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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. His admittance to the program at Kansas State was based, primarily, on the strength of his poems. 

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 other occasionally over the next few years as his fiancée 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. My wife and I 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 but pretty 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. Four of his unpublished poems appear at the following link: https://redmooncafe.blogspot.com/2017/08/a-sampling-of-uncollected-poems-by.html