State of poetry: Poet laureate position moves from one Lawrence writer to another

Lawrence resident Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, left, will take the reins as Kansas Poet Laureate as Denise Low, right, finishes her two-year term. The two are pictured at the Raven Bookstore, 6 E. Seventh St.

“Are you packed to move out of the poet mansion?” Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg asks.

It gets a hearty laugh from Denise Low. She knows this job has no such perks.

This week, Low will hand off the baton of Kansas poet laureate to Mirriam-Goldberg, her friend of some 25 years and fellow Lawrence writer.

They represent the second and third poets laureate for the state. Mirriam-Goldberg is hoping to pick up where her friend left off when it comes to promoting poetry throughout the state.

“I’ve learned so much from watching her do it,” Mirriam-Goldberg says of her friend’s two-year tenure in the position. “I’ve admired so much what Denise has done. She can connect with every kind of writer seamlessly.”

And that is one of the goals for the poet laureate program, which is administered by the Kansas Arts Commission — to connect accomplished writers with those who simply enjoy the craft. Or, in some cases, to teach Kansans that they, too, can develop an appreciation for poetry, or even to write themselves.

Low says: “I’ve had people tell me, ‘I used to be intimidated by poetry, and you’ve helped me understand it. Now I depend on it. It’s something to brighten my day.'”

State experience

The poet laureate program was established in 2004 at the request of Kathleen Sebelius, who then was governor. Jonathan Holden, a Kansas State University faculty member, served a two-year term. Low’s two-year term followed, and Mirriam-Goldberg’s term will start Wednesday.

The two Lawrence residents will celebrate the changeover with an event Wednesday at the Lawrence Arts Center.

Llewellyn Crain, director of the Kansas Arts Commission, the organization that provides a small stipend and travel expenses for the poet laureate, says the program’s goals are multifaceted.

“It’s creating an awareness of the role words and poems can play in our daily lives, even if you’re not a professional poet,” she says. “Poetry also can reflect a personal experience and a sate experience — experiences we as Kansans have as we live our lives. There’s a perspective we as Kansans have, and that can be captured beautifully and succinctly in poetry.”

Low, a faculty member at Haskell Indian Nations University, focused much of her time as poet laureate on using technology to connect poetry lovers. Her Ad Astra Poetry Project was an e-mail newsletter that highlighted a different Kansas poet each month. And this April, she engaged dozens of poets of all levels in a series of e-mail poetry competitions.

All the while, she’s kept a busy schedule of appearances, often more than one a week throughout the state.

But Low says being so busy didn’t hurt her own poetry, much of which focuses on the Kansas landscape.

“I kept writing,” she says. “What’s interesting is this gave me a chance to read it aloud more. I could work through editing faster. I’d read new poems. I wanted to hear them for myself.”

‘Raise barns’

Mirriam-Goldberg has plans of her own.

She wants to do poetry workshops throughout the state, form ongoing poetry circles in communities and do a series of readings and presentations. She also will start a four-minute weekly poetry show on High Plains Public Radio, which serves much of the western half of the state.

Mirriam-Goldberg is a native of Brooklyn, but she’s lived in the Midwest for more than 30 years and says she’s developed a deep love for Kansas.

“I write quite a bit about land and sky,” she says.

She’s a faculty member at Goddard College, a primarily distance-learning university based in Vermont. She frequently administers poetry workshops and circles as a means of coping, for groups as diverse as cancer survivors, at-risk teens and the low-income.

Mirriam-Goldberg also has three books coming out this fall:

• A collection of poetry written with musician Kelley Hunt, with an accompanying CD.

• A poetry book about surviving cancer.

• Another collection, in collaboration with the Turning Point organization in Mission, about dealing with serious illnesses.

She sees the poet laureate position as a way to help further her own projects, s well.

“In many ways, this is following the line of my life,” she says.

Together, Low and Mirriam-Goldberg founded the Wakarusa Nine, a writers group, in the early 1980s. Since then, they’ve relied on each other to provide honest critiques of their writing.

“We’ve never been competitive,” Mirriam-Goldberg says. “We help each other. We both feel like we lift each other up.”

And that, based on Low’s experience the past two years, is a pretty common theme among Kansas writers.

“Kansas poets help each other raise barns,” Low says. “They help each other out.”

Poetry from Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

These poems are from Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s upcoming book, “Landed.”

‘Self-Portrait as Woman Who Loves Her Body for a Moment’

My ankles, for instance, functional

as bicycle pedals, the elbows too,

elegant as the unfurling of an iris.

Then there are my thumbs, twin sons

of a mother who never forgets them,

marvelous in their gymnastics.

My eyes that land on orange in a painting,

or my shoulders, heroic in their lifting.

The flat slate of blue crooked lines where

there used to be breasts, the curve of my belly,

the hips weary of insults when they surge

across the days like prize-winning horses.

The way my knees bend to make strong hills

of the legs. Then there’s the hummingbird synapses

of my brain, tired but as lovely in their blur

as the heart’s tap dance and dramatic bows.

Everywhere, there’s applause my white blood cells

drink each leg of their marathon, the efficiency

of my tongue, the wind my lungs translate into song,

and the fire at the center of each breath.

In the mirror, walking through foot-high snow,

or turning to sit in the chair, this body’s imperfections

just the weather rolling through the landscape of the soul.

Why insult the thick heat, the broken branches that left

their lines, the dappled rocks up close?

I’m just a container for time like a river.

Tell, me, what’s not to love?

‘Self-Portrait as Wind’

It’s always like this. Or it isn’t.

Moon or its influence under cloud. The pull

of dirt into the center. The drop

in temperature that glides open

the ground, the spark, the disappearance

of light. All of this and me

or none of it. But give me a palate

of grass, or the shimmering coiled tops

of trees. Give me rain or heat,

the slice of space between skyscrapers,

the way wings make me, and I make wings,

weather too. Give me nothing

and I’ll use it. Give me weight

and I’ll drop it. The whish of a

mare’s tail. The buzz of a confused wasp.

The rush of a man running against me

into me trying to make time. I make

the opposite of time. Fortunes just paper,

and you know what I do to that.

Blinds unbound. Geese scattered

over the next hill of air, everything falling back

into my large hands, me who can’t

hold onto a thing.