Remembering Dick Allen, 1939-2017: Everyday Magic, Day 922

What impressed me first was his sestina, a very challenging kind of poem he wrote after hanging with a bunch of us fellow state poets laureate at a lingering dinner at a Concord, New Hampshire Holiday Inn restaurant. A dozen of us gathered from Louisiana to Texas for the Poets & Politics conference to first travel around the small state, giving readings with local poets, then present together for conference-goers.

The only problem was, that aside from the conference organizers, there were only a handful of conference-goers. We filled the open space with getting to know each other, and those three evenings spent lingering for hours over dinner were some of the most delightful of my life. We talked poetry of course, but also about our kids, how we got to or stayed in the states where we lived, and what we regretted and embraced in how we juggled writing with the other aspects of our lives. But mostly, we laughed, and somehow caught the wave of making air quotes with our fingers for every noun in a sentence one long night over chicken parmesan and garlic knots.

Dick was quirky, approachable, and full of stories, wit, and a kind of peaceful presence only matched by his passion for all things poetry.  The next evening he shared the sestina he had just written, and we raised our glasses to him after he read it to us, all of us blown away that he could turn such a spectacular poem out in such short order. What makes sestinas hard to write is that 1) they’re long — 39 lines, and 2) you have to repeat in a very complex pattern the ending word to a line in each stanza. It’s a little like putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle without a picture of what it should look like while juggling six words (repeated at the  end of lines in various formations). It probably takes most people, even very experienced poets, weeks to write a sestina, and blessings of the gods to write a great one. Yet he wrote “If You Visit Our Country,” which he also read on Prairie Home Companion, and is also published in my poet laureate memoir, a book Dick kindly blurbed, Poem on the Range. 

I was so impressed by Dick that I invited him to be a keynote speaker at the Transformative Language Art Network’s Power of Words conference in 2013 at Pendle Hill near Philadelphia. We had a tight budget and could only offer him an amount that probably just covered travel for his and his wife, poet and fiction writer L. N. Allen, but he kindly accepted our offer, then showed up to give one of the most powerful talks on poetry and life I’ve ever heard, plus a wonderful workshop. But what I remember most was taking a walk with Dick to look at the oldest beech tree  in Pennsylvania, which towered over the very tall and tree-like Allen. We stood in wonder at the base of this grandmother tree, placing our hands on it, and looking up. The size and presence of this being was so awesome that we stopped talking and just smiled at each other, then after a while, walked back, talking about what a gift this moment was.

Not only did he and his wife give so much goodness to the conference, but he wrote Callid, the then-coordinator of the TLA Network, and myself the best notes of our lives, which has the same kind of wild and enthusiastic sentences that threads together in some of his shining poems, thanking us, among other things, “….for the quiet path to the small pond with the fountain and the willow I took Saturday afternoon, for what may be the best brownies of my life, in addition to fabulous breakfasts; for the huge writing expertise of those in my workshop, for the terrific audience response to my poems, for the flashlights we didn’t need when the lights went on, for the ever present care and devotion to the written art, for storytelling and transformations,  for the chocolate bar and the parking space and places to meditate everywhere, thank you!”

Dick knew a lot about gratitude, and attending to the moment. A long-time student, and through his own way of being in the world and his poetry, teacher of Zen Buddhism, he showed up fully at conferences and in email exchanges also.  I just looked over a bevy of emails in which we joked about New England versus Kansas, and Dick sent along photos of wide-perspective Kansas highways leading to a steady point, surrounded by flatlands, which he said he especially loved, while I joked back, “Our state is so big that we can fit two New Englands in it and still have room for New Jersey.” When I sent him photos of our town’s gorgeous maples turning deep red and orange, he responded, “Don’t you realize there are no maple trees in Kansas? You’re living in a hallucination and need to drink some dark sunflower coffee.” We went on to write about our grown children, and in his case, the miracle of the grandchild he didn’t expect and now adores. His love for Kansas and New England was as real as his support for a younger poet — surely I’m one of many he reached out in various ways.

He knew how to bring just the right touch and tone to the most difficult curves of our time also, just like he did in the poem he wrote in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting, “Solace.” You can hear him reading this tender and powerful poem here.

He’s also one of the featured state poet in the self-paced online class “Truth to Power: Poetry for Our Times with Poets Laureate” I put together for the Transformative Language Arts Network, and we were just emailing about at the end of November when I asked him to share a bunch of poems, writing reflections, writing prompts, and many  links to his work. Not only did he give (again) freely, but he wrote me of the class, “That’s a great thing to do and an honor to be asked.”

The real deal is that Dick was a truly great poet — one of the foremost poets of our time — with an immensely generous and loving heart and a brave and clear mind. In one of our stretches of correspondence, he shared what he called “Gerund Phase Sonnets” — each 14 lines long like a sonnet, but loosely rhymed, all describing a process, some parables too. He wrote of these sonnets, “The form is a vessel, perhaps comparable to Emily Dickinson’s use of simple quatrains, freeing the poet to concentrate on theme and subject and/or to be led by the easy rhymes and American speech patterns of lines of varying length into unexpected places.” And here’s one of the sonnets about solving a Koan (more on what that is here).

Solving the Koan

Logically, you can’t do this. Illogically,

you can throw cold water on a alley cat

or bite your eyeballs. Solving a koan

is like kneeling beside a car, trying to change a flat

with a single potato chip. Two might do it. Mind you,

a koan isn’t a riddle,

a puff on an Old Gold, ringing of a liberty bell,

but a cat and a fiddle

and the cow jumping over Kansas. You must

go haywire and be calm at once,

stare at a blank wall and contemplate

ripples spreading across a bowl of Jell-O. Chance

plays a part in it, but mainly

to solve a koan you must simply Be.

I’m grateful for getting to know him, and sad he’s suddenly gone, having died Tuesday after a heart attack on Christmas. What he’s left behind are many poems I’ll return to with fresh eyes, remembering what he showed me and reflecting on what his poems illustrate about how to simply be while overflowing with compassion, humor, intelligence, and vitality.

****

Here’s more on Dick, including some excerpts from an abandoned interview, four poems in the online journal Superstition, a lovely poem entitled “If You Get There Before I Do,”  and Dick’s website, in which he writes in “A Cautionary Tale” that the say to live entails this: “You walk a little. You stop. You hurt./ Then You go on.”  Be sure to watch him talk about puns and read the poem “The Horse Knows the Way” (riffing off Frost’s “Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening”), in which he shows his humor and adept way with language. You can see more of his poems here. Finally, enjoy this short tribute video in the Herald Courant.

Photo of state poets laureate, from left: Dave Parsons, Texas; JoAnn Balingit, Delaware; Bruce Dethlefsen, Wisconsin; Lisa Starr, Rhode Island; the late Walter Butts, New Hampshire; Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina; Dick Allen, Connecticut; Julie Kane, Louisiana; and sitting, Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, Virginia; and yours truly, Kansas.

Putting the New Poetry Book to Bed: Everyday Magic, Day 905

It’s called “putting the book to bed” when you turn in your final version of a whole bunch of pages about to be published as a real, live book. Ten minutes ago, I put Following the Curve, my next book of poetry, to bed, tucking it into an email, covering it with kisses, and wishing it well. It was a long time coming as all books, and especially poetry books are. That’s because I find that poetry can be almost infinitely revised — there are thousands of ways to break a line, add or subtract punctuation, change a word, or kill a darling (editing out a beloved line because it’s not needed).

To celebrate, I write this blog post, and I share the ending poem from this new collection:

Your Body is a Conversation With the World

What are you waiting for? From the first air

in the first room, while a winter radiator breathed

enough warmth for your your mother,

the world was chatting you up.

You gasped, you cried, you waved your tiny hands

for the ocean you left, and the story laughed itself silly

in each cell until it multiplied into millions more

marching to or denying the heart’s measured drum.

Your body watches the moth on the other side

of the screen, drinks the water from the blue glass,

and jumps in its sleep, so much dialogue in this

continuing tender reckoning of bare foot on gravel,

whippoorwill telling the ears of nightfall.

You’re always in conversation about how you’re not

a separate animal but a talisman of your own place

alongside the freeway and the prairie,

each step another word, each shrug another question

for the lightning bug caught on the ceiling,

the cat leaping from refrigerator to your shoulder,

the wind or its absence evident in the still grasses.

The answers may knock you over or have nothing to do

with the question you’re pacing across the day.

Time tells its stories through your body,

so yoked to this love that it cannot stop singing.

Following the Curve – a New Book of Poems About an Old Tradition: Everyday Magic, Day 901

Where have I been? My writing energy is pouring into several book projects at once, all in the works for many years but coming to fruition this year. One of those projects is Following the Curve, a collection of yoga books coming out from Spartan Press late this summer. I’m especially happy to share this gorgeous painting by Rodney Troth, a spectacular artist in our midst who is letting me use this art for the cover of Following the Curve.

 Yoga, one of the oldest maps for being a body, says so much about cultivating a life of daring vitality and compassionate alignment. I’ve been practicing yoga as well as poems about yoga for a while, and I wanted to give you a sneak peak of one of the poems, “Devotion,” which is one of the Niyamas (along with self-study, discipline, contentment, and purification) for how to live.

Devotion (Ishvara-Pranidhara)

 

Surrender to the sleep that takes this body

down the tracks, a slim wave zigzagged

through milo fields and Osage orange overgrowth,

but who’s to say what’s in or out anymore?

 

When the motion stops, climb out of the train

that isn’t a train toward a cabin:

bunk beds with the still-damp swimsuits

hanging off the bed frame.

Too many people here, all sleeping but you

while squirrels race the rafters.

 

Then a test you’re not prepared for,

multiple choice questions in dead languages

that don’t even translate into writing.

 

You go outside, pick up a stick, and try

to make a circle on the bare ground

but it’s too dry. Then you realize

you’ve always been lost.

 

Sit cross-legged, your bare shoulders cold,

and try to remember all the Great Lakes:

Erie. Superior, Ottawa. Michigan. One more

but before you ask someone, you’re back on board,

your feet dangling out the open door

as the train picks up speed.

 

Moon spins into view between blurs of trees,

the descent into the cooling valley of night,

humming, Hallelujah to the dark. Hallelujah to the waking

that will land you into one time and place,

where you have one task always: devotion.

Poets Laureate of Kansas Call For the Humanities

In the past few weeks, I’ve been working with three other former or current poets laureate of Kansas to craft our statement in support of the Kansan Humanities Council, and the National Endowment of the Humanities. As Wyatt Townley says, “Kansas is a microcosm of the national arts-and-humanities landscape and the plight it faces.” Please do what you can, and pass it on!

Poets Laureate of Kansas

Statement of Support for the Humanities

What does it mean to be fully human, and what is it worth? It is difficult to quantify the value of the humanities, but we know that investment there yields a big bang for the soul and for the buck. In the current cost-cutting climate, the value—indeed, the very existence—of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has been called into question, though it costs the average American 50 cents a year.

 

One local beneficiary of the NEH is the Kansas Humanities Council (KHC), with its 45-year track record of strengthening civic life. In 2016, KHC provided over 700 free programs to nearly 400,000 people in all 6 sections of the state. The benefit in terms of education, history, and culture is immeasurable, but the real crop KHC grows is community.

 

KHC’s Poet Laureate of Kansas program, adopted in 2013 from the Kansas Arts Commission, is one of our nation’s 44 state poet laureateships. These programs point to poetry’s ability to explore essential values in an age of distraction. Poetry helps us find common ground and develop greater understanding of our shared home, from the tallgrass prairies of the Flint Hills to the windy high plains.

 

As poets laureate, we’ve crisscrossed the state many times, dodging blizzards and tornados to talk with fellow Kansans about things that matter. We averaged 50 public appearances a year—some at colleges, high schools, and grade schools, but most at small-town libraries and community centers. Anyone who thinks of poetry as elitist should ride along with us to Colby (pop. 5,387), or Kinsley (1,457), or Glasco (498), and see how many farmers, miners, nurses, children, and retirees fill up rooms.

 

Having a poet laureate costs Kansas taxpayers almost nothing (the modest travel stipend we receive is paid for entirely by private donors), but the position could not exist without the tireless support of the Kansas Humanities Council, providing staff and resources to help us reach new audiences, particularly in underserved and isolated areas. KHC supports the state economy, bringing people together—often across great distances—which in turn bolsters hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses.

 

Our state poet laureate program has a national reputation for excellence. We have organized conferences that brought dozens of other state poets and hundreds of participants to Kansas. We’ve published regular columns in newspapers statewide and produced award-winning anthologies featuring hundreds of writers for thousands of readers. Our thriving regional literary scene led the Association of Writers & Writing Programs to bring its 2020 conference—one of the biggest writers conferences on Earth, drawing some 13,000 attendees from around the world—to the Kansas City area.

 

We believe in poetry as deep literacy—an experience that engages mind, emotion, body, and spirit. We also believe in Kansas, and the essential work of our superb state humanities council and our national treasure, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Please do all you can—contacting legislators especially (https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials)—to ensure their continuation for the good of us all.

 

Eric McHenry, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2015-17

Wyatt Townley, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2013-15

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2009-2013

Denise Low, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2007-09

Save the Humanities!: Everyday Magic, Day 894

Photo by Stephen Locke, used with permission

The kids were already in the front seats when I arrived at the Coffey County Library branch in Gridley, Kansas to present “Kansas Weather in Life, Literature, and Photography,” a Kansas Humanities Council (KHC) program. In this town of 341 people, the library is the place to be, and not just for kids. By the time I began, people aged 9 to 90 filled seats, ready to take in Kansas poetry and photography (via Stephen Locke) about how our extreme weather shapes our lives and builds our character. We also shared their stories of communities coming together in the face of wild storms, close calls, beautiful vistas, and what our weather tells us about who we all.

One of many KHC programs, Water/Ways focuses on the impact of water (and by extension, weather) on our history, traditions, daily lives, and in the face of climate change, our very future. Such programs also bring together communities, helping us find the essential dialogue, diversity, and unity that is the bedrock of democracy.

Now a wild storm is threatening all of America, especially far-flung rural areas where there is little to no funding for arts and humanities programs except from state humanities councils. With the current U.S. president calling for eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities, programs like the one I just did, that bring together people to share stories of hard-won wisdom and emerging visions, would vanish. As well, we would lose initiatives such as KHC’s “Migration Stories” on the experience of Africans in Midwestern communities, “Freedom of Speech in Kansas” on the importance of free speech,  “FLIKS” promoting short documentaries on unique stories in our state, a vibrant speaker’s bureau, a long-standing book discussion program that has reached people in every corner of the state, and the state poet laureate program (which is completely funded by private donors).

I’ve had the honor of being roving scholar with KHC since 1994, as a book discussion leader, speaker’s bureau presenter, and the 2009-13 Kansas poet laureate. Living in a 400-mile-wide state, I’ve rambled many miles to talk about everything from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, books that give us intimate portraits of American history, from African-American communities in the Everglades in the 1920s (Huston), to Japanese-American communities before, during and after internment in the 1940s (Guterson). Such discussions help all of us grapple with our collective identity as Americans.

I’ve driven through snowstorms and ecstatic displays of lighting, up and down the Flint Hills by starlight, and across the high plains on startlingly bright mornings to meet Kansans of all ages eager to talk about what the humanities tell them of how to live with greater verve and meaning. In traveling far and wide to also talk about books with Jewish content, such as Alfred Kazin’s Walker in the City, I’ve shared traditions and history of my own faith, and by extension, participated in powerful interfaith dialogues about life and literature.

I’m a humanities scholar because I believe in face-to-face dialogue, community-building that includes many perspectives, and intergenerational exchanges about lessons learned or ahead of us. I love how humanities councils enable us to mek connections between urban and rural residents, and people of various faiths, ethnicities, and histories so that we can truly engage in forming “a more perfect union,” as stated in the preamble to our constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To keep forming that more perfect union–along with safeguarding justice, tranquility, liberty, and yes, even prosperity–we must save the humanities, which provide us the gathering ground to more deeply understand our birthright along with ways to learn how to better be true to ourselves and our communities.

If you believe in the humanities–in other words, please contact your legislators today. Here’s a link to find contact information. And join us at humanities programs wherever you live: here’s a link to find your state humanities council. It’s so easy to tear down programs that give us greater vision, and so hard to build such programs. Let’s not lose what helps makes us more human.