About the Kentucky Live reading

First, a photo of me with Yvonne Petkus, the great WKU painter who let me use one of her paintings for my cover, and Sena Naslund, the great Kentucky novelist and my dear friend for 35 years.

Yvonne Petkus, me, and Sena Naslund

Yvonne Petkus, me, and Sena Naslund

Here are some pictures and a podcast of the September 17 reading as part of the Kentucky Live series hosted by the WKU Libraries. The photos (Haiwang Yung) actually show people laughing (well smiling), so it wasn’t all tears! Also, if you want to hear it, you can listen to the reading.

This was a busy two days. For my Thursday night reading, I was asked to read for 45 minutes! That about did me in–so tired of hearing my own voice and I was sure I was losing people right and left. Several assured me I hadn’t, which I really appreciated! Then on Friday, I read along with about 6 other writers at the Spalding at the Speed, in Louisville. For this, I was to read for 7 minutes. A breeze!

Thanks to those who attended and others for your ongoing kindnesses around this collection of poems. Thanks to Brian Coutts for hosting.

Photos from the Thursday night reading at WKU.

Podcast is here.

Lena Ziegler’s interview with me about Seeking….

Lena Ziegler is a graduate student in WKU’s new MFA program in creative writing.

Q: As the Department Head of Diversity and Community Studies, coordinator of the M.A. in Social Responsibility & Sustainable Communities, as well as your heavy-handed role in the Gender and Women’s studies program, your work at WKU really focuses on wide-reaching cultural issues. Does your poetry reflect those passions? Can you maybe share some of the themes your poetry touches upon?

A: This is a great question. I am not sure how to say this without categorizing myself in ways that don’t quite fit, but I’ll try. Many of my poems draw on imagery from the plant and animal worlds. The middle section of Seeking the Other Side, for instance, is called “tree forms,” and represents an extended experiment to listen to what amazing trees I have encountered have to say. Since I can’t literally speak for them, I try to use empathy to speak from the persona of a tree, or I let the trees serve as metaphors for things that matter to me—human relations, love, compassion. Trees have a lot to offer us, if we take the time to hear them.

And this is another theme, attending to the minute, the overlooked, that which is assumed to be unworthy, how we are ravaged by obsessions and diversions even while we desperately need balance, beauty, compassion. One poem is about a deer carcass at the side of the road. Divided into 7 parts, I imagine myself watching the decay as I fly by in my car, and why that would matter—to care about what happens to a deer when it’s no longer photogenic. In that poem the skeleton morphs into a sacred space, even while being tunneled by maggots and picked at by buzzards.

Grief is probably the largest single theme. Since many of the poems deal with the loss of our youngest son, who was shot and killed in 2009, the poems talk of loneliness, sadness, mystery, confusion, the meaning of life, violence, the spirit world.

Q: Has poetry been a lifelong interest? How did you get started writing poetry?

A: From a young age I loved to write. My poetry for a long time was trite, formulaic, sentimental, and boring. I remember after my rather bumpy search for the right major and settling on creative writing, sitting with the head of the program as he looked over the final poems for the semester. He nodded, he got a little excited, he said, “you finally found my voice.”

That phrase gets used a lot, as if all you have to do is poke around for awhile and there it will be, tucked in some corner of the body, peeking out every once in awhile to get our attention but inaccessible and unobliging until that moment when we reach in and take “it.”

Since then I’ve gone in and out of writing periods, surrendering for long periods to work or family obligations, personal digressions, and so on. But even during those fallow times when no poem gets written, I’m writing something, or mulling something over that needs only the right time, or right image, or right phrase, to push me to pick up my pen.

Q: Do you write in any other creative genre? Fiction, non-fiction, scriptwriting, etc? If not, have you ever attempted?

A: I write short stories and have had most of them published, but my collection of interrelated stories is without a book home. I may yet get that accomplished. I am currently working on a memoir.

Q: Who are your favorite writers and why?

A: Most of my favorite authors are novelists—I love Barbara Kingsolver for her brilliance in delving into the lives of her characters and addressing our most serious social issues of the day with sensitivity and profound love for the characters grappling with empire, environmental destruction, abuse, cultural appropriation, censorship. So good. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the best novel of the 20th century, and the best novella is Tillie Olson’s Tell Me a Riddle. All of these grapple with social problems in ways that transform the reader—reach in and grab our hearts—for love of the characters and their mighty struggles. In terms of poetry, I’m a big fan of our local writers, Mary Ellen Miller, Tom Hunley, Libby Oakes—they’ve all given me a lot. Sharon Olds is great, I guess because I like the way she examines the depths of the personal, not incidental or indulgent, but far-reaching and keen and unflinching. T.S. Eliot moved me when I was younger, Langston Hughes as well, Emily Dickinson—she for the way an image might be juxtaposed and open a world of meaning, for her depth of perception and analysis. There are so many poets, and I haven’t kept up with the many fine ones who have emerged in recent years.

Q: For a creative writer of any genre, it can be scary to stand up in front of an audience and share work. What advice might you give to a writer who might be a little more hesitant to participate in a reading?

A: It helps to read out loud what you’re going to share. Get used to the sound of your own voice speaking the words. Make sure that you can pronounce all the words and that any complex structures flow. My voice still gets shaky sometimes, especially when the emotional content is strong. Some of us make the mistake of shallow breathing—I know I’ve done this at times when my voice got shakier and shakier. That’s why reading out loud in private can help. Stand up, get used to breathing deeper down.

On another level, presumably you wrote something because you want to share. Writers love to see their work read, to know that someone is listening, so give it up. Tell the ego to go away and mind its own business. Read your own work as you listen to others: to learn, to enjoy the beauty of language, to say what’s pressing on your mind and heart.

And perhaps there’s a little of “pretend” you’re not breaking out in hives. I think of what Maya Angelou said about walking to school in front of white people who exuded hatred and ill-will. She would throw her head back, stick up her nose, and pretend that a single breath from any one of those hard-hearted adults would not crumple her. The strain that being in front of any audience exacts demands a bit of play-acting. Eventually you overcome the dread of judgment, real or imagined. And some people face that burden every time they open their doors.

Q: The world can be both a wonderful and terrifying place. What do you consider the greatest challenges facing coming generations? On the other hand, what gives you hope about the future?

A: The biggest challenge is how not to destroy the planet, ourselves, and each other. We are an ingenious species, but we are lazy, greedy, and stupid. We think short-term solutions will lead to long-term happiness.

That’s delusional. We are killing each other—racism, gun violence, sexual violence, the atrocious assault on immigrant lives—and we are trashing the planet. The magnitude of loss we are going to see (and already see) in coming years is mind-boggling.

We are in desperate straights. What gives me hope? We have amazing capacity to think creatively and solve seemingly insurmountable problems. The dire circumstances of our planet and our social relations should lead us to solutions that don’t further divide. Young people are always part of the solution for what their parents and grandparents have done, but we need all people to change—farmers, artists, teachers, parents, leaders.
Whether it’s big action or small, persistent personal action, what gives me hope is people who resist the negative forces of the status quo with powerful acts of affirmation, connection, love, and healing, people who refuse to “go along” because it’s easier or safer. There is nothing to lose, so people who stick out their necks—they give me hope

My first official review–by Mary Ellen Miller

Mary Ellen Miller’s review of Seeking the Other Side shows up in today’s Daily News. I am so grateful to her for the thorough and beautiful review and thank her especially for closing with her own memory of our son, Casey. Thank you, Mary Ellen!

Here it is, both copied and the link.

Poet Olmsted is a genius

“seeking the other side,” by Jane Olmsted. Louisville: Fleur-de-Lis Press, 2015. 101 pages, $16.

Well, here is “God’s plenty” (as John Dryden supposedly said of Chaucer) indeed. How well this assessment applies to Jane Olmsted’s “seeking the other side.”

The riveting cover design comes from Yvonne Petkus’ “Braced” and partially echoes the book’s motifs.

There is so much here. An introduction by poet and Western Kentucky University graduate Maureen Morehead is sensitive, thought-provoking and thought-assuaging. She writes (for one tiny taste of this elegant essay): “And it becomes a language that Jane Olmsted assumes for her private journey toward light, as these are ultimately sacred poems and those of us who enter them walk with the poet on sacred ground.”

And then there is Olmsted’s own prologue, as arresting as a poem. “I think of the ‘other side’ not just as what’s across the line between life and death, between myself and my son (the murder of Olmsted’s son is the crucial catalyst behind this book) but as what’s across any other real or illusory line that stifles access to the fullness of life.”

The son these lines refer to is Olmsted’s third son, who was shot to death when he was 20 years old.

In this prologue, Olmsted explains the structure of the book. Part I (“Ways of Touching”) has poems that are not specifically about Casey, Jane and Ken Casey’s son, but “touch may be physical, of the hand or eye or ear – any of the senses – but it can also express a spiritual longing, loneliness as well as joy and humor.”

The first poem in this section, “A Body of Poetry,” ends with:

Beneath the aching rib a shadow beckons.

“Aching rib” is so rich in denotation and connotation that it does not need any explication from me.

“Naming the Flowers” is almost unearthly in its beauty – a kind of brilliant but frightening nightmare, more like a vision. Read it very slowly. Actually, all the poems should be read very slowly. Finally, they go down smoothly, but they may require some serious reflection for full understanding.

“Artist at Five” is about Casey as a child. Other poems touch on subjects from his short life. There is yearning. There is longing. Olmsted has an almost uncanny ear for rich and unusual metaphor. Here is “Whisper,” the last poem in this section:

————-, I am in no hurry
And am learning to listen underneath
When someone says
it doesn’t matter and all is well.

“Listen underneath”? I think it is part of this poet’s unique gift to express the metaphysical in physical terms.

Now, we come to Part II (“tree forms”) and poems that come from the author’s 2011 chapbook. There are 16 of them. Some were begun before Casey’s death when the author camped in the Rockies, seeking even then a closer connection to the natural, especially trees. All of the poems can be read without knowledge of Casey’s death or any other specific loss. The poems seek meaning. “Aspen Hieroglyph” strikes me as especially beautiful. Quoting, even a whole stanza, will fracture its meaning. Read it slowly, savor its meaning and you will see what I am talking about. Olmsted’s attention to nature is poetically scientific. This poet is a genius.

The final section (“the casey poems”) includes 15 masterful poems, all shaven and shorn of the slightest hint of self-pity or sentimentality. My hope is that Olmsted will eventually have these printed separately with her introduction. There is no way I can do justice to poems like “Memento Mori,” “The Weight of a Human Heart” – this poem began its life as an essay – and the closing poem, “Requiem of the Bristlecone: Pine at Lake Haiyaha.” This last poem closes:

We gave and took, you and I, and evermore.
I fill my hands and lift them to you.
Drink. Then let us go.

Olmsted treads lightly nowhere. There is no corner of grief too dark for her to enter. Her courage reminds me of a line from Robert Frost’s “Mowing:” “Anything but the truth would have seemed too weak.” I am made happier and enriched and consoled by her honesty and by the brilliance of her talent.

Please forgive a personal note: I knew Casey. I loved Casey. How vividly I remember him bringing his new baby girl down to the Women’s Study House to present her to Trish Jaggers and me. I always kidded Casey about looking like a Greek god, told him he should become a model. Now he tenderly lifted his baby from her pretty, little pinkified nest and moved toward the window for better light. How lovely she was! And Casey was even more handsome, as if his face was lit from within by his love and pride. Ah, god. Jesus and Buddha. Casey honored them both.

Great show on the poems, Jane. Great show on your son, Ken and Jane.

Shine on, Casey.

— Reviewed by Mary Ellen Miller, Western Kentucky University English department.

Editor’s note: The author will speak in WKU Libraries’ Kentucky Live Series at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Western Room of the Kentucky Building. A book signing will follow.