When Kansas Poet Laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg decides to throw a birthday party, she does it right. To celebrate Kansas’ sesquicentennial (that’s a word-lover’s term for a 150th birthday) Mirriam-Goldberg sat down and penned a single commemorative poem. Then she challenged nearly ninety of the state’s most talented poets to follow her lead. The result? A best-ever birthday present to Kansas that all of us can enjoy entitled Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems.
Available this month from Woodley Press, the collection is a direct result of the overwhelming response of both readers and writers to Mirriam-Goldberg’s 150 Kansas Poems Web site. Within months of starting the site to honor Kansas’ birthday with verse, the Poet Laureate received hundreds of poems from both award-winning and emerging poets. And while she posted a single poem every day or two, site readers wanted more.
“That’s when I started to imagine how these poems would make a wonderful anthology,” says Mirriam-Goldberg, who’s already authored 12 books, including four collections of poetry.
And while the anthology’s poems are divided into four sections based on the Kansas seasons, the pieces contained within speak volumes of more than just the state’s changeable weather. Beyond a dormant prairie’s ice and gray, works grouped under “Winter” evoke unexpected images and emotion: a snow-globe’s futile cycling, a Flint Hills post rock’s hard-won history, a lonely New Year’s Eve. Likewise, pieces classified in “Summer” transcend Kansas swelter to focus on other things: the swift consequences of a boyhood egg fight in a chicken yard, a stirring metamorphosis reflected in cicada wings, an arrowhead expedition that reveals as much about timeworn relationships as the hunt for timeworn tools.
Discovering the universal themes embedded in these unique Kansas images makes reading the collection a thought-provoking delight. But like a gourmet meal, these pieces are to be savored over a period of time, rather than devoured quickly; picking out one’s favorites is best done over a series of nights by the fire during the long Kansas winter. And with celebrated poets and contributors like William Stafford and Denise Low mixed in with up-and-coming talent from across the state, there’s lots of Midwest magic in these pages to discover. So much, in fact, that reading this collection’s last page might leave you longing to do with it exactly what its title suggests: begin again.
Attend a reading from Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems at 6 p.m. on Sunday, November 13, at Kansas City’s Prospero’s Bookstore. To find out more, visit www.prosperosbookstore.com.
Q & A with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
435 South: How did the idea for this collection come about?
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I wanted to do something as Poet Laureate for Kansas’ 150th anniversary of statehood that would raise the understanding of how poetry can and does speak to our lives and sense of place. I thought of having 150 poems, submitted by people with ties to Kansas. Within weeks of launching the 150Kansaspoems.wordpress.com Web site, the submissions flooded in. Soon there were 150 strong poems, and as I shared them with the site’s readers, I began to envision the anthology.
435 South: While the book’s unifying theme is Kansas, the poems reflect lots of illuminating sub-themes.
CMG: I did at times forego using poems focused on stereotypical Kansas images like abandoned farmhouses and sunflowers, because I wanted to represent a wider view of what Kansas says to us. And while the collection is grouped by seasons and native plants and animals, the poems are about so much more: leaving and returning, loss and grief, homecoming and finding one’s place, growing up and growing older, community and individuality, and yearning and freedom.
435 South: Why did you title the collection after Nancy Hubble’s poem “Begin Again”?
CMG: I love that poem, and to me, it says everything about what life is. We’re continually beginning again, starting over each morning, each night. We begin again in our work, relationships, spiritual practices, art, and in how we relate to the land and sky around us. The poets in the book seem to like this title too.
435 South: You’ve pulled together a laudable group of poems from both award-winning poets and up-and-coming talent. Was it difficult to choose?
CMG: I tried most of all to choose poems that were strong, original, fresh, alive, compelling, and imaginative—pieces that, in lieu of clichés, show the world in new ways. To paraphrase Kansas poet William Stafford, I looked for language that does what it can’t always say.
435 South: Does this book appeal to non-poetry lovers too?
CMG: If people think poetry has nothing to do with them, they simply haven’t found the right poet or poem yet. Poetry is like food: there is something for everyone, and it nourishes us on a cellular level. Poetry—both writing and reading it—can help us better understand our lives, choices, strengths, challenges, insights, and opportunities.
435 South: You were named Poet Laureate of Kansas from 2009-2012, before devastating budget cuts. What happened?
CMG: Though the Kansas Arts Commission eliminated the program, I’m not eliminated, and I’m still doing the work and focusing on finding a new organizational home for the program.
I’m also fundraising. I know there is the argument that if people privately pick up the cost of the arts, then that will prove there is no need for public funding, but if we don’t, many of the programs we value so much disappear, and some disappear forever. It breaks my heart that many arts councils—in smaller towns especially—are closing their doors, but I believe that Kansans value the arts so much that we will once again have an arts agency.
435 South: How can people help?
CMG: You can contribute to our campaign at www.indiegogo.com/Poet-Laureate-of-Kansas-1.
435 South: For you, what’s magical about Kansas?
CMG: I’m answering these questions while sitting on my front porch, watching the leaves of an Osage Orange tree move in the wind and a spider weave her web. I love the land and sky here, which are so varied, ever-changing and expansive. Having grown up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, I came here shortly after and immediately knew this was the place I loved and where I wanted and needed to live. I also love the people of Kansas; having traveled this state for years, I’ve met such good people everywhere I’ve been.