Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Whirlwind Visit

A friend of mine recently made a whirlwind trip to Great Britain, with a small group of students. They spent three days in Edinburgh and three or four days in London before returning home. That kind of trip is certainly one way to get exposure to those sites of interest, such as Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, etc., without spending a great deal of money. That exposure also makes it possible to picture for oneself those references in literature and history. The best part of that kind of trip would be seeing the students’ reactions, absorbing some of the culture, and soaking up the ambience of the place.

During my trips to London, I was more interested in the art galleries than in the Tower of London or Buckingham Palace. Once when I was visiting my folks in England in 1980, when they were living in March, I made a three day trip to London to tour the National Gallery of Art and the Tate Museum. I especially wanted to see the Pre-Raphaelite paintings at the Tate Museum, having discovered their work from reading the poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and, of course, Christina Rossetti's response to seeing her brother's paintings of Jane Morris in the poem "In an Artist's Studio."

Toward the end of that brief trip, I made an excursion to Chalfont St. Giles to see John Milton’s cottage, where he had composed Paradise Lost. The road next to Milton’s cottage had gotten much busier in the three hundred years or so since Milton sat in his garden, and it was hard to picture him reciting the lines he had dreamt the night before to his amanuensis. I had spent the previous semester studying Milton’s Paradise Lost in a tutorial where I met weekly with the professor. I was in awe of someone who had read widely in a number of languages, who had devoted years to study after completing his university degrees, and who didn’t start his master work until he was in his 50’s. Before returning to London, I stopped in a restaurant for a cup of tea. While I was sitting at a table writing out a postcard, some boy, probably around the age of nine, said out loud to his father, “Look at him. He doesn’t have any hair,” before he started laughing. Having had alopecia universalis for a few years as a child, I never had very much hair once it started to grow again and started going bald, for a second time, in my 20’s. That’s what I remember of my pilgrimage to Milton’s cottage.

I had, of course, made other trips to London when I was younger. During my two years in boarding school, we made a few bus trips to London. On one trip, we attended a theater production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. On another trip, we were allowed to roam free for a few hours before we met up at Piccadilly Circus. My roommate and I couldn’t think of anything better than going to Baker Street to drink one or two pints of beer, which cost most of the money that I had at the time, when we could have toured the British Museum, something I still haven’t visited as of yet.

While I was stationed at RAF Lakenheath in the Air Force, I had made enough trips to London that I surprised my Dad with how well I knew the city when he was visiting me during one of his trips overseas. He was having problems deciding where to catch the subway after we had attended a movie together.

I suspect that if I were in London now, I would find the experience incredibly confusing. It has been so many years since I last visited the place. Even just seeing the incredible number of people on the streets and on the subway and hearing the sheer amount of noise would be overwhelming, I suspect.  If I were to live in a city, however, I would probably spend most of my time in a very small part and would seldom interact with the tourists and the tourist sites. Although any city probably has a lot to offer in the way of museums, concerts, and restaurants, I think the best way to visit a strange city is to become part of a whirlwind tour. That way one can quickly escape after seeing the best that the city has to offer.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Derick Burleson: A Memory

I only recently learned that Derick Burleson, a friend of mine, had died at the age of 53. He died on December 29, 2016 from what the obituary refers to as a long illness. Derick was a poet with several full-length collections, including Ejo, Never Night, and Melt. He worked as a professor in the MFA program in creative writing at U of Alaska-Fairbanks.

Although he was twelve years younger than me, Derick and I became friends while we were earning our MA’s in English at Kansas State University, beginning in 1986. We both started during the same semester although Derick wasn’t teaching that semester because he had to overcome his deficiency in English by enrolling in twelve credit hours of undergraduate English courses. He had earned an undergraduate degree in journalism at Oklahoma State University and didn’t have the academic background initially for the master’s program in English.

That first week in Manhattan, before classes started, I managed to secure four nights in Moore Hall, the same dorm where Derick was staying that year. Toward the end of that week, as we sat in the lounge of the otherwise deserted ninth floor, we read each other’s poems. My poems made references to places like San Francisco, Istanbul and Adak, Alaska, some of which I had known while growing up as a Navy brat. Derick’s poems described working on his dad’s farm in Oklahoma, which was located near Cherokee and the Great Salt Plains and roughly an hour south of the Kansas border. Derick at one point said that it was driving a tractor for long hours that stimulated his imagination and got him thinking about poetry.

I credit Derick with helping me accept this part of the country as home. Although I had lived in Kansas from 1972 to 1983, except for seven months spent in San Francisco, I still felt like a stranger and didn’t know where I belonged, not having had a home at any other time in my life. After spending three years in Connecticut, I returned to Kansas with the intention of earning an advanced degree and completing those courses required for secondary education so that I could teach English overseas for either the Department of Defense or the State Department. Those jazz albums featuring Michal Urbaniak, Urszula Dudziak, and Zbigniew Namyslowski made the idea of teaching in Eastern Europe particularly appealing.

My transition started when I was reading books like Pioneer Women and Writers of the Purple Sage while living in Connecticut. In preparation for graduate school, I was also reading the poems that Jonathan Holden, the poet in residence at Kansas State, had written. About six months after I returned to Kansas, I started reading Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces and Craig Miner’s West of Wichita. Derick contributed by giving me a copy of A. B. Guthrie’s The Way West.

I had gradually come to realize that my home was in the Great Plains. It took a recognition of other people’s experiences in a place for me to realize that the place can exist on a personal level for me, too.

Before that first semester ended, I had met my wife-to-be, whose background was similar to Derick’s in that she grew up on a farm in southcentral Kansas, two counties from the Oklahoma border. Once they started talking at my apartment, their stories about showing their animals at the county fair and caring for them went on for a long time.

Derick served as my best man at my wedding in 1989. He teased me when I was signing the marriage certificate, telling me that I was signing my life away. “You’re next,” I said, in reply. 

Derick, along with several other close friends, helped my wife and I move our stuff to our apartment in Lawrence that fall. We continued to see each occasionally over the next few years as his fiancé finished her degree and as they prepared for their appointment overseas after joining the Peace Corps. Derick was thinking that Eastern Europe was a possibility until they got their assignment in Rwanda.

Derick was in Africa in 1992 when I stopped in Cherokee, Oklahoma briefly that summer. I was heading to Stillwater to find a house for my wife and I. We had been admitted to the graduate program at Oklahoma State University and were going to start working on our PhD’s. In one of the letters that I wrote him, I described sitting on a curb in downtown Cherokee and drinking coffee before I returned to my beat-up Honda Accord.

Over the next six years, while my wife and I lived in Stillwater, while we raised our son who was born during our second year of graduate school, and while we completed our PhD’s, Derick returned from Africa earlier than expected because of the racial conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi, adjunct taught in Kansas City, earned a MFA from Montana, and enrolled in the PhD program at U of Houston. His wife thought that living outside of Cherokee, working on the dad’s farm, and writing would be ideal once they finished the MFA. “I hope to never live in Oklahoma again,” Derick said, believing that the life he envisioned for himself lay elsewhere.

We exchanged letters and poems during that time. We also met up with each other, once or twice in Stillwater, once or twice in Cherokee, and once along the interstate at the outlet stores near Blackwell. 

One of the last times I remember seeing Derick was in Kansas City one spring day after I had finished teaching my classes at U of Missouri-Kansas City. It was probably in 1999. We met outside the Nelson Gallery of Art, within sight of the Henry Moore sculptures. Derick remarked on how much calmer I seemed. I had given up cigarettes five years earlier. Later, he teased me about the Henry Moore sculptures, telling me that they resemble the kind of women I like. We eventually had lunch together at Eden’s Alley, a vegetarian restaurant on the Plaza, before we perused the poetry titles at Barnes & Noble. I passed along an essay that I had written about quitting smoking as I dropped him off at his car that afternoon.

My wife and I in 2000 had attempted to meet up with him for dinner after he had read poems from Ejo at an autumn conference in Manhattan. During his reading, my wife had elbowed me to draw my attention to the flicker attached to the trunk of a conifer just outside the window.  Many of the trees on the campus were dropping their orange and red leaves on this damp Saturday afternoon. Derick, however, was in demand by the English faculty at Kansas State, who had planned a party for someone whose talent they recognized early and encouraged. 

Later, as he was looking for a job after he and his wife had divorced and after he had finished his PhD, he told me about the offers he had gotten in Pennsylvania and the one-year appointment he had gotten from U of Alaska-Fairbanks. “I can see you in Alaska,” I said. “It’s a great place to go fishing,” I said. That one-year appointment was renewed for another year and eventually made permanent.

In the last e-mail I remember getting from Derick, he told me that he had met someone and that they were having a child. “I hope to do better this time,” he said, having fathered a son when he was attending Kansas State.

As an ambitious poet, Derick did what he could to get his poems noticed and to befriend and to maintain his friendship with as many writers as possible. His roommate in Manhattan was incredulous once when he told me that Derick wanted to be famous as a poet. For a poet, that fame consisted of several collections of poems published, a university teaching job, and offers to send poems to magazines, to attend conferences, and to review books by other poets, all of which Derick achieved. For his roommate at the time, it was enough to teach literature after graduate school, to know the lasting love of a woman, and to write regularly while possibly publishing as well but recognizing that publishing shouldn’t be one’s foremost goal in life. 

It’s ironic that someone who sought recognition and a relationship with other poets would choose to live in Alaska. That sense of isolation he experienced while growing up in rural Oklahoma remained a part of him. Ultimately, I think that Derick was happiest in Alaska, surrounded by the wildness in nature that he sought and knowing the joy that comes from watching a child grow up.  His exploration of a different medium by becoming involved in visual art was probably a way for him to spend more time with his daughter.

Out of his full-length collections of poetry, I think that Never Night is his strongest one because the poems are closest to the kind of things that he had been writing prior to Africa. In fact, some of those early poems, such as “Skipping School” and “After This,” are included in that collection. Although Derick started writing the poems in Ejo in Africa and after he had returned to Kansas City, the book exhibits the influence of the teachers he had worked with at Montana and Houston. Either Derick or someone he knew recognized that a first book containing poems that are thematically related stands a better chance of receiving recognition. Ejo, of course, won the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry. I think that someone needs to collect those poems of Derick’s that didn’t make it into those books of his. There are many more of his poems that deserve attention.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Magnolia Blossoms_ 2017

My annual collection of magnolia blossoms appear below. This year the early springlike temperatures that we were having caused the magnolia tree in my yard to bloom several weeks earlier than usual. Not all of the blossoms had opened when the weather changed, bringing several days of below freezing temperatures. I was lucky to get these pictures when I did.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Music & Memories of Turkey

Recently, I discovered that my blog has gotten a few hits from Turkey. I suspect that the mentioning of Derya Turkan’s recording Letter from Istanbul, which is listed in the sidebar, has been sending people to my blog.

I enjoyed the time I spent in Turkey, beginning at the age of nine and lasting until I was twelve. As an officer in the US Navy, my father was stationed for two and half years in Istanbul, from January 1960 to the summer of 1963. We spent about two months in a hotel before we found an apartment to rent. Later, we rented a stucco house down the street, with a mulberry tree in the side yard and which overlooked the hills that prevented us from seeing the Bosporus except for a sliver visible from our second-floor balcony.

At one end of our street, a narrow footpath led to the Bosporus. It was located next to a field where sheep often grazed. The main road, lined with shops and containing a boys’ school where the students wore blue uniforms and remained in class even in the evening, was a few streets away and led into the city center. The names of the street where we lived or the names of the nearby road escape me. 

My elementary school, one meant for military dependents whose parents were stationed in Istanbul, was several miles outside of the city. The bus used to pass a training facility for the Turkish army.  During the spring, we often took excursions to some of the historic sites in the city, including Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque), Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahce Palace, and Rumelihisari, a fortress overlooking the Bosporus. It was a great place to be a kid.

My parents often spent a few hours on Saturdays visiting the Grand Bazaar and accumulated a sizable collection of rugs and copper. My sister and I played with the kids on our street, some of whom were Americans and some of whom were Turkish. I often roamed the neighborhood with Sherif, my Turkish friend. One summer afternoon, for some reason, we decided to help pull loaves of bread from the oven at the local bakery. We weren’t offered any money or a loaf of bread to take home. His mother served us cucumber sandwiches for lunch sometimes but didn’t take kindly to his breaking a leg when we were jumping off a hillside next to the footpath. I had to run and get my mother to help get him to his house.

What I probably remember the most from Turkey are the sounds. We lived close enough to one of the local mosques to hear the calls to prayer, which is especially pretty, even after hearing them five times a day. The man selling Turkish pretzels and walking through the neighborhood in the afternoons called out what he had to sell. The man who sharpened knives walked through the neighborhood carrying his sharpening stone and yelling out what he had to offer. When I moved back to Maryland, I at first thought the screaming from the kids playing outside was in Turkish. It takes time to re-adjust.

Toward the end of our time in Turkey, after having absorbed some of the culture, we attended a dance and music festival and had a great time. What we were seeing and hearing wasn’t nearly as foreign as it might have been two and a half years earlier. Wanting to keep those memories fresh, my father bought some Turkish music when we returned to Maryland. My interest in hearing Turkish music began in earnest once I started listening to the music of Anouar Brahem, whose albums brought back those memories and associations from my childhood. Sometimes, now, while grading my students' essays, I listen to Turkish classical music. I discovered Derya Turkan’s recording of Letter from Istanbul soon after I started listening to Sokratis Sinopoulos’ Eight Winds.  About ten years ago, I took my family to hear Salaam, an ensemble playing North African and Middle Eastern music, at the Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas City. It was soon after the American invasion of Iraq and proved to be solemn occasion for the musicians who were celebrating a culture that was being destroyed.

Personally, I think that it takes education and/or travel to be more tolerant of other cultures. We Americans certainly could use more tolerance of others.

Once, as an undergraduate, I was in the cafeteria and behind one of my Middle Eastern classmates who was pouring sugar into her cup of coffee, the only thing she was purchasing for her lunch. “Are you fasting now?” I said.

“You know about that,” she replied.

“Yes, I spent two and a half years in Turkey,” I said.