Thursday, December 21, 2017

Eric McHenry Wins Award from TLS

Eric McHenry Wins The Mick Imlah Poetry Prize 
Congratulations to Washburn professor and 5th Kansas Poet Laureate Eric McHenry, who is second-place-tie winner of the Mick Imlah Poetry Prize of the Times Literary Supplement. The prize is named after the former TLS poetry editor Imlah. TLS informs readers that “almost 4,000 poems” were entered in the contest. Judges were Alan Jenkins, A. E. Stallings and Andrew Motion. Katherine Lewis won first place, and Emily Yaremchuk shares the 2nd place award with McHenry. Jenkins notes of “Picking a Prophet” by McHenry: “[its] reasonable tone and unostentatious rhymes convey a sophisticated, almost offhand authority.” Third prize winner is Allen Braden. Jenkins supports the idea of poetry contests: “Art is not a competition; but a competition may encourage art, and reward it.” To read further details and read the winning poems, follow this link.

Eric McHenry grew up in Topeka, Kansas and earned degrees from Beloit College and Boston University. His first book of poems, Potscrubber Lullabies (Waywiser, 2006), won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and in 2010 Poetry Northwest awarded him the Theodore Roethke Prize. He is a contributing editor of Columbia magazine and has written about poetry for the New York Times Book Review, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe and Slate. He lives in Topeka with his wife, Sonja, and their two children, Evan and Sage, and teaches creative writing at Washburn University. In 2015 he was appointed Poet Laureate of Kansas. Audio files of two of his poems from the recent Odd Evening (2016, Waywiser) is at this link:  

See my comments about McHenry on a previous blog:

Monday, December 18, 2017

Kevin Rabas Curates Ks. Poetry for PoetryBay

Kevin Rabas, Poet Laureate of Kansas, assisted by Michael Pelletier, has curated Kansas poems for the
online magazine PoetryBay, connected with Long Island Quarterly. The special section is "A Snapshot of Kansas Poetry." The introduction to the project, “The News, Not Just from Kansas But All the World,” by Pelletier, begins with a quotation from my similar print project of almost 40 years ago: 
      “’Biologists have a technique of plotting a given amount of land and recording every member of a species within it during a specific length of time,’ begins Denise Low’s preface to 30 Kansas Poets (1979). She continues, calling that collection of poems ‘more a record of what is occurring within the perimeters of the state … than an attempt to define or categorize ‘Kansas’ poetry.’ We follow Low here in offering a small sample — perhaps more akin to a snapshot than a record — of contemporary Kansas poetry.
     “As with Low’s collection, it was not possible to include the work of every member of the species writing in Kansas today, though Low herself, a former Poet Laureate of Kansas, is included. Two other former Poets Laureate, as well as the current Poet Laureate, are also represented.”
 The poets are: Brian Daldorph, Adam Jameson J.T. Knoll, Denise Low, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Al Ortolani, Jared Schmitz, Joe Toth, Wyatt Townley, M.R. Pelletier, and Kevin Rabas.  These include Rabas, 3 former Kansas poets laureate (Low, Mirriam-Goldberg, Townley), a librarian, students, teachers of creative writing, and an electric company employee.
Here is one of my own selections from “A Snapshot of Kansas Poetry.” It is from my forthcoming collection
Shadow Light, which has won the 2018 Red Mountain Press Editor’s Choice Award:
Each tree shuffles a deck of cards
one suit each
     gingkoes for hearts
     maples for clubs.
My mother gambles for a last child.
One spring day I am born.
     Oak leaves are broken diamonds.
I turn ten yours old.
     I press scarlet leaves in wax paper
            flatten them with a hot iron.
I turn sixty.      
Each sawtooth
leaf edge
     Hackberries are spades.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Richard Robbins reads from new book Oct. 26, Raven Bookstore, Lawrence KS

Richard Robbins will read from his new book Body Turn to Rain: New & Selected Poems (Lynx House Press) at the upcoming Big Tent Reading Series, with Nino Cipri and Celeste Gainey--7 pm, 7th & Mass. Robbins's poems combine narrative with images to create surprise, as in this poem "Old Country Portraits." It appears to be a still life, suggesting a Vermeer portrait, a “lost sister” performing a trick on the family by snapping away the table cloth. The final trickery is the subtle interplay between the living and the dead.
Old Country Portraits by Richard Robbins © 2017
My lost sister used to try the trick
with the tablecloth, waiting until
the wine had been poured, the gravy boat filled,
before snapping the linen her way

smug as a matador, staring down
silver and crystal that would dare move,
paying no mind to the ancestor gloom
gliding across the wallpaper like clouds

of a disapproving front—no hutch
or bureau spared, no lost sister sure
the trick would work this time, all those she loved
in another room, nibbling saltines,

or in the kitchen plating the last
of the roast beef. How amazed they would be
to be called to the mahogany room
for supper, to find something missing,

something beautiful, finally, they could
never explain, the wine twittering
in its half-globes, candles aflutter, each
thing in its place, or so it seemed then,

even though their lives had changed for good.

Richard Robbins was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Southern California and Montana. He studied as an undergraduate with Glover Davis and Carolyn Forché at San Diego State University and as a graduate student with Richard Hugo, Madeline DeFrees, Tess Gallagher, and William Pitt Root at the University of Montana. He has published five full-length books: The Invisible Wedding was published in 1984 by the University of Missouri Press as part of its Breakthrough Series, Famous Persons We Have Known in 2000 by Eastern Washington University Press, and The Untested Hand in 2008 by The Backwaters Press. Radioactive City won the Bellday Prize and was published in 2009 by Bellday Books. Other Americas was released in 2010 by Blueroad Press. His Body Turn to Rain: New & Selected Poems is new in 2017.  Over the years, he's received awards and fellowships from The Loft, the McKnight Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America. From 1986-2014, Robbins directed the Good Thunder Reading Series at Minnesota State University Mankato, where he continues to direct the creative writing program. In 2006, he was awarded the Kay Sexton Award for long-standing dedication and outstanding work in fostering books, reading and literary activity in Minnesota.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Robert Day Celebrates 40th anniversary of The Last Cattle Drive

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

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

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

Saturday, September 16, 2017


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

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

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

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

Photo of Dennis Etzel at the Raven Bookstore by Denise Low

Saturday, September 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

Mammoth Publishes Navajo author Diane Willie's SHARP ROCKS, fiction chapbook

These short stories collect the contemporary and mythic experiences of a young woman seeking identity in the American Southwest. Diane Willie, enrolled Dine (Navajo), moves among cultures, geographies, and time frames to renew stories of the Navajo Long Walk, La Llorona, and contemporary women who survive with courage and dignity. From "Garcia," a short story in Sharp Rocks:
"Sadie Garcia saw two shadows near the river, one covered in tattered white wrap and the other slumped against a tree. La Llorona wailed in the distance waiting for the two shadows to come to her. The crickets were silent, and the frogs hummed a death song, a song that extended itself to Sadie Garcia’s heart.
        "Sadie Garcia rolled up her sleeves and bargained with La Llorona for her little sister’s life. Countless moon hours passed while two women haggled. In the end, La Llorona accepted a half bag of coffee grounds and a whole bag of sugar. Afterwards, the owl screeched resolution. Coyote and La Llorona sat near the Rio Grande sipping coffee. "

Diane Willie is an instructor at the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She graduated from Haskell Indian Nations University with an Associates degree and the University of Kansas with a Bachelor’s degree in Education. She has pursued graduate studies in Creative Writing and Education. She is from the Navajo tribe of New Mexico. Her favorite authors are Leslie Marmon Silko and Louise Erdrich.
“Diane Willie’s original voice adds depth to 21st century stories of the American Southwest. Her mythical tales draw upon Navajo, Pueblo, Spanish, and Anglo histories to create her own mélange.  Always, the Native viewpoint structures Willie’s narratives. Read these as rituals of healing. The final message is one of hope, esperanza.”    Denise Low, former Kansas Poet Laureate

$10.00, shipping included. ISBN 978-1-939301-68-0, Staple-bound paper, 5.5” X 8.5” 24 pages.  + Kansas tax. Discounts for multiple copies. Order: or 1916 Stratford Rd. Lawrence KS 66044

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Kim Shuck is 7th Poet Laureate of San Francisco!

Congratulations to Kim Shuck, author of Smuggling Cherokee: Poems, who is 7th San Francisco Poet Laureate! She writes Tsi-Tsu (Rabbit) narratives and does beadwork, basketry, Cherokee language, and more. From the Hanksville website: “As a poet Kim has read her work around the United States. In late summer and fall of 2005 she toured through Jordan with a group of poets from many countries in the interest of peace and communication. Shuck has read her work on her local radio. She is co-curator of the Spoken Word Series of the Native American Cultural Center. Kim sat for a time on the board of directors for California Poets in the Schools. As a visual artist Kim's work has been shown both in and out of the United States, including shows at the National Museum of Taiwan in Taipei and the Art, Women, California Show at the San Jose Art Museum. She has consulted with museums and galleries around California on the subject of Native artwork. Kim has taught in Elementary Schools, at San Francisco State University and has lectured widely on the subjects of math, art and Native American issues. She has been a teacher since, in 3rd grade, she taught fellow classmates a series of short lessons in crochet.”
is multi-talented, with word arts,

Her Wiki-biography: “Kim Shuck: Cherokee poet, author, and artist. Kim Shuck is a Native-American poet, author, and bead work artist who draws from Southeastern Native American culture and tradition as well as contemporary urban Indian life. She was born in San Francisco, California and is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She earned a B.A. in Art (1994), and M.F.A. in Textiles (1998) from San Francisco State University. She has taught American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University and was an artist in residence at the De Young Museum in June 2010 with Michael Horse.”

Awards include:
2008 KQED Local Hero Award, American Indian Heritage Month
2007 Smuggling Cherokee, Poetry Foundation bestseller list (March)
2006 Smuggling Cherokee, SPD Books bestseller list (March)
2005 Mentor of the Year Award Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers
2005 Native Writers of the Americas First Book, Diane Decorah Award
2004 Mary Tallmountain Award

Books, Author:
2014 Sidewalk Ndn, solo chapbook of poetry, FootHills Publishing
2014 Clouds Running In, solo book of poetry, Taurean Horn Press ISBN 978-0931552168
2013 Rabbit Stories, vignette fiction, Poetic Matrix Press ISBN 978-0985288389
2005 Smuggling Cherokee, solo volume of poems, Greenfield Review Press ISBN 978-0878861460

Books, Editor:
2010 “Rabbit and Rose”, online journal, editor, online publication (
2007 Oakland Out Loud, (Ed.) anthology, co-editor, Jukebox Press ISBN 0932693172
2006 Words Upon the Waters, (Ed.) anthology, assistant editor, Jukebox Press 2006

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Denise Low Reviews Michael Poage's Selected Poems

Comments by Denise Low
When I met Michael Poage 20 years ago, I snapped to attention when he mentioned his study with Richard
Hugo and Madeleine DeFrees in Montana. Their tandem tenure at the MFA program produced some of my favorite writers, like James Welch, Sandra Alcosser, Kim Barnes, Art Homer and Richard Robbins. Poage has his own voice and technique, well-honed by his training. Gerard Manly Hopkins is an author whose works suggest Poage’s lines. Each poem has an internal working, like a separate clockwork. They are encriptions that intrigue readers to follow intriguing sequences where paradox upsets balance. His early books of poetry are letterpress beauties from Black Stone Press, Handbook of Ornament and Born. Since these early works, he continues to develop his handiwork, with a more global framework. He describes his travels, often for humanitarian and/or literary projects:
“For the past 40-plus years I have continued to write and have given readings and workshops in several states as well as in Mexico, Latvia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina.. . I also participate in progressive social justice activities in the U.S. and abroad.  I 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. . . . I work with the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, have done community development work in northwest Mexico, taught English and worked with Church World Service in Bosnia.”
Madeline DeFrees endorsed his recent collection The Average Level of Happiness: “These terrifyingly honest poems confront the essential loneliness of the human condition…that of the ghost fish, Miss Kansas, or a suicide bomber.  And, as always the poems are full of surprises generated by the simplest of everyday occurrences such as starting a new address book or forgetting what day of the week it is.”
Here are two sample poems by Michael Poage, reprinted with permission from his Human Ink: The First Five Books 1975-2005 (Wichita: Blue Cedar Press, 2017)


There are continents
looking for a sign
of faithfulness
to the end.
And there is you.
The walk you promised
yourself along the edge
of one land mass
also brings you close
to your voyage.  My
adventure will be to sit
on this front porch
and taste the passion
of the thunderstorm
rolling across the prairie
from the west,
from all we never touched.

It looked blue to me
but as you all know
I have been wrong
before.  No one I
talked to on the
Turkish coast could
give an explanation
for the name.  It seems
one of those mysteries
we face when we are
the least bit alert
or very lost.  When climbing
out of our painful
selves we often will
attempt a bargain, make
a deal between where
we have been and what
we can’t quite see
ahead.  In this case
trying to bluff is very
dangerous.  None of us
really has what some
call a “poker face.”
We give it dead away.
Just go the way of the
Prophet named Oti
(we think), and this wisdom:
“Poetry is like driving a truck
5,000 miles to a town
worse than yours.”

Michael Poage has worked a variety of jobs: grocery store clerk, manual laborer, elementary school teacher, office clerk, sheep and cattle rancher in Montana, and 25 years as pastor to three United Church of Christ congregations in Kansas. He currently is an instructor of English at the Intensive English Language Center, Wichita State University, where he lives with is wife Gretchen Eick. He has ten collections of poems published and a selected works, Human Ink (Blue Cedar Press, 2017). B.A., Westmont College, 1967; MFA, U. of Montana, 1973; M.Div., San Francisco Theological Seminary, 1985  Michael Poage
PO Box 48715  Wichita, KS  67201

Friday, May 5, 2017

Denise Low's writing workshop: On Whimsy in Poetry

© 2017 Denise Low,  from a forthcoming collection, How to Write Mood in Verse

Riddles are embedded in the earliest Anglo Saxon oral literatures. Webster’s defines a riddle as: “A mystifying, misleading, or puzzling question posed as a problem to be solved or guessed often as a game” (3rd ed.). Beyond puzzles and questions, a riddle is, according to Edward Hirsch, “both an interrogative and an expressive form, possibly the earliest form of oral literature—a formulation of thought, a mode of association, a metaphor.” Hirsch asserts that riddles are universal contests of wits, from Oedipus Rex to the present. He describes riddles in the Sanskrit texts and the Hebrew Bible. In any case, riddles use double entendres and other circumlocutions to suggest a word or phrase. These can be instructive, but more often they are pure whimsy. They also delight as they instruct.
Wordplay, from nursery rhymes to bawdy limericks, appeals to people’s love of games. A well wrought riddle is in itself a thing of interest, if not beauty. They are verbal versions of the game “charades” and perfect for a long evening’s entertainment.
                In the history of British poetics, riddles begin with a set verse form. The mood of whimsy, though, does not limit itself to a single form. Contemporary riddles sustain the love of puzzles and solutions—in many forms.

Anglo Saxon Riddles
The two-part line, three beats each side, is a common Anglo Saxon verse form; rhyme depends on alliteration. The Exeter Book o Riddles, 1000 years old, contain dozens of riddles, some graphically sexual.


Moððe word fræt--      me þæt þuhte

wrætlicu wyrd      þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn ,
þæt se wyrm forswealg      wera gied sumes ,
þeof in þystro,      þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol .      Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra      þe he þam wordum swealg.
A moth ate songs--wolfed words!
That seemed a weird dish--that a worm
Should swallow, dumb thief in the dark,
The songs of a man, his chants of glory,
Their place of strength. That thief-guest
Was no wiser for having swallowed words.

The bookworm, or moth caterpillar, can consume velum manuscripts, yet the oral tradition of songs and chants, when held in memory, are beyond such destruction. The book reader may also be no wiser after chewing up such a “cwide” or cud.
                Here is an example of a bawdy riddle, in the same verse form in the original but lost here. It rivals any limerick, even after all these centuries:

Riddle 45, Exeter Book
I have heard of a something-or-other,
growing in its nook, swelling and rising,
pushing up its covering. Upon that boneless thing
a cocky-minded young woman took a grip with her hands;
with her apron a lord's daughter covered the tumescent thing.

Here are a couple Mother Goose riddles that have simple end rhymes, and they are in modern English. They are still as old as anyone can remember; perhaps the couplets echo the early Anglo-Saxon two-part line:

A Sieve
A riddle, a riddle, as I suppose,
A hundred eyes and never a nose!
 A Star
Higher than a house, higher than a tree.
Oh! whatever can that be?

These are simpler than the Exeter riddles, designed to appeal to children. These train the imagination as well as the ear for rhythms of the English language.
 Contemporary Riddles
Emily Dickinson writes some of the first serious riddles in U.S. poetry. The riddle form gives this poem a tone of irony rather than gloom:

Under the Light yet under
Under the Light, yet under,
Under the Grass and the Dirt,
Under the Beetle's Cellar
Under the Clover's Root,

Further than Arm could stretch
Were it Giant long,
Further than Sunshine could
Were the Day Year long,

Over the Light, yet over,
Over the Arc of the Bird --
Over the Comet's chimney --
Over the Cubit's Head,

Further than Guess can gallop
Further than Riddle ride --
Oh for a Disc to the Distance
Between Ourselves and the Dead!

The topic of the poem, the “Dead,” is held back until the end. It is indirect, repetitive descriptions of the unknown with parallel lines, alliterative like some Anglo Saxon verse. The architecture of the poem, then, creates a suspense. Dickinson also injects whimsy into the details, like the “Beetle’s Cellar.” Then the contrast to the last line is most extreme. This is an adult poem that borrows the light verse form and subverts it.

I borrow a child’s riddle form for this long, sectioned poem about “eyes.” Even though the answer is in each section, the uncovering of unexpected places for eyes is the point of the wordplay:

Eye Riddles, by Denise Low

Laser-dot red eyes among green
euonymus sheaves:
A vireo darts herky jerky
                on spliced-video film.
Looped once, looped twice:
                Tweet. Silence. Tweet. Silence.
Peony buds drip sap
                striped billiard balls
                red white green white
eyes squeezed shut.
Lookout chipmunk
                its kohl-lined eyes
                point the way
                past pine’s
                bare slash.
Tail taut
                black bead eyes
A cat’s vertical eyes
are tandem gyroscopes
level just so.
Its body circles
unmoved elliptical
twin stars.
Dog eyes are brown honey
Snake eyes
slit yellow moonlight
make two wires
tossed ivory
Kelly green poison veins
feed on plump potato flesh.

Below nubby eye bumps
Cuzco-line alien lifeforms glow.
my father
saw that night
                the door jamb
                Evil Eye
                in invisible ink.

He tells me
“The Devil is real.”

Contemporary riddles work through contrasts, accumulation of details, extended metaphor—all to lead readers to discovery. The Bible has riddle contests, literal battles of the wits (Daniel, Solomon, Samson). Hirsch dates Sanskrit riddles to book 1 of the Rig-Veda (1700–1100 BCE). Riddles are among the oldest poetic forms. They adapt from comic to serious themes; they take shape in myriad patterns.

Hirsch, Edward. “Riddle.” Academy of American
Low, Denise. A Casino Bestiary (Spartan Press, 2017).
Robinson, Fred C. "Artful Ambiguities in the Old English 'Book-Moth' Riddle," Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation for John C. McGalliard, ed. L.E. Nicholson and D. W. Frese (Notre Dame University Press, 1975), pp. 355-62.
“The Exeter Book of Riddles”-Flowers of History: Incidental notes after the eclectic histories of Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris. University of
“Old English Riddles.” Swarthmore College Department of English.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Support the Humanities! Comments from Ks. Poets Laureate

Poets Laureate of Kansas: Statement of Support for the Humanities
Eric McHenry, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2015-17
Wyatt Townley, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2013-15
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2009-2013

Denise Low, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2007-09

Eric McHenry
What does it mean to be fully human, and what is it worth? It is difficult to quantify the value of the humanities, but we know that investment there yields a big bang for the soul and for the buck. In the current cost-cutting climate, the value—indeed, the very existence—of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has been called into question, though it costs the average American 50 cents a year.  
 One local beneficiary of the NEH is the Kansas Humanities Council (KHC), with its 45-year track record of strengthening civic life. In 2016, KHC provided over 700 free programs to nearly 400,000 people in all 6 sections of the state. The benefit in terms of education, history, and culture is immeasurable, but the real crop KHC grows is community
Wyatt Townley
 KHC’s Poet Laureate of Kansas program, adopted in 2013 from the Kansas Arts Commission, is one of our nation’s 44 state poet laureateships. These programs point to poetry’s ability to explore essential values in an age of distraction. Poetry helps us find common ground and develop greater understanding of our shared home, from the tallgrass prairies of the Flint Hills to the windy high plains.                                                                        
 As poets laureate, we’ve crisscrossed the state many times, dodging blizzards and tornados to talk with fellow Kansans about things that matter. We averaged 50 public appearances a year—some at colleges, high schools, and grade schools, but most at small-town libraries and community centers. Anyone who thinks of poetry as elitist should ride along with us to Colby (pop. 5,387), or Kinsley (1,457), or Glasco (498), and see how many farmers, miners, nurses, children, and retirees fill up rooms.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
 Having a poet laureate costs Kansas taxpayers almost nothing (the modest travel stipend we receive is paid for entirely by private donors), but the position could not exist without the tireless support of the Kansas Humanities Council, providing staff and resources to help us reach new audiences, particularly in underserved and isolated areas. KHC supports the state economy, bringing people together—often across great distances—which in turn bolsters hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses.
Denise Low 
 Our state poet laureate program has a national reputation for excellence. We have organized conferences that brought dozens of other state poets and hundreds of participants to Kansas. We’ve published regular columns in newspapers statewide and produced award-winning anthologies featuring hundreds of writers for thousands of readers. Our thriving regional literary scene led the Association of Writers & Writing Programs to bring its 2020 conference—one of the biggest writers conferences on Earth, drawing some 13,000 attendees from around the world—to the Kansas City area.      
 We believe in poetry as deep literacy—an experience that engages mind, emotion, body, and spirit. We also believe in Kansas, and the essential work of our superb state humanities council and our national treasure, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Please do all you can—contacting legislators especially—to ensure their continuation for the good of us all.