Economy of state’s landscape has influence on Kansas poet
Editor’s note: In her Ad Astra Poetry Project, Kansas Poet Laureate Denise Low will highlight historic and contemporary poets who resided in Kansas for a substantial part of their lives. Eventually, she will collect the biweekly broadsides into a book, to be published by the Center for Kansas Studies at Washburn University, in cooperation with Thomas Fox Averill.
Jo McDougall was born and raised in Arkansas, where she received an MFA under the legendary teacher and editor Miller Williams. She was director of the creative writing program at Pittsburg State University 1987-1998, and currently she resides in Leawood.
McDougall brings a Southern sensibility to her writings about the great open Kansas landscape – her work is more narrative, perhaps, and her humor is direct. But the influence of the grasslands is strong in her spare language, use of sharp visual images and themes of endurance. She is a committed realist. Some of her poems, for me, recall Grant Wood’s paintings like “American Gothic,” but with humor.
Time creates a vivid dimension within McDougall’s Midwestern settings, through the agent of memory. McDougall writes: “Memory is the poet’s calico landscape of the imagination, recalled from the advantage of maturity.” In her poetics, memory appears as flashbacks, obsessive replays, time travel, sustained observations and reflections. Ironically, McDougall’s survivors’ humor and honest insights construct a natural theology.
In “Blessing,” McDougall creates a story with selected details. The Kansas setting is alluded to with the presence of wind, storm and sun. The small-town intimacy with neighbors is suggested by the narrator’s nosiness. How long was the narrator watching in order to see all these details, including hidden panties? The last line opens the scene to larger questions.
My neighbor hangs out the morning wash
and a storm dances up.
She strips the line,
the children’s pajamas with the purple ducks,
her husband’s shorts,
the panties she had hidden under a sheet.
When the sun comes out
she comes back
with the panties and the sheets, the shorts and the pajamas.
This is my ritual, not hers.
May her husband never stop drinking and buy her a dryer.
Education: McDougall graduated from DeWitt High School. She received an AA from Stephens College, BA from University of Arkansas (1957) and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville (1985).
Career: McDougall has published five books of poetry from BookMark Press-University of Missouri-Kansas City; University of Arkansas Press; and most recently Autumn House Press. Her work has been adapted for film (“Emerson County Shaping Dream”), theater, music and artists’ book. Inquiries about the film or books can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.