Friday, December 30, 2022

Tom Weso Paintings and Denise Low Poems: A Dialogue

Thanks to folks associated with Numero Cinq! This is from 2014, and it brings back fond memories. The poems ended up in Melange Block, Red Mountain Press. Click link for full chapbook.


A family burns chairs, clothes, and axes
but nothing stops the silent killer.
Neighbors find them frozen in bed.

Another year trees explode.
Crows fall from trees.
Lakota winter counts show a black-ink crow.
Ben Kindle writes, “K’agi’ o’ta c’uwi’tat’api.”
Crows, they freeze to death.

This enemy seeps through sills and door jambs.
Chimney flues fill with its wrath.

North is its direction.
Nothing stops it from reaching
through flesh to the center of bone.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Denise Low reviews a first book by Georgiana Valoyce-Sanchez

A Light To Do Shellwork By, by Georgiana Valoyce-Sanchez. (Scarlet Tanager Press. $18.00. ISBN

9781734531350 2022). This California Indigenous author, of Islander and Coastal Chumash people and an enrolled O’odham member, publishes her first full-length collection of poetry. This elder’s book is an important link among generations. The poems celebrate and renew family spiritual practices, as in the poem “The Fox Paw and Coyote Blessing.” It describes the narrator’s conversation with her departed grandmother:

. . . The morning of my Giveaway

at the Sunrise Ceremony

sprinkling tobacco to the east

of the ceremonial ring

I prayed to my Papago Pima gramma

who died a few years back but is

alive somewhere . . . .   (p. 35).

The narrator knows the grandmother is “alive somewhere,” and the poem adds another dimension to that reality. Another intergenerational work is “The Red Shawl,” a dramatic poem that works well on the page. Valoyce-Sanchez has faith the readers will receive her words as living testaments. Her generosity of spirit pervades the poems.

I am honored to have been asked to write the foreword to this important book, which includes these comments about the title: “Especially moving in A Light to Do Shellwork By are the poems about the narrator’s father, in his nineties, as he finds his way through blindness and memories. Respect for this man’s life embodies the respect for all the cultural traditions. His [Chumash] people have survived over five-hundred years of contact with settlers from the west and the east. Prayers, songs, dances, and poems are among the techniques of survival, for a people and for the individuals. Gratitude to Georgiana Valoyce-Sanchez for this magnificent gift” (ix-xi). A stanza from the title poem “A Light To Do Shellwork By,” tells about the day the poet’s father died, :

The ocean sang in my father’s hands

abalone pendants shimmered rainbows

from the ears of pretty girls

and shellwork dotted driftwood carvings

            cowrie shells, cone shells, volute shells

            red, black, white, blue, brown, green shells

the life they once held


old stories etched on

the lifeline of my father’s palm . . . .  (p. 61)

The verse includes culturally based topics as well as recent political issues, such as tribal terminations by the federal government. California Indigenous peoples suffered some of the worst persecutions and violence from settlers. A Light To Do Shellwork By is a healing work that looks forward without forgetting the past.

Biography: GEORGIANA VALOYCE-SANCHEZ, author of A Light To Do Shellwork By: Poems (Scarlet Tanager Books, 2022), is a descendant of Islander and Coastal Chumash Peoples from her father’s lineage, and O’odham (Akimel and Tohono) from her mother’s lineage. She is currently an enrolled member of The Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation and chair of the Chumash Women’s Elders Council for the Wishtoyo Foundation. She taught many different classes for the American Indian Studies Program at California State University, Long Beach, including two classes she designed: “World Genocides: An American Indian Perspective,” with graduate student Anna Nazarian-Peters, and “Conduits of California Indian Cultures: Art, Music, Dance and Storytelling.” She retired from CSULB in 2014, after twenty-seven years. She was a board member for many years at the California Indian Storytelling Association, and she continues to be an advocate for California Indian languages and sacred sites. Her poem “I Saw My Father Today” is on display at the Embarcadero Muni/BART station as one of twelve poems cast in bronze and placed prominently in San Francisco. 

Praise for A Light To Do Shellwork By

 "This long-awaited book of poetry by Georgiana Valoyce-Sanchez is a beautiful masterwork on how to take care of the light of knowledge given to her by family, by the lands and the waters. Each poem is as delicate and precise as a carved shell. Each shell-poem reminds us of the original purpose of poetry, to function as blessing songs, as memory holders, or observations for what is humbly important but might go unseen unless given a place to live in a poem. These poems will take you to the ocean’s edge and allow you to listen deeply to the blue deep. They will take you to the desert and sing into you the shimmer of rain feeding the generous expanse of sunlight. With this collection of poetry, you will make it home."

— Joy Harjo (Muscogee Creek Nation), 23rd U.S. Poet Laureate


“An illustration of intimate family history that’s a testament to the continuity of Indigenous life and poetics in California.” Kirkus Review

Monday, November 14, 2022

Meadowlark Books Publishes Denise Low's Book of Essays Jigsaw Puzzling

JIGSAW PUZZLING: ESSAYS IN A TIME OF PESTILENCE by Denise Low, Meadowlark Press. Games/Essay/Memoir

The 15 essays in this book explore the pop culture of jigsaw puzzlers while reflecting on art, geography, history, and more. Denise Low considers mosaics, reassembled pottery shards, play as rehearsal for life, and more. She quotes other literary jigsaw authors like Susan Sontag, Gaston Bachelard, Margaret Drabble and poets James Merrill and Dick Allen. “I never underestimate the power of a single puzzle piece. It fits within a whole, like each moment of my unfolding life story.” —Denise Low

Online discount 20% off. Click on this link:  PAYPAL LINK Also available on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and the publisher’s page Meadowlark Books. Paperback, retail $20. 122 pages, ISBN 978-1956578263, 6.2 ounces, 5.98 x 0.28 x 9.02 inches.

PRAISE FOR Jigsaw Puzzling

What is a sane, reasonable response to an insane, unreasonable Pandemic? Unlike some of us who lurched into bread baking, home renovation, or exploring the life of the hermit, Denise Low instead challenged a world of logic and symmetry by setting out to master the domain of the jigsaw puzzle. This is a realm of surety: logic within defined boundaries. Solving a puzzle demands concentration and leads to a higher contemplation of morality and ethics, as well. Denise Low has brilliantly accomplished this unfolding of the simple into the multifarious with insight and charm. —Sandy McIntosh, author of Plan B: A Poet’s Survivors Manual

Obsessions never fail to get my attention, especially when they concern things I completely overlook. Jigsaw Puzzling is a dive down unsuspected rabbit holes of jigsaw culture and plague history, lessons in art, geography, and much more. If you know Denise Low’s books–I do, I’ve read them all–you know her as a sharp, droll observer of the natural world, including the world of human nature. Her quiet, poetic voice leads a reader into hidden rooms filled with surprises, striking notes that resonate deeply with the world we live in. A wonderful read with or without a pandemic! –Jim Gilkeson, author of Three Lost Worlds: A Memoir.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Lucille Lang Day, Wampanoag-descent poet, writes bold beauty


The talented, generous writer Lucille Lang Day is author most recently of Birds of San Pancho and Other Poems of Place (Blue Light Press: First World Publishing, 2020). She contributes to the literary community in so many ways. First, she is publisher of Scarlet Tanager Press, an independent press that publishes Indigenous and other writers. She edits anthologies, including Red Indian Road West: Native American Poetry from California (co-edited with Kurt Schweigman, Scarlet Tanager) and Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (co-edited with Ruth Nolan. She organizes readings, supports Scarlet Tanager authors at the Associated Writing Programs conference, and appears at events. In addition to her support for others, her own poetry is dynamite. The title poem of her latest book Birds of San Pancho begins:

A great kiskadee sits on the casa wall

belting its exuberant song above

the dusty, cobblestone street. The bird

is masked like a raccoon, its breast

yellow as the butterflies that flit

amid hibiscus and bougainvillea. . . .

The poet describes the scene with bold brushstrokes, unafraid of interpretive adjectives like “exuberant” and a vivid comparison of a bird’s head markings to a raccoon’s mask. She is in control of syntax as she effortlessly progresses through the poem. Her balance of description and reflection keeps the poem interesting as it builds to its ending point:

Later, at the lagoon, a great blue heron,

a little blue heron, a green heron,

a night heron, two great egrets, eight 

snowy egrets and twenty cattle egrets

gather while brown pelicans dive

for fish and the sun’s bright disk sinks 

into the sea. When it disappears,

the egrets rise in groups and pairs

to settle in two coconut palms

for the night. Oh, to sit up there too—

safe, having eaten my fill—with

folded wings, watching over creation.

Focus is on the birds and nature’s patterns, not the poet’s life and ego—until the very end when the poet enters into the moment to share, not to overwhelm the entire poem. Her “Vincent’s Bedroom at Arles” is a perfect double ekphrastic poem—about the painting and about the physical room itself—and then it turns out the Arles citizenry recreated this room because the original was destroyed during World War II.  This gives Day occasion to ponder intersections of fiction and reality on many levels, made (seemingly) effortless in her poet’s spell. “At Lake Tahoe” is another well calibrated poem about the poet’s Wampanoag ancestry set side-by-side with California Indigenous people of this place, the Washoes. It ends:

Yet in summer Washoes still do the Pine Nut Dance

and Wampanoags do the Grass Dance to keep the world

in balance and remind us that the Earth is living, every

rock is sacred, and every tree and salmon has a soul. (79)

Day is able to tie two coasts together in this ending—the Massachusetts Wampanoags and the California Washoes. This understanding of unities is one of the pleasures of the collection. Day has a science Ph.D., and also M.F.A. in creative writing. She puts these two perspectives to good use in her writing. It is precise, complete, and transformative.


Interview with SF Review of Books Zara's Blog (

Poem by Lucille Lang dYetay, Valpraiso, “Birds of San Pancho

Poem by Lucille Lang Day  Poetry Foundation, “Tooth Painter,” 

Video of Lucille Lang Day  Berkeley Public Library poetry reading,

Video of Lucille Lang Day “How to Publish a Memoir,”

Lucille Lang Day is the author of seven full-length poetry collections and four poetry chapbooks. Her latest collection is Birds of San Pancho and Other Poems of Place (Blue Light Press, 2020). She has also edited the anthology Poetry and Science: Writing Our Way to Discovery, and she coedited Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California and Red Indian Road West: Native American Poetry from California. Other publications are two children’s books and a memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story. Her many honors include the Blue Light Poetry Prize, two PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Literary Awards, the Joseph Henry Jackson Award, and eleven Pushcart Prize nominations. She holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from San Francisco State University, an MA in zoology, and a Ph.D. in science/mathematics education from the University of California at Berkeley. She lives in Oakland, California. She is of Wampanoag, British, and Swiss/German descent.

Denise Low, Kansas Poet Laureate 2007-09, won the Editor’s Choice Red Mountain Press Poetry Award for Shadow Light. Other publications are memoirs The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival (U. of Nebraska Press,) and Jigsaw Puzzling: Essays in a Time of Pestilence (Meadowlark, Sept. 2022); Wing (Red Mountain, Hefner Heitz Award finalist); Casino Bestiary (Spartan); and Jackalope (fiction, Red Mountain). She is co-author of Northern Cheyenne Ledger Art by Fort Robinson Breakout Survivors (U. of Nebraska Press, Ks. Notable Book). Her PhD in literature and creative writing is from the University of Kansas, and her MFA is from Wichita State. At Haskell Indian Nations University, she founded the creative writing program. She teaches for Baker University’s School of Professional and Graduate Studies. Board memberships include Indigenous Native Poets (In-Na-Po) and Associated Writers and Writing Programs (past president and contributing editor). Her heritage includes British Isles, German, and Lenape/Munsee (Delaware). She lives in California’s Sonoma

Monday, August 29, 2022

Denise Low: The Ethics of Endorsements and Book Reviews

Years ago I began book reviewing for the Kansas City Star and for literary journals. When I signed a contract as a freelancer for the KC Star, I learned the importance of ethics for this respected newspaper, which has won Pulitzers. Informally, as editor of the Cottonwood Review and then on the board of Bob Woodley Memorial Press (until I published a book with them). The ethics were obvious and not complicated: do not review or endorse any publication where there is a conflict of interest. Conflict of interest especially involves exchange of money.

These days, after print-on-demand has made self-publishing an industry, these ethics are not always apparent. Some important review venues sell reviews, like Kirkus Review Indie, where reviews cost about $500. Kirkus has been a long-time, respected publication, and its main company still is. This side-gig company is a moneymaker that exploits vanity authors. I avoid Kirkus completely now. This is old school; the basic rules of book reviewing are these:
  • Do not review books by family members, employers, employees, and others with whom you have a close personal relationship. 
  • Do not review books for which you have received money for any part of the publication process--proofing, copyediting, design, promotional work. 
  • Do not review books you have not read. 
  • Do not write promotional reviews under a pseudonym.
  • Do not do anything sketchy, as your name as an ethical person is important in this business.
  • Selling review copies is considered unethical.
Ethical practices for endorsements (blurbs) are a bit more relaxed, as often people blurb for friends and for students. However, once money exchanges hand for any part of the writing-editing-publishing-promotion process, you may not endorse nor review the publication.  Do not use any text for a blurb or other promotion without permission. A famous poet once wrote me a great compliment about a book in a letter, and she was insulted when I asked to use it as a blurb. Her reaction has stayed with me!

This is a first post about this issue, but a situation arose where the conflict-of-issue was clear, and the other party had never learned of the ethics of writing reviews and endorsements.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Annie Newcomber interviews J. Kahn

Kansas City has a lively arts scene, including literary arts, and one of the most compelling voices is that of
Jemshen Khan. Poet Annie Newcomer interviews him about his recent book at  Flapper Press Poetry Cafe. He tells about his mission in writing poetry: Resistance writing, especially, is a path of one's own making. Devoting writing energy to beliefs that run contrary to established interests is a step toward a specific type of freedom, waking a few readers from the trance of mainstream propaganda." His chapbook Speech in an Age of Certainty is available from Finishing Line Press. The interview also has a preview of his next book, The Popol Vuh: An Illustrated Epic, based on a Mayan creation narrative. I interviewed him also for this blog, Denise Low Interviews Jemshed Khan. Khan is a poet working from his experience donating medical assistance to Guatemalan people, his experience as an immigrant, and his experience as a person of conscience. Please enjoy his humanity and grace in this interview, and thanks to Newcomer for bringing this to the literary community! Her chapbook Comets: Relationships That Wander is from Finishing Line Press. Viva Kansas City! 

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Poetry Unbound discovers blood messages in Denise Low's poetry

I so appreciate the close reading of my poem "Walking with My Delaware Grandfather" in

their Poetry Unbound series. Their commentator 
Pádraig Ó Tuama says, "This poem has a deep knowledge about what it means for your own body to bear witness to your past, to your generations past. The grandfather in this poem is one of the four generations being evoked, because we hear of Denise, we hear of her mother, of her grandfather, and that man’s mother, also. And he’s walking, and he doesn’t seem unsettled, but he seems to be looking for a home to be found in the body and life and experiences of his granddaughter. And an invitation from this is to consider, what are the ways within my past generations are looking for a home, maybe a resolution, maybe an opportunity for change, maybe an opportunity for defiance, maybe an opportunity to say: 'I’m still here'?" Read or listen to the poem here:

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

DENISE LOW interviews Twin Cities writer KATHRYN KYSAR

Kathryn Kysar is the author of the poetry books Dark Lake and Pretend the World, and she edited Riding Shotgun: Women Write about Their Mothers. We attended graduate school together at Wichita State University, one of the oldest MFA programs in the country, and we have remained friends. Kysar writes passionately and cares passionately about participating in literary communities. She founded the creative writing program at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, and she has been active as a board member of major literary organizations (AWP, Rain Taxi) as a behind-the-scenes booster. She’s recently published poetry in The Mollyhouse and Sleet (forthcoming)Links to recent poems are “After You Leave” in Voicemail Poems; “Photograph: Little League Practice” in The Under Review; “Lake Superior: Three Scenes of Summer” in About Place Journal. This email interview takes place May 10, 2022. 

Denise Low: You are one of the most socially committed people I know. How does this affect your choices in writing?

Kathryn Kysar: I am in a constant state of growth and self-correction in my struggle with internalized racism. I am a product of our patriarchal capitalist society that is based on genocide and slavery, and I continue to learn about this history and how my privilege warps my perceptions. I am currently writing a travelogue about a driving trip I took with my son last summer that examines our family’s settler colonialist past and the false stories conveyed through the generations.

DL: Writing about your second book of poetry Pretend the World (Holy Cow! Press), Rigoberto González writes, “Kysar's ability to politicize parenting and gender offer a gripping but blunt way of seeing the lives we create, the wars we wage, the things we consume, and the connections we make without overbearing sentimentality or righteousness.” (Poetry Foundation). How has being a parent informed your writing subject matter and your writing process?

KK: Gender inequities continue to be a central focus of my writing. As the parent of a transgender child, I have closely witnessed the horrors of transphobia and the deep harm of daily microaggressions. Is the personal political? Of course. Our lives, including the act of raising children, take place within our racist, sexist, and classist society. To ignore the context of within which we parent would be ignoring these truths. One function of poetry is to unveil the truth, to say the unsaid, hopefully “without overbearing sentimentality or righteousness.”

DL: Collaboration is one of the ways you work with community. I remember for Pretend the World that you collaborated with visual artists to create a show of artworks that responded to individual poems. What was that like for you, to see your poems re-envisioned in another genre? What other collaborations have you been involved in recently?

KK: Thanks for asking about collaboration! The visual art shows that accompanied Pretend the World were astounding to me. I was in awe that my humble poems could trigger such engaging and varied pieces. I invited five artists who work in different mediums to respond to the poems in the book with their artwork. Some pieces, like Jan Elftmann’s sculptural white horse, referenced a single line in a poem. Philip Noyed’s “Dresses Everywhere” is a hanging globe of little dresses that echoed an entire poem as well as the book’s title. The show was presented in several galleries, and Jes Lee’s poetry videos are available on YouTube. It was a joyously fun project.  I am currently writing poems in response to a series of Angela Spencer’s tarot card paintings, and we have upcoming shows scheduled for 2022-2023. My last big project was a collaborative recording of the poems from Pretend the World. I invited guest poets, musicians, and singers to record a poem. One of the happiest moments of my life was sitting in the studio sound booth and hearing how others understood and expressed my work so eloquently. 

DL: In an interview for Write On Door County (2017), you wrote: “I deeply enjoy collaborative creation across the arts: I have had several shows with visual artists, written poems to pre-recorded music, and regularly perform with an improvisational poetry/music group called the Sonoglyph Collective. A sample Sonoglyph performance is “Escape from Paradise Iowa.”  The musicians in this group are dynamite! What have you learned from this project?

KK:  Since our graduation reading when I read my poems accompanied by a musician, I have been striving to take poetry off the page. The Sonoglyph Collective is an improvisational jazz/poetry group featuring four poets and three musicians: Sean Egan on clarinet, Jonathan Townsend on drums, Aaron Kerr on bass, with poets Lynette Rein-Grandell, Hawona Sullivan Janzen, Ibe Kaba, and myself.  We blend the spoken word with music in improvisational ways. Our performances bring my poetry into the bliss of making meaningful sound with others. I have always been deeply connected with music—I worked in the music business for five years before starting my present job—and had always longed to be in a band. There is a connection, a creative energy, in the process of musical performance that I do not gain any other way. 

DL:  I notice you have video poems on YouTube, “Hand Sisters” and “Love Poem.” In addition to poetry, you have written essays and travel writing. What are some of your current writing projects?

KK: I am always, of course, writing poems, but my recent focus has been writing creative nonfiction. My lyric essays are constructed much like poems and weave dense imagery with insights and observations, often about the past. You can read some of my recent CNF work in Slag Glass City and The Mollyhouse.

DL: Is there anything else you would like to add?

KK: Thanks so much for this conversation!

Kathryn Kysar is the author of two books of poetry, Dark Lake and Pretend the World, and she edited the anthology Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers. She has received fellowships and residencies from the Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Tofte Lake Center, and the Oberholtzer Foundation. Her poems have appeared in anthologies such as To Sing Along the Way and Good Poems, American Places. Kysar has served on the board of directors for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) and Rain Taxi Review. She is the founder of the creative writing program at Anoka-Ramsey Community College and offers manuscript consultations through The Loft Literary Center. Twitter: @darklake Instagram: @Pretendtheworld

Thursday, April 14, 2022

DaMaris B. Hill brings power to BREATH BETTER SPEND: Living Black Girlhood


Be prepared to rage, sing, cry, and learn from this new hybrid collection Breath Better Spent (Bloomsbury) from one of the most powerful voices in the USA today. Dr. Damaris B. Hill writes about unspeakable atrocities as in "Kamille 'Cupcake' McKinney," a Black child stolen at a birthday party, and the complicity of local law enforcement, ending with "judge slapping his knees has a pocket full/ of opiates and promises for the young girl/ kneeling under his dinner napkin" (p. 87). Hill pulls together stories of Black womanhood, from the opening inscription to Zora Neale Hurston to Whitney Houston to Aretha Franklin ("What You Talkin' Bout") to her own younger self. The result is a book-length tour-de-force. This book deserves a wide audience, especially in times when the Senate hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson expose the blatant racism of some of the highest USA elected representatives. Thank you, Dr. Hill, for this testament to strength.

DaMaris B. Hill, PhD, is the author of A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing, an NAACP Image Award Finalist; The Fluid Boundaries of Suffrage and Jim Crow: Staking Claims in the American Heartland; and a collection of poetry, \Vi-ze-bel\ \Teks-chers\(Visible Textures). As with her creative process, Hill’s scholarly research is interdisciplinary. An Associate professor of Creative Writing at the University of Kentucky and a former service member of the United States Air Force, she lives in Kentucky. Advertising & PromotionsTOC0

Sunday, March 13, 2022


Thanks to Kim Tedrow of Lincoln, Nebraska for her modeling a poem after my "Two Gates." This is part of her 30-day commitment to write a poem a day for Tupelo Press's 30/30 Project, a fundraiser: "Each month, volunteer poets run the equivalent of a "poetry marathon," writing 30 poems in 30 days, while the rest of us sponsor and encourage them every step of the way.

Here is my poem:


I look through glass and see a young woman
of twenty, washing dishes, and the window
turns into a painting. She is myself thirty years ago.
She holds the same blue bowls and brass teapot
I still own. I see her outline against lamplight;
she knows only her side of the pane. The porch
where I stand is empty. Sunlight fades. I hear
water run in the sink as she lowers her head,
blind to the future. She does not imagine I exist.

I step forward for a better look and she dissolves
into lumber and paint. A gate I passed through
to the next life loses shape. Once more I stand
squared into the present, among maple trees
and scissor-tailed birds, in a garden, almost
a mother to that faint, distant woman.

And here is Kim Tedrow's poem "after" this one: Zoom Meeting / Kim Tedrow

after Denise Low

I look at myself on the screen

and I see myself at twenty,
hair straight and long, parted
down the middle for the first time
since before I knew myself,
except now I’m paying attention.
I see her loneliness as a quarry
from which she mines men
to whom she is disposable.
She wakes in someone’s home
and leaves without her shoes
so as not to wake him.
She wants to be a secret.
Her apartment overlooks a lot
where musicians park by the bar.
Later she goes there to dance.
Gladiolas grow next to the stairs.
Her father stops by
when she is not there
and tucks a picture of himself
into the door frame. She writes
“I could not bear to lose him.”
I see her and bring her back
to myself. She does not want to come
here–she cannot imagine the life
we live now–alone and happy.
In the meeting when it’s my turn
I speak up, I make myself known.

Kim Tedrow works as a Science Writer in Lincoln, Nebraska. She has a Master of Arts in creative writing from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She’s been published in Prairie Schooner and several anthologies, including Nasty Women Poets: an Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse, edited by Grace Bauer and Julie Kane. She lives in a cute little granny house with three cats.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Denise Low comments on William Stafford's "Listening"

Remarks presented at the Watkins Museum celebration of William Stafford's birthday, January 15,

I am so honored to have known William Stafford, born January 17, 1914, at the beginning of my writing life. His person and his poetry influenced me to strive for reflective engagement with natural and human surroundings. He uses poetry for play, for surprises in language, for folding the outside patterns of nature into my inner life, comingling the two. He fit his poetics to align with the unique grasslands ecology of the region where he grew up, from Liberal to Hutchinson to Lawrence—where he received his BA and MA. The sparse landscape of horizontals with gentle angles of ridges creates a backdrop where any vertical, like a watermill or steeple or horse, becomes dramatic. Human experience is set against an enormous sweep of sky.

 The most important aspect of Stafford’s poetics is his humility, which gives him the ability to step aside from the role of master over the wilderness, which was the biblical tradition. Instead, he took the pose of one who listens and learns, as in this favorite of mine, which suggests his Indigenous background:

         Listening by William Stafford:

My father could hear a little animal step,

or a moth in the dark against the screen,

and every far sound called the listening out

into places where the rest of us had never been.


More spoke to him from the soft wild night

than came to our porch for us on the wind;

we would watch him look up and his face go keen

till the walls of the world flared, widened.


My father heard so much that we still stand

inviting the quiet by turning the face,

waiting for a time when something in the night

will touch us too from that other place.

 He mixes the human and natural worlds, with the “moth in the dark against the screen” and the portal between the two realms, the “porch.” The porch becomes the interface between mortality and immortality.

 A second point about Stafford’s poetics: his discussion of ethics. “Traveling Through the Dark” is the most well-known example of this, where he pauses and could “hear the wilderness listen.” He reverses the role of judge and makes readers aware that their actions, like his, have moral consequences.  And finally, the language is subtle, like the landscape, with deep images that continue to build layers throughout the years. The dead deer by the side of the rode is singular and memorable. Not many details appear in the verse, and the image of the deer is the point, not the poet’s acrobatic use of vocabulary and rhetorical devices. Here is the poem “Traveling Through the Dark by Willilam Stafford:

My poem responds to “Listening.”

Variations on Keening by Denise Low

We would watch him look up and his face go keen. William Stafford

My father’s face goes keen. Cicadas drone as

darkness walls us in. His eyes are echoes


on fire. He speaks kennings. His wise eyes

turn blue fire. His prophet’s sight pierces night


with keen perception. Agate rings lie buried

in river mud. His eyes see their spirals.


A sunfish rouges under a keen-bladed knife.

Sequin scales flake. Its eyes darken into a stare


beyond ken. I keen. My father’s twin-star eyes

gaze equally into and out of the dark.

                                                            Wings (Red Mountain Press, 2021)

 My play on “ken” and “keen” emphasizes my wonder at the same cosmos that Stafford knew in the grasslands of Kansas. I conflate him with my father, born a few moths after Stafford and twenty miles away. Stafford is my poetic father. His example of self-effacement, images, and focus on a few key words—these I try to follow.