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Landscape as Language

by Katlin Walker

Terry Ann Thaxton’s Mud Song is the winner of the 2017 T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. This year’s judge, Kevin Prufer, commented: “…the swamps, back roads, and small towns of Florida transcend setting and become something akin to personality. These are wild, harrowing, brightly colored poems, bristling with violence and trauma. The poet’s language surprises and delights. Her wit is deft and sharp. The engines that power these vivid poems are memory, desire, fear and, at times, a kind of holy rage.”

I recently had the opportunity to interview Ms. Thaxton about Mud Song, gathering insight into the memories and the process that fueled this collection.

Your poems illustrate a sort of secret life of Florida—one that privileges squirrels over dolphins, mud and sinkholes over sandy beaches, and cardinals over seagulls. How did growing up in Florida help you avoid falling into the trap of describing the state’s landscape in an expected or clichéd way?

The Florida that I know has all of these things: dolphins, squirrels, mud, sinkholes, sandy beaches, cardinals, and seagulls. The poems in Mud Song serve as a counternarrative to the clichéd, stereotypical, or perceived version of Florida. I grew up in Sarasota, a town on the Gulf Coast, so I did grow up near the beach, and my mother and aunt took my siblings, cousin, and me occasionally during the summer. When I became a teenager, I went to the beach with friends, but by then I’d already fallen in love with the dry uplands—the pine flatwoods, the dry prairies, the scrub, wet prairies, cypress domes, and hardwood hammocks. The house we lived in, from the time I was six until I graduated from high school, sat on ten acres of land, surrounded by hundreds of acres of natural Florida habitats. My brothers and I spent most of our days after school and on weekends in the woods, tromping through muck and dense forests. When Disney World was built, one of my aunts asked my mother, “Why would they build something like that in the middle of nowhere?” And my mother answered, “And why in that swamp?”

Florida’s landscape is constantly because of development. The construction of gated communities, apartments, businesses, and tourist attractions does something, I believe, to the soul or spirit of a person. No matter where I’ve lived (in Florida), I’ve always driven past some type of major construction on my way to my job. One day there is a lush forest with oaks, saw palmetto, filled with gopher tortoises, snakes, armadillos, boar, and the next day that same rich habitat is cleared to make room for a new subdivision, usually named after what was destroyed to create it; usually something like “Oak Reserve” or “Palm Ridge.” This cuts deep. These sudden changes to the landscape affect my sense of the world. And the landscape is part of who I am. The landscape I know, and spend my time in, is how I know myself. The landscape is my language. The mud, the swamps, the alligators, the birds, the saw palmettos—all of it is part of my being.

The memory of your mother takes on a haunting presence in “Say One Word to Me” and a number of this collection’s other poems. What can you tell us about the impact your mother has had on your writing?

I never set out to write a poem that includes my mother (or my father, for that matter). She is always there, always an unanswered question. She died fairly young—at 63. I was in my early thirties when she died, and I did not come to know her very well until a couple of years before her death. She knew she had colon cancer, but did not tell anyone until it had metastasized even to her brain. During those years—of her knowing, and none of us knowing—she and I had conversations in which she allowed me into her life struggles. She revealed to me how unhappy she’d been in the thirty years of marriage to my father, who’d died at age 53, eight years before my mother. She shared with me secrets about his life she’d told no one, not even her closest sister. She told me about her wanting to divorce my father when my siblings and I were kids, but she didn’t know how she would’ve financially supported us. This knowledge that throughout my life, my mother had been terribly unhappy is always part of my writing. This haunts me.

When I was born, I was told, I had so much hair that that my grandmother said I looked like a possum. At birth my dark black hair met my eyebrows. I had black hair on my arms. Thankfully, the hair on my forehead and my arms fell off quickly, but I always felt like an outsider in my family—and my mother’s joke stayed with me. Though it is my older brother who was adopted, I felt like the child who was not part of the family. I was a girl—that was not good I learned early. Everything felt haunted to me. The first house I can remember living in I refer to as “the haunted house.” One day in that house, when I stayed home from first grade, I was resting in my parents’ bed downstairs—my mother was next door helping a neighbor—I heard something in the garage. I was certain it was the devil. Terrified, I snuck out of bed, and crawled out of the bathroom window, causing all of the items on the windowsill to fall out onto the ground. My mother punished me for making such a mess out of nothing. I believed in the devil. I believed my house was haunted. I believed I was haunted.

A lot of these pieces serve as reflections on self-transformation or revelation, particularly with regard to aging and religion. Can you speak a bit to the personal journey that led you to write them?

Some of these poems were written many years ago, and some are new. When I put this collection together I was pleased to see that the older poems blended well with newer poems to show this development of the self. The poems in my first book and my second book were written in a similar time span of each other. Some of the poems in Mud Song come from when I was working on the first book, but didn’t seem quite right for that book. Some of them were written during the time I was working on the second book, but again, didn’t seem to quite fit. Thus many of the poems in Mud Song, I’d felt are misfits, like me—not fitting into the books I was working on at the time. I’m always writing poems, and I have at least two books going at the same time. Although, really, most of the time I’m positive I have zero books going. When I write a new poem, I decide which “book” it should go in based on mood or subject or emotion. I became impatient with this book, which is now titled Mud Song, many times because it just kept feeling like all of the misfit poems. I couldn’t throw them away, though, because they contain so much of what keeps me alive, what keeps me breathing: mud, roots, trails, sand, my dog, birds, the sky. I kept putting all of the misfit poems in one document until I had enough to make a book. For me, it is the landscape that has transformed me, transformed the poems, it is the landscape that gave me a new religions, a new spirit, an acceptance of aging. The landscape lulls me forward.

Because of your gender, your father offered to financially support your brothers’ college educations, but not yours. You’re now a professor of English at the University of Central Florida as a result of your own determination. How did you reflect on your relationship with your father while working on poems like “Drought,” where he takes center stage?

I once asked the poet Judith Hemschemeyer, one of my undergraduate poetry professors, when I would stop writing poems about my father. She laughed, and said, “Until you’re not.” That was 25 years ago. Here he is. My father. He was a complex person. He was full of contradictions and personal demons. Though he wouldn’t pay for a girl to go to college, he was proud of me when I, as a teenager, told one of my brothers to “lick dirt,” and my brother actually did it. When my brother told on me, my father said, “If a girl can make you lick dirt, then you deserve it. Now leave me alone.”

The poems allow me a way to reflect on him, a way to try to understand his struggles. He had a great wit. He loved to laugh and make us laugh. He also had a militant style of discipline; I was punished many times with a razor strop. He cried quickly and yelled when we did something he didn’t like.

For many years I was angry with my father, but poetry (and perhaps age/maturity) has allowed me to reflect on his own struggles—some I know of and others I don’t—and to include him in poems when the narrative calls for a memory of him or when a memory of him works as a metaphor in the poems.

When I earned my AA degree, I danced on his grave. When I earned my BA degree, I drove to his grave and chatted with him. When I earned my MA degree, I felt sad for him. When I earned my MFA, I wrote “for Dad” on the back of the diploma. When I started teaching, I believed that he and my mother would’ve been proud of me. I still feel that.

Mud Song is your third book of poems since 2011. How has your writing process evolved over the years? Are there other writers that have influenced your work?

I never know how to write a poem, so I use freewriting, images, limitations, restrictions, lists, and prompts to get words on the page. Many times these end up simply being exercises to get my mind focused on writing, but most of the time, I can find a subject or image or line that will propel a new poem forward. When I first started writing, I would use a list of randomly selected words from random books on my shelves. Then I started using prompts and restrictions that I placed on myself, such as syllabics or use of color or not using particular words. Lately, I’ve been using images that I find online or art that I see in a museum. I don’t really write ekphrastic poetry, rather I use the images to find a way into a narrative that will eventually become a poem.

Before I’d started college, at age 28, I had only read early Renaissance and Elizabethan poetry, which I’d read only because, one day after school, I’d snuck into the under-the-stairs closet at home and found an anthology of Renaissance poetry with my mother’s name written on the inside cover. I was fascinated by the rhythms and language. I didn’t think about those poems as influential until much later when I did start college. In college, I was introduced to many of the American Modern poets. But the one that changed my idea of what poetry could be was Sylvia Plath. When I read the poems in Ariel, I decided to try poetry. In addition to Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, I am influenced by many of the American Modern poets and the confessional poets. I try to read new books of poems by young poets as well as those I learned from early on in my poetry development.

I read poetry, fiction, nonfiction, as well as hybrid works. Big influences include Laura Kasischke, Etheridge Knight, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Dorothy Barressi, Lynn Emanuel, Catherine Bowman, David Wojahn, Mary Ruefle, W. S. Merwin, Edwidge Danticat, Tomas Transtromer, Adam Zagajewski, Julie Marie Wade…oh, there are too many to list. I’m currently reading Rochelle Hurt, Michael Dickmann, Terrance Hayes, Marie Howe, W. G. Sebald, Stephen Graham Jones, and Denise Duhamel.

I discovered a book by Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña, Saborami, that I’m going back to again and again. It’s grounded in place. She describes an art exhibit she created of just leaves. I feel at home in that book.


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Physical and Immaterial Boundaries

An interview with Carol V. Davis, author of Because I Cannot Leave This Body

by Kristen Womble

Why did you choose the title for Because I Cannot Leave This Body?

Titles for poetry are challenging because you want to entice a potential reader to be curious about the book but you don’t want to risk a reader thinking the title is literal. My first book with TSUP had the title Into the Arms of Pushkin: Poems of St. Petersburg. Some readers in Russia thought it was a book about Pushkin. It was not. Pushkin lived in St. Petersburg and so this was a metaphor for my time living there but it was confusing for Russian readers. After that I was more aware of pitfalls for titles. I wanted to be careful about the title of this book. Since there are a number of poems that relate to the body, both in terms of response poems to paintings by Lucian Freud and other poems about the body, this title seems to work. I think it’s also an intriguing title.

How does the image you chose for the cover represent the poetry in this collection?

because-i-cannot-leave-cvrIt’s so unusual and wonderful that TSUP allows and encourages its writers to choose the cover art. I’m not sure any cover actually represents the work in a book, but I do hope this painting works with the poems. I became acquainted with the paintings of this artist, Yvette M. Brown, about a decade ago and I love her work for its sense of movement of the people she paints and in the fabric of their clothing. Many of her paintings use bodies in motion and fabric/clothing in interesting ways. I like so much that this body (in the cover painting) is somewhat abstract, though it is partially representational in that you recognize the body but also cannot see the face. The figure is clearly leaning backwards but it’s not clear what’s behind it. There were so many things about this painting that worked beautifully, and especially with this title. I sent Yvette some of the poems from the book and we both looked at various paintings of hers before I chose this one. As you can see, there are some lines in the painting. This comes from different canvases she used. I like also this as demarcations of the body in the painting and think it works well with the poems too.

Russia plays a huge role in your book Into the Arms of Pushkin, and this collection includes various settings, from Russia to California. What role do settings play in your poetry?

I always respond to my environment and find being in new places inspiring. Like most poets, I pay attention to my surroundings in a more sharpened way when I’m in a new place than when I am at home, so this collection represents that as well. In 2010 I had a National Park Service artist residency at Homestead National Monument of America in Nebraska and that was a completely new environment for me. I had never been in Nebraska, never been on the prairie (except driving cross country as a child) and I found that environment very interesting. There are a number of poems from that experience and a second NPS residency in 2015 at Hubbell Trading Post on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. In January 2015 I went to Germany for the first time, and then back to St. Petersburg and on to Siberia, also for the first time. All of these experiences are reflected in some of the poems in the book as well.

Part IV of this collection contains poems about paintings by Lucian Freud. What do you find interesting about his paintings, and what about Freud’s work inspires you in your work?

I first saw the paintings by Lucian Freud many years ago. For over a decade he had a woman modeling for him who was given the nickname Big Sue. I knew for many years that I wanted to write about one of the Big Sue paintings, but it took (for some reason) many years to finally do it (this happens sometimes, when a subject just has to stew around until it is ready). Like many women, if I gain even a few pounds, I am self-conscious about my looks. (I used to be a dancer and danced in a company many years ago, an experience that probably makes a woman even more self-conscious.) I both admired Big Sue and was amazed that a woman of her size and girth would feel so comfortable in her body as to pose naked for many paintings. So I knew I wanted to write about at least one of these paintings. Once I started, I kept going and wrote about other Freud paintings as well. I find his work sometimes disquieting but it always grabs me as a viewer. There is, for me, something so strange and compelling about his paintings.

Judaism and Jewish myth appear throughout this collection. How does your heritage influence your work?

I can’t completely answer the questions about how exactly Jewish heritage influences my work but I do notice that this book has more references to Judaism and Jewish myths and texts than in previous work. It’s always been somewhat in my work but it’s more pointed in this collection. I grew up in a very Jewish household but there were a lot of unanswered questions. For my parents’ generation, I think they thought by not talking about difficult subjects, they were somehow protecting t1024px-magdeburg_synagogueheir children. So though I knew my maternal grandparents had left Germany, I also knew not everyone in the extended family had. But my parents never talked about it in front of us. That has haunted me and my work. When I was a toddler we moved to Europe so my father could work for the Marshall Plan. Even though I was so young, I remember living in many countries. When I went to preschool in Europe and then in America and later again when we lived in England, I was often the only Jew (not to mention American) in a class and that somehow reinforced feelings of “otherness.” Some poems reflect that. Questions of faith and doubt have interested me for a long time and came to the forefront in this collection.


Because I Cannot Leave This Body will be available in January 2017.

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Memoir and Identity

An Interview with Loren Schmidtberger, author of The Beginner’s Cow: Memories of a Volga German from Kansas

by Hayden Wilsey

Writing a title for a text that looks at the intimate moments of your life is hard to do. Why did you name your memoir “The Beginner’s Cow”?

“The Learners’ Cow” is what I called the first memoir-type essay that I ever wrote. The circumstance under which I came to write it when I was nearly eighty years old will help explain why, later on, I chose “The Beginner’s Cow” for my book’s title.

Mary, my wife of forty-seven years, had just died and I took it hard. I hadn’t cried very often in my life before this, I told a grief counselor, who then asked if I wanted to talk about one of those earlier times. I declined, but later found myself thinking about the time in my childhood when I had cried very hard.

It was when our family finally sold Old White Face, one of our milk cows, the one my older siblings and I learned to milk on—our “learners’ cow,” as it were. She was an easy milker, a gentle cow, which is why she was assigned, in succession, to the you, most recent child in our family to join the milking rotation. I bawled my heart out when I saw her hauled away.

I wrote up the sad experience in an essay and showed it to the grief counselor, who encouraged me to continue writing. I heeded her advice and began to write the collection of autobiographical essays that would eventually become my book. “The Learners’ Cow” was then replaced with “The Beginner’s Cow,” a title that casts a broader perspective and connects the many beginnings throughout my life—from learning how to milk a cow to beginning the process of writing these memoirs.

Incidentally, that very first essay (in slightly revised form) appears in the book as the chapter entitled “Old White Face.”

Your stories provide a lot of insights into your cultural roots as a Volga German growing up in Kansas. What did your Volga German heritage give you to think about as you wrote your memoir?

My Volga German heritage was not something I specifically set out to mine while writing the essays that became this book. I did not try to illustrate the traditions, Roman Catholicism, for example, and practices that were especially dear to us Volga Germans. I just tried to create an accurate representation of events in my life that I can still recall and that might be of interest to a reader.

In my earliest memories of ethnic identification, I first thought of myself as German, that being the language I heard and spoke more often than English. Then I thought of myself as German-Russian, or just Russian. I heard people from outside our community mispronounce it derisively as “Rooshun.” So at the time that I was first experiencing my Volga German heritage, I felt embarrassed and apologetic about it. Then in college I became defensive about it. Then, probably during my three years in the military, I lost all sense of ethnic heritage in defining myself. Through much of my life I simply defined myself as husband, father, professor, and in that order.

In the course of writing my essays, I discovered that, for all the years I have lived in New Jersey and New York, I am still, at heart, a Volga German from Kansas.

You taught for fifty-one years at Saint Peter’s University in New Jersey, where you are professor emeritus. What was the biggest lesson you learned as an educator?

I can’t decide between two lessons, each of which is really big:

  1. Listening is an undervalued form of communication. You are not listening if you are talking.
  2. Don’t take yourself too seriously. No child ever dreams of becoming president of the faculty senate.

Now that you’ve written your memoir, what is one piece of advice you would give someone who is interested in writing their own memoir?

Don’t start tomorrow. Start today. And be sure to back-up your document, indicating the date and a few-word-description of its contents, into a folder.

You let your readers in really close to some important moments in your family’s life, memorializing your siblings and parents by writing about them. Did any of them get to read parts of The Beginner’s Cow as you worked on it? What do you think they would say about The Beginner’s Cow if they read it today?

Glad you asked. My parents would be proud, I am sure. Only Jean, the oldest sibling, died without being able to see any of the essays. She would have loved them. From the beginning, I sent many of them to my siblings. My sister Alvina, who died in 2009, saw only the first few, but that included the one in which I quoted extensively from her own memories about our dad. I recorded “Penance on the Prairie” on a cassette for her, along with a harmonica solo by me—she was herself a good player—and her children played it for her at the hospital in Oregon. My sister Armie lived to read a few dozen. She too got treated to a CD and a song we used to sing in German. The staff in her hospital in Seattle enjoyed it too. Armie herself had sung a beautiful soprano. Virgil and Alvin read all the ones set in Kansas. They relished them. Alvin was mostly blind at this point, so his granddaughter Amy read them to him. She really liked them too, as did Virgil’s son, Gary, who still urges me, from time to time, to “Keep writing!” My sole surviving sibling, Janice, read and made some very astute suggestions about the manuscript, which I adopted.

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Poetry and Myth

An Interview with Alison Moncrief Bromage, author of Daughter, Daedalus

by Emily Ploch

Daedalus is a recurring character throughout your T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize–winning collection, Daughter, Daedalus. What role does myth play in the creation of this collection? What does mythology offer you as a writer?Daughter, Daedalus

Myth plays a large role in this collection as both a platform to spring from, as in the case of the Daedalus poems, and as a compelling voice to inhabit. The last section of the book is a sort of creation myth. Writing in the form of myth grants a narrative gravitas and a timelessness, and it is with that tone that I wanted to explore ideas of creation, motherhood, and the physical world.

What is it about myth that you are drawn to? What is it about Daedalus specifically that interests you?

The outlandish logic of myths attracts me. The proportions of cause and effect are so skewed and subjective in them, and I find that liberating. In myth people die of heartache, barter with kings, and invent folding chairs as huge responses to small conflicts. The power of the archetype is compelling; we can relate to both the hearthkeeper and the lord of the underworld, to both vengeance and love.

Daedalus, however, is not a god. He is simply a man of invention, a tinkerer. I come from a family of tinkerers who have a sense of optimism about jerry-rigging things like car engines, sump pumps, and doorjambs. So I feel at home with Daedalus’s resourcefulness. I also have great respect for his inventions. The ship’s sails, its prow, and a dancing floor are all inventions that seem to granted Daedalus both social grace and isolation, which I find intriguing.

Have you always been attracted to mythology? What originally enticed you about myth?

I was always interested in stories and storytelling, like any child. It wasn’t until high school that I actually read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I remember raising my hand in freshman English class and asking the teacher, in all honesty, whether the stories were true or not. (It was the story of Prometheus that gave me trouble. I couldn’t get my head around how his liver would regenerate overnight.) At thirteen, I had not yet learned to discriminate between the stories of what actually, historically happened and the stories people tell one another to explain things. Having a capacious imagination and being raised Catholic helped my curious confusion, I am sure.

Here’s the power of myth for me as a poet: I am still challenged by that line of reality and fabrication.

Inspiration to write comes in many forms. Who are your muses and teachers in creating poetry? Did you lean on any specific person or influence for Daughter Daedalus?

Inspiration for the poems in Daughter, Daedalus came namely from an absence. I had a sort of animal longing for a child for several years, and it took a long time for me to get to meet our daughter. So motherhood, the inverse of it, and my children are all wellsprings that helped to make these poems.

The physical world, its starkness and its natural laws are also inspiration to me—I think physics and the laws of gravity and heat are actually poems. When several of these poems came to me, I was driving through northern Vermont for work and listening to the Great Courses lectures on classical mythology. I drove alongside the Lamoille River and its boulders on my way home to Lake Champlain. The harshness of that landscape and the wending tales of gods and half gods percolated in me and the poems started to come. I kept a pad of paper on the passenger seat and wrote fragments as I drove.

And of course, I am a student of many brilliant poets and have certainly leaned on the buoyancy of their work: Seamus Heaney, Selma Hill, Sylvia Plath, Linda Gregerson, A. E. Stallings, and Mary Szybist, to name a few.

Your works appear in a lot of different literary journals. How did publishing in different journals help you in putting together this collection?

I started out years ago submitting maybe five poems, two times a year—and only to the most exclusive literary journals. And I was surprised and disappointed when six months later I was always rejected. My ego was too involved and that limited the lives of the poems.

Recently, I just submitted everywhere like crazy. My son was an infant and submitting felt like the only way I could be connected to the poetry world, because I wasn’t writing. The result of that push was that I got many poems published, in a variety of online and print journals. I got a lot of really terrific feedback from editors—great edits, great rejections, and other submission suggestions. The lesson for me was that for the poems to live, they need to be in the world.

The process of submitting requires some good poetic housekeeping and I am sure that that organization helped shape this collection. Lots got cut as I went along and the arc of Daughter, Daedalus became clear to me.

What revelations do you hope readers will have with Daughter, Daedalus? What did writing these poems reveal to you through their creation?

I always seem to write poems in a series and because of this, am never quite sure how the individual poems from a series will stand alone, or how they will stand with other series. Daughter, Daedalus is a combination of four series—apostrophes to a Daughter, to Daedalus, a portrait of limbo, and the voices of twins. Sort of an odd set. But I realized when I spread the poems out on a long table that my preoccupations held them together as a singular narrative.

I hope that readers will come to know Daedalus as I did—that in turning to the archetypal father of invention, I was too was inventing. Here now was a god to speak with and with whom to find relief, and he was my creation. I hope readers find conversation and relief and some nuggets of curiosity in the collection. I hope they feel, as I do, that there’s so much mystery to behold.

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Looking in the Mirror: Children Need More Diverse Books

by Melissa Bradford

Vampires don’t have reflections. When these “monsters” look into a mirror, they see no image of themselves staring back at them. I recently read an analogy by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Junot Diaz who compared a vampire’s lack of reflection to how some people cannot see themselves reflected in the books they read.

Those people include the young children—children who are African American, Asian, Latino, and Native American—who visit a library looking for books with characters like them on the cover only to find shelves and shelves of white protagonists.

When these children don’t see themselves represented in media, they begin to ask themselves the same questions Diaz asked himself growing up: Is there something wrong with me? Does society think that people like me don’t exist? They begin to think that since they have no reflection, they must be monsters too.

This of course is not true, and the blame for lack of diverse publications falls onto the publishing industry. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, out of 3,200 children books published in 2013, only 93 were about African Americans, and the numbers are even lower for Asian, Latino, and Native American children’s books. The number of children’s books published about non-white characters adds up to less than 10% of the total, yet the U.S. Census reports that minorities make up almost 40% of the U.S. population and that figure is only expected in increase over the next few decades.

One of the reasons big name publishers aren’t producing more culturally diverse books is because they believe that those books won’t sell as well or that there isn’t a market for them. However a recent social media campaign has set out to prove them wrong. After scrolling through the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag on Twitter for the first time, I saw people from all different races sharing their personal experiences and explaining why their cultures deserve to be published too.

This is why, when I first started interning for Truman State University Press, I was thrilled to find out about their Notable Missourians children’s book series. The series focuses on the stories of significant people who have contributed to Missouri’s history, including former slave Sam Nightingale and Native American leader Great Walker. Whereas some history books only highlight the triumphs of white people, this series makes a point of featuring people not found in the typical textbook, showing young Missouri students that everybody—whatever their skin color, religion, or ethnic background—is part of our state’s history.

In an industry where it’s easier to find more children’s books featuring talking animals than multicultural protagonists, every book counts. Each diverse book published has the chance to be a young child’s mirror. Children will pull the book off of the library shelf, open the pages, and see themselves reflected back at them, reassuring them that they are not the monster here—they never were. They just needed the right book to show them.

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Our Prison Fixation

by Heather Ernst

Prison life and the practice of incarceration has been a subject of interest among the public for years. When public executions and punishments were no longer a public spectacle, interest in the subject did not falter. People began to wonder: What is life like behind prison bars?

It’s part of the human condition to be curious. Prisoners are outliers, the ones who broke societal rules and expectations. A prison has a distinct culture, but over the years, the barred doors have swung open to let us see what life is truly like for the convicted. Many prisons, like Alcatraz and the Tower of London to name a couple, have become tourist hot spots, drawing crowds from all over the world.

Prison life has been featured in many popular movies: Cool Hand Luke (1967), Escape from Alcatraz (1979), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and The Green Mile (1999). More recently, television shows about prisons like Oz, Prison Break, and the popular Netflix show Orange Is the New Black have used prison and its inmates as subject matter. Documentaries have covered numerous prison-related topics, from daily life to psychological makeup of high-profile felons, to haunted/abandoned prisons. Why do inmates behave the way they do? How do they act once they’re locked up?

In Unguarded Moments, maintenance worker Larry Neal presents an alternative, first-person account of his interactions with inmates at the Missouri State Penitentiary in the 1980s. In contrast to melodramatic presentations in media and television about prisons, this down-to-earth account focuses on Neal’s daily interactions with felons whose crimes aren’t notorious enough to merit a “high-profile” status. Neal’s candid narrative about his interactions with inmates sheds light on these “everyday criminals.”

Since Neal was, in convict slang terms, a “square man” (a staff member who is not an officer), he developed a different kind of relationship with the inmates. He was not a threat; he was there to improve their quality of life in the prison. Often maintenance workers and inmates pulled pranks on each other and would work together on maintenance projects all over the penitentiary. In one instance, a confident younger prisoner continued to bet against an older, more seasoned one, and the stakes were much higher than the normal currency of push-ups.

“One of the bets that became popular for a while was for losers to do a song and dance. That consisted of a shuffling of the feet, a clapping of the hands, and a rendition of the “Quack quack! I’m a duck!” song in a high, quiet, embarrassed voice. … It’s an amazing sight to see some time-hardened, rough, old convict, red-faced and humiliated as a crowd gathered at the plumbing shop door to cheer and whistle.” (58–59)

Stories of harmless practical jokes fill the pages of this memoir, which is surprisingly lighthearted for a work about a major state penitentiary. However, Larry Neal does delve into the more macabre in the chapter “The MSP Gas Chamber.” Even with his inside experience, Neal is not exempt from preoccupation about the room where 40 inmates were executed. He writes:

“I found the chamber fascinating and wondered if that meant I had a twisted mind (something most people took for granted), but I later realized that if so, there were a lot of other similarly warped people. Almost every public tour given of the pen would bog down at this place where men and women had been forcefully launched from the here and now into eternity.” (154)

Our appetite for knowledge on prisons will probably never be satiated. There will always be a burning curiosity about incarceration and the inner workings of a place where society’s worst are kept locked away from the rest of the world.

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Show Yourself Missouri

By Jason Offutt, author of Haunted Missouri & What Lurks Beyond

A few years ago, I got in my car and drove to Canada simply because I’d never been there. It was an amazing experience, and I discovered something on my trip: the inch and a quarter that my wall map said separated me from our friendly neighbors was 700 miles in real life. On that trip I also learned Midwest history, tried new food (if you go to Canada, eat the Poutine once. I think once is all a body can take), and got my feet wet in places like the source of the Mississippi River. Literally. The water there’s cold.

The next summer I tried England.

Yes, travel can get expensive, the vernacular can be a problem (Travel Tip 271: a draw of beer in Wisconsin is called a “tapper”), and there’s that inevitable house in the road. Seriously. On my way through Iowa, I got stuck behind a tractor-trailer pulling a house on a rural highway. You think getting behind a guy driving the speed limit in the passing lane is bad, try a house.

But travel, especially local travel, is also worth it. There are places right here in Missouri you can’t see anywhere else. If you’re thinking about taking a little drive, try these Ten Places to See in Missouri (in no particular order). You’ll notice I’ve left off sites like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, but those are no-brainers. Some of my ten spots you may have never heard of.

Ten Places to See in Missouri
1. City Museum, St. Louis. If you have children, go here. Go here now. The City Museum is located inside, outside, and atop a 600,000-square-foot building that once housed the International Shoe Company. The tubes, slides, mazes, and toys (two built out of actual airplanes, and one out of a school bus) give this place a Willy Wonka feel. The Ferris wheel on the roof gives riders a terrific view of the city, but not if you’re afraid of heights.

2. Battle of Lexington State Historic Site, Lexington. Trenches, and the scars of war can still be seen over these 100-acres where a three-day Civil War battle raged in 1861. The Anderson House, fought over by Union and Confederate forces between Sept. 18 and 20, retains bullet marks and a hole where a cannon ball ripped through the attic. This is one of Missouri’s most well preserved Civil War battle sites.

3. Mizzou Botanical Gardens, Columbia. The campus of the University of Missouri contains an arboretum, butterfly garden, Asiatic and Oriental lily garden, a statue of Beetle Bailey (the cartoon’s creator Mort Walker went to Mizzou), Thomas Jefferson’s original tombstone, and a native Missouri tree collection. While you’re in Columbia, go downtown and enjoy Shakespeare’s Pizza. I said, “enjoy” because you don’t have any other choice. The pizza is that good.

4. Arrow Rock, Highways 87 and 187 in Saline County. This well-kept village is a National Historic Landmark because of its role in Westward Expansion. It was also the home of artist George Caleb Bingham and of Dr. John Sappington, who discovered quinine was effective in treating malaria. While there dine at a local restaurant, stay at one of the town’s many bed and breakfasts, visit the Arrow Rock State Historic Site Museum, and take in a show at the Lyceum Theatre.

5. Big Cedar Lodge, Ridgedale. Nestled in the heavily wooded hills of Southern Missouri, and overlooking the 43,000 acre Table Rock Lake, this 246-room lodge is not only beautiful, it owns a haunted history. The wife of one of the founders, Harry Worman, supposedly haunts the grounds. Guests have reported seeing a spectral woman in white walking though the grass at night, gazing out at the lake.

6. Rockcliffe Mansion, Hannibal. This beautiful, immaculately preserved 13,500-square-foot structure, built in 1898, was at the time regarded as one of the biggest private homes in Missouri. Now a bed and breakfast, its more than thirty rooms are also open for tours. In 1902, Mark Twain, a friend of owner and builder John Cruikshank, gave his good-bye speech to Hannibal inside the mansion to more than 300 people.

7. Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque, Kansas City. Arthur Bryant’s is what people mean when they talk about Kansas City-style barbecue. Don’t visit KC without trying the original restaurant at 1727 Brooklyn Avenue. You’re welcome.

8. Weston Brewing Company and O’Malley’s Pub, Weston. Reopened in 2005 after a bit of problem with Prohibition (yes, the brewery had been closed since 1919), the Weston Brewing Company produces 20,000 kegs of beer each year. The brewer is open for tours (the free sampling at the end was my favorite part). The brewery (part) and pub (all of it) are in the original limestone tunnels carved in 1842 to store beer.

9. The Hornet Spook Light, south of Joplin. Not so much of a specific place as it is any number of spots on a gravel road overlooking Oklahoma, Spook Light Road is said to be home to a ball of light that mysteriously travels up from the Sooner State, through your car, and disappears. Said to be the ghost of a local American Indian who died looking for his love, this light has been seen by the curious since the late 1800s. It’s creepy.

10. The James Brothers tour, lots of places. This is cheating, because it’s more than one location, but let’s just go with the theme here:
Jesse James Home, Kearney, the boyhood home of Frank and Jesse James.
Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Kearney, the final resting place of Jesse and his wife Zerelda.
Hill Park Cemetery, Independence, Frank James’ grave.
Jesse James Bank Museum, Liberty, the site of the first daylight bank robbery in the United States.
• The 1859 Old Jail and Marshal’s Home, Independence, Frank James’ home for six months. His cell was kept unlocked, and he often dined with the Marshal’s family.
Jesse James Home Museum, St. Joseph, where Jesse was assassinated by Bob Ford, a member of his gang.
Richmond Cemetery, Richmond, where Bob Ford is buried.
Mark Twain Cave, Hannibal, Jesse once used this cave as a hideout, and scrawled his name in the rocks to prove it.
Meramec Caverns, Sullivan, Jesse and Frank also once sought refuge in this cave system, escaping the law by squirming through an underground river.

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A Core Change in an Uncommon Way

by Sarah Andrews-Weiss

When I was first introduced to the new young readers’ series that Truman State University Press is publishing (Notable Missourians) at the beginning of my internship, all I really knew about it was that it would focus on successful Missouri residents, and that the series would “meet the Missouri Learning Standards.” As an English major who has shared more than a few classrooms with numerous teachers-to-be, this was when the ominous scary-movie music began to fill my ears.

“Fiction will be de-emphasized.” “Informational texts will be given the classrooms’ attention.” “Good literature will disappear from elementary assigned reading lists…” When it comes to criticism about the new Common Core State Standards, I’ve heard and read it all. So when confronted with this series, I couldn’t decide how to feel. On the one hand, as the books will meet the requirements teachers will be looking for, the series is likely to do well. On the other, it will be doing well by falling in line with a system many find problematic. Left feeling ambivalent with both sides, I did the only thing I could think of: I familiarized myself with the Notable Missourians series…and what I found surprised me.

The series is lovely. People like clowns, athletes, and frontier women are introduced with such fascinating stories that I was surprised they had never been introduced to me before. Eras such as the Great Depression and westward expansion are depicted using specific experiences to help the reader more fully understand how these time periods affected people on an individual level. And clear, understandable writing along with imagery (literary techniques that have been emphasized throughout all of my creative writing courses) are utilized. As I took all of this in, I wondered how a series that utilizes so many narrative elements could possibly comply with an educational change in favor of dull and lifeless “informational texts”?

Confused, I looked at the actual requirements of the core standards, and found that the Grade Level Expectations (or GLEs) for fourth through sixth grade social studies material expects a focus on “individuals from Missouri who have made contributions to our state and national heritage,” an ability to “locate and describe settlements in Missouri,” and information on the causes, effects, and events of the westward expansion… all of which are included within the individual stories in the series.

Instead of taking the new requirements asked for from the Missouri Learning Standards and creating dull accounts of overused historical figures, this series has managed to take these standards and create an end product both informational and enjoyable to read. If other book publishers take the Notable Missourians’ lead when it comes to these new educational guidelines, I am sure the quality of literature our children will be exposed to will be as high as it has always been.

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500 Years of History in 500 Words

by Rachel Goodwin

It’s easy to assume that books have always existed and that you could always pick a book off your shelf or download one onto your e-reader. Most people today take books for granted. Haven’t there always been libraries filled with shelves upon shelves, volumes upon volumes? Haven’t lawyers and scholars always had their offices lined with books or even stacked haphazardly?

The simple answer is no. Books have not always existed. For centuries, information was stored on the clay tablets of Mesopotamia or the painted hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt or the scrolls of ancient China. Fast forward several centuries and we see European monks laboring by hand in scriptoriums to painstakingly create beautifully illuminated manuscript books on calfskin called vellum. (Yes, this means that even the earliest books weren’t on paper!)

So how did books become what they are today? It wasn’t an easy process. The first movable type printing press appeared in the Western world in 1439. This was the first major change in the development of the book. The printing press allowed more books to be printed at a faster rate. Scribes could make mistakes as they tried to copy books in dim candlelight, and type-setters would make the same mistakes as they set the layout for the books in the same dim conditions. But in the time it took a scribe to copy a single book, thousands could be printed by the hand press.

The Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought another major change. Steam power meant that presses could crank out more pages than by hand. Cheaper paper meant that book costs would decrease but the quality of the books also decreased because the paper was so poor quality. As a result of the cheaper paper, publishers started to offer binding on their books. (Yes, this meant that books previously weren’t nicely bound. If you wanted your book to be bound with a cover and spine, you had to pay for someone to do it for you!)

The mid-1940s brought yet another change to book publishing: the paperback. Now books were even cheaper because the binding didn’t have to be the cloth over cardboard hardback editions. Paperbacks were cheaper to produce and buy. But this didn’t mean that hardbacks disappeared, just like manuscripts didn’t disappear immediately after the printing press made its debut.

The new millennium brought even more new changes to book publishing. Books had started going through a more rigorous process to being published so that formatting and errors were caught before the book was even printed. As technology and the Internet appeared on the market (also at a more affordable price) books began to appear on the computers. E-books and e-readers have gained popularity for the convenience of carrying a lot of books in one small tablet and for being a lot cheaper than hard copies (since they don’t have to be printed at all!)

So here ends our (roughly) 500 years of history in 500 words. We have seen books go from being hand-copied and expensive to printed and expensive to printed on paper and less expensive to hundreds available on your brightly lit digital screen. Over these 500 years, books have become more accessible to more people. What will the future of the book be? Will the dream of every student come true? Will we someday be able to put a book (in whatever form it takes) under our pillow at night and in the morning have all the information in our brain ready to go? Who knows? We will just have to wait and see what the future holds in store for the book and for us.