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Wrangling 150 Kansas Poets In One Poem

Courtesy of Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

It’s been a challenging term for outgoing Kansas poet laureate CarynMirriam-Goldberg, who lost her home in 2011, metaphorically speaking.  That was when Governor Sam Brownback dissolved the Kansas Arts Commission, which housed the program.

Mirriam-Goldberg “carried the program in her pocket” through most of 2012, until the Kansas Humanities Council adopted her in October of 2012.  (A new poet laureate will be announced later this week, in time for poetry month.)

For Kansas’ sesquicentennial in 2011, Mirriam-Goldberg published Begin Again, an anthology of 150 Kansas poems by 96 poets.

So in 2012, while she was homeless, the poet laureate decided to stick with that number, and invited 150 Kansas poets to participate in a kind of Japanese collaborative poem called a renga. A renga is a series of 10-line poems, usually based on nature.  The Kansas renga comes on the heels of a recent nationalrenga, and one based in the Kansas City area – all inspired by the America Now & Hereseries of exhibits.

Mirriam-Goldberg called for poets to write about the Kansas landscape, each responding to the previous poems.  She writes in the introduction:

“The renga draws together descendants of pioneers, lovers of dogs or cats or both, attorneys and people who’ve spent time in jail, old hippies and  young activists, social workers and psychologists, mothers and grandfathers, mathemeticians and dancers, college professors emeriti and students, authors and editors, ministers and mediators.”

The Kansas renga is titled To The Stars Through Difficulties--a translation of the state motto Ad Astra Per Aspera, and a nod to the challenges local writers faced when arts funding was cut in Kansas.

Readings from the renga are happening throughout Kansas during the month of April. (Check here for dates and places, as well as the new 2013 Kansas poem of the week project.)

Interview Highlights

On finding 150 poets:

“Many of us at one time or another have turned to poetry or have turned just to the poetic power of language, because there’s something about using words artfully that help us move beyond the confines of words and to say things we can’t always say in everyday language.

“So I started with the poets in Begin Again, and we had 96 poets in that anthology. And I also wrote to people who were writers that lived in the state or used to live in the state or had a strong connection. And finally, I wrote to many creative writing teachers to try to pull in people of different generations. To be a part of it, people had to submit a poet or two and then I made a decision and from there--it wasn’t that hard to find all the poets.”

On discovering poets in unusual places:

“One of the poets I ended up working quite a bit with is a woman named Ramona McCallum, and she is a mother of five and she lives in Garden City, Kansas. And she sent me poems for Begin Again, they were so astonishing. I wrote back and said, ‘Who are you? We have to get your work out there.’ And she now has her first book coming out with Woodley Press called, [Still Life with Dirty Dishes.]”

“There were poets in unexpected places, and then once those poets were involved, it was very easy to go visit them and visit their communities and connect with more writers through the Begin Again tour, which was 12 towns in Kansas. And therengatour is about 14 towns and cities throughout the states.

On writing communities in small Kansas towns:

“It seems like there’s gluts of poets in certain places. I tease my friends in Pittburg, KS, where we probably have 15 to 20 poets in this anthology. And when we did our reading there, 25 poets read and 125 came to listen….And of course, you can’t shake a stick in Douglas County, where Lawrence is, without hitting a poet.

“Of course in the Kansas City area, and when you’re talking about Kansas, sometimes the Missouri side feel like they’re part of us too…the rule was that you didn’t have to live in Kansas, but you had to have a connection in Kansas.”

On emerging themes in the Kansas renga:

“There’s quite a bit in the renga about the sky and the earth and you know that the further west you go, the more you feel like the landscape is a skyscape, that we live in the weather. And we certainly have the most fascinating weather on the planet most days. There were some poems that were very political, there were some poems that really looked at culture and multiculturalism. There were other poems that looked more at love and our life’s purpose, and so on, so it’s a very holistic way to explore, what does it mean to live here?’

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KCCurrents podcast.

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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