Denise Low is kind of a big deal. She served as Kansas Poet Laureate from 2007-09, and she’s the award-winning author of 25 books, including Mélange Block, and Kansas Poems of William Stafford. As one of the most talented and enduring poetic talents to ever hail from our state, Low has nourished the creative spirit of readers for decades.
In a 2006 interview, Denise Low noted that her poetry and prose reflect her Kansas roots.
“Kansas has shaped my language. It has shaped my diurnal rhythms. It has shaped my sense of height and depth spatial awareness. All these feed the writing.”
A fifth-generation Kansas native, she received her education in Kansas schools, from K all the way through Ph.D. She represents our state well, with lyrical poetry, intelligent prose, and a strong commitment to supporting the arts in Kansas.
“Jackalope is a way to write about many of the Native experiences I’ve had without having to declare a specific tradition,” Low said. “We all live such hybrid lives, and the Jackalope is a perfect vehicle.”
Read on for an original interview* with the poet.
You’ve named Louise Erdrich, Susan Power, Leslie Marmon Silko, William Stafford,
William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Rilke as poets who have influenced your work. Are there new voices who have inspired you in recent years?
Yes, Ronald Johnson and Kenneth Irby are influences, fellow Kansans who probe language histories as a way to get to organic forms. The same physics laws of gravity and recursiveness apply to language and land formations. My book Mélange Block refers directly to the natural clustering of geological formations—aggregates, lava flow, sedimentation, dendritic branching. These interest me as a way of circumventing (colonial) British tradition and working more directly with observation. Johnson and Irby work more directly with literary tradition, which I respect. I have to love my mother tongue, but I want to explore a common language for the Mid-Plains experience relevant to my mixed background of Indigenous and settler heritages. Including Cherokee and other language traditions tied to North America is important to me. Stafford and Ted Kooser have a commitment to American references in their work, which appeals to me. Heid Erdrich’s activism is an inspiration. N. Scott Momaday’s writings about oral tradition and efficacy of language are also important. Language is real, not fictional constructs.
You earned a PhD in English from the University of Kansas, as well as an MFA from Wichita State University. In what ways did your years of study impact your writing? What advice do you have for a writer or student considering a Master of Fine Arts program?
It is so important to read widely and also so important to select what is useful as context—find one’s own voice. In my education, I appreciate exposure to generous mentors, teachers, and visiting writers. I had a consultation with Gary Snyder when I was starting out, and it improved my understanding of verse immeasurably in a short time. Diane Di Prima talked with me about alchemy. This is such a rich time for contact with other writers, through the Internet and easy travel. AWP has been a rich experience for me to see great writers and their works. I take something away from each reading, and then the project is to winnow these and formulate my own raison d’ecrire. I would advise students of writing to reflect on why they write, goals, values. Then reevaluate these regularly. A real danger for any writer is to get stuck in one mode. I appreciate William S. Burroughs’s visual art career—he made art throughout his life, mostly without exhibition in mind. It was a habit of mind, or a manifestation of his creative life. Writing is a way of expanding reflective thought. This is more important than fitting into a niche and having a signature verse for an entire career. Some writers I read for their elegant sentences include Kimiko Hahn, Ben Lerner, Kevin Young, and Laura Kasischke.
The poems of Mélange Block are concise, with clearly delivered images and no words wasted. I’m thinking of a poem like “Solo Catbird,” which delivers its subject in a series of sounds and pictures, and without any complete sentences. I’ve heard you read these poems aloud, and they are striking in their rhythm and rapid fire imagery. What inspired you to write in this way? How have longtime readers of your work responded?
These poems originated in a visit to my son’s house in Sonoma County, where volcanoes ring his house and the Russian River treeline is visible. Then I visited my brother in northern Arizona, where volcanoes also are prominent. This new geology excited me visually, which led to renewal of my interest in geology. The human histories associated with these landscapes also inspired me—the Edgar Rice Burroughs use of the Springville volcanoes as a landscape in his speculative fiction, for example, and the petroglyphs by unknown authors that are on rocks near my brother’s land. I wanted to join the land’s own processes with human traditions. I had quit my day job, teaching full-time at Haskell Indian Nations University, that year. This gave me freedom to travel. I appreciate the time I spent at Haskell and also the release from the heavy academic load. I have the luxury of focus without distraction. Another inspiration is my sporadic and imperfect practice of meditation, sometimes with the Kwan Um School of Zen. This encourages focus on direct sight, which is a goal of the book.
My readers have mostly responded well—and the fact the book is in its third printing is a surprise to me as well as my publisher. Eastern critic whose work I respect a lot told me it’s the best I’ve written. I hope the words are like koans that ignite new fires.
Tell us about the inspiration behind Jackalope, your most recent collection of prose and poetry.
Rabbit is a trickster for many Eastern Indigenous tribal traditions, including Cherokee and Algonquin. Jackalope is a meme of the frontier grasslands. Humor is central to the Wyoming-bred Jackalope, so these are funny. Some lore says Jackalopes are intergender beings, so that is fun—point of view goes between male and female. I identify with this character because of my own mixed-up perspective, plus I have never felt restricted to a female-only identity. My career at a time when most professors, writers and publishers were men is testimony to that. This also is a regional icon, and I’m firmly planted in regionalism—wait, make that locavore-ism—so the characters works even better. Jackalope is a way to write about many of the Native experiences I’ve had without having to declare a specific tradition. We all live such hybrid lives, and the Jackalope is a perfect vehicle.
You served as Kansas Poet Laureate from 2007-2009. Tell us a bit about that experience. What are you most proud of, and what are your fondest memories?
As soon as my appointment to the position was announced in fall of 2006, I was amazed at the interest. TV stations, radio stations, newspapers, magazines—all sorts of media made immediate contact. I came to appreciate how much people appreciate a reason to rally behind a positive cultural identity for Kansas. I relished the contact with arts centers, schools, and libraries in rural parts of the state. The events participants were talented people with lots to say in literary forms. They were great readers. I came to understand how important libraries are to communities large and small. They have become multimedia centers, social centers, adult education schools, and of course lenders of books.
As a librarian, I have to ask…how have you depended on libraries in the course of your life and education? Do you have a favorite library, or a library story to share?
My parents took me to the Emporia Public Library and the Emporia State William Allen White Library as soon as I could walk. I loved those public spaces—the Carnegie library with glass floors in the stacks was mysterious, something out of fairy tales. I remember, as a small child, seeing the ESU library walls being built. I had not understood construction of buildings before that moment. Then when I went into it and checked out books, what magic. We were not wealthy people—my father worked on the Santa Fe Railroad as a brakeman in those days—but libraries made me feel empowered. That positive attitude carried over into school and a love of learning. Thank you to all librarians.
How can readers find out more about you and follow your work?
Thanks for asking! The Poetry Foundation has a biography and sample poems at www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/deniselow . I have a website, www.deniselow.net. I have a blog, since 2006, at http://deniselow.blogspot.com my husband and I run a literary press that focuses on Mid-Plains and Indigenous literature, www.mammothpublications.net . Please visit the site, read our authors, and support locavore literature.
*Miranda Ericsson interviewed Denise Low via email in April, 2015