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.

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.

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

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.

IMG_0172On this day of balance between winter and summer, I share this small poem about the just-on-cusp-of-changing prevernal world.

Prevernal

The dogs stop. The deer

over the loop of the field

pause. The highway rising west

clears. I wait. Let my breath make itself

visible. Count the turkeys frozen

against the cedars or mid-field

between woods and prairie.

The wheel of the season waits too,

then rolls toward its next click.

Time to go closer to what’s ready to bud out,

just last week milk deep in snow.

When the world resumes in birds

and greening trail, all crosses over.

Meets or doesn’t meet at the other side

where dreams stand on all four new legs,

then jolt into steps without considering

the weight of landing.