Many writers start out with gifts of gab. I talked late and barely used words at all until I could write. My parents said I was tongue-tied, and the cure was to snip the small hinge under my tongue. I held my mouth closed even more tightly. My maternal grandparents lived with us when I was born and for a year or so afterwards. My grandfather, of Lenape and Munsee (Delaware) descent, spent time with me in comfortable silence, and I cherish his influence. He taught me to play cards and drew me into conversations. But mostly I listened to people around me for the first six years of my life.
When my sister read books to me, I became lost in the illustrations. I loved a book series about the prairies, where I lived, with a Lakota girl who explored hills of shimmering sweet grass. In dreams I flew through fields as swiftly as she galloped on her pinto pony. “Reading” the illustrations turned into reading words in first grade, second grade, and by fourth grade I spent hours in the fantasy world of books, with the classics of Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, Mark Twain heroes, and then my brother’s library of Tarzan and Conan books. My homelife was sometimes tense, so this escapism was a life saver. I became a whiz at school from agility with words, so that developed my confidence. I learned to speak in front of the class when it was my turn, briefly.
Then in fifth grade our teacher, Mrs. Bloxom, had us write rhyming ditties. I loved it, and in my poor penmanship ground out several drafts and finally a poem about the Crusades, from a recent history unit. It began, “In 1095, the time of the Crusades, the Turks swept down and made some raids.” My concerns focused on imagined historic events, not real life.
By junior high, I had a journal and seriously worked at poetry sketches of nature. I could not draw well, but I had read about drawing as a pastime for women in English novels, in the “drawing room,” so I affected the writerly journal. As my emotional life dipped and sagged through adolescence, it was a buoy to hang onto.
My paternal grandmother, a Texas Southern belle, visited several times a year and introduced more poetry into my life. She loved Chinese verse and Japanese haiku and tanka. She owned translations of Basho, Li Po, and Tu Fu. Their imagism appealed to me immediately, and I began to imitate them. The spacious Flint Hills landscape, with rocky hillocks, gullies, and rivers—populated by frogs, ducks, and sunfish—resembled the landscape of haiku poets. Gardens of my neighborhood gave me the floral vocabulary of chrysanthemums, peonies, and lilies. My double life as a writer continued. I lived partly in my journals and partly in my daily life of school, walks outdoors, and talks with a few friends. It was enough.
Our small prairie town was the home of William Allen White, a well-known journalist, deceased, and his heir, William Lindsay White. W.L. White was editor of the Emporia Gazette and part of the year lived in New York, where he was involved with the Washington Post, Fortune, Reader’s Digest, and CBS. He was the most famous person in our small town of 12,000 people, the rock star. My father developed a mismatched friendship with him. Father was a labor union member and Democrat County Chairman from the working class—he worked on the Santa Fe Railroad. W.L. was the blueblood Harvard graduate. My father wrote letters to the editor challenging business interests in the town. W.L. wrote more editorials, in a dialogue with him. I read my father’s opinion pieces in the paper, and they were an indirect encouragement to write.
As a result of this friendship, W.L. gave writing positions to my siblings and me, in turn, at the Gazette. At sixteen, I remember being sent into the old dragon’s office for an interview, fumbling for words under his stare, and walking away certain that I had failed. But no, I had the position for two years and earned pin money writing a weekly column. That was the greatest gift—the lesson of deadlines and production. I was paid by the inch, so I generated many lists of participants in high school Red Cross meetings and music programs. As I deposited the checks in my savings account for college, I felt accomplishment, and then an expectation that one can earn money from writing. Writers block has never been a problem since this experience with journalism.
The poetry continued, and a mentor abetted my obsession. She loaned me books by avant garde writers Camus, Sartre, Marquez, Borges, and Calvino. She had enormous abstract paintings in her house that shifted my expectations for visual arts. Best of all, she read my beginning poems without flinching. She was a library science professor in her later years, and her example of a woman’s career, in the 1960s, was so important. My oldest sister and my mother were telling me to marry well. This woman showed how love of literature opens another realm.
There was one bookstore in town that sold bibles and classical hardback books. The other bookstore, the News Depot, sold paperbacks and the New York Times Sunday edition, which reached town by Tuesday. I went with my father to pick it up one day, and there I found Seymour Krim’s edited collection of Beat poetry. In it were Gary Snyder, Jack Micheline, Allen Ginsberg, others. Wonderful revelations!
This was the starting point, then. I was a girl born to parents who started college in the Depression but who could not afford to complete it. We lived where their great-grandparents had migrated in desperate circumstances, people of British Isles, German, and Indigenous American ancestry. They had stayed in this beautiful, remote place, in the midst of what had once been called the Great American Desert.
What a miracle that, though I never left the state, literary writing came to me at this Kansas crossroads that was neither truly Midwestern nor Western; neither Northern nor Southern. A local college professor allowed me to audit his fiction writing class when I was 17, and he had a small cult following of committed writers. At an annual conference he featured one first-rate author, so I had the chance to spend time with Donald Barthelme, James Tate (I spent one evening hearing his life story as he drank), Seamus Heaney, and others. These local writing conferences gave me cosmopolitan experience plus the fun of the oral traditions of the literary life.
Edward Dorn did a residency at the University of Kansas when I was an undergraduate. I attended one of his classes and followed all his activities, including parties. Lawrence was a stop on the marijuana trail across the United States, where dealers purchased what was called “ditch weed” to cut into higher grade product, for bulk. One house where I lived had a landlord who engaged in this trade. He toasted the fresh plants in the oven during harvest season, smelling up the kitchen. I was oblivious to the legal danger and the denizens of this underground traffic. But I observed how it brought interesting people to town like Dorn. Lawrence became hip, a place where Allen Ginsberg traveled through, and other notables showed up to read for small stipends. Clayton Eshleman, Diane Wakoski, Robert Duncan, W.S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, Gary Snyder, Ginsberg, and many more came through town. Some were experimental writers, some were academics, and all were of interest. John Moritz edited Tansy Press in Lawrence, and he published many of the second generation of Black Mountain poets. Kenneth Irby was his close friend and a regular Tansy author. In time, Ken became a dear friend, and I have a piece about his work in Jacket2 https://jacket2.org/article/sensory-typetopographies A few months before his death, I interviewed him for New Letters on the Air http://www.newletters.org/on-the-air/irby-2015. I identify myself with this group of writers, for our shared engagement with geography and experiential verse forms.
As I began to write more seriously, in my 30s, two other influences, because of proximity, were William S. Burroughs and William Stafford.
Stafford was a natural. He was from Kansas, and his nephew Patrick Kelley worked on the Emporia Gazette, writing editorial responses to my father’s letters, sometimes. Stafford came through Kansas regularly to visit his relatives and as part of his ambitious poetry career. I have written about his work and edited a volume of his uncollected Kansas-related poems. https://www.amazon.com/Kansas-Poems-William-Stafford-2nd/dp/0981733468 He was a powerful, quiet man who impressed by his actions. His finesse with circular time frames is one of his gifts—inspired I would argue by Native perspectives from his father. He shares with me a detribalized Native heritage and a geographic region.
Burroughs was a less likely connection, perhaps. He arrived in Lawrence in 1981, attracted by cheap housing and a nearby methadone clinic. He made a point to reach out to local writers as he partied and presented readings to fulfill his contract with K.U. as a writer-in-residence. What fun to see his distinguished entourage of visitors in town, including Ginsberg, Patti Smith, Keith Haring, and others. He was one of the most intelligent and informed people I have ever met. He shared with Stafford a deep knowledge of cultural philosophies and their fallacies. Each, in his own way, was deeply rebellious. Burroughs had a love of mysticism and the occult, which we shared, and that was a bond. Others were closer to him, but I consorted at the bar he invested in, attended his readings and art openings, and had dinner at his salon several times. He spoke in fully formed paragraphs, asked questions and listened, was curious, and was surprisingly courtly in manner. He seemed more the Buddhist than Ginsberg. After he died my sister Jane Ciabattari inserted my article about his funeral in her BBC Culture celebration of the 100th anniversary of his death. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140204-they-knew-the-godfather-of-punk Did I mention that my sister is a fine fiction writer and literary critic? She inspires me to this day.
As time went on and my obsession with words and verse continued, I enjoyed failures and successes. The MFA and PhD with a creative dissertation option were helpful. My K.U. mentor Carolyn Doty taught me many practical lessons in her detailed marginal comments. I began publishing more, getting a few awards, and in 2006 was selected as the Kansas Poet Laureate. This position taught me to relate to live audiences in addition to the expanse of a white page.
Another boost to my understanding of the writing world occurred when I was elected to the board of directors for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in 2007. This gave me the opportunity to see the workings of a national writing organization close-up. As president and conference chair, I attended dinners and readings with many of my writing heroes. This organization has meant a lot to me since I have been geographically isolated all of my career. My advice to writers is to attend the AWP conference with no career goals and enjoy the ride.
What can I advise, as a result of this happenstance writerly career?
- There are literary people available in many forms, even in small Kansas towns, and all can inspire.
- Conferences, workshops, festivals, and college creative writing programs can all take years off the slog-work of a writing apprenticeship.
- Reading and listening are more important than writing and presenting. Writing is not a rhetorical way to dominate others or outshout them or win contests. It is a way to learn capacities of human consciousness.
- Trust yourself and your own instincts about your writing. Others can teach you technique, but you can only find your own process and reasons for writing.
- Don’t give up. My poetry professor in college showed the class a prize-winning manuscript and then told us how every poem had been rejected at least ten times.
And finally, trust silence. Those years as a child when everyone else in the family was talking above me and over me, I learned so much about cadence, inflection, context, tone, diction—everything I needed to speak, and also to be a writer. Words, each with its own history, are portals to past human experiences and to the future. These coded transactions awaken emotions, curiosity, knowledge, and physical responses. Words are power. Study of them will hone parts of your mind that you did not know existed. Each original writing event is a revelation.
Denise Low, Kansas Poet Laureate 2007-09, is winner of the Red Mountain Press Editor’s Choice 2018 Award for Shadow Light. Other recent books are a memoir, The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival (U. of Nebraska Press) and A Casino Bestiary: Poems (Spartan Press). Jackalope, fiction, was acclaimed by Pennyless (U.K.), American Book Review, and New Letters. She has won 3 Ks. Notable Book Awards and recognition from the Poetry Society of America, Roberts Foundation, Lichtor Award, and NEH. Low has an MFA from Wichita State U. and Ph.D. from KU. She teaches for Baker University’s School of Professional and Graduate Studies. She recently relocated to Sonoma County, California. www.deniselow.net