Exclusive Interview With Poet Laureate Denise Low!

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Wow! What a weekend! I celebrated with 30th birthday with my sons, announced my engagement to poet Tammy F. Trendle, and completed an interview with the poet laureate of Kansas: Denise Low. (So yeah, 30's getting off to a great start!)

Yes, Denise Low agreed to answer a few questions for the Poetic Asides blog, which is quite an honor when you consider everything else she's currently up to:

  1. Working on a new collection of poetry/prose on the theme of ghost stories set in the west, "so there are settler, American Indian, and contemporary ghosts to consider, including William Burroughs and William Stafford."
  2. Working on an inter-genre project of text, paintings by Paul Hotvedt, and video by Joshua Kendall, with packaging by Deborah Dillon. "This is based on three years of Paul's seasonal plein air paintings."
  3. Working with Mohamad El Hodiri, "one of my hometown buddies," on translating poetry by Mohamed Afifi Matar, a leading Egyptian poet.
  4. Releasing (through Backwaters Press) a collection of her literary essays about contemporary Great Plains writers.

Low also mentions, "I should also comment on a failed project: I was working on a collection of poems about birds--working down my Audubon check-off list plus observing the Kansas area birds. I just could not pull it off! About half of the poems never developed beyond journal observation. I am proud of myself for recognizing when to let go."

Learning to let go of a great idea that's just not working (and shows no signs of doing so) is a great lesson for any poet. But we're not letting go of Low just yet. Here's a little Q&A first:

You're the poet laureate of Kansas. So, what it's like being a State Poet Laureate?

Being poet laureate has helped me in so many ways. I can now articulate more clearly how my role as a poet is community-based. All poets are advocates for the arts. All poets work with a centuries-old tradition of wisdom. We add our own pieces to that tradition, from our time, and that great river keeps flowing forward. As a poet laureate, I have become more excited about younger poets and their upcoming roles of spokespersons for their generations. All poets are revolutionaries, creating “it” new each morning.

Does being a poet laureate make it any more difficult to find time to write?

This position, truly, has given me more opportunities to travel, which has inspired new writing. Also, the honor has given me confidence. I appreciate the state of Kansas for this public support of an art form that is sometimes ridiculed. Thirty-eight states now have poets laureate. So the appearances have been more inspiring than detrimental. I am glad that at this time in my life, I have no serious family obligations. I went into the position with the understanding that it would take up most of my free time, and it has. Nonetheless, ideas keep coming to me, and they find form on paper.

Your blog covers events and poets from the Kansas and Kansas City region. How important do you feel it is for a poet's development to become a part of the poetry community on a local level?

As poets, I believe we speak for our time and our generation. I think it is very important to understand our historic contexts. As I have researched local history and my family genealogy, which includes settler and some Indigenous [Lenape (Delaware) and Cherokee] heritage, I have come to understand the unspoken influences on my poetry—my dialect, my attunement to space, my education, my religions. I look to peer poets, whether I read them or hear their performances, for an understanding of how I fit into the community and how I do not. I think it is very important for poets to be aware of those subliminal influences. Our communities help us stay in touch with what is original and what is cliché. And finally, poetry is community based. We write for an audience, I believe, even if it is a disembodied part of ourselves. Very few poets write and are content to put the manuscripts into a shoebox. Most wish to be heard/read and understood.

I found your poem "Thailand Journal: Message from Cambodia" in a back issue of Coal City Review. In the poem, the narrator discusses her son's journeys, touching on the communication and distance between a mother and her grown son. Could you talk a little about this poem? For instance, I'm interested in whether this poem is autobiographical.

That poem is indeed autobiographical. I have two wonderful sons and a dear stepdaughter. I try not to embarrass them too much, but indeed son Daniel lived in Thailand almost three years. He is fluent in Thai. It was an experience of the “beginner’s mind” of Buddhism for me to visit him and experience total role reversal. This was not what I expected from my first journey to another country—something so primal. For the poet who writes autobiographically, I believe that the challenge is to find the unexpected, not the ordinary details of a person’s life. So this took me by surprise.

There is another poem dedicated to my other son, that is a twin experience for me, as I felt the surprise of our ongoing relationship:

Whale Watching: Farallon Islands

Now my grown son is a well known

stranger. We go whale watching

together, close again as we were

when he was small and never

left my side. Whales swim

in family groups. From the boat

we see two adults, their spray

smelling of sea-plants.

They steer through waves and dive,

spotted flukes the last sign

before they disappear. We lower

binoculars and I sense

underwater movements like giants

rumbling through a cavern.

The ship monitor shows knolls

below, in a rocky landscape.

The boat motor is too loud

to talk over but we wait together

until they rise to the surface and blow

exhaled breath alongside

and again the grassy smell.

The procession of behemoths

meanders, and our wooden boat follows,

slapping swells, an awkward cousin,

clumsy on the ceiling of their world.

As a follow-up, that poem deals specifically with communication. Do you feel communication is an important purpose of poetry?

My mentor Carolyn Doty, a novelist, always stressed that a writer’s first duty is to communicate. I believe that. We can free write or develop elaborate mental air castles—but language, by its nature, puts us into communication with other folks. The first rule, then, is: be understood.

What and who are you currently reading?

I just finished Amy Bloom’s Away. I loved her sense of fluid time and her skill in creating it. I am reading Carlos Castaneda’s The Fire from Within—I am interested in his idea of “assemblage points”—which are like set points for perceptions of realities. I just finished Diane Glancy’s book of poetry Asylum in the Grasslands. She uses such fine, strong imagery. I recently read Eric Gansworth’s A Half-Life of Cardio-Pulmonary Function: Poems and Paintings, which is based on Onondaga beadwork concepts, and it is a remarkable achivement. Next up, as far as poetry books, are Jim Spurr’s Open Mike Thursday Night—he’s an Oklahoma poet—and Airs & Voices: Poems by Paula Bonnell, from BookMark Press. I read a few poems already and loved them. There is so much to read and so little time!

If you could pass on only one piece of advice to other poets, what would it be?

I appreciate Paul Muldoon’s answer to that question when he visited Lawrence lately—remain humble. Be open. I understand that to mean that receptivity allows for authentic poetry. Okay, second piece of advice: read as much as you can. And I appreciate this chance to be part of your project!


To check out Denise Low's blog, go to http://deniselow.blogspot.com/. It's great for all lovers of poetry, but especially those from the Great Plains.


Also, here's a cool, little thread I found on Poets.org where it appears Denise answered some forum questions on that site: http://www.poets.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=14960.

This thread includes the interview and some more examples of her poetry.


To check out other poet interviews on Poetic Asides, go to: http://www.writersdigest.com/poeticasides/CategoryView,category,Poet%20Interviews.aspx

In there, you'll find interviews with poets, such as Dorianne Laux, Jillian Weise, Joseph Mills, John Korn, Helene Cardona, Julianna Baggott, and more!

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