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Kansas Birds Inspire A Poetry Collection For Readers Drawn Outdoors In The Pandemic

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Brad Sneed
Humanities Kansas
A Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher takes flight on the front cover of the new chapbook "Words of a Feather" with poems inspired by Kansas birds.

Many of us have been spending more time outside during the pandemic, taking photos, gardening, or birdwatching. A new chapbook features 10 poems inspired by Kansas birds, from the barn owl to the house finch.

Last year, as more of us flocked outdoors — to hike or spend time in our own backyard — Humanities Kansas started to explore the idea of creating something tangible to make the experience more meaningful.

“We’d always talked about the concept of DIY humanities, humanities where you are,” says associate director Tracy Quillin, “and having a tool to connect people with that.”

Before the pandemic, the independent nonprofit probably would have hosted some kind of event to make the connection. But planning events is tricky in COVID-19 times.

“We did know that we could do a book,” Quillin says.

In challenging times, people often look to poetry for comfort.

When times are of high anxiety, you know, suddenly we're all quoting poets. So poetry was a natural fit,” says Leslie VonHolten, director of grants and outreach.

“We knew that spring would probably be the time that we could pull the book together. And then we think about birdwatching and the spring migration of the birds.”

Brad Sneed
Humanities Kansas
A robin illustrates Megan Kaminski's poem, "Under tree canopy" in the new chapbook "Words of a Feather."

Humanities Kansas pitched the idea to poet and essayist Megan Kaminski, who jumped on board to edit a new collection of poetry to be distributed at state parks and cultural sites. It’s called “Words of a Feather.”

Kaminski, an associate professor in the English department at the University of Kansas and co-director of the KU Global Grasslands CoLABorative, says she views poetry “as a practice through which we can reawaken our sense of wonder, and in doing so, reorient our own relation to the world.”

"Under tree canopy"

For this chapbook, Kaminski selected ten poets, most with ties to Kansas. There are a few exceptions, like Emily Dickinson and her poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers” and Mary Oliver’s “Such Singing in the Wild Branches.”

“I'm not a traditional nature poet,” Kaminski said. “And that's part of what I was thinking about for this collection was wanting to have different voices and approaches.”

House Sparrow.JPG
Brad Sneed
Humanities Kansas
A House Sparrow illustrates Michael Kleber-Diggs's poem, "Ode to the House Sparrow" in the new chapbook "Words of a Feather."

As poet and essayist Michael Kleber-Diggs describes it, he “was born in Kansas City, Kansas, raised in Wichita, and refined in Lawrence” when he attended KU.

He’s now based in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he's been working at home during the pandemic. But, there's been a "dreariness about this time," he says, especially as a Black man living in Minnesota.

"There's no question about that for us in the Twin Cities, with the murder of George Floyd and the uprising in the wake of that killing," he said, "It was hard to keep our spirits up."

Birds helped. With the windows open at home, they provided a soundtrack to his day.

"Ode to the House Sparrow"

"Something about the persistence of birds singing, their relentlessness, would remind me that the world keeps spinning," Kleber-Diggs says, "It helped me get a perspective that I might not have had otherwise."

Kleber-Diggs' debut collection, "Worldly Things," published by Milkweed Editions, will be released in June. Kaminski had heard him read his poetry and talk about his Kansas connections. She invited him to contribute to the "Words of a Feather" project.

I almost immediately settled on the house sparrow,” said Kleber-Diggs. “I really wanted to focus on a bird that is not commonly seen as spectacular, that might be ubiquitous to the point that we take it for granted or don't notice it very much.”

Brad Sneed
Humanities Kansas
A Great Blue Heron illustrates Canese Jarboe's poem, "Rapunzel w/ Head Half-Shaved" in the new chapbook "Words of a Feather."

Canese Jarboe grew up in rural southeast Kansas, in the small town of Walnut with a population of about 200. They identify as a non-binary poet and artist.

I feel like I have a complicated relationship with Kansas,” they say. “It’s been kind of cathartic to be able to send a poem that I wrote about the experience of being isolated, growing up in a very isolated area of Kansas.”

Their poem in the collection, "Rapunzel w/ Head Half-Shaved," is from a series about a modern-day Rapunzel character in Kansas included in a new book VO/LUPTUARY published by YesYes Books in 2022. And it references the Great Blue Heron.

"Rapunzel w/ Head Half-Shaved"

Jarboe is a first-year Ph.D. student in English and Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. But, during the pandemic, they’ve been living in Kansas, helping with the family's cattle.

“Knowing that everyday Kansans who, you know, might be traveling around Kansas, could pick this up and read it,” they said. “That is, you know, one of the best things I think you could hope for as a writer.”

The chapbook, says Kaminski, is a Kansas project through and through. Its artwork is by Kansas illustrator and painter Brad Sneed. And 3,000 copies have been printed and assembled by artists and designers in the Flint Hills. In mid-May, they'll be shipped to state parks, and cultural sites, like libraries and museums, to be picked up for free.

“I'm really excited about the chapbook in this way,” Kaminski says, “because I see it as an invitation to take that time, listen to the world around us, and in doing so maybe listen to ourselves a little bit.”

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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