Tag Archives: Denise Low

Interview with Kansas Poet Laureate Caryn Merriam-Goldberg

CarynCaryn Mirriam-Goldberg is the 2009-2013 Kansas poet laureate, which has not been an easy feat when one realized the Kansas Arts Commission was eliminated in mid-2011. Despite lack of the state’s support as epitomized by this gesture, Caryn has  managed to successfully put together two different anthologies, Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems, which celebrates Kansas’ Sesquicentennial,  and the subsequent To the Stars Through Difficulties: A Kansas Renga in 150 Voices, both of which began as daily blog postings. Caryn is the third Kansas Poet Laureate and continues to serve as the state continues its search for the next its next distinguished poet to serve in this office.

Please enjoy today’s interview which immediately follows the poem by Caryn:

***

Supercell     

Did you think your life was straight as this road,
something that could be time-lapsed into a predictable gait?
Did you ever try to map lightning, predict when
the thunderhead would pause and fold in on itself?
Have you pointed to a place in the clouds and said,
“there” just before a ghost cloud twisted briefly into form?
It is all nothing, then supercell, multiple stikes through
the clouds while the tips of the grass shimmer awake.
From the deep blue that narrates your life
comes the pouring upward of white curves and blossoms.
From the dark, comes the thunder. Then the violet flash.
From the panorama of what you think you know
comes the collapse of sky, falling on you right now
whether you’re watching the weather or not.
The world dissolves, reforms. What comes surprises,
motion moving all directions simultaneously, like the
losses you carry, talismans strung through your days, singing
of those you’ve loved deep as the blue framing the storm.
It rains for a moment in the field, in your heart,
then the weather stretches open its hand of life and says,
here, this whole sky is for giving.
***

 begin againTell me how you felt the moment you learned you were chosen to serve as the third Poet Laureate of Kansas.

I was thrilled and honored. After working for so many years as an activist poet, helping others find their voices and use those    voices to effect change and bring great meaning and healing to their lives, I had spent a lot of my work life lifting up other writers (which I still feel is a sacred calling). But to be recognized for my work in the community and also for my poetry was one of the greatest honors in my life.

Have you worked with previous Kansas Poet Laureates?

Yes, I worked very closely with the previous poet laureate, Denise Low, and also with Jonathan Holden, our first poet laureate. I also have worked and am still collaborating with poets laureate of other states, especially since I organized a national convergence of poets laureates that brought 20 poets laureate to Kansas for two days of readings, workshops and visiting. I’m about to go to New Hampshire for another such gathering, this one focused on poetry and politics, and I’m looking forward to more generative projects coming out of my time with other state poets laureate.

You mention on your website that when you were very young,  you told your Grandfather that you were going to live in Kansas someday. Can you recall your early impressions of Kansas before you ctually visited? What did Kansas represent to you or how did you imagine it?

All I really knew about Kansas was from the Wizard of Oz movie. When I first got on a plane to go to Missouri — I lived in Columbia, MO and then Kansas City, MO for a total of 4.5 years before I moved to Kansas — I didn’t really know where the Midwest was even, and certainly didn’t know anything about Kansas.

There is often a deep connection to place for Kansas poets. Can you tell me a little bit more about the relationships you are building with“the particulars” of Kansas?

renga-cover-rough-darkI think many poets many places have deep connections to the earth and sky where they live because what better way to get    inspiration? With Kansas, the beauty of this place is far more subtle than in Colorado, where the Rockies blow your mind, or the shores of Lake Superior in Minnesota, which dazzles just about anyone. Here, the main attraction is as much the sky as the land because the weather is astonishing, big-hearted, subject to rapid change, vivid and dramatic, and always happening. I also love the land here — the tallgrass prairies of eastern Kansas (where I live) where the grasses turn red each fall and need to be burned each spring; the Flint Hills and further west, Smoky Hills; the rock formations way out west and wide valleys throughout the state. Kansas is very varied, and the more I live here, the more I see the variety and also the patterns of who migrates through and what tilts each season.

How do poetry, teaching, and community interconnect for you?

All three are woven together so tightly that it’s hard for me to see the separate strands at time. I write, and because I write, I have a writer’s point-of-view when I teach: I can help students revise and strengthen their work, find overall patterns, clear away what keeps them from hearing the calling of the piece of writing. Because I also do a lot of community facilitation –workshops, meetings, etc. — I’m often hearing, in one ear, what my writing and teaching has to do with making community and making positive change in the world while, in the other ear, I’m in tune with what the words we write want to say and how we can best help them.

What role does revision play in writing and how do you approach revising your own work?

Sometimes revision is everything and sometimes not. This is to say that I have revised some writing for years. My novel, THE    DIVORCE GIRL, about to be published is something I started in 1997 after writing it in my head for decades. I spent over a decade simply revising it to the point that I feel like I have sections of it memorized at this point. I have books of poetry I’ve worked on for over a decade, revising some poems dozens of times. I also have things I write and just put out — like most of my blog posts and    some poems — that just come, and that’s that. But I think they tend to “just come” because I’ve written like a maniac since I was about 14, so those trails in my mind lead easily to writing on the page.

You are involved in numerous wonderful projects. Tell me how you maintain balance and protect your writing time while also keeping up with these projects? How do you prioritize?

FrontCoverWebPromosI struggle with this at times, and at times, I feel the    balance. It’s an ongoing practice Today, for example, I had a    meeting with the program director of the Individualized MA program    (in which I teach) about ways to help starting graduate students,    then had lunch with the former poet laureate, Denise Low, to catch    up on writing projects an talk over a contract I was offered on my    book on the Holocaust — NEEDLE IN THE BONE: HOW A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR AND POLISH RESISTANCE FIGHTER BEAT THE ODDS AND FOUND EACH OTHER. I’m answering emails now, then finishing a letter to a Goddard student, then working on a book proposal for another book before going to teach a writing and yoga workshop. That’s today, and tomorrow will be very different – I’m meeting Kelley Hunt to write some songs, and working on some poetry or fiction (depending on my inclination at the time). I try to do something physical for an hour each day: yoga, walking, going to the gym. I’ve also been sleeping outside on a futon bed on our screened-in porch lately, which is only possible with ease during a handful of days each year (when it’s not too hot or too cold), and being outside helps me most of all to keep balance. I also talk with my husband daily, sharing all kinds of moments from our lives, and I see my friends and kids and other family a lot. It all helps. How I prioritize is to balance the work I need to do (workshops, work with my students, etc.) that’s bound to deadlines with the work I need to do for my soul (my own writing), making room for both. If I feel off kilter, I’ll switch things up a bit.

What’s next?

The Kansas Poet Laureate program is now part of the Kansas Humanities Council, which will be announcing a new poet laureate later this month.

I’m also working on two writing projects which will probably take me over the next year or two: revising a novel on the story of Miriam, from the bible, but set in the U.S. from the 1960s to the present; and writing poetry to go with photos from Stephen Locke, a weather chaser and brilliant photographer (www.tempestgallery.com) for a book on storms and wild weather that we’re pitching through my agent to various publishers.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is the Poet Laureate of Kansas, and the author of 16 books, including four collections of poetry, most recently Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems (editor, Woodley Press); Landed; The Sky Begins At Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community & Coming Home to the Body (Ice Cube Books); a forthcoming novel, The Divorce Girl (Ice Cube Books); a non-fiction book, Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other (Potomac Books); a beloved writing guide, Write Where You Are (Free Spirit Press); and several anthologies. She co-edited An Endless Skyway: Poetry of the State Poets Laureate (Ice Cube Books) with Marilyn L. Taylor, Denise Low and Walter Bargen. Founder of Transformative Language Arts – a master’s program in social and personal transformation through the written, spoken and sung word – at Goddard College where she teaches, Mirriam-Goldberg also leads writing workshops widely. With singer Kelley Hunt, she co-writes songs, offers collaborative performances, and leads writing and singing Brave Voice retreats. She writes columns and serves as poet-in-residence for http://www.TheMagazineOfYoga.com. Here daily blog posts, “Everyday Magic,” plus occasional podcasts and writing exercises are at http://www.CarynMirriamGoldberg.wordpress.com, and her websites are http://bravevoice.com/ and www.CarynMirriamGoldberg.com.

Interview with Kansas City Poet, Catherine Anderson

Catherine Anderson is a Kansas City poet whom I met at a reading with former Kansas Poet Laureate, Denise Low, at The Writers Place. I find Anderson’s poetry to be socially aware and particularly compassionate toward the plight of the underprivileged and newly immigrated, which is also why I am drawn to it. It is no wonder her sensitivities lean towards such concerns, since Anderson has worked extensively with immigrant and refugee communities in the Kansas City area for a great deal of her professional life.  I was thrilled when Anderson agreed to an interview and am happy to introduce her to my readers this week. I hope her sentiments regarding the writing life find as much resonance with you as they have with me.

How did you come to writing and what keeps you going?

In the 1960’s I grew up in an industrial suburb of Detroit, half in nature and half in a rapidly changing urban environment. My father was a newspaper reporter covering Eastern European communities in Detroit and abroad, and my mother was a teacher, so I was fortunate to be living in a house of towering bookcases. Also, and perhaps not just as fortunate, my younger brother was diagnosed at the time with mental retardation and mental illness, a duality that kept him out of the public schools and made him ineligible for health insurance. Later, the diagnosis was autism, but by then the window of language acquisition had shut, and although he has grown into a sweet person, his language is severely disabled. The paradox of living in a family of storytellers, word wizards and comedians alongside a rather confused sibling who couldn’t do the most ordinary things has given me the gift of being comfortable in contradiction, uncertainty, and the absurd– most of the time. An unusual childhood resembling a circus act is not bad material for a writer. My late mother allowed my brother Charlie to roller skate in his bedroom, much to the disapproval of the neighbors. My father’s friends were mostly immigrants from Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, the Ukraine, Lebanon, and he had dictionaries from the whole range of languages these friends and contacts spoke. Between his good ear, their broken English, shots of vodka and his quick thumb through a dictionary, they entertained each other for hours in our small living room. Words and the absence of words were the central mystery of my childhood. Also, the civil rights and anti-war movements were major events in the 1960’s, and because of my father’s work, they couldn’t be easily ignored, even in the suburbs.

As a kid, I wanted to write because my father made his living that way, and it seemed fun and adventurous. When I asked my father what I needed to do to become a writer, he said, without hesitation, “learn to type.” This told me a lot about his approach to the written word – one of labor, and work done by hand. I was constantly composing plays for school, or creating a newspaper and I’d end up writing out copy after copy because I didn’t have access to a mimeograph machine (the kind with purple ink). However, my father brought home carbon copy paper from his office, and I could make at least five carbon copies at a time for other kids to read. Always I wrote in the smallest possible letters, to get in as much as I could, without wasting carbon pages. Those were the problems of the craft I encountered in trying to enliven a dull history assignment or interpret a Biblical passage. At least once, I used writing to get through the tedium of school punishment. At St. Thecla’s Catholic school in Mt. Clemens, MI, talking to other students was not permitted in the hallways, on the school bus or while eating. I was a repeat offender so often that a nun told me I had to make up my own penance. Usually, I wrote out a thousand times, “I will not talk on the school bus,” but for this penance, I researched various folktales of talking animals and the consequences of just too much talk. (Remember the turtle who flew through the air by biting on a stick carried by two birds? We know what happened when he opened his mouth!) I am sure what I wrote was didactic and convincingly penitential. I had no intention of entertaining the nuns at the Felician Sisters’ Motherhouse in Livonia with this penance (no carbons made) but that was the result my mother told me months later.

At the University of Missouri I studied philosophy intensely and was centered on learning German and French so that I could read European philosophers I liked in their original language. I was spending an enormous amount of time reading and writing my papers when I noticed that my language was beginning to become much more figurative. I was losing patience with the methodical discipline of philosophical thinking. At the same time, I worked as a desk clerk at local hotel in Columbia called The Downtowner, running from the front desk to my philosophy and language classes. When a major conference of phenomenologists came to town, I got to check all of them in, yet I was too shy to let on that I had read their work and was attending the conference. Instead, I helped Bill Minor, the custodian, spell “Welcome Phenomenologists” on the hotel’s neon marquee. Soon after the conference, I took Larry Levis’s poetry workshop and realized that I had found the art I wanted to practice, poetry. I worked hard on poems for two years, and then by graduation had won a fellowship to Syracuse University where I later received my master’s degree in English and Creative Writing, a kind of half breed of a program that was pre-PhD, and half MFA. I was not interested in the PhD program. Eventually I moved to Boston where I worked as an ESL teacher, community journalist, and finally staff writer for the health care reform organization that spirited through universal coverage in Massachusetts. By then, though, I had moved to Kansas City where I now work training healthcare interpreters.

Writing that was clear, direct, and about something in the world was the style admired in my family. Poetry was not in that category, unless it was written by an Eastern European and reflected the geopolitical state of post World War II Europe! Although my father and my mother both appreciated literature they thought a young person from the Midwest writing poetry was a silly affectation & were thrilled when I landed teaching jobs, or spent time working as a journalist because these jobs assured them I could make a living. Most poets experience some opposition to their vocation, especially if someone is worried that you’ll never make a living. The best thing to do is keep employed because the last thing in the world your family wants you to be is a penniless dreamer. Ignore the pleading as well as any testy remarks about your chosen art. Keep dreaming but count your pennies.

A feeling of adventure, defiance, and the possibility of transformation keeps me writing. Poetry has always been the essential lens through which to more deeply discern meaning in the absurd and unpredictable events of our lives. An appreciation for the paradox of being human, fated, and vulnerable in an astonishingly beautiful world is with me constantly as I write.

How do you keep space in your life, home, and psyche for the creative life?

Finding space and time to write is extremely difficult, and not something I do well. Some people have been able to accomplish the feat by taking on an academic career that may afford a little more time off (not as much as one would think, however) to devote to creative work. I started out teaching, but became impatient with the pace, and threw myself early on into anti-poverty work as an ESL teacher, activist and community journalist. This has been very demanding work over the years, requiring a lot of weekend and night-time hours. In order to write, I had to discipline myself to make the most of the time available, so that meant writing notes on the subway back and forth during the week, then spending a good eight hours at least on the weekend, creating poems from my notes. I also used every vacation and holiday to write, as much as I could. This became provincial after a while, and I wouldn’t advise it. There were times when I was writing steadily for the Chinatown community newspaper, or writing essays or grants when poems had to be overthrown for prose. Still, I always tried to keep the poetic line alive somewhere, somehow.

I often keep two or three notebooks going: one is a kind of a daily encounter group – what I’m reading, thinking, responding to. Very literal, very boring, almost a log. Another one is purely for imagery, and that can be as crazy as it gets, with drawings, doodles, big letters. The rule is that nothing literal is allowed into that notebook, though images and figurative language are allowed in the boring notebook.

Now that I live in a city without a subway, I miss the dream time that daily travel offered to the creative imagination. Since moving to KC, I’ve had to travel a bit in rural KS, and a few other cities where I find I can usually write in a hotel or a diner. The writing feels more alive, striking and honest to me when I pull it out of its usual hometown box. I’m still trying to re-create the sense of taking the subway while living in Kansas City, but haven’t been successful. There used to be access to a staircase at Union Station in Kansas City I could visit that from a certain angle that resembled the entry to North Station in Boston, but they won’t let anyone up the stairs anymore.

What did you read as a child?

I could get lost in the Bookhouse Books, a twelve-volume series my mother remembered from her childhood and bought me for my birthday. These books were chockfull of myths, fairytales, legends, history, all sequenced to follow a child’s developmental stages of reading. The introduction explaining the pedagogical intent of the series was interesting to me, as was all my mother’s infant development books. (I was the oldest in a family of three children.) The lives of those quirky medieval saints we had to study at St. Thecla’s were fascinating. And no quirkier a saint you’d ever find was Thecla herself who coaxed the female lions from devouring her when she was thrown into the arena. Through a series that was popular in the school library, I remember reading about the life of Luther Burbank and wanting to become an agronomist, and then Maria Mitchell, and wanting to be an astronomer. I read both Life and Time, following the Birmingham church bombings, the March on Washington, the Vietnam War, Haight-Ashbury, etc.  My parents had a copy of a remarkable book by Dale Evans of their disabled daughter titled The Necessary Angel, and it was one of the few I came across, as a child, that helped me to make a little more sense of life for a family with a disabled child.

In high school, I adored Walt Whitman, John Steinbeck, especially East of Eden, and Thomas Hardy, especially Jude the Obscure. I loved Joyce Carol Oates, whose book reviews I remember reading in the Detroit News, the paper my father worked at.

How do you approach the large task of putting a book together?

I am not sure if I am very good at it, at least for my own work. A book I have now in manuscript has gone through a baptism by fire to get the right order. For now, I think I’ve got it. That might change. Titles are also confounding. The whole process is so strangely difficult. One suggestion I have is to not necessarily group poems according to subject matter, but go perhaps for tone. Also, sections may not always be necessary. If you do use sections, you can think of the middle section (usually the 2nd) as a centerpiece for the other two surrounding it. I wish I had better advice for this question. Another thing to do is study the sequencing of books you absolutely admire and try to crack the code. Ordering a book is kind of like trying to make art that can only be seen from the sky.

A bit of advice about the poems themselves: ask your fellow readers to be as hard as possible on the book, and throw out poems that don’t hit the mark head-on, even if they have been published in the New Yorker, or Poetry.

Biography:

Catherine Anderson is the author of In the Mother Tongue (1983), a book of poems published by Alice James Books of Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was the Cornelia Ward Fellow for Poetry at Syracuse University in 1976, where she received an M.A. in English and creative writing in 1979. Anderson has published in many journals, including The American Voice, The Antioch Review, and The Harvard Review.

Follow this link to read Anderson’s poem, Womanhood