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I particularly like the title of this blog – Livelihoods – in how it reflects the artistic attitude and the artistic challenge. Pursuing one’s livelihood is an act of securing all the necessities of life. For many authors and artists, it is difficult to do that in a single career or a single passion. Those of us committed to our art or writing know that the basic necessities of life include not only food, water, shelter and clothing, but also the exercise and sustaining of the imagination. But often what puts food on the table does not fuel the imagination, and often artistic work does not provide the other necessities.
What is one to do? Well, one gets by. Somehow. I learned from Rilke as a young man that if one must write, one will write. To a poet, poetry ever is “louder than a bomb” (as others on this blog have said) and also “quieter than a stone,” or perhaps both at the same time. For the playwright, the poet, the visual artist, the indie film producer, the songwriter, the actor, and others, art is not a “hobby” and don’t you dare call it that to them.
One is first nourished by the strength in the art of others until eventually one must walk on his or her own legs, regardless how weak.
One is first nourished by the strength in the art of others until eventually one must walk on his or her own legs, regardless how weak. In high school and then college, I absorbed rock lyrics (1960’s) and particularly soaked up Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen as I studied philosophy at Wichita State University and Indiana University. In writing workshops at WSU, I fed on Rilke and W. D. Snodgrass and the mid-20th century Moderns. At Indiana, I studied the no-nonsense positivism and empiricism of Carnap, Popper, Quine and Wittgenstein. For me, the life of the mind and that of the heart came together paradoxically in my own quirky, personal human imagination (and that is how I hope to speak now as a poetic voice.) But then I only yearned (though not yet had learned) to write my own story, not echo the words and lyrics of those I loved and admired.
That was a long time, a long time coming, as Sam Cooke sang. In grad school, I had envisioned a coordinated pursuit of all life’s necessities as a university professor in the Philosophy of Science. But that did not work out for me and for many years I segmented my efforts to earn life’s essentials as many authors and artists must. For years, I worked as a computer programmer and in emerging areas of technological research and projects, including artificial intelligence and online stock trading. The 1980’s and 1990’s were exciting times in microcomputer technology and it was a good life, but poetry took a back seat and it seemed often like I was no longer a poet or worse, perhaps had never been one. Eventually though, things changed and the common provisions were secured. Fortunately, my need years ago as a young poet to develop the imagination had persisted. To my awe and amazement, I found poetry was still “louder than a bomb” and “quieter than a stone.”
Paul Dickey grew up in Wichita and began publishing poetry in the 1970s. Dickey has a Bachelor’s degree from Wichita State University and a Master of Arts degree from Indiana University, Bloomington, in the History and Philosophy of Science. In 1985, he moved his family to Omaha. After a hiatus begun in 1980, Dickey started to publish again in 2003 when he retired from a career in information technology, online stock trading, and management. Since then, he has published poetry, plays, creative non-fiction and fiction in about 150 literary journals.
Dickey’s first full-length book of poems, They Say This is How Death Came into the World was published by Mayapple Press in January, 2011. A second book, Wires over the Homeplace was published by Pinyon Publishing in October, 2013.
Paul won the $5,000 2015 Master Artist Award for poetry from the NAC Individual Artist Fellowships (IAF) program. Besides writing, Dickey teaches philosophy at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha. To read online work by Paul or get additional information, please visit his website.
I did not attempt creative writing when I was young because I had no notion I could. My unlikely path to poetry—to creativity, really—was detoured by everyday life: growing up, marrying, starting a family, working, attending college as a non-traditional student. By the time I graduated with a degree in horticulture, I thought I knew what I wished to do and where I was headed. Not exactly.
I grew up on a small farm with three older brothers and without television. At an impressionable age, I lived and breathed hay bales and clover blossoms and topsoil. Because there were few distractions, I looked at things closely and let my imagination run wild. We listened to radio programs like Perry Mason, Lone Ranger and a creepy sci fi show that gave me nightmares. We attended a one-room country school K-8th. Saturdays, we drove to town for groceries and supplies, and there I learned to love the library. I would load up with books and return them the following week.
Which led me to an interest in the humanities, and literature in particular. My first professional position as a horticulturist was as grounds manager and arboretum curator at Nebraska Wesleyan University. An employee benefit was free tuition. One of the first courses I enrolled in was poetry writing taught by William Kloefkorn, who was named Nebraska State Poet in August 1982, soon after I started working there.
In that first class, Kloefkorn read some of his and others’ poems, talked and joked around, then said, “Next time you come to class, bring a poem you have written.” Which sort of stunned me: I’d never written a poem! Sure, I’d read poems—including Kloefkorn’s and Ted Kooser’s early book together, Cottonwood County, which made me think maybe I could at some point attempt writing something resembling a poem. I’ve always been a little nutty about words—a word nerd. I was intrigued with poetry and how poets craft words into phrases and lines to capture a moment or experience or person so succinctly and artfully. I thought Kloefkorn would instruct us on how to write a poem—step one, two, three—like there was a formula, recipe or checklist to follow. Wrong.
My first poems were awful, I’m sure, but I was lucky. Kloefkorn was talented at finding at least one good thing in each piece of student writing. In mine, it was a line about my brother “punching my arm silly.” The word “silly” with “punching my arm” stood out as imaginative and fresh; he was right. I learned something valuable about writing: you start where you start. You learn from others, by listening, by reading, by filling your head with words that make you want to write your own creative piece, whether it is a poem, story or essay. You study other writers to learn the what/how/why they craft their work as they do. But mostly you learn by writing.
Why poetry? Because it is a challenge, because the blank page is waiting, because you trust words, love to discover where writing can take you while abandoning yourself to the process. Which, in creativity, is everything.
Twyla M. Hansen is Nebraska’s State Poet for a five year term as named by Governor Dave Heineman. Her newest book, DIRT SONGS: A PLAINS DUET, won a 2012 Nebraska Book Award and was Finalist for 2012 WILLA Literary Award and High Plains Book Award. Her previous poetry books include POTATO SOUP, winner of a 2004 Nebraska Book Award. Her writing has appeared widely, including in literary and environmental periodicals, anthologies, a textbook and encyclopedia. Her B.S. and M.Ag. are from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and she is a creative writing presenter through Humanities Nebraska and the Nebraska Arts Council.
Sara Lihz’s Story
I went to my first poetry reading the year I learned to drive. The host, an enthusiastic if a bit awkward man, was the most energetic thing behind the mic. I was determined to outdo him, so I read my poem about how much I hated my parents (I was 16) with gusto. After the reading, the host came over, introducing himself as Matt Mason, and asking if I wanted to do a feature reading at the Bookworm with William Kleofkorn, a real, honest-to-god poet.
This moment changed my life. Matt encouraged me and told me about other readings around town. He introduced me to slam poetry, competitive performance poetry, and convinced me to drive to Des Moines to make my first slam team. I wrote, graduated, went to college and majored in creative writing, got my MFA, and found that my real passion is not writing, or at least, it’s not just writing, but rather, it is teaching others to write and find their voices.
I’ve been working for the past 12 years in a variety of roles that allow me to help teenagers and adults learn to write and perform poetry. I worked with students at Millard North High School and UNL to perform poetry as part of their forensics teams. I joined the Nebraska Arts Council to go into high schools and tell them about Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry recitation contest that helps students to tear down some of the walls between themselves and poetry. I teach English and composition full-time at Metropolitan Community College.
Most recently, however, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Nebraska Writers Collective to be a Louder Than a Bomb Coach at Skutt Catholic High School. Louder Than a Bomb started in Chicago, and is a program that brings slam poetry to high school students by putting poets in schools and bringing touring poets through the city. As a coach, I meet with students once a week and bring them poems to read or videos of poets performing. Then they write their own poems and eventually learn to perform them. It is an incredible gift to help a student tell their story, to listen to their young voice grow bolder and more confident. I was not a shy teenager, but many of the students I work with are not as outgoing as I was. Matt Mason was the voice of encouragement for me, and I see in many of my students a need for that encouragement, an older poet who will take them seriously and offer both compliment and criticism. I am incredibly proud and fortunate to be able to repay the gift Matt gave to me.
About Sara Lihz:
Sara Lihz Staroska is a writer, performer, and teaching artist. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Creighton University and an MFA from California College of the Arts. She works full time as an English Instructor at Metropolitan Community College and is the author of six chapbooks including The Papier Maché Repair Shop Opens for Business. She has been published in a variety of anthologies and literary journals including: Slamma-Lamma-Ding-Dong (Winner of the Nebraska Book Award), Idiolexicon, and The Untidy Season. She also writes occasionally for the Apollon, a multi-genre arts and entertainment venue in Omaha.
Louder Than a Bomb is a festival where high school poets compete with their poetry. Yes, I know this sounds ludicrous. It kind of is. Which is why it’s so much fun.
Run by the nonprofit Nebraska Writers Collective, schools and organizations send teams who have been writing and working on performance with a coach for anywhere from one to nine months. They all get two preliminary bouts and maybe a “post-season” of semi-finals and finals bouts where they put up four individual poems and one group poem (written and performed by four team members) against three other teams. After each poem, judges chosen from the audience hold up numbers from zero to ten and, at the end of the night, determine a winner.
That’s the format of it, at least. The reality is that the points are not the point. The students form bonds with each other, whether they’re on the same team or not, and really support and encourage one another. One of my favorite moments from the 2012-13 festival was when two teams from last year’s finals, Bellevue West and Lincoln High, were in a bout against one another. After a Lincoln High student finished a poem and left the stage to a cheering crowd, it was the Bellevue West team who first ran up to him and lifted him up. Yes, the point is poetry.
And the point is these students telling us who they are, who they were, about baseball, about the internet, about dating, about breaking up, about dinosaurs, about—well…everything. And saying it in ways which bring audiences to their feet.
That’s a pretty good point, don’t you think?
Matt Mason is Executive Director of the Nebraska Writers Collective. He’s won a Pushcart Prize and two Nebraska Book Awards (for Poetry in 2007 and Anthology in 2006); organized and run poetry programming with the U.S. Department of State in Kathmandu, Nepal and Minsk, Belarus; and been on five teams at the National Poetry Slam. His second full-length poetry collection, The Baby That Ate Cincinnati, is just out from Stephen F. Austin University Press. Matt lives in Omaha with his wife, the poet Sarah McKinstry-Brown, and daughters Sophia and Lucia.