Friday, March 12, 2021

The #Midwessay: Denise Low, The Visionary Edge of Kansas Writers

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 LowKansas Coordinator.


The Visionary Edge of Kansas Writers

Denise Low

At the Delphic Oracle for the United States, also known as Kansas, visionaries mix with people. First, yes, the state is the geographic center of the contiguous states. It is the heart of the nation, the Breadbasket, and the Bible Belt. Kansas writers can draw upon a range of nationally known stereotypes, based on more and less true myths. 
     Most glamorous is the Emerald City of Oz, located in the imaginations of almost every U.S. citizen, a contrast to the black-and-white Kansas farm. Echoes of this uber-myth, which originates in the books of L. Frank Baum (who held biased views against his Lakota neighbors in South Dakota), recur in both high and low culture: ruby slippers, munchkins, tornadoes, flying monkeys, wicked and good witches, and the faithful family dog Toto. As a fifth generation Kansan, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard, “You’re not in Kansas anymore, are you, Dorothy?” Groan. 
     The Wizard of Oz characters, simple-minded but good rural folk, appear in many incarnations (The Wiz, Wicked), as well as the story’s themes of nature’s power, weakness of bullies, and the power of friendship. The leadership of women—Dorothy, Auntie Em, the witches—is a Kansas truism. There have been three women governors so far, plus the first elected woman senator (Nancy Landon Kassebaum), the first woman mayor (Susan Salter in 1887), and more. As a girl, I experienced gender bias, yes, but also tolerance as I became a writer, editor, and publisher during the first wave of feminism.
     Dodge City, a place to be gotten out of according to the saying, also has an historic reality. Bat Masterson really was the sheriff in the 1870s, and Wyatt Earp was a deputy. The Long Branch Saloon existed before Miss Kitty and Matt Dillon took over a Hollywood facsimile. Boot Hill has been moved to better accommodate tourists, but it is a real cemetery, with enhanced tombstones. 
     Deceptions about the town made famous by cattle drives and gunfighters exist alongside truths. The mountains in the Gunsmoke background confuse any true Kansan, since Dodge is in a flatter part of a flattish state. This television horse opera presents a sanitized version of the Old West, minus most people of color, gay cowboys, and brutal pimps. 
     Poet William Stafford writes about this West truthfully, in the understated idiom of the region. His work relies on history, chronicles of small town life, family, and the overwhelming presence of the natural world. Droughts, grasshopper plagues, blizzards, and wind are all based on reality. Dodge’s average wind speed is thirteen miles per hour, year round. 
     Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas, reprinted abroad as What’s the Matter with America (where Kansas is a synecdoche for the nation), explores the slippage between political and cultural beliefs in Kansas politics, especially views against abortion and gay marriage. These take precedence, Frank writes in his 2004 book, over western Kansas people’s social and economic interests. The Koch brothers of Wichita, who oppose the concept of climate change, are exemplary of such culture wars and represent the dark side of Kansas myths. Their business depends on fossil fuels, so observed facts are subordinate to profit.
     In a state where history and myth intertwine, Kansas writers can draw upon local tales about Coronado Heights, Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, Buffalo Bill, John Brown’s scrape with Confederates in the Battle of Black Jack (1856), Quantrill’s destruction of Lawrence (1863), and Langston Hughes’s church where he was saved, still an active congregation. 
     Superman was born in Smallville, Kansas, a place not unlike Abilene (Kansas, not Texas) where Dwight Eisenhower was born and raised before becoming the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and then U.S. president. Smallville must be near Auntie Em’s farm, in a county of quintessential rural backdrops. The small town of Wamego has a huge Wizard of Oz museum that documents the books, stage plays, and film. Barack Obama’s maternal grandparents are from that same general area of central Kansas. Cultural icons may be real or not. 
     William S. Burroughs lived his last sixteen years in Lawrence, and local referents made their way into his later work, revised by the lens of his vision. His construed his new home as, perhaps, an annex of the Egyptian afterlife in The Western Lands, his 1987 novel where cowboys mingle with Egyptian gods. Sarah Smarsh is a writer who challenges the stereotypes of Kansas, and all rural areas, in her book Heartland. She analyzes and describes farmers’ poverty with anecdotes from her family. 
     A host of writers are from Kansas. They veer between the observed world and that of the imagination as they ply their trade. I hesitate to start listing them, for fear of leaving someone out and offending a friend. Most of us know each other—the state has more cows than people (true fact), and we are careful to be courteous. Who knows when one might need shelter from a hailstorm or an occasional UFO transiting the sky?
     Even the state university’s mascot is a mythic bird, the Jayhawk, with feathers of garish red and blue and an oversized yellow bill. Children grow up with a blurry sense of reality in Kansas. This guides them as they assume roles as poets, singers, writers—and seers. What I say to you may be true now or in the future. Or maybe not. Perhaps you could decide as you read my book Jackalope.


Denise Low, Kansas Poet Laureate 2007-09, is winner of a Red Mountain Press Award for Shadow Light, poems. Other recent publications are Jackalope (fiction, Red Mountain, available through the author) and a memoir, The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival (U. of Nebraska Press), a finalist for the Hefner Heitz Award. At Haskell Indian Nations University she founded the creative writing program. Currently she teaches for Baker University’s School of Professional and Graduate Studies. 

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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