To the Stars: Kansas Poets of the Ad Astra Poetry Project 2009, Center for Kansas Studies at Washburn University and Mammoth Publications, ISBN-13: 978-0980010275. 112 pages. KANSAS NOTABLE BOOK from the Kansas State Library. Available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Cover painting by Paul Hotvedt
Denise Low, 2nd poet laureate of Kansas, revives the British tradition of one-page publications, called “broadsides,” as a way to present poetry. Her web-based broadsides include over forty poets with Kansas connections: Gordon Parks, William Stafford, James Tate, B.F. Fairchild, Diane Glancy, Albert Goldbarth, Jo McDougall, and Kevin Young to name a few. This book collects her Ad Astra Poetry Project broadsides in print form. Each entry presents a biography, poem, and commentary about the poem in concise form, easily accessible for readers. The 3rd Kansas poet laureate, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, adds discussion questions for those who wish to use this book for classes or other groups. Clear discussion of the poems, free of jargon, makes this ideal for sharing with students and friends. Low selects poems that comment, in some way, on Kansas experience. These Kansas poetry publications-available to arts organizations, schools, libraries, and newspapers throughout the state-have attracted a national following.
Flint Hills Review: To the Stars, edited by the Second Kansas Poet Laureate Denise Low, features poetry by 48 poets, ranging from Lawrence native and Harlem Renaissance founding father Langston Hughes to the prominent new voice, Topeka native Ben Lerner, the youngest poet to be published by Copper Canyon Press. The book is set up as a kind of teaching tool on Kansas poets; Low gives commentary and background on each author and his or her connection to Kansas, one poem by each poet is printed, and Low provides a brief analysis of each poem. Low’s commentary is quite helpful in terms of getting to the core of each poem, and Low even explains the poet’s possible process for creating each poem. The last few pages of the book present writing prompts that can be used in the classroom written by current Kansas Poet Laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg. Each prompt acts as a companion to the poem in the collection on which it is based. The commentary by Denise Low helps present each poet so that the reader will have the basics if that poet is completely new to him or her. This helps the book lend itself to being used in a classroom to teach students about the poets and poetry of Kansas.
One thing that unifies the poets in this book, besides their connection to Kansas is their use of language. The Kansas dialect is a distinguishing and prominent aspect of most of the works contained in To the Stars. In many cases, the vernacular language found in each poem makes it seem as though the author is speaking directly to the reader. It seems likely that the region in which these authors write and write about plays a significant role in shaping the way each author writes. Be it categorized as friendly, relaxed, “down-home”, or even strictly “mid-western”, the voice in these poems is clear and all encompassing, and absolutely Kansan. Kansas greats such as Langston Hughes and William Stafford were masters of Kansas colloquial vocabulary, and it is exemplified in the poems by each author featured in the book, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, by Hughes, and “For a Distant Friend”, by Stafford. These two poems by two of the state’s most acclaimed authors appear in the beginning of To the Stars, and both work well to show the regional specificity of Kansas authors, and what makes them different than authors from other regions.
Along with the most popular and distinguished poets who hail from the Free State, the book also gives the reader a taste for others from the state who have not achieved the national attention that figures such as Hughes and Stafford have. So-called “rural” poets such as Jack DeWerff, Michael L. Johnson, and Diane Glancy shed light on the cowboy and Native American influences in the state. Jonathan Holden, the first Kansas Poet Laureate, shows the analytical side of Kansans with his meditation on the correlation between baseball players and birds in his poem “Night Game”. Many of the writers in the book, such as B.H. Fairchild and Stephen A. Hind describe the life of a resident of the Great Plains. Each poet in this volume brings something new and voluptuous to the poetic table of Kansas poetry. And each author, in turn, perpetuates the sense of oneness that Kansans hold dear. Upon reading the commentary in this book by Low, one realizes the amount of work many of these authors put into creating a good sense of poetic community in the area. The creation and maintenance of The Writer’s Place in Kansas City is a great example of the cultural community of writers that has been created by the poets in To the Stars. It is one thing to become a prominent poet and poetic figure in an area, but it is another thing entirely to invest so much work and passion into an area that an entire culture is created, a culture of sharing and teaching others about poetry, so that young writers in Kansas have somewhere to look for advice and guidance. These poets are making it possible for struggling Kansas poets to find a voice, a purpose, and legs to carry them. The poetry and hard work that each and every one of these poets has done in the past, and continue to do, is helping a whole new generation of dreamers find themselves. And, in the end, this impact may be more substantial than any of the numerous other impacts these poets have made, and continue to make on Kansas culture, and the culture of the nation. Eric Hemphill, Flint Hills Review, 2010