Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The #Midwessay: Robert Stewart, One Day in Kansas

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.


One Day in Kansas

Robert Stewart

The road to a short story can run through any terrain, if the story is reliable and thus specific to a place. In this case, the road to the story “Barrel Heat,” by the Kansas writer Robert Day, careened through the High Plains of northwestern Kansas, up near but not into Nebraska, where Day spends much of his time. It was there, in 2012, that Bob, my wife, Lisa, and I rode that terrain, slowly, in Bob’s single-cab GMC pickup, which had been running those hills for a couple of decades. While we were not out to hunt on that trip, Bob was showing us where his yellow lab dog, Lullaby, would go to flush birds into the air.
     There is a creek up that way called the North Beaver, and among the tall grass and wheat, one finds stands of briars and plum trees inhabited by pheasants in normal times. This was midsummer and one of those times. A house out there would easily be a mile from any other house; and from any given swell of the earth, a visitor such as I could see, through the windshield of a lumbering horse of a pickup, a hundred miles of golden landscape. One does not want such a tour to end soon.
     As we were talking about pheasants and dogs—Lullaby, being in the truck bed, looking in through the back window to where she normally would ride—Bob Day began to speak of his younger self as the trap-shooting champ of the state of Kansas and how it felt to smoke a skeet in competition. Did he talk about the Trap Grade Winchester Model 12, then? I think so, but my amateur, city-boy’s mind easily could have missed such a technical and relevant detail. The next and crucial phase of the story’s life belongs to my wife, Lisa.
     “You need to write the story of your trap-shooting days, Bob,” she said. “Or have you written it?”
     “I’ve had it in mind quite a while,” he said. “I have drafts and notes, but it’s complicated.”
     “Finish it,” she said.
     Within a few weeks—maybe months, I am not sure—the story showed up in my mail at New Letters magazine, where I worked and where we had published some of Bob’s other fiction and essays. I read “Barrel Heat” in manuscript, trepidatiously, knowing that Lisa and I had at least urged Bob along in the effort, knowing also that there was a lot at stake. I was elated by the result. The story came out in the winter 2013 issue of the magazine and, subsequently, in his Collected Short Stories (Serving House Books, 2020).
     A reader of the story might notice, if I am not being too sure of myself, that among the sturdiest characters, the character of Lisa stands slightly outside of the plot, entirely motivating and self-contained.  It all nevertheless revolves around—and is grounded in—the significant facts that come not from make-believe but out of Kansas, itself, and the trade of trap shooting. The speaker here begins his shooting on the circuit tentatively, as if beginning a narrative of some complexity, at trap clubs, he says, “in Eudora, Vinland, Overbrook…and once as far south as Centropolis.”
     Writing of clear time and place takes courage; to employ the all-too-rare wit of implication (i.e., restraint) when needed takes skill. In classic Robert Day fashion, the first-person narrator does not offer up his own name, as the plot interacts with his identity with indirection, almost were he a Yeatsian itinerant poet. I could tell, as we rode in the pickup that day, that the writer himself was thinking about the challenge of putting together a tale that demanded to be written, which was contained in his memory of trap clubs, landscape, towns, and characters of the region, and yet—as any serious writer will understand—terrifying to begin for those very reasons.
     Why had he not finished that story before? Because the story and its people mattered so much. This is fiction, yes, and some characters and dialogue rise from imagination and inspiration; at its core, however, “Barrel Heat” must be seen as among the most necessary and crucial stories of this region, Kansas, and of native-son Robert Day’s body of work and his life.


Robert Stewart is author of Working Class: Poems (Stephen Austin State University Press, 2018), The Narrow Gate: Writing, Art, & Values (essays, Serving House Books, 2014); Outside Language: Essays (Helicon Nine Editions, finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Awards 2004, and winner of the Thorpe Menn Award); Plumbers (poems, BkMk Press 1988, revised second edition 2017), and others.  Stewart has won a National Magazine Award for editing, from the American Society of Magazine Editors. He served as editor of New Letters magazine for 18 years, until March 2020, and as managing editor for over two decades before that. 

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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