Saturday, December 30, 2017

Jazz Albums that Captured my Attention in 2017

Jazz albums that have captured my attention during 2017 and that deserve mentioning appear below.

The Roc, Daniel Herskedal (Edition Records). Daniel Herskedal has created an excellent successor to Slow Eastbound Train with his most recent album. The Roc, in its song titles, often refers to travel, and there are now specific places named along the journey, such as “Kurd, Bayat, Nahawand to Kurd,” “Hijaz Train Station,” and “The Kroderen Line.” Herskedal also explores myth in “The Roc” and “The Afrit.” Despite the presence of “The Kroderen Line,” which is a reference to a lake and a village in Norway, the album coheres in its exploration of Middle Eastern place names and myth. The Roc gets my recommendation for album of the year.

Green Moss Black Sand, Sigurdur Flosason & Lars Jansson Trio (Storyville Records). The alto saxophonist Sigurdur Flosason has created an album inspired by the landscape and weather of Iceland. The album as a whole emphasizes the role of the quartet. The saxophone carries the melody while the other instruments, particularly the piano and the bass, are highlighted in these songs. Created by musicians from Iceland and Denmark, this album gets its inspiration from nature in one specific place while reflecting the music that was created in places like Philadelphia and New York almost sixty years ago. This album, in its approach, recognizes the tradition and adapts that tradition to its own needs.

Renewal, Baldvin Snaer Hlynsson (Self Produced). This debut recording by Baldvin Snaer Hlynsson, on piano and Wurlitzer, opens with the hypnotic “Omar Gudnason,” where Einar Scheving moves between time keeping and explosions of sound. Hlynsson is joined by two more established musicians. Valdimar Kolbeinn Sigurjonsson plays double bass and has appeared on recordings by Sigurdur Flosason. Einar Scheving, who has also recorded with Sigurdur Flosason, plays drums and percussion and has gained international attention with his releases Cycles (2007) and Intervals (2015). It’s as if these more experienced musicians are welcoming Hlynsson. Ari Bragi Karason on flugelhorn and Bjarni Mar Ingolfsson on electric guitar deserve mention as well, both of whom figure prominently on “Sund milli strida,” for example.

Timi til kominn, Olafur Jonsson (Self Produced). Considered Olafur Jonsson’s debut recording, Jonsson previously appeared on the album Jonsson & More, which, with the exception of Eythor Gunnarsson, featured the same people on bass and drums, that is Thorgrimur Jonsson and Scott McLemore, respectively. The difference, presumably, is that Olafur Jonsson is now performing his own songs.  These songs of his are particularly strong and highlight both Olafur Jonsson’s work as a leader and the contributions of his rhythm section. Olafur Jonsson’s tenor saxophone on the ballads “Dreyminn” and “Minning,” for example, deserves attention.

Wolf Valley, Eyolf Dale (Edition Records). Wolf Valley is an album that I overlooked in 2016. I am including it in this list of 2017 recordings because it deserves mention and generates excitement for his upcoming release in 2018. Songs like “Furet, “Ban Joe,” and “The Creek” may draw in the listener initially. Eventually, the quieter songs like “Fernanda” and “Sideways” reveal their loveliness.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Calling for Changes

I often have to shake my head at how stupid our governmental officials are in this country. It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t take intelligence to get elected as a member of Congress or as president. Drastic changes need to occur. I think that the following changes need to be made before this country will truly reflect a democracy, that is, a government in which each person has a voice and a government which is concerned with the welfare of the average citizen, regardless of national origin, ethnicity, gender, religion, or economic status. I am ultimately calling for larger government because one of the few ways to reduce the influence of the billionaires and corporations that rule this country is to create a strong government that can stand up to the billionaires and corporations for the betterment of each person. There needs to be an overriding belief held by each member of Congress, and by the president, that government exists to help the average citizen. I call for the following changes to be made. These changes would be a way to make this country a more progressive place, one which cares for its citizens, its environment, and the planet as a whole.

1. Reduce military spending.

2. Limit the military’s role outside of the US and stop its peacekeeping role throughout the world.

3. Reduce the number of military bases and lily pads overseas.

4. Reduce the stockpile of nuclear weapons and eliminate weapons using depleted uranium.

5. Stop selling weapons overseas.

6. Move billions of dollars formally spent on the military and its 800 bases overseas to provide free college for every citizen, to upgrade the infrastructure, including high speed rail, and to promote Green energy.

7. Pay off the $1.2 trillion dollars of student loan debt.

8. Limit the term of every senator and every member of the House of Representatives to 8 years and prohibit those former senators and representatives from seeking election in the future. Once one has served eight years, one has no other chance of ever serving again.

9. Provide an equitable tax system for every citizen, business, and corporation. Businesses and corporations are taxed, in part, according to how much damage they inflict on the nation’s water, soil, and air and how much they use the nation’s infrastructure—roads, bridges, etc. Corporations that primarily import their products are taxed as if their products were made in this country.

10. Provide free health care to every citizen.

11. Make abortion legal in every state. Provide free contraceptives.

12. Ensure that women’s wages are comparable to what men make in similar positions, aka equal pay for equal work.

13. Provide a basic universal income to every citizen over the age of 21.

14. Raise the minimum wage to $15.

15. Reduce the amount of dollars spent on foreign aid except when responding to natural disasters or shortages of food.

16. Eliminate the Electoral College. Let the popular vote decide who becomes president.

17. Reverse Citizens United so as to reduce corporate control of the election process.

18. Enact and enforce limited gun control.

19. Give the EPA more control over protecting the environment.

20. Rejoin the Paris Accord and make environmental protection a major concern of government.

21. Reduce corporate control of the FDA. Exhibit greater control over artificial food dyes, phthalates, formaldehyde, and bisphenol-A, for example.

22. Reverse the appointees, legislation, and executive orders made by Trump, and the GOP, since January, 2017.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Making Changes, Even in Tea

My taste in tea has changed since my earlier post describing my history with tea.  Having become aware of the harmful elements in food, I have been working on eating a diet containing very little processed food, very little sugar, and as few additives as possible. For that reason, I have been avoiding such things as high fructose corn syrup and artificial food dyes (i.e., yellow 5, yellow 6, and red 40). Food dyes in this country are derived from petroleum and, unfortunately, are not regulated by the government.

Similarly, my wife and I have installed a water filter in the kitchen to reduce our exposure to atrazine, a pesticide used in the production of corn, and which is used widely in this part of the country. The EPA has declared that 3 ppb is the maximum allowable level of atrazine in the water, which is what has been detected in our local water, according to the annual publication of water quality.

We have even opted to use vinegar as a cleaning agent in the kitchen and bathrooms, and have gotten away from using fabric softeners when washing our clothes. I started using castille bar soap when I wanted to reduce my use of plastic and have been working on eliminating my exposure to as many fragrances as possible.

After these efforts to avoid as many harmful substances as possible, it was disconcerting to discover that some teabags contain epichlorohydrin, a pesticide. Some manufacturers also use a small percentage of plastic in their tea bags. In an effort to avoid these things, I have been scrutinizing which kinds of teas that I drink. My online research has revealed some answers although I am continuing to check my facts and to verify which teas are the safest. Most recently, I have been drinking Numi Breakfast Blend and Allegro Himalayan Green. Sometimes I switch green teas and use Numi Gunpowder Green, but the flavor isn’t the same as Allegro Himalayan Green, which I find to be very agreeable. Gunpowder Green also seems to contain much more caffeine.

Numi tea is expensive, with a box of 18 teabags running from $4.50 at Amazon and, sometimes, at Natural Grocers, to $5.99, or more, at Whole Foods.  I buy my boxes of Numi either through Amazon or at Natural Grocers. As someone who doesn’t drink alcohol on a regular basis, I can justify the extra expense in buying the best tea that is available. My wife and I also limit our consumption of caffeine to two cups of tea a day, so the cost is spread out over several weeks.

Ultimately, I aim to achieve as good a quality of life as possible. If I can remain out of the hospital by making these changes in my life, while also exercising by swimming forty laps three times a week, then these changes are extremely beneficial.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Autumn in Eastern Kansas

The pictures appearing below reveal the transformation of the trees where I live in eastern Kansas. A few trees began to show color by October 23. It snowed briefly on Halloween. A week later the trees were at peak color. The first hard freeze on November 10 caused many of the remaining trees with color to lose their leaves all in one day. Only a few stragglers remained. The changes in the trees occurred over a period of about three weeks. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Evening and Afternoon Shots of the Missouri River

Evening and afternoon shots of the Missouri River appear below. When I am outside and taking pictures, I tend to gravitate toward the river. The differences in the light are most noticeable as the sun starts to set. The clouds, whether they are cumulus or stratus, for example, make a difference in the light, too. I am particularly fascinated by the angle of the light and the size of the shadows in the late afternoon or early evening. As someone who is partially colorblind, I am not as aware of color as others might be.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Barbecue Ribs Cooked in the Oven

Using the guidelines for the information essay that my students will be writing over the next few weeks, I decided to write one of my own. My essay appears below.


Barbecue Ribs Cooked in the Oven

When my wife and I moved to Kansas City in 1990, we were introduced to Kansas City barbecue and sampled some of the many restaurants in the area. By the end of our two years in the area, we had settled on two restaurants—the Wyandot on State Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas and Haywards, which, until recently, used to be on the corner of Antioch and College Boulevard in Overland Park before it was sold and moved to Lenexa. We preferred Haywards when we were eating out because of the atmosphere. It was also one of the few restaurants we found that offered both rib tips and burnt ends. The meat used to fall off the ribs that we got at the Wyandot. We preferred the Wyandot when we were eating at home. It was so easy to pick up a slab of ribs from the Wyandot on the way home to our apartment on 72nd Street in Kansas City, Kansas. 

When we returned to the Kansas City area in 1998, after spending six years in Oklahoma, we met my wife’s sister and her family at Hayward’s one Sunday afternoon. For us, it was a treat to order Kansas City barbecue after having been away. While there were not many restaurants offering barbecue where we lived in Oklahoma, the barbecue we had tried in Oklahoma tasted like wood smoke and paled in comparison. 

Once we bought a house in Leavenworth, we did not get into the city as much as we used to. Missing the barbecue that we used to eat, I started experimenting. I had already come to learn that my stomach did not take kindly to food that was cooked outside over charcoal briquettes, so I decided to try cooking barbecue ribs in the oven.

The grocery store offered several options, including country style pork ribs, beef ribs, spare ribs, and baby back ribs. I prefer baby back ribs because of the flavor and because I can pick them up by the bone. My wife prefers country style pork ribs because of the amount and density of the meat and because they are boneless.

There were also many different kinds of sauce. I have tried KC Masterpiece, Zarda, and Arthur Bryant’s. Most recently, I have been using Stubb’s Original because it is the only sauce that I have found without high fructose corn syrup. This sauce also has a good flavor, and it is not particularly hot or spicy. Because I try to use as few spices as possible when cooking, I can easily resist adding a rub to the meat. Spices, like salad dressing, tend to hide the flavor of the food. 

Through experience, I discovered that barbeque sauce baked in a Pyrex baking dish is extremely difficult to remove when washing the dish by hand. Even the dishwasher cannot complete the task. I started coating two baking dishes with tin foil, making it possible to simply remove the tinfoil before placing the baking dishes in the dishwasher once these dishes have cooled. To ensure that each dish is completely covered, it is necessary to use two sheets of tin foil, one lengthwise and one widthwise, and to fold the excess over the edges. 

At first, I used to place the ribs in a plastic cake container and cover them with barbecue sauce before letting them marinate in the refrigerator overnight. Once I was ready to cook them, I arranged them in the baking dishes that were covered with foil and poured the barbecue sauce from the cake container over the ribs before I put them in the oven. On an occasion in which I was ridding the kitchen of plastic, I got rid of all the plastic containers, having decided against marinating the ribs in plastic and against using plastic in general because of the risks associated with phthalates and Bisphenol-A. Now, I place the ribs in the baking dishes and pour a bottle of sauce over the ribs. I use the back of a spoon to make sure that the sauce is evenly distributed before I put these baking dishes in the oven and make note of the time.

I preheat the oven to 350 degrees while I am preparing the baking dishes, laying out the ribs, and covering the ribs with sauce. Many of the recipes found online recommend 300 degrees. When pressed for time, I have upped the temperature to 375, but my personal preference is 350 degrees because it allows the meat to cook thoroughly. It is also the default setting for the oven whenever I press the bake button. Once the oven is ready, I place these baking dishes on the middle rack in the oven and let the ribs cook for two and half to three hours. It is the kind of meal that requires a lot of time; it is a meal meant for a holiday, or a Sunday, or an occasion when a cold front has settled over the area.  

I have nothing else to do while the ribs cook. Leaving the house is not recommended because of the fire hazard. I usually head off to my home office to grade. After about two and half hours, the meat has pulled back from the bones, if I am cooking baby back ribs, and has turned a light brown (although as a color-blind person I can only approximate).  The smell of cooked ribs starts to waft through the house after only an hour. Our cats go a little crazy as the meat is cooking and pester us for scraps as we eat dinner.

There is no reason to add any additional sauce to the ribs when they are served. Although some people may prefer coleslaw, a baked potato, or French fries with their ribs, I think that ribs are best when served with fresh vegetables, such as tomatoes, carrots, celery, red or yellow peppers, and spinach. Since my wife and I are empty nesters, we can usually get two meals out of a batch of ribs. Ribs for us are an occasional treat, something that we might eat once a month or once every six weeks. Although I have been embracing a diet of fruit and fresh vegetables and resisting eating meat before dark, I have not managed to give up meat entirely because of a meal like ribs baked in the oven.

A meal in a restaurant, while convenient, cannot usually compare to what I can find at home. Ribs purchased at the Wyandot now remind me of eating beef jerky. I cannot see myself ever entering the new Hayward’s. Although I hate to brag, the ribs that I make at home are much better than what I can get elsewhere and for much less money. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Fitting Books into Minimalism

The mail person has been delivering a lot of books to my door in the last month or so. Since my summer classes ended in late July, I have bought eight secondhand books through the Amazon marketplace where it’s often possible to purchase an older cloth copy for less money than a recent paper edition. That’s why I have so many discarded books from libraries. These recent additions bring my total number of books to something like 933.

At the same time, as I moved a bookcase out of the bedroom, I discarded about twenty books, mostly old textbooks and took them to Half-Price Books, thinking that I might get something like thirty or forty dollars for all of them, when I was only offered $8.00. Some of them couldn’t be used, the clerk said, because they were instructor editions. When I tried to take back the books that they kept aside, thinking that I could donate them to the library, the clerk wouldn’t let me have them and said that the quoted offer included those books they could sell and those books that would be recycled. Although I have found a few good books at Half-Price Books over the years, my experiences have largely been disappointing when I try to sell books to them. They offer too little money, yet they charge what seems to be the standard $7.99 for books that they sell. There is a section of the store that is set aside for discounted books, many of them going for only a few dollars, but I haven’t found many things that I want in that section. I have resolved not to return. Any books that I don’t want anymore will either be donated to the local library or to the students who hold an annual book sale at the college where I teach.

I have decided not to buy any more books for the foreseeable future. Not counting the books that are stacked on top of bookshelves, I have twenty-six shelves of books in my home office. Another sixty books are stacked on one of the dressers in the bedroom. I have thought about replacing one of my smaller three-shelf bookcases with one containing six shelves but haven’t yet made the trip to Surplus Exchange, a warehouse of used office furniture in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Having so many books is one of the hazards associated with my profession—that is, working as a college professor. I used to admire the books that my professors had in their offices whenever I visited them during their office hours. The creative writing professors, I noticed, usually had fewer shelves stuffed with books.

Not all of my books relate to my academic discipline.  At one point as an undergraduate, I was torn between pursuing English or history as my academic discipline. That interest in history continues to this day, with the 19th century American West, particularly the Great Plains, as a research interest of mine. Because I also seek to introduce my students to those environmental issues that can affect their lives and their health, I pursue such things as plastic, garbage, and the problems associated with processed food in my reading. Some of my students recently have been writing about makeup, so I decided to get a copy of Not Just a Pretty Face, a book that addresses the chemicals found in makeup. Once I read that book, I plan on creating one or two research questions for an upcoming essay assignment.

Despite the number of books that I own, I still think of myself as a minimalist. I resist buying unnecessary stuff and have given away some of the clutter in my life. Each year, my wife and I declare a sizeable donation of furniture and clothing on our federal tax return. One task we haven’t yet faced this year, however, is cleaning out the garage. It is something that we hope to get to.

Beginning in July, my wife and I have pledged not to buy any more clothes and any more shoes for an entire year. We have both gone through our closets and our drawers and donated some of our excess. I will have more things to donate once I make the time to go through what I have and can face those tough decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of.

One thing that I would most like to get rid of is more of our DVD’s and VHS tapes. I don’t think I need documentaries like Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, Fahrenheit 9/11, or Sicko anymore, for example.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Recording a Trip North

On Monday afternoon, during the second week of my short break from classes, I drove past the vodka distillery in Atchison and past fields of GMO corn and GMO soybeans to White Cloud, the northeastern most town in Kansas, which has a population of approximately 176 people. At first, my wife and I went to the Kansas border before we retraced our steps. If we had gotten cell phone reception or if we had encountered anyone in the town, it would have been easier finding the overlook in White Cloud where it is possible to see four states—Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa. It took a bit of exploring before we found where we wanted to go. I had wanted to find this overlook for several years now and finally made the hour trip. I hope to return at some point.

As I was driving, I observed a difference in color between the darker green of GMO soybeans and the natural vegetation. All of the fields planted in corn looked lush, even without irrigation. It has been a wetter than normal summer. Signs designating the brand of seeds used in each field of corn and soybeans were visible from the road. The corn was uniform in height, which, of course, makes harvesting that much easier. Later in the afternoon, we were buzzed by a crop duster, but the pilot wasn't releasing pesticide at that point. I still made sure that the recirculate button was on in the car, thereby preventing any outside air from entering the interior.  It was rather eerie at times.

Nebraska appears on the left of the Missouri River in the above picture while Iowa appears in the distance to the right of the river.

Missouri appears to the east. A rainbow is starting to form in the above picture.

Kansas is located on the side of the river closest to the viewer. White Cloud's grain elevator appears in the distance, mostly obscured by trees.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Uncollected Poems by Derick Burleson

I am making available some of the poems that Derick Burleson shared with me prior to his move to Alaska. These poems do not appear in his books and, to my knowledge, have not been published elsewhere. I will gladly take down any of the poems that have been published elsewhere or at least properly credit the journal that first published the poem. Contact me at 

Many of the other poems that Derick shared with me were revised and published in either Ejo or Never Night. I am willing to share what I have of Derick's poems with any researcher seeking to put together a volume of collected poems.

Murder in Medford

When we, newlywed, stop for gas
the Quik-Trip folks bite off smiles
white as the fresh-painted grain elevator
where they store belief.  The lone
cop in his one-stoplight town
always parks his leather-lined cruiser

behind the silver trailerhouse just off
Highway 11 where his lover lives. You ask
for the knife to cut open the plastic sack
of sweetness we bought miles back
and I’m glad to see the sixshooter’s
still loaded in the glovebox. Only one cloud
scars all the hot Oklahoma sky. Tonight

summer frogs will bruise their tough
old song and mate in soft mud. You say
there’s bound to be a body buried far
back in the tamaracks, a way of life
ruined, a throat slit, all because some damn fool
cowboy kissed that red-haired woman in Lakeside Bar.

                                                Derick Burleson

Birdwatching at Nearman Creek Power Plant

In the dead of winter
We drove just over the bridge into Kansas where
Six bald eagles
Thirty Canada geese
One thousand mallard ducks
And a dance troupe of crows
Crowd around this water warmed by waste heat.
Everywhere but here the Missouri’s
Frozen over and who can tell
If the river runs underneath
Or not. We cruise slow, aiming
Our binoculars out the car windows
Separate breaths fogging in below-zero air
Watching the birds watch us back.
The power plant keeps right on warming
Our houses: smokestack, coal chute,
And when our Honda rounds the fly-ash pit, the mallards
Launch themselves as one body
Into the air as if some vacationing
American still in his tropical shirt had videotaped
The cliff-diver’s ten-second flight and
Then home drunk and laughing with friends
Played it backwards at high speed.

                                                   Derick Burleson

Crossing Over

I am driving eastwards into sunrise.
It seems that everyone in Kansas City
is on the way to work, Missouri
rising up across the river, silhouettes
of buildings downtown appearing
as a giant jack-o-lantern’s
wilting teeth, and executives already
inscrutable behind one-way windows.

I was half a world away in Rwanda
last October, where tomorrow
is the same word for yesterday,
and everything stays green year around.
Everyone’s family name has a meaning.
The sun rises at six, sets at six,
and spirits still stalk the night,
but each house wears its own mask
to ward them off.

All this time the traffic
still encircles Kansas City, the half
in Kansas, the half in Missouri.
My African friend studying English
before writing his dissertation
just can’t get over how beautiful
it is on campus—so many trees, the way
all the colors change this time of year.
I try to explain that winter remains
just two months away, but he only smiles
and nods. You have to say amasimbi
innocent water—to mean snow in his language.

At the stoplight on Broadway,
the woman in the next Nissan over
carefully lengthens her lashes
in the rearview mirror. This late
in the semester, the sun smashes equally
into everyone’s eyes. So sun visors down,
each commuter’s car curves down the street,
past a fountain whose watery horses may
or may not be telling some ancient story
of conquest, and as this old millennium cruises
inexorably toward closure, I turn thirty,
believing my life begins now.

                                                    Derick Burleson

Finally, Flood

Tonight like last night and the night before,
thunderstorms four nights in a row
and after three years’ drought
the morning coffeeshop talk
finally turns to flood:
September already and the fallow fields
still too wet to sow winter wheat.
The farmer senses thunder
from far across the border hills
even before clouds fill
the sky, low and clear, the overhead
voice of a prophet, light from somewhere
catching the corner of his eye, glimpses
through the windblown barndoor
open, closed, then open again
until he goes out in it for good
not sure of the same god
he prayed to for rain all spring
the same way my fiend Daniel
one early morning last summer
finally conquered his fear
of what comes next,
took one of his guns and
spread his blood over
all of us who sat and talked for hours
then remembered forever all he said
just the night before.

You and I stay inside
that café where you used to work
even though the regulars stare
and mark us down as different,
happy, they think, that their kids
took jobs and got married instead
until the thunder, louder now, drowns
their whispers with a primal growl
and we are somewhere else,
the lightning demanding
we see this world
in its light, frequent and random,
so stark blue and full of shadow
we might as well be underwater,
children just learning to swim,
light and sound becoming one voice,
the god shouting over the torn surface
of our perfect sleep, the south wind sheer
and curtains of rain through all
the windows we left open
to let the night breeze
ease this heat between us.

Tomorrow and the day after
we will slip apart and wander
again, the sun breaking through
the divided clouds by noon
and with clothes like a second skin
I’ll wade through air
so thick you could chew it
ankle-deep in the same mud
as my father on his farm,
that friend who came home
just in time to stay up all night,
stacking hope against hope.
mopping at the water
that wouldn’t quit running under his door.
Our huge passion swallows me daily.
I love the sky that slowly clears
then clouds again with all kinds of weather,
I breathe air heavy enough that with each step
we swim or drown, our bodies’ water
flowing everywhere over sodden fields,
rivers swelling already full lakes.
I love the small space my body takes
on the steamy earth, the way
everything spins drip dry, pulling
the fevered sky closer,
riding the rampant rise and
fall of this flood.

                                          Derick Burleson

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Evening Shots of the Missouri River

A few evening shots of the Missouri River appear below. These pictures were taken in June. I posted one of them in a Facebook photography group that I belong to.

Middle afternoon and evening are my favorite times to walk along the river.  I hope to get in more walking soon, no matter how high the temperature is. I have learned to recognize that each season is special, and it is best to enjoy whatever the season offers.

Most of my time as of late has been devoted to grading student essays. I have graded something like one hundred and sixty essays since my summer classes started in June. Forty of these essays were graded in the last week of class. A teacher's life usually includes a period of time in which very little exists outside of the classroom. In my life, since I teach online, I devote large periods of time sitting in my home office--answering student questions via e-mail and grading essays, quizzes, and discussion topics. Summer sessions, because of their brevity, are accelerated--both for the student and, even more so, for the teacher.

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.