Fire season in Kansas begins in late winter, when frozen ground thaws and its dampness retards the pace of a creeping fire line. Ranchers set fire to pasture’s dry grasses and seedlings on the most calm day possible. Winds are a threat, sweeping from the Colorado Rockies across foothills, through the high plains, and across—and downward from—the high country. The scent of fired grasses blows east to the more populated towns, the sweet smell of grasses burning, an incense. This process, learned from Indigenous friends and relatives (before they were sold out to railroad companies and real estate brokers), sustains the pastureland for bison, cattle, horses, and deer who sometimes graze with cattle herds.
In this season no person, writer or not, cannot help but be moved by the epic scale of the landscape. I am reminded of this as the season turns to this mode, particular to the grasslands. Once I drove through the Flint Hills after dark when fires still burned, snaking under a full moon, and then a spring snowstorm began. The gleam of blue moonlight on snow streaked with dendritic fire rivulets stunned me. How could I ever imagine my small life as central to the cosmos?
All the writers’ works that represent Kansas essays in this collection live with this simple fact—the seasons and its weather will overwhelm any human enterprise, and even egos. Many of these writers’ work is new to me, and without question, I know there will be an underlying humility, even from those not born and raised in the Sunflower State. Survive a few ice storms, snow, high winds, and burning heat—and you are a member of the Kansas club. August and September are the months when fields of “weeds” are yellow with wild and a few cultivated sunflower crops. That is another marker of seasons that proceeds outside of people’s management.
Other factors encourage the Kansas writers. A slower pace leaves time for reflection, reading, book clubs (High Plains Radio’s ambitious series, for example) and literary communities. I would guess there are more writers per capita than most places. Isolation leaves time for individuals to write, without distractions or traffic-filled commutes.
No, the state is not all flat, nor all black-and-white as in The Wizard of Oz. But what if it were? Even more occasion for a good story. —Denise Low, Kansas Coordinator.
I’m Going to Live in Kansas One Day
When I was five, according to Papa—my maternal grandfather—I put my hands on my hips, stuck out my right foot, and announced, “I’m going to live in Kansas one day.”
Maybe it came from watching The Wizard of Oz, but even then, you’d think I would choose technicolor Oz, replete with Lollipop Boys and flying monkeys. Years later, in the short span that overlapped my actually living in Kansas and Papa’s last years, he saw his memory of me come true.
As a Brooklyn and Jersey girl (half my childhood in each) who spent over two-thirds of her life in the Midwest, I not only live in Kansas but consider myself from here. Having served as the Kansas Poet Laureate for four years, I was surprised that few people made much note of my origins or, in a state so predominantly Christian, of my Jewishness.
Yet I’ve struggled against the mythology of what it means to be a Kansas writer often translates into writing that wakes up an author up early each morning to unfurl its understated, quiet, even stoic at times, lines and stanzas. People here often introduce themselves by saying what generation Kansas they are, including my fifth-generation Kansan husband, something that messages that the longer you’ve been here, the more you are of this place. Our children are, from his side of the family, sixth-generation Kansans, and from my side, only second-generation Americans.
All of this leads to questions of what makes a person a Midwesterner, and in my more specific circumstances, a Kansan. I love Kansas, call it my forever home, track the parade of cicadas and katydids in summer and arrival of bluebirds in winter. I’ve slept outside in fields with my husband at the height of summer, waking with only a sheet over our naked bodies, to a circle of cows regarding us. I’ve hiked Horsethief Canyon, camped at Castle Rock, wandered through short-grass prairie trails in the west, and driven thousands of miles on blue highlights while tracking Great Blue Herons and where to get the best pie. I’ve been up at 2 a.m. in the basement on my phone with friends in their basement while tracking tornadic storms.
At the same time, I love many Kansas writers who speak from generational tethers to the land, such as Denise Low, the Kansas poet laureate before me, and of course our patron saint of many Midwestern poets: William Stafford. I’ve felt at home with fellow Midwestern writers at crowded readings in bars or cafes, outdoor festivals or indoor auditoriums.
I claim myself as a Kansan as well as being from other places. My descendants—as well as so many others across this area—are an emerging hybrid of new and old Midwesterners, one foot in the time of wagon trains across open prairies, and one foot only recently stepping onto Ellis Island from the old country, and all of us looking for home.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Ph.D., the 2009-13 Kansas Poet Laureate is the author of 24 books, includ-ing How Time Moves: New & Selected Poems; Miriam's Well, a novel; Needle in the Bone, a non-fiction book on the Holocaust; The Sky Begins At Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body. Founder of Transformative Language Arts, she leads writing workshops widely, coaches people on writing and right livelihood, and consults on creativity. YourRightLivelihood.com, Bravevoice.com, CarynMirriamGoldberg.com
What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond. These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors
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