Former U.S Poet Laureate Billy Collins came to Kearney as part of the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Reynolds Visiting Writers Series. Everyone told him he was too late – that he should have come six months earlier and seen the cranes in flight. But six months earlier he had been in Georgia where everyone told him it was too bad that he had missed the azaleas previously blooming. Then he wrote the 2013 poem The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska. He said we are always busily missing God knows what.
As the Paul and Clarice Reynolds Endowed Chair of Creative Writing I celebrate writing with students and community. – Through events. – Through advising the UNK student literary magazine The Carillon. – Through cups of coffee and book swaps. – Through curating the Reynolds Visiting Writers Series. We are lucky this series enables us to bring writers from across the country to Kearney. Starting weeks before a reading I begin telling my poetry students about it and talking about it on NTV’s morning show and going a little nuts with flyers and exclamation points. I say – Hear this writer. Ask her your questions. Free and open to the public. You don’t want to miss this.
It is a terrific opportunity. We have met fascinating award winning authors. The brilliant Traci Brimhall. The much respected poet Nicole Sealey. Kelly Kathleen Ferguson who visited each of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s little houses while wearing a prairie dress and occasionally imitating Laura. Thomas Mira y Lopez taught us about freezing corpses in cryonics labs. Sarah Minor brought sculpture-essays we walked through and read. It was spring when Paul Lisicky visited and read from his book Later which made NPR’s favorites-of-the-year list. He is an animal lover – yes I was sure to drive him through the fields along the Platte River spotting the cranes.
My first year at UNK, Chadron State invited me to read in their own visiting writers series. I couldn’t believe the beauty I drove to get there. Before I left Chadron their series coordinator and I had hatched a plan that became The Sandhills Road Trip Writers Residency. A residency is a chance for a writer to lock himself in a cabin far from home and to focus. My Chadron companion and I said – We will take that idea and make it a tour of Nebraskan beauty. And so the writer flies to Kearney and reads for the Reynolds series. She crane-watches at dawn. Then she slowly makes her way across the Sandhills driving a rental car an hour a day and writing in bed-and-breakfasts we have reserved. Along the way we have arranged optional excursions for viewing prairie dogs or prairie chickens and the badlands. The writer arrives at Chadron State to conclude her week with a reading. Our call for applications sparked enthusiasm across social media and the continent and several dozen writers applied for the opportunity. We were thrilled that the celebrated fiction writer Leslie Pietrzyk joined us in what will become an annual event.
I want Kearney area to hear these readers and for all six thousand students to meet such Real Life Writers and to talk with them about plot lines and poetic lines over Real Life and Pizza. But the truth is that you can be in only one place at a time and an abundance of interesting activities means that you too frequently are busily missing something.
What a great problem we have here in Kearney and at the university.
It is a problem that fuels art. The job of the writer is to notice crickets before they hop away. Keep a notebook handy – I say to my grad students. We want to tell our readers – Quick see this with me. But we also know that sparks aren’t scarce. The world is too interesting to think surprises are in short supply.
The editors add – In addition to being the Endowed Reynolds in Poetry, Brad Aaron Modlin teaches undergraduate and graduate writing courses such as Introduction to Creative Writing or Poetry Workshop or Nonfiction Workshop. He is lucky he gets to talk with students about art and big ideas. When not teaching he writes books and eats frozen pizza. He cooks it first.
His book Everyone at This Party Has Two Names won the Cowles Poetry Prize. His short collection of short stories Surviving in Drought won The Cupboard Contest. Recently Brad has been invited to write and read poetry at the Buxton Contemporary art gallery show, This Is a Poem in Melbourne, Australia. His work is forthcoming in Poetry International and The Laurel Review. A poem of his was the focus of the first episode of the On Being series entitled Poetry Unbound – an energizing podcast Brad recommends to anyone wanting a dose of poetry in their day.
I grew up in a family that did not tell
the story. I am listening to it now:
Even the morning you see a robin
flattened on the street, you hear
another in a tree, the notes
they’ve taught each other, bird
before bird before we were born.
And elsewhere, the rusty bicycle
carries the doctor all the way
across an island. He arrives in time.
Somewhere his sister adds water
to the soup until payday. And
over the final hill in a Southwestern
desert, a gas station appears. No,
the grief has not forgotten my name,
but this morning I tied
my shoelaces. Outside I can force
a wave at every face who might
need it. We might
spin till we collapse, but we still
have a hub: Even at dusk,
the sun isn’t going anywhere.
We have lamps. The story insists
it just looks like there’s only
enough oil to last one night.
I try to be patient with him, but he’s forgotten so much – how to read the sundial, what a coin does, why the kitchen floor must be swept. Yesterday we had to go over numbers and their order again, and he’s already asked me twice this week to point to Israel on the map. Monday when I invited him to go with me to the market, he was too absorbed in opening-closing his fist to answer, and I rushed home just in time to save him from giving his only robe to a passing leper. I feel like I’ve been asleep such a long time, he mumbled the next morning as I tied his sandals—I just don’t know how to help him – I offered to make him a cup of strong tea.
What worries me most is his time alone. He’ll spend all afternoon watching wind carry dust, or rubbing palm leaves between his fingers on his walk to the temple, always whispering. I caught him singing to a beetle in the yard last night. And this morning from the kitchen window, I watched him hold a fallen fig to his nose for at least an hour before feeling it with his tongue. Then he blew on it, a gentle circle, as into a child’s ear. And finally, he stretched himself up to the tree branch and slowly pushed the broken stem back into the bruised skin. And when it dropped again to the ground, he turned away from me.
Written by Brad Modlin, poet, and Chuck Peek
* "One Candle Now, Then Seven More" first - published in Tupelo Quarterly
* "Lazarus Is Having Trouble Readjusting" - originally published in Sycamore Review - from "Everyone at This Party Has Two Names," Southeast Missouri State University Press 2016
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