Sunday, December 16, 2018

Denise Low responds to Death of the Book Review & an article by Sam Eichner

 My long-time friend Fred Whitehead sent me a link to an article that suggests, by its end, 
that both the literary and the journalistic book review forms are dead--or at least greatly altered. Sam Eichner begins his argument in "What's Behind a Recent Rise in Books Coverage" by chronicling the increasing coverage of books in news media, but not through increased book reviews. First, he notes how major news outlets are adding to book articles: “Since the beginning of 2017, The New York Times has continued to expand its already robust book coverage. More recently, New York announced that it would triple its book coverage. In October, The Atlantic launched a Books section and a newsletter.” Eichner adds that BuzzFeed has a new online book club and Facebook group. However, all book news competes with a cacophony of online pop-up ads, video clips, and social media. Books continue to have, nonetheless, qualities like no other medium, even if readers do not have more time. He quotes the NYT book review editor Pamela Paul, who lists virtues of the book: they give historical perspectives, longer-range perspectives, and analysis of all the flotsam of news fragments. Eichner refers to these virtues as he ends his article with a rally to continue to support books: “. . . it may be more important than ever for publications to help books accomplish these goals," but his means to this end is to join the production of bits and bytes: "But the best format for them to do so is likely no longer the traditional, single-book, literary review. To break through the noise, editors must translate old-fashioned book coverage to the lingua francas of today’s impossibly paced media climate: shareable lists, essays, digestible Q&As, podcasts, scannable email newsletters, hashtags, Instagrams, even book trailers.” Oh my, brave new world. The entire article is worth a read. Whether we like it or not, the book review has morphed into a variety of book niblets.

What’s Behind a Recent Rise in Books Coverage? By Sam Eichner Columbia Journalism Review, Dec. 3, 2018.  

Sam Eichner is a writer based in New York, whose work has been published in The Daily Beast, Electric Literature, and The Huffington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @seike17.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Steve Bunch Shares Allen Ginsburg, Ed Dorn, Other Lawrence Literary History

Here are Steve Bunch's Lawrence literary memories of the Rock Chalk Cafe, which served Ed Dorn, the Fugs, Allen Ginsberg, many other literati over the years. It begins:
Steve Bunch

"Edward Dorn's poem "The Cosmology of Finding Your Spot" celebrated the Rock Chalk and its denizens ( ) 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."
I remember the reading at the UCC, and how suave Dorn was, how cooly activist. His wife Jennifer Dorn was with him, also a respected poet, and she impressed me. Do I remember what he read? Yes--parts of Gunslinger he was working on at the time. He made me think differently about history of the West, my home region. It was a long way from Gunsmoke and Palladin, although there were some of the same characters. He had a grasp of the history that informed his discussion as well of the poets, and I admired that. Here is a review from the Guardian by Patrick McGuinnis of Gunslinger, and it begins:

"Gunslinger is perhaps the strangest long poem of the last half-century: a quest myth wrapped around an acid-inspired western comic strip adventure in which a gunslinger, astride a drug-taking, talking horse called Levi-Strauss, searches for Howard Hughes ("they say he moved to Vegas / or bought Vegas and / moved it. / I can't remember which"). Charles Olson had insisted, in the wake of Pound, that where Europe had history to make poetry with, America must take geography. Dorn's contribution to the Great American Long Poem – Pound's Cantos, WC Williams's Paterson, Olson's Maximus … – was Gunslinger, which appeared in five sections over six years. The American west was Dorn's imaginative home, and his poem is an extraordinary feat of imagination, humour, allusion and lyric invention. It takes the standard fare of a good if surreal western (brothel madams, saloon brawls and gunfights) and melds it with high philosophical riffs."

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Denise Low Reviews Maryfrances Wagner's THE IMMIGRANTS' NEW CAMERA

Maryfrances Wagner’s collection The Immigrants’ New Camera: A Family Collection has a
glossary of Italian words in the back, a useful addition as she writes her family’s immigrant experiences and afterlife in Kansas City neighborhoods. The poet tells wonderful stories in this book, compressed into poems and amplified with poetic intensities. Always the phrases give both narrative and mood, as in this poem about her aunt:
I Bring Aunt Mary a Christmas Tree
Oh, what a good Italian woman you are.
You’ve baked biscotti and iced them nice,
pink and green just like I love. And they
taste just like your Aunt Rosie’s. I wear
that lap quilt you made me to dinner.
I’m afraid someone might take it, though.
I can’t believe all of the stuff you bring.
I loved the pizza and the pizzelle,
but I don’t have anywhere to put
those family pictures. You can take those
home. I don’t recognize some of them.
What’s that behind your back? A little tree?
You call that a Christmas tree?
It’s nice that you put blinky lights on it
and decorated it with reindeer and candy canes,
but it’s not more than a foot tall! Troppo piccolo.
Uncle Johnny brought home big trees.
Sometimes we had to cut the tops off.
I used to put tinsel and ornaments on the tree.
They were big and beautiful. Ask Jimmy.
This hotel is too small. I’ll be glad when we
go home. These pigra maids take forever when I ring.
Uffa! What’s that? A crystal star? Too many lights.
Shut that thing off before I quit breathing, and don’t
hang that mistletoe in the doorway. I don’t want
some old coot in a wheelchair grabbing me
on the way to dinner. We’ve got enough
Wagner’s use of dramatic monologue works well here, deftly wrought so the narrator’s presence is just a whisper in the background. The forte voice of the aunt carries the poem, as she voices her judgements. Along the way, details of life in a nursing home create another thread in this dense poem. Wagner balances lyric with narrative perfectly.
                No poem in this collection is simple. The stories may appear to be about making wine in the garage or school memories. The overlays of language, however, as well as the implied emotions complicate any topic.
One of my favorite poems is one where Wagner describes miscellanea left in her father’s drawers after his death. The catalogue elaborates more about grief and character than the objects. The poem “My Father’s Nightstand” begins:
I empty the dead drawers
and sort what my father kept close:
Chapstick, shoestring, book of stamps.
Flashlight, two keys, Allen wrench.
The orphaned keys, the wrench, and the flashlight all suggest mortality, the final law.
                Wagner collections family stories from all her previous collections in this new book. They interact with each other, so repeated characters, like Zia Rosie and Nonno, develop into full-fleshed companions. Most of the people in the book are dead, so there is an eerie quality of ghost stories also in this interesting and complex book.
History of Italians in the United States often overlooks the Midwest. This book helps to expand the cultural nuances of this region. The family members, however, are familiar archetypal characters that all can relate to. This book is enjoyable on the page, and Wagner will present readings of it in the Kansas City area, not to be missed.

Dec 6, book release party at Westport Coffeehouse, KC, 41010 Pennsylvania St., KC, MO, 7 pm. At 8:00 will be a short reading, and Robert Stewart, Jenny Molberg, and Cameron Morse will be present. Enter through the Green Room or come downstairs through the coffeehouse. If you can't stay the whole time, at least drop by.

The Immigrants’ New Camera: A Family Collection by Maryfrances Wagner, 174 pp., Spartan Press, 2018, $15.00.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Denise Low Reviews Lechliter's Photos of Ghosts: Poems

 At the beginning of this month, Gary Lechliter organized a where he debuted a new collection, Photos of Ghosts: Poems (Spartan Press). It is superb. I have followed Lechliter’s work for decades now, and he carves deeper shadows and higher reliefs. One of his classics is about his brother’s funeral, “The First Born,” where he wonders at their abiding differences despite an almost identical upbringing: “We lived in the same small clapboard house, / ate the same food, pissed in the same toilet, / bathed in the same old claw-foot tub” (p. 6).  After a catalogue of fraternal connections, he ponders the differences, “Maybe it was the religion you clung to, / that hard faith I walked away from.” He lifts the poem from the biographical into a larger sphere when he further iterates the differences between the narrator’s doubt and the brother’s belief. The poem ends: “Earth is fixed, it seems likely that I’ll / see you soon, perhaps in some plausible / heaven for the faithful and yes, the / agnostic, the Jew, the Buddhist, and / Muslim, the gay or straight.”
                Lechliter grew up in southeast Kansas, not far from my own hometown. He writes about the places I knew and in that language, as in this unsentimental nature poem “Horsefly”
                                On wrongs swift vengeance waits. Alexander Pope
The fucker I smacked and left to die,
belly up on the ground, waits for
the labor of ants to carry it off.
It’s not unlike the one that blooded
me as I played in my grandmother’s
garden hose on a summer day.
That one made off with boy flesh.
And all I could do was weep and howl,
which brought my father out to the
lawn, where he chased it with the
newspaper’s help wanted ads,
but could not smack the villain.
So now I must call this menace
I’ve flattened an icon of vengeance
and leave it in the mulch, where
the widow and fatherless grubs
will come to honor the knowledge
that only fools linger.      (p. 7)

The Alexander Pope epigraph helps to set up a tradition and also to contrast to it, as the opening “The fucker” makes it clear this is not a sanitized or nostalgic experience. Sarah Smarsh’s memoir Heartland is redefining the way outsiders see rural folk, and this poet gives testimony to a complex, vivid site where human dramas match the extremes of weather. This is a wise book, for readers from any place.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Denise Low reviews Pat Daneman's "After All," on widowhood, women, mythos.

Pat Daneman is one of my favorite poets, probably not well known outside a devoted circle of to 
family and Kansas City friends (I am one of these), in part because she publishes her first book this year. Buy it, especially if you are a person over 50 or a person who has lost a family member or if you are a woman. That should cover just about everyone. Her writing concerns, often but not always, her loss of a spouse. This is not the only theme, but it makes the book essential reading. Take this poem, which could refer to night jitters in general or specifically to grief:

Night Knitting by Pat Daneman
Always good to have a row cast on—the night will come
when I’ll need the reassurance of brown or purple wool,
needles’ industry between sleeplessness and the immensity

of the world asleep. Even if snow is knitting its own caps and capes,
even if wind is undoing every knot,
I will have a pool of lamplight,

the back of a soft chair like an arm around my shoulders.
As I sit wishing for someone to talk to,
I will have the small stitches to count,

The clack-of-bone conversation, the thing—
what is it?—
falling from my hands.     c. 2018 Pat Daneman

Daneman understands the cadence of long lines, their internal sounds and patterns, like waves. She uses a conversational mode that invites readers into her narratives. This poem drops the “It is” that would make the first line grammatically complete. So the monologue begins as though the reader were present, almost as real as the missing partner. The music made by “reassurance,” “industry” “sleeplessness,” “immensity,” and “asleep” in the opening stanzas make this poetry, not prose. Then the wonderful fabulation of snow knitting forms parallels the narrator’s wool creation. Daneman is not done. In the third stanza, the poem turns into a seance, raising the specter of the dead man, whose arm is no longer around her, and whose conversation now is “clack-of-bone” rather than words. The final thrum in the poem is the passage of time, with snow “caps and capes” being undone and the indeterminate “what is it?—” that passes through her hands. This poem offers kindly advice—how to survive the insomniac nights—and it grieves not just a personal loss, but the nature of loss itself.  “Living in the Marriage Museum” is another tour de force, about the leftover contents of drawers and cupboards after a death.
                These poems help me find ways to think about loss. “To Anne Sexton” and “The Women in the Kitchen” are poems that parse women’s experiences elegantly. All the poems are small myths that populate a familiar cosmos. Each has a place. Each is necessary. Many hundreds of books of poetry are published each month by industry giants and by indie authors. Trust me. This is a high-quality, moving, book.

After All by Pat Daneman. FutureCycle Press 9781942371595 Print $15.95. Available on Kindle.

PAT DANEMAN is a freelance writer and editor.  Her recent poetry appears in the anthologies New Poetry from the Midwest and Kansas Time+Place, and the journals Moon City Review, Stonecoast Review, Comstock Review and Bellevue Literary Review.   Her chapbook, Where the World Begins, was published in 2015 by Finishing Line Press.
c. 2018 Denise Low, review. Please request permission for reprint and give acknowledgement.

Thursday, October 4, 2018


John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowships, unofficially known as “genius” grants, recognize “exceptional creativity” and come with awards of $625,000 each, distributed over five years.
Natalie Diaz draws on her experience as a Mojave American and Latina to challenge the
mythological and cultural touchstones underlying American society.
About Natalie's Work Natalie Diaz is a poet blending personal, political, and cultural references in works that challenge the systems of belief underlying contemporary American culture. She connects her own experiences as a Mojave American and Latina woman to widely recognized cultural and mythological touchstones, creating a personal mythology that viscerally conveys the oppression and violence that continue to afflict Indigenous Americans in a variety of forms.
In her first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (2012), Diaz reflects on her brother’s drug addiction, drawing upon Mojave, Greek, and Christian symbols to describe his destructive behavior and its effect on her family. Her brother is alternately a charismatic Icarus persuading his parents to let him come home again, the figure of Judas betraying his family, and most hauntingly, an Aztec god who devours his parents every morning. In “My Brother at 3 A.M.,” addiction is personified as the Devil, seen by her brother in his hallucinatory state and then by her mother as she recognizes her son’s brutal and desperate condition. Other poems in the collection focus on Diaz’s childhood on a reservation.  “Hand-Me-Down Halloween” is an angry eruption of language that ensues in the wake of the speaker being taunted by a white boy for wearing a secondhand Tonto costume. She takes a more satirical and wry approach in “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie,” folding a biting critique of economic inequality, stereotyping, appropriation, body-image issues, and consumer culture into a series of tableaux centering around a Barbie of Mojave identity trying to fit into a standard Barbie universe.
Diaz ends the book with poems about an unnamed beloved, and in more recent poems she has continued to explore expressions of Indigenous love in nature, family, and community. Other recent poems, such as “American Arithmetic”—about police violence against Native Americans—and “The First Water Is the Body”—written in honor of the Standing Rock protesters and her own Mojave people—engage directly with the bodily oppression of Indigenous Americans and the urgency of survival. Diaz is a powerful new poetic voice, and she is broadening the venues for and reach of Indigenous perspectives through her teaching, cross-disciplinary collaborations, and language preservation efforts.
Biography Natalie Diaz received a B.A. (2000) and M.F.A. (2006) from Old Dominion University. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Diaz’s poems and essays have appeared in such publications as Narrative Magazine, Guernica, Poetry Magazine, the New Republic, Tin House, and Prairie Schooner, among others, and she is an associate professor in the Department of English at Arizona State University.

Friday, September 7, 2018

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

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

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

Monday, August 20, 2018

Jennifer Levin Reviews Denise Low's Shadow Light

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

Saltillo tiles skein quick
            shivering filaments of rain.

Thin lizard bones and cholla needles
float down arroyos     August rosaries

Cloud banks unstack themselves behind
            a low-set moon.

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

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

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

John Brown Press of KC Publishes Icelandic Poet Hjalmar Jonsson

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

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

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Window Left Open by Jennifer Grotz Redefines Long Lines

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

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Carolyne Wright reviews Jackalope by Denise Low for New Letters!

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

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

DIAMANTES: How To Write a Diamond

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

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

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

Townley, Wyatt. “Homewords.” Emporia Gazette. Accessed 9 April 2018.
c. 2018 Denise Low Postings "Diamantes"

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Diane Glancy, Indigenous Writer Creates Pathways for Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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