visited him in New York in 2003, he grieved her death terribly. He championed women writers and artists throughout his time in Wichita. All his co-editors were women. James was a feminist and comfortably open to his own female side.
                His fiction is very good—clean sentences, wry tone, and quirky characters who need paradoxically unattainable, slightly bent companionship. James once showed me his résumé of publications, which included the Paris Review and Art and Literature, then edited by John Ashbery, as well as New York novel publications. He also self-published in his own journals—Out of Sight, The Beaters, Collage, Caprice, Redstart, Redstart Plus. James spent a brief time at the University of Iowa, on the G.I. Bill, before transferring to Oklahoma for journalism and an apprenticeship under Foster Harris, a genre western writer. He pursued his own direction, not a career.
                Unlike his beat-era peers—Michael McClure, Charles Plymell, and Bob Branaman—James stayed in Wichita, and that changed his writing life, especially in those days. My experience of the writing world is one where geography makes a huge difference, more than talent. If James had been in San Francisco, his companions would have been writer-household names. His own writing would be better known. His talent was top-notch, as well as his craft as a writer, and he liked to design. So he added publisher to his roles.
                James contributed much to the Wichita and regional scene. In that Salina reading, he made a writer’s vocation accessible—no need to kowtow to him as a Great One. Despite my shy nature, I felt no hesitation about starting a conversation. He made the writer’s role seem a bit glamorous. After our first meeting, he continued to encourage me through his editorial comments—I have a bulging file of his rejections and a few acceptance letters, in ornate lavender script. I treasure his nomination of one of my short stories for a Pushcart Prize.
                James also sponsored readings. One of my favorite stories is James’s barrage of letters to convince me to attend a reading at Wichita State, one of the creative writing program anniversaries, and I have an MFA from WSU. He had no money, but he promised me dinner and a good single-malt scotch. So I slipped out of work early, sped down the Turnpike, and had a pleasant meal with him and a shot of Glenmorangie. Then we went to the reading, two sessions, and I got put into the second session. Someone before me had an emotional meltdown during her reading, weeping about how important it was for her to return to Wichita, and she took an hour. By the time I read, heading towards midnight, about six dazed people were left in the audience. It was one of those classic road-reading stories. James was upbeat the whole time, happy with the entire adventure, indefatigable.  
                My trip to New York in 2003 to see James was crazy. He sent me a ticket and said I could stay in the apartment next to his. I flew in, got a taxi, and gave the address to the cabbie. In the sea of vertical buildings, I was helpless. The maniac drove through tunnels and around Central Park, up a circle drive, and screeched to a stop. A liveried door man came to ease me back to safe landing. It was a posh apartment building, gardens around it, marble lobby, the works. The security manager had my name on the list, and he smirked just a bit. I felt like I had landed inside one of James’s stories.
                We spent time talking, traveling around the city to art shows, eating at diners, and finally we went to the Bowery Poetry Club to read. We met up with Ruby Baresch, who wrote film reviews for Caprice. We spent the last evening doing a long interview, which is available online at “Beats in Kansas,” a site maintained by George Laughead. James loved having company, as New York was lonely. He moved there in 1998, because he loved Book Expo and wanted to spend more time in the city, he said. He appreciated the public transportation and literary events, but most of his friends and family were back home in the Wichita area.
                One more story—I ended up on the living room couch. James said, as I was getting ready for bed, “Don’t mind if I sleep walk. I don’t remember a thing the next day.” That was enough to keep me awake until about 3 in the morning. About 4, indeed, his door opened and he staggered toward the kitchen. Somewhere in the cabinets he found a bottle of coconut or tangerine liqueur (it was left open in the morning), had a slug, and went back to bed. I fell asleep to the fumes of perfume-sweet alcohol. Indeed, in the morning he had no memory of his excursion. He brewed coffee, and a new day began.
                James is an original. He is also an inspiration for those of us under ninety. He dedicated his life to literary community. He made Wichita an exciting wonderland of ideas, genders, journals, characters, and more. As an editor, he mentored numerous people. He was nice and not domineering, dismissive, nor seductive to women at a time when few professional men of his generation had that ability. I am grateful to James for all he has contributed, for his eccentricities, for his writings, and for the fellowship of Ancient Mariner Press writers.

©Denise Low, September 13, 2013, Anna Murdoc’s Café, Wichita. Please contact me for permission to reproduce, kansaspoetry[at]gmail.com .