A souvenir postcard, found on the web, says “Don’t think that all the gold/Is treasured in Alaska/For golden corn and Golden Rod/Enrich the state Nebraska.” Goldenrod, named Nebraska’s state flower in 1895, is a drooping profusion of gold that looks an awful lot like a sheaf of wheat. Often mistaken for ragweed, goldenrod is paradoxically the cure for ragweed allergies—a local herbalist taught me how to walk through the prairie in late summer and pick goldenrod at its peak, stuffing the stems into a Mason jar, covering them with Everclear, and letting the medicine cure for six weeks before straining it into bottles and taking a dropperful at a time, as needed. I’ve found the Nebraskan Midwessay to be goldenrod personified: understood only through its oppositional references while its author patiently undoes misconceptions. These essays on the Nebraskan Midwessay may confirm your cliches, but I’d encourage you to look closer: what appears to cause the problem is actually the solution.
There’s a misconception that Nebraska is flat. It’s not. Or maybe it is, but if so it’s flat in the same way that world is flat as we walk and round as we live. What’s there both is and is not of itself. From Oregon by way of Colorado and California and Nevada—the West, essentially — I first moved to Nebraska in 2008 and initially reveled in all of the traditional Midwest put-me-downs: the food is no good. It’s way too hot, then it’s way too cold. The people are so kind (Nebraska-nice!) as to be dull and inconsequential. The culture can lack...texture. And it’s flat, far too flat.
On certain days all of the above indictments are true, to be sure (Kristine mentions a few other notions that firmly reside in Midwestern clicheville) but I suppose that’s also the necessary intrigue: to, as stalwart Nebraskan poet Grace Bauer says in her poem “Glimpse,” exist in a world where “Nothing happens beyond/what is happening and/ the sheer is of yourself...” Meaning, contextually, that to exist in a Nebraska state of mind is to know that the wider world is elsewhere, and to yet to celebrate one’s own sheer Nebraskan-ness all the more as a result. There’s a tentativeness to the state that allows for more exploration, a wider scope of creative selfhood. Or at least that’s my own contention, one that I lived in and through while residing in Nebraska.
Case in point: when I first moved to NE I was adamantly a poet, only a poet, and by the time I left in 2018 I wasn’t sure what I was. I wrote poems but I also wrote essays, and I also wrote whatever resided between those two fairly arbitrary genre designations. (Genre agnostic, as the genre agnostic writer Douglas Kearney has called it.) On the face of it this realization could have been made by me anywhere, but, upon closer examination, I don’t think so. In other areas of the U.S. (and maybe the world) such hem-hawing would likely be looked kindly upon to one’s face, but, behind closed doors, might actually translate as dilettantism, as a refusal to embrace one’s agent-getting, book-selling market value (East Coast) or fully fulfilled inner artist (West Coast). Same as Nebraska-nice and the prairie-engulfed Midwestern flatness, both of those characterizations are ripe with stereotype (you can sell your work or find your “true” voice anywhere), but, at the corners at least, nevertheless contain gleanings of truth. To my eyes the Midwest essay and the Midwest essayist are variations on concepts that might begin with geography and outsiderness but end with pop art (I’d argue that the Omaha-born visual artist Ed Ruscha is an essayist of a kind, with his word paintings toying with meaning and multiplicity) and whatever the opposite of corn is. (Maybe a pair of puckered lips freshly adorned with red lipstick?) In Nebraska and the Midwest in general you can get where you want to go by first teasing out the expectations for the journey. There’s a whole world beyond, to be sure, but I would argue that there’s a whole world contained within the state and region as well, one just as numinous as the outside one.
Like all things, it’s not a monolith either, the Midwest essay. When I was teaching in Peru, Nebraska (population 755), commuting there from Omaha (population 478,192), the outlook and vibration of it changed. What was taken as established and irreducible in the one place was something completely different, even foreign, in the other. This is (mostly) a good thing. It has an elasticity of concept and content, the Midwestern essay does.
Some of my best friends (and at least one enemy) still live in Nebraska, but I myself have moved elsewhere. The state and Midwestern region as whole, though, still contains within it the necessary ghosts of my past, present and future lives. For this I am grateful.
Jeff Alessandrelli is most recently the author of the poetry collection Fur Not Light (2019), which The Kenyon Review called an “example of radical humility…its poems enact a quiet but persistent empathy in the world of creative writing.” Forthcoming is a UK edition of Fur Not Light, as well as an autofictional novel entitled And Yet (PANK Books, Fall 2021). In addition to his writing Alessandrelli also directs the non-profit literary record label/press Fonograf Editions.
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