Bob King: Good afternoon. This is the 3 p.m. reading. I've lost track of how many events—this is the 14th event of the 23rd Annual, or the 23rd event of the 14th Annual UND Writers Conference. I just pressed into service one of our guests from whom you'll be hearing tomorrow, Carol Bly, who said that she would consent to give a few words of introduction to our reader for today. So, Carol...
Carol Bly: I'm very pleased to introduce Diane Glancy to you this afternoon. She's been here, and those of you that heard the panel this noon heard some of her style, which is brisk, and no nonsense, and it doesn't lighten the point. And, I had an idea for this introduction, since I can't do a factual lengthy one, and we don't want a factual lengthy one in any case, but just tell you this, first of all, for facts, her books are out there so that you can see them, several of them. She has five, five books out now, and six by twilight today is what we've been saying, isn't it? Yes, there [inaudible], she's got five out now. But, what I wanted to suggest to you is this: sometimes when we study poetry, they give us poetry in schools, and they say look here's someone of this school or here's someone who believes in this kind of formality, or here's someone who believes in this kind of subject matter, or here's a Midwest poet. And of course we have a Midwest poet here. But, instead of looking at her that way, what I wanted to suggest to you, which is the way I read the work of hers that I have read, which is to say okay, here's a poet. And to some extent she will speak for some parts of me that are not yet waked, but if they're waked by the poems, and I'll just let myself fall into the poems, if they're waked by the poems, then I feel fuller and more like myself after I've listened and in good company with this artist, because that's the best thing an artist can do for us. And it's wonderful when it happens, and it does happen with her. So it's a great pleasure to have her here with us this afternoon, Diane Glancy.
Diane Glancy: Thank you Carol very much for that introduction. She was just asked one minute ago to do that.
Carol Bly: [from audience] It's all true.
Diane Glancy: I want to begin with a piece called "Hollyhocks."
On the walk I passed hollyhocks in a yard. I remember them on my grandfather's farm.
Several acres of his fields spread out. The barns, sheds, like pebbles of memory.
My grandmother's farmhouse, staunch, and white, her hollyhocks in the front yard.
An outpost on the prairie where a man and wife survived making bread, tending animals, weeding, sewing quilts for winter. Stocking the smokehouse, cellar. Sun and snow year after year. The giant hollyhocks on their stocks. A clump of angels with red halos. Rough-stemmed with a stub of messy pollen. The red petals crinkled as old campfires. I always picked them at the farm. They were from another world, flaming and serene. A reminder there was something more than chores and farm-work. There was something more than this.
And I think that something more than this is what we're all here for at a writers' conference. I like to write about old, ordinary life, whether it's taking a walk or driving my car or watching television. One night I turned on TV, and Carl Sagan was on there talking about the universe, and it's round. And I was so glad to get that little bit of information, I remember writing it down on my piece of paper. Very important things are round. The, the planet we live on, our orbit around the sun. Life itself. Birds' nests. This poem is called "Meatloaf."
Now Great-grandmother comes through the backdoor. Her head
latticed as corncribs, her legs tied with chicken wire. Her limbs
had been taken quickly apart, bones dismantled, spirit folded
up. She moves around the room. Come, I put my hand on the
table. She sits in a chair. Her eyes are blown out by solar winds.
I have heard the breath in her throat when I scraped the rake
across the bare yard. Two fingers on her hands rattle like winter
leaves on the tree. Words hiss through her head. Do-ga-ske-v
-se-gu-hanaugh. I shrug in frustration. How do I tell her that even
her Cherokee words do not survive? I put her hand
to my head, but she takes it away. She is neither deaf nor blind! I see
her buckskin gnawed by the teeth of wolves. Her feet trail bits
of a comet. I put the-drip pan under her. Something like grease
spots the floor. Her heart simmers from the long trip, and I
hear it sputter as she cools. For a moment she seems to forget
where she is, and I hold a piece of bread to her nose. I pass her
my plate of meatloaf. She smiles and I see her teeth collapse like old stars.
She puts the napkin on her lap and prays.
Wo-no-gah-le-sd. She lifts the teacup with her two fingers. I
watch her eat. Soon I point to the vast plains of space at the
end of my porch. She makes a circle with her thumb and two
fingers. Even the universe is round, and I nod that I've heard
it's so. I wonder what turn she missed to get here. I see my
thought reaches her. She only stops for a visit, grabbing what
she could to wear. Otherwise she'd be invisible to the little eyes I
have in my head, the little bowls of lard. Pssnah! She spits, then
sweeps crumbs from the table. I watch the buffalo cross her
cheek. Under the buckskin there are grapevines for her rib cage.
In her pocket a map of pit stops on the large arc of her restless
That was a prose poem and so is this next one, which I will dedicate to Galway Kinnell. [Glancy chuckles]. Thank you.
I want to speak buffalo.
Many times ago the grass eaters on the prairie.
It was a day for honor. The herd walked the Great Plains. This
way the herd walked. That. The little band of Indians followed.
How they depended upon us. How we clothed their naked bodies.
Fed their hungering stomachs. Provided hides for their teepees. We often
spoke to them. Grunting in a language they understood. There
was nothing we didn't give. But now we take our grasslands.
Our lawn chairs and yard goods. Stampede to the other world.
From the council-fire of heaven we are called. The Great Spirit
speaks in soldiers' guns. From trains they pass shooting.
Surely America was made for us. Remember how often we
delighted in you. Deciding how we would run through the prairie
with the wind in our ears. Our large heads pure with mind. The
Great Spirit great as he spoke. Yo. We were his. We grunted
his praises. Snorted and roamed in his will. Our calves grew
up in our strength. We were kings. We allowed death. We gave
ourselves for the Indians.
We are called savior buffalo. Se–or bœfalo. Grandmother buffalo.
Mon duc buffalo. Lord and God buffalo.
Surely the Great Spirit was made in our image. Touch us and
you see the face of God. Our heads were angels fallen to the
prairies. Touch us and you hear the grunting God.
Giant buffalo. Universal buffalo. Surely the angels say we sing your four-legged song.
Ancestor buffalo. We sing your grass-eating song. Ho ee yo. The
clouds rumble over you. The wind-currents follow. The whole
earth sings to you world-movers today. Yes, the prairie highways remember
your migration. Put your feet on four little wheels. Roll on
the knolly prairie. The creosote roadbeds black as your nose. The
grass once tall as your backs.
This is from a book called Lone Dog's Winter Count.
I've seen it many ways, Long Dog's Winter Coat. Everybody misinterprets it. But, a winter count—it's on the front—it's a way of keeping a calendar. Instead of 1800, 1801, a pictograph from the most important event of that year was placed on a buffalo robe. And so, as I went through my life, I would write down different things and make little pictographs, which I think that the poem is.
"The Road to Heaven is Paved"
God is tuned in to us
his antennae turned to the speck of any
his thoughts move like the blue dot of a tractor
in the field.
Tires tied over a tarp over a haymound,
that's where faith begins.
In the peepholes
I hear the pines
their clumps twerping near silos.
He believes we're here,
the angels put their finger, put his finger on our corral.
You see the road's not really there
& you can't make it without him,
but if you believe it's there
& you transcend the slot of God
& you're in.
One of my favorite vehicles is the persona poem. I like to travel across the land, because I pick up many different voices. And in this, it's called the "Portrait of the Lone Survivor." And its kind of a cross between a narrative, I guess, a story and a poem. And it's a young woman—and it's not my father, because I had a good father, anyway.
"Portrait of the Lone Survivor"
I used to throw snowballs at this girl who lived by my Grandmother's house. I came out in my army surplus parka & cap with earflaps & waited for her, stomping my feet sometimes when I stood behind the bush. If the dog barked, I dirt-clotted him. While I waited sometimes I wrapped a rock in the snowball. Then sometimes the woman across the street would call my Grandmother & tell her I was after Azalea again. Grandma yanked the hood of my parka & shut me in the pantry. When she slept I crawled thru the window and tried to let light into her dark kitchen with its water pump on the sink & the swaying ceiling. I guess it was all her boys that slept upstairs. Herbert & Henry & my father, Roose, all jumping up & down & wrestling each other to the floor & falling out of bed & dive-bombing from the chest of drawers. She cried sometimes & didn't know what come over me after I'd done all that. She said at the north window in her house while her cat, while her white cat Georgia & I waited for the mailman who never brought her anything. I buttoned the cap with my ear flaps & dug in the snow with my stick. I thought of the places I would go. Anywhere but here. Then suddenly, Whamm there was Azalea & WHAMM * I hit her. The pink angora hat & her mittens flying!! I sat in the pantry with my fingers in the boysenberry jam, Grandma's canning jars lined up on the shelves like snowballs.
I try, I am trying. I was trying. I will try. I shall in the meantime try. I sometimes have tried. I shall still by that time be trying.
My father gets me in the afternoon. We stop at Varnell's & he jokes with Henry & his friends. I see the dent of the door in his pickup. On the road, he barely makes a curve. I see an old impact of a rock on the windshield * the long crack across the glass. On the way to the rodeo, Roose passes a long row of cars. He laughs in his Cherokee language when I scream.
I hope when Paw-naw comes, she crashes & the relish she makes spills on the road, little bits of glass in tires and feet. I hope Paw-naw falls out of bed & the planets wobble in their orbit. I hope I get sick & Georgia, the cat, gets in a fight, her ears hanging like flaps on an old pilot's helmet. I hope Cousin Flunella's spleen swells again like pooches, & pooches like the weak place in Grandma's tire. I hope Henry's infections keep him home. All the sweat & vomit & violent fever-dreams, shoes that were all polished shit-on. I hope the house burns down. I'm going to stare into the blueberry eye of the neighbor's half-blind dog. I hope Paw-naw limps when she gets old & gets Alzheimer's disease. I hope the Christmas tree falls over this year & the turkey, the cranberry jelly & Grandma's pickles rot before we eat them. I hope someone breaks into Henry's house again while he's gone. His car in the yard. I hope someone siphons out his gas.
She calls my name in class & my heart pumps in my throat. I feel Roose pound me under the covers. I feel the heat race thru my hands. My head whacks an axe chopping a totem pole. She calls my name in class & her voice is a rock whamming my head. I feel chained to the backyard like the dog I pass on the way to school. Then Roose's pickup races at me & I stand in the road watching the headlights swallow me until the fierce roar passes. She calls my name in class & I am a pulsing star. A flag flapping on its pole above the schoolyard. I try to hide behind the desk but she stands over me. I feel the whack of Grandma's stick. The choke-collar on the dog. She is the bear in my nightmares whose teeth drip with saliva at my flesh. She tears bone & sinew, shredding the vocal cords until I can't talk.
I see Roose in front of the liquor store. He asks a man for money. I think I will get a grocery cart from Dabner's & push it down the alley. I'll rattle thru the trash cans for bottles with a ½ swallow of gin or whiskey, sleep on the park bench & stumble on the curb when I cross the street. I'll slobber as we talk about the visions of the Grandfathers, their bravery on the Trail to the New Territory. I will tell them how Grandma survives. We'll split, we'll spit & urinate on the town square of Tahlequah, Oklahoma. We'll dry out gladly in jail.
And then this next part is the Cherokee language. It's The Lord's Prayer, and the only word I can read is the first one which is Our Father, ogi:do:da. But, anyway here's the English translation of The Lord's Prayer in Cherokee.
Our Father / above / who dwellest / honored / be / thy name. / Let happen / what thou wilt / on earth / above / as does happen. / Our food / day by day / bestow upon us. / In that we have transgressed against thee / pity us / as we pity / those who transgress against us. / & / do not / place of straying / lead us into. / For thine is / thou strong / the being / & / thou honored / forever. This / let be.
Roose thrashes under the strap that holds him. The medicine men nail a cow-skull over his bed. They burn cedar & chant. I would pack if I could go with them. Unzip my skin from my bones. Wear my pow wow buckskin. Leave thru the crack in the ceiling where the soul passes. Roose stops breathing I stand on my feet & he starts again. That's how it will be. He'll stomp out the back door, leaving the screen to bang. It's not a great journey to the stars. I see the blueness of his feet & fingers. Part of him is gone already. His eyes closed, sometimes he calls my mother's name as if waiting for the lift in the hotel lobby she had just taken. Sometimes he thrashes again as though still war-dancing in the rodeo arena.
I sit in the grasses at his grave. I name this day Holy. I walk back to the house thru the cockleburs that tear my legs. I will remember ogi:do:da. Who creates unless he has a vacuum to fill? A white crayon on white paper. A snowfleck in the sky. Who thinks of justice unless he knows injustice? Georgia sits on my lap under a cover of the white shawl. Her cat-eye looks from the window at the birds in the wisteria. I think what we do does matter. I tell her this & her ear flicks the edge of my shawl. I stroke her old fur. She holds her paw over my knee. If the house were burning, yes, I'd take the back of her neck in my teeth & climb thru the pantry window.
I deal a lot with faith, how to talk about it in a new way. This is called "Light Beneath the Skin (or pronoun 2)."
I am wholly yours sweet Christ.
Savior on the road
when I come transfixed.
But to be now under a lock of trees.
The black jam just let out of the jar.
Still a hook in the treetop my love.
I found nothing else.
Your covering of blood from my heart.
I pack my suitcase
and the garden with asparagus spears in it. The spiked
stalks taller each time I look. I pack the black and white
linoleum, and all the blood gravy fallen into the cracks. I
pack the chicken hearts red and dark as rosebuds. I'm
coming, Lord Christ. To be then yours under a lock of
trees. Emollients of rain. A sound not yet made by a
single lark flying in a treed field. Broken now has to be whole in
Christ. I float up the long hallway of rain. Over the
waiting shingles. The hard boards of my heart.
"The Artificial Indian."
Because I could look straight through
my hand I could see
there was nothing I could hold
not even treaty lands
because the heavens rolled back
the sun nearly burned off my hair
because I did not know how to back off
because I could not shade my head
I waved at nothing
I came knocking into the spirit world
a ghost in a dress
an emptiness made full of fire.
This next poem is also one that I haven't read very much. I decided this time to read all new poems, and I'm not quite at home in them yet. But, you eventually have to move out into new territory. It's called "Landscape of Light," and it's about my father. He left the, his, the native world and migrated north to Kansas City, Missouri for work.
He is thinking
nothing can matter.
All the light
rays through the
scrub oaks on
a low afternoon
focus into one
hole in the
clouds. His father
killed from a
fall from a
horse. His mother
and sister standing
in the yard.
Nothing ahead that
he can see.
Not like families
whose ways are
set from childhood.
No, disruption was
his inheritance. A
jumbling of roads
not here, or
there, maybe not
My father never
said how he
left, and I,
riding in the
sack of his
testicles, have no
memory. He worked
in the packing
house. All day
long the cattle
going their forfeited
way while we
with life wander
the wilderness. Nothing
left but each
day starting new
with nothing. A
jar of bread-and-butter
pickles from his
mother by the
bed. All generations
as though the
first. Wondering where
to go, what
to do. The
same effort of
scattered light defined
the focal point
in the clouds.
This vast sensation
of sun making
a rickety crop
in the field,
of which there's
not much left,
and nothing at
all when his
father died. And
he with his
mother and sister
to support while
others were far
on their own
way. He must
have felt the
light fall apart
each day. His
mouth open under
the sky without
the web of
nerve endings that
meet and give
direction. The net
of lines under
scrub oaks which
touch and hold
together, not unthreading
the lives of
But he knew
he would break
even as the
sunlight hits the
clouds, falls through,
scrambles back from
different places on
the earth, trying
to get into
the sky, Holy
Father, and us
with it in
Christ's blood. We
have to make
a land before
we can make
the way through
it, build highway
and toll gates.
But for now
he talks sweetly
to the animals
as they climb
the chute, and
enter the kill.
His wife and
children in the
yard. Each looking
up through the
light. Beets pickling
on the stove,
the smell of
them in the stockyards--
[Glancy repeats two lines]
the smell of
them like stockyards
in the house.
Generations have passed
in this darkness,
and we have
yet to find
the way we
have yet to
find the chute
that makes the
Once the bottomland
was campground by
the river. In
his head, my
father feels the
Indian tribes when
soldiers rode near.
Children quiet, the
woman hummed their
prayer song. Then
the knives and
arrows. Afterwards the
squaws cut off
the legs of
soldiers so they
can't return from
the next world.
Then somewhere a
settler suspends a
cabin from the
ground. He plows
the broken sun
across the bottomland.
Then a farmer
in the roll
of light above
the river builds
a pasture for
horses. Builds a
pecan grove for
his wife, nailing
up each tree
under the sky
until it takes
root. The dark
soil dumped from
heaven where the
pecan grove casts
its shadow like
a net. The net, the
knot of teepees
and campfires forgotten
in the rows
of trees. Now
the city near.
The pecan grove
torn down for
stockyards, cutting trees
like the legs
of soldiers, taking
animals from their
pens, sending them
to the next
world. Now my
father hears the
bell clang over
the stockyards from
the church on
the river bluffs.
Maybe he is
thinking it matters
after all. The
years of struggle
under broken light.
The continuity of
dark after which
Is it hope
or faith, a
gift from the
Spirit? My father
is in an
attitude of prayer.
For the first
time his mouth
opens in praise.
Ekk cay may.
The Spirit fills
my father. His
feet in the
stockyards, his head
through the clouds.
Now my father
speaks. Is it
after death we
have these wings
about us. This
inheritance finally, from
God? We rise
to comfort the
river. The endless
cries and wars
lifted in the
Maybe later my
father scoops the
moon like a
bucket of black-walnut
ice cream. In
his eyes the
Indian tribes gather.
The multitude of
lightning bugs in
[Hey cah may.]
Now my father
chants. He is
thinking he has
come far. His
mother in the
grave. His sister
married. Children taller
than the white
picket fence. Without
knowing yet he
breaks the spell,
has something to
pass to the
ones who start
over again. In
his head I
see thoughts fuse.
Suddenly there is
MEMORY! A past.
There is light
breaking on the
ground soon to
rise to the
clouds through the
tunnel of the
past and we
are left with
a MAP! From
his bed he
feels the soldiers,
and struggling generations.
He gives his
light back to
the clouds like
a turnpike-ticket when
he passes through.
I take the
flashlight of the
sun on the
low horizon in
the river brush.
Read the map
he left. Yes,
here, maybe there.
The whole earth
rises through the
scrub oaks. We
walk on air
and never know
it. No, from
the first we
are strangers and
pilgrims. We are
all this light
scrambling for return.
These next two pieces are for Jay Meeks. It's the War Horse part. I had a wonderful car. In fact, if I keep talking I'll just give away this story so I'm going to go ahead and read it. This piece is called "War Horse."
I have a new car now. But for thirteen years I drove a brown Buick station wagon. It had 184,555 miles on it when I gave it to a friend. You know I left my husband easier than I left that car. [Audience laughter] Toward the end I cried when I had to look for another car. But it wouldn't pass emissions test. I asked an Indian friend what he was going to do with his Indian car. He said there wasn't a test on the reservation and he could keep his car. He asked what I was going to do with the brown Buick. He could use it for ricing. [Audience laughter] As soon as I had a place for it, I could think of another car. The first key I had for it bent from turning the ignition all those years. They almost never got a new key made. I remember when I saw the car in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1978. I knew it was mine. I don't live in Oklahoma anymore but I remember it on the back roads there. Driving Highway 62 to Altus, Oklahoma, when it must have been 105. No air-conditioning. Sitting on Mount Scott near Lawton. Driving to the Black Mesa that reaches New Mexico. My children grew up in that car. I left my husband in it. They said it would never start in Minnesota when I moved. But it did. [Audience laughter] I got a small truck battery and we went through the snow. I cleaned out the glove compartment when the car went to the Fond du Lac Reservation without me. Insurance papers with eight addresses in three different states. A few invoices for new brakes, a transmission, and tires. A whisk broom, an air gauge, a bulb for the rear light, a few maps. A Bible with curled pages under the front seat. Nothing in the trunk but two ice scrapers and some rope I used to tie things on top of the car once in a while. A 1978 Buick Estate Wagon. Serial number 4R35X8X153975. Brown as a war horse.
This is called "War Horse II."
The next time I see my old car is in the movies. Yes. You wouldn't believe it. But it there is this film. This documentary. Without Reservations. And my old car is in it. Showing up like a big shot. Next to the moose hanging on the scaffolding after hunting season. The Indian friend, who has my car now, starting to dress the moose. And the car there as if it had a part in the hunt. As if maybe it held the bow and arrow. [Audience laughter] Just like when you go to the Hunting Grounds you are new again and the old way of life returns as if you'd never had to do without it. Yes. I know someday I'll see the car again on the highway. We'll pass as if old friends. Did not our heart burn within us? The disciples asked when Christ passed them on the road after resurrection. [Audience laughter] They were going somewhere talking with their friends. And he just passed. Yes sometime I'll be going somewhere and my old car will come up from behind and pass me the way I know sometimes my father has been beside me. Only I didn't know it until the moment he left.
This book is called Claiming Breath,and I explained earlier how I got that name when I walked into the Hungry Mind bookstore and saw more books than I'd ever seen in my whole life and thought what on earth am I doing this for, and then I thought, no I have something to say too. They can all move over. [Audience laughter] So Claiming Breath, or claiming air, claiming a space for us in this crowded world. When you come up against yourself and think, what can I really do after all? When everybody's doing it better. I think that kind of formed, informed the title of this book. And it's in little diary pieces. As I struggled with it, the craft of writing.
Some tools of writing are the rhythm of the language, the imagery & the thought conveyed. Out west, the frontier is on the edge of form. Not shape, but structure & organization of the writing. It's tribal, this hybrid & unfamiliar of the familiar. It's the part that comes from not belonging. Bawks. B-A-W-K-S. I like to make words up by the way. Words push into the new sphere. Tribal means belonging, but not belonging to civilization. This is the tension that results.
Sometimes anger is the pestle I use to disrupt my work. My son in college, my daughter out somewhere. My former husband in another state with a new wife. I have the feeling that I, with lesser resources, must do more with them. My daughter angry sometimes that the family broke up, & now she doesn't have what she did. Well, we had it once & it didn't mean much to any of us. As a wife, I always felt clerped. C-L-E-R-P-E-D. Whatever that means. But, it's the way I felt. [Audience laughter]
Words are not my inheritance. My Cherokee grandmother could not write. My father finished grade school. When his father died, he migrated north from Viola, Arkansas, to Kansas City & worked in the stockyards. My mother got farther in school before she went to Kansas City to live with an uncle, who was a Methodist minister. She would always be a housewife & my father worked for the packing house all his life. My childhood breached the space between them. Those dark nights closed in the bungalow on Fiftieth Terrace \ a cave with a living room drawn on the wall, large trees, & a west sun like a searchlight from the front porch.
Imbalance is very important in the native culture because when things are even, then you get all settled in and you're no longer struggling and that's not as healthy as a condition. So anyway, again I don't want to explain it all the way, I'll just read. This piece is called "Invention."
I came to the end of human experience. Married, divorced, children raised, parents buried. What would I do now? Discover another letter of the alphabet? One that comes between m & n?
A thought flies into my head. What if discovery is beyond me? Maybe the new letter has to be invented. Something that looks like, [Glancy turns book to the audience and points to the page] and here it is.
Yes, 27 is a better number than 26. The letters of the alphabet would not have equilibrium.
And weren't they too close anyway—m & n? The new letter changes combinations, the way a turn of an old kaleidoscope shifts patterns. I work with its capital. Its cursive.
I spend ages again learning, discovering, inventing, making mistakes & carrying on despite obstacles. My new letter changes the sound of other letters, confounding the English language more than it already is. The foreigner goes bananas.
I love the words I write with the new letter. They become my children. Eager for my attention, they wait in rows on the page. Now I am worth listening to, like Aunt Yulda who used to read to me. There was no boredom when she, when we were together. There was a fusion & purpose and understanding. A struggle for balance. Everything that life is about.
When they asked me at the University of Nebraska Press what I wanted on the cover of my book I said, "Well naturally the 27th letter of the alphabet." And they sent it to me and it was just an m with another hump. I know you couldn't see it in the book, and I wrote back and I said I didn't really like that. So they put two little dots over two of the humps and I wrote back and I said I still didn't like that. So they made a prairie covering on my book because I have a long piece in here about following an eighteen-wheeler on the road. But, the truck is like an UPS truck, you know, it's not an eighteen-wheeler at all. But, anyway it turned out to be fairly nice. I'm glad they did what they did.
This is called "February\ The Iron Cranberry"
The Iron Cranberry was a reconnaissance plane that the British used during World War II. And it's about my travels for the Arts Council. I think you're in real trouble in this world when all you can do is write poetry. Your jobs are very limited and, for about ten years, I worked for the Arts Council in Oklahoma, traveling the state. And there's a longer piece in here, which is my favorite, but I've read it enough. I'm reading the one I haven't read very often.
My car has over 100,000 miles. A '78 Buick station wagon. I travel for the State Arts Council. I make 600-mile round trips to visit my mother, who has had cancer now for three years. I'm always on the road, week after week.
This particular Sunday afternoon, I start out after snow. I have a residency 200 miles straight west on Highway 51. The highway is a single-lane road, & after severe weather, usually no more than two ruts thru the snow. My heavy car has no trouble.
Oklahoma is a prairie country, full of space & remoteness. After snow, I pass the white, rolling fields, a few scattered farm houses and trailers, & some trees along the road—then the flat prairie beyond them, which is the stretch of Great Plains thru western Oklahoma. It's farm country, ranches, & what's left of the oil rigs & pumping units. They used to light up the night sky. Now it's dark.
The past week, flu went through the schools & I feel it coming on. I drive into the snow blowing across the road in places, the last of the gray sun giving the frozen world a pinkish cast. As some of the churches in towns I pass, faithful members arrive for Sunday-night services.
The small town where I'm going rests in a shallow valley south of the Canadian. One cafŽ in town with famers who stare at strangers. One motel—a Butler building on the raw edge of the two-block town. I carry in my box of school materials & my clothes for the week. Unpack my things in the room. There's a hole in the plaster of the wall. Also a television, a table & crooked lamp, a bed & phone.
In the night the storm comes back. I shiver under the thin covers in my robe & nightgown & socks. Finally I get my coat & put it over me too. Morning comes & there is no school. I walk across the hard street between the ice patches with the wind blowing straight out of New Mexico & Texas. Have breakfast with the farmers staring at me, & shuffle back across the street. I go to bed again.
The next day, I go to school. At 3:30, I return to the motel room & stay there until the next morning, broken only by dinner in the cafŽ. I forgot my decaf tea bags & drink hot water, which seems to go with my residency in western Oklahoma. I feel weak again from the flu, alone on the flat prairie where the weather could incarcerate me again. I'm a stranger in town, worse than a stranger. By then, the farmers know I'm a poet. I sit looking out the window at the cold, hard street. The trucks parked with their noses to the curb like cows at the water trough. The hard ice with dirty patches of water underneath. The car, covered with dried highway slush, looks like a huge cranberry in front of my room at the hotel.
I always feel like I work in isolation. Walking into one class after another, talking about the contemporary poetry—It's not what they think it's going to be. It doesn't rhyme. What's this I'm giving them? I read one poem after another. I tell them poetry is a distilled experience, not the flowery language it used to be. I had many writing exercises I give. Usually, something magic happens, & the students write poems with clarity and detail. They share them before the class if they choose. And if not, they don't have to.
I feel a responsibility to my words. Poetry is road maintenance for a fragmented world which seeks to be kept together. It's an integral activity. It's been an integral activity for a long time. I travel through wind storms, the summer heat & winter blizzards—all the harsh elements of the prairie. Yet I find there's also a refinement to the region. The vast prairie: the poet only has to gather the words. The AUTHORity of the written word & I seek MORE—
With my car, that is. I couldn't go anywhere without it. Nor my faith in Christ. Always on these harder residences when I feel I'm the only one in the universe, Christ is the rope I hang on to. That faith has never failed.
I also have this tall grass prayer-ee for my territory & always in travel, in the act of migration, is the POEM. The holy word is the foundation for out civilization. I think that's why I like to travel. It doesn't always matter where. As long as my car runs.
I spend the week in a school, in a building with students from first grade through high school. Several of the rooms in the basement have no windows. In another room, there's a bowl with a few small dinosaur bones found nearby in the valley south of the Canadian River. I ask it I can have one. I always collect rocks & weeds & found objects on my travels, as well as images to write with.
It was on that residency I was asked to finish a rhyming cheer for a basketball game in the next town—if the weather held.
I think poetry evolves out of the ordinary experience—the ideas I write about often come from the hardness of the prairie. Sometimes, Somehow I still make notes after a week of poetry. Words are important to existence, especially after a week with hardly anyone to talk to. There seems to be something inaccessible about being the visiting artist. Not so much with the kids in the classroom. They often have a myriad of questions.
I share my life in the classrooms—what I do as a writer, the confining routine, the struggle to make a living. The miles I have on my car. I tell them it takes tenacity to send out poems consistently & to receive little or no remuneration for the work. At least one day, I wear my Iowa Review T-Shirt—'Thank you for sending us your work. We are sorry that we cannot use it & the volume of submissions precludes a more personal reply.'
They seem to know. These are the progeny of the sod farmers who staked their claim during the land runs, & the hay farmers who got blown away in the dust bowl. These are children of the farmers who struggle now. One of them told me that poetry must be like farming.
I think about the kids in the classroom who brought me their poems, who asked questions, who dared to share themselves. I often see them tremble as they read their work. They are the ones who hear the inner voice & don't know yet what to do with it. They get away from generalities into details & feelings. They have respect for words & see them open before them like soil under a plow.
I think of the resentful students too, who slouch in their chairs in the back of the room, who finally give me two lines that are a flashlight into the darkness in which they live. They have known failure all their lives, & finally express it in the written word.
Then on Friday, I pack my things in the motel room where I had spent five long evenings & nights with a banging heater & bare walls. I pay $94 of my $500 paycheck to the motel, & start on the road back to Tulsa. Finishing a residency is like being a rubber band shot across the prairie. It's like one of those spitwads I see flying over the classroom sometimes—It's low flight in my car back on east Highway 51.
It was both a wonderful and a terrible way to make a living.
I will read one more poem, and then I will stop. If I can find it, it's the poem that's going to be in the North Dakota Quarterly when it comes out.
[This poem has not yet been verified against the print]
"The Great Divide"
The Spirits of the ancestors migrate. I feel them in the prairies in my
head. In the shadows I see the shape of bison. They drink the last lick
of yellow light from the creek. I hear the ancestors like wind in the corn-
stalks. One ancestor always shakes his knee with restlessness. A hole
torn in his moccasin for a sore toe. I tell him I have the hollowness of this
air. I have to live this life I don't like. I have to go where he doesn't
count. I say to the ancestors. You only call me back. In the squeak of
brakes I hear your ceremonial whistle. In the blink of neon I see your
fires. Wait for me in the back booth at the all-night cafe. Leave your
pony-drag at the coat-rack. Shuffle your feet when I come in and I'll
know you're there.
Audience Member: I've got questions.
Diane Glancy: Yes?
Audience Member: Are you taking questions?
Diane Glancy: Yes.
Audience Member: Okay, I've got one. [At the end of one poem, you said, you said something with a balance [inaudible]]
Diane Glancy: That's true.
Audience Member: [Could you say something more about that [inaudible]]?
Diane Glancy: Well, it's really imbalance that's dear to me, because Native American tradition, even the Coyote stories. I mean that's what Coyote is here for, is to cause imbalance, to upset things so that we don't take ourselves too seriously. And we're always unraveled, kind of like language poetry that we were talking about earlier. Because when you have the condition of imbalance, you are always struggling for wholeness and that is a very important condition, because all of life is a process, and once you get balance, then you grow static and comfortable and you miss everything going by in the world. So we need to suffer and to struggle and to move on and to always be aware of circumstances and imbalance does that for us so we ought to be grateful for hardships and imbalances.
[Transcription by Emily Thielen; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts 21 October 2012];
Associate Professor of English
Director, UND Writers Conference276 Centennial Drive