Archive for Sunday, January 26, 2003

Langston’s legacy

January 26, 2003


Sarah Kanning has been a writer since she can remember. As early as fourth grade, she declared her intention to one day blossom into a novelist.

"I never stopped writing," said Kanning, who won this year's Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award in poetry. "I think that most people write stories and write poems or make up songs when they're kids, and then everybody else stops except for the crazy people."

Kanning's persistence toward her passion for language binds her with the other Langston Hughes award winner, Kelly Barth, who won in fiction.

Growing up, Barth wanted to be just like John Boy, the young writer on "The Waltons." She tried, early on, to emulate the character.

"I tried to write my autobiography when I was 7, but there wasn't much to say, so that didn't go anywhere," Barth said. "I loved pencils. I loved paper. I loved tablets. I loved typewriters."

Years of honing, schooling, and working jobs that didn't involve creative writing led Kanning and Barth to this recognition. They rose to the top of the pool, at least in one judge's mind, because each writes in a distinct, vibrant voice and uses an acute sense of imagery to ground her work.

Word play

That ability comes through in Kanning's "Walk Home," a poem that follows her journey home one fall night after choir practice at First United Methodist Church. Those familiar with the scenery between the old, stone church and the corner of Ninth and Vermont streets, where Wheatfields sits, will recognize the setting right away.

"Then my feet on the uneven concrete,

and my hand on the curved brick wall

of the cafe's bread oven, sun-warm, as I pass."

And later "The bums at the bus stop breathe in,

Each year, the Lawrence Arts Center and The Raven Bookstore sponsor the Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award competition to recognize excellence and encourage achievement of new and emerging writers in Douglas County.Two awards of $500 each are given -- one in poetry, one in fiction.The winner's will read their work at a Saturday reception at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.

watch me as I hum and breathe out

cathedral air."

"Some of what I write about is almost like memoir or things that happened to me, things that I observed," Kanning said. "That's really the occasion of the poem, and then it's like what's the emotional life in the poem, what's the mental life of the poem. That's something else. The poem could have any occasion and then the rest is just what arises from that mentally."

Kanning, who is working on an MFA in poetry by correspondence with Bennington College in Vermont, reads extensively the work of other poets and writes at least two hours a day in her journal.

"The daily journal writing is kind of a compost heap that you sort of fertilize to have stuff come up out of it," said Kanning, 31, a Fort Wayne, Ind., native. "There's nothing pretentious about the journal. It's stray thoughts, things people say."

Her ambition for writing has improved since she moved to Lawrence a little more than two years ago. The move took her away from a technical writing job in Overland Park ("When you spend eight hours a day writing 20 pages of technical manual, the last thing you want to do when you get home is sit at a computer and tap, tap, tap," she said) and dropped her into a slot as training and outreach coordinator for Academic Computing Services at Kansas University.

Now, she's ready to write and talk about writing when she leaves work. She recently joined the local women's writing group Medusa and has enjoyed reading her poems for an audience at the group's open mic nights at Aimee's Coffee House, 1025 Mass.

Though Kanning's been writing for years -- she has a journalism degree from Ohio University and a master's in English from Kansas State University -- she has yet to be published. She has just begun the seemingly never-ending process of submitting her work for publication.

Regardless of what comes of her efforts, she'll continue to write. To her, writing is "playing in the purest sense."

"Sometimes it's exhilarating; sometimes I just feel transformed and agog. Sometimes, especially if I'm revising and I sort of know where I want to get but darned if i can get there from here ... it's like bleeding out of your eyeballs. It really varies, but I keep doing it for that sense of transcendence that you sometimes get.

"If you're playing, you're experimenting. You're out on the monkey bars, swinging and going, 'Hmm ... I wonder if I can flip backwards and not hit my head on the pavement underneath.'"

'Better than anyone else'

Barth's fiction takes chances in a different way. "Lovingkindness," the short story she submitted for the contest, is actually one part of a larger work that eventually will become her memoir.

So although the stories are fictional because she has "taken liberty with the facts when they were too boring," they're also very much autobiographical. They deal with "being Christian and being gay and the strangeness that brings about," Barth said.

In "Lovingkindness," the 12-year-old narrator is going through Confirmation Commissioning Class in the Presbyterian Church. She has a serious crush on one of her classmates, Mary Ellen Adams, the pastor's daughter. The writing brims with a clarity of experience and angst-filled voice that make it seem as though the story were being recalled by a teenage girl, looking back just a few years.

"In junior high school, I and others like me were deformed chickens that the other birds eventually pecked to death," Barth writes.

Or, when the narrator is asked to describe her understanding of what it means to be Presbyterian: "It means trying to be a good person. You are sprinkled instead of dunked. Presbyterian is hard to spell, maybe Presbyterians are smart."

Barth, 38, credits her keen ability to recreate memories to advice given by a mentor at the University of Montana, where she received her MFA in creative writing.

"When you're writing memoir, you have to remember all that you can and then remember a little bit more," the mentor shared.

"Where memory fails, then the truth of that experience allows you to fill in," Barth said.

The truth for Barth has been a life spent searching for a spiritual home and finding her way back to the kind of writing that feeds her soul. She reveled in writing at her Raytown, Mo., high school, where she took poetry and fiction classes.

"I just really loved it, and I had a lot to say about being a teenager. I wasn't very worldly, but I just liked writing. It was the thing that I did better than anyone else," she said.

For years, she opted to crank out technical writing for engineering firms.

Then she met her partner, Lisa Grossman, who makes a living as a painter, and was inspired to try her hand at freelance writing. She's been at it for five years now, working part time at The Raven Bookstore (No one from the Raven was on the award selection committee) and cranking out science and history books on the side to make money.

She still loves to sit at her writing desk and peck away hours at the 1952 Royal typewriter her father bought her at a church rummage sale. Posted on the wall above the desk is one of her earliest pieces, printed in precise penmanship on a gritty Big Chief tablet page:

"My name is Kelly. I am 6 years old. I like to play."

Walk home by Sarah Kanning
It's Methodists to Mennonites
and at least one fierce agnostic, but still we sing
Ave Maria and So nimm denn meine Hande,
take thou my hand and lead me,
and Laudamus te.

Then my feet on the uneven concrete,
and my hand on the curved brick wall
of the cafe's bread over, sun-warm, as I pass.
Os justi, the dying crickets drone, meditabitur
sapientiam; the righteous mouth
speaks wisdom.

Dusk came while the altos
stretched to reach E sharp. Os justi,
Os justi. The bums at the bus stop breathe in,
watch me as I hum and breathe out
cathedral air.

Et non supplantabuntur
gressus ejus, and none
of his steps shall slide:
Good words
for a dark night
and a cracked sidewalk.

Excerpt from "Lovingkindness" by Kelly Barth

Sometimes, if I concentrated, I could conjure up a vision of Jesus, a calm, thin, ineffectual vision. Sensing my confusion about things, my mother took me to Zondervan Music and Gift where I bought a pocket mirror with the perfect picture of white Jesus in striped clothes, knocking on a heavy wooden door of a stone house with a porch light. "Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hear my voice and answer, I will enter in and sup with him, and he with me." I kept the mirror in the bottom of my purse. When things got back, I felt around in my purse until I found Jesus and pulled him out and held him tight in my palm where no one else could see. I told Jesus I had faith that he could take me away from the school bus, the smell of stale vomit, hot vinyl and teenage boys. I had faith that my parents would have money to buy me pants at the middle of the school year to replace the ones I had grown out of at the beginning. Over time, though, I became annoyed by Jesus' persistent silence.

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