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My interest in wordplay began in childhood. Growing up in North Omaha I found myself attracted to the wonder of certain words, usually multi-syllabic tongue twisters I heard television talking-heads wittily brandish. I also fell under the near fatal spell of alliteration.
I believe my real fascination with language stemmed from seeing my late father working his crossword puzzles, reading the newspaper and occasionally immersing himself in a book. Then there was the colorful vernacular he used around the house and that my extended family, who lived in South Omaha, used. Sprinkled in with the cuss words were idiomatic descriptives favored by my father’s white-collar clan, whose expressions were just different enough from those of my mother’s blue-collar bunch, to stand them apart. Further seasoning this verbal stew were stray Polish words from my father’s side and occasional Italian words from my mother’s side. It was a multicultural linguistics education. As our all-white inner-city neighborhood became mixed, African-Americans introduced me to another rich vein of language flavored by their Southern roots and urban Northern street culture.
“….the simple joy of playing with words is the main
appeal to me.”
Even with all those influences I do not believe I would have been drawn to writing were it not for the Marvel comic books and high school English lit books I inherited from my older brothers. These stimulating hand-me-downs were enhanced by the periodicals that came into our home, particularly Sports Illustrated. By the time my brother Dan started writing his own personal sports column, just for the sheer pleasure of it. I, too, discovered writing could be fun. Later I found out what hard work it is. As teachers encouraged my efforts, I stretched myself. In high school I was recruited to write for the school paper and that led me to study journalism in college.
Even now, as a journalist and author, the simple joy of playing with words is the main appeal to me. Follow my work telling the stories of people, their passions and magnificent obsessions at leoadambiga.wordpress.com or http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga.
Leo Adam Biga is a working journalist who contributes articles to newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, a collection of the writer’s extensive journalism about the Oscar-winning filmmaker. Additionally, Biga is the coeditor if Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores and the author of two e-books for the Omaha Public Schools.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate worked in public relations (Joslyn Art Museum) before becoming a freelance writer. His published stories for dailies, weeklies, monthlies and quarterlies number well over a thousand. As a generalist he writes about a broad range of subjects, though most of his work is arts and culture-based.
He is finishing the biography of a retired Catholic priest who served marginalized populations around the world and he has plans for more nonfiction books. A new edition of his Payne book is in-progress.
Sample his eclectic work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com or http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga.
NOTE: His partner, artist Pamela Jo Berry, is a past Livelihood subject. Read more about Pamela Jo Berry here: http://bit.ly/YAt45c.
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.
I was in 6th grade at Morley Elementary in Lincoln when my teacher announced that Ivy Ruckman would visit our school. She had just published Night of the Twisters, a book that amazed me because it wasn’t remote and it wasn’t entirely imaginary. It was about an event that I remembered in a city not too far away.
This was groundbreaking for me. Since 2nd grade, I’d been writing about haunted houses and mysteries and dragons in places far from Nebraska. Night of the Twisters encouraged me to imagine new stories closer to home.
I knew I had to meet her. I wanted to ask her so many questions. Why Nebraska? Why Grand Island? Did she write about real people or make them up? How did she get published? How should I get published?
Our school librarian organized an essay contest, asking students to express why they wanted to meet and have lunch with Ruckman. My essay was selected and I was awarded a seat right next to her. There I was, 11 year-old me, having lunch with an author I admired, asking her questions, receiving encouragement and advice, and feeling afterwards like I had just made a new friend.
Since that day, I have met many authors, shared meals with them, asked about their work, shared my work with them, but I credit Ivy Ruckman’s interest in our school and my classmates for encouraging me to follow the path I’m on today.
I suspect that anyone who loves to read and write has their own Ivy Ruckman—an admired author who came to their school or library to share a love for writing. One of the joys of my job at Humanities Nebraska is to witness how author visits positively impact so many people. I see the smiles of children meeting Mo Willems in Seward, thank you notes from teens meeting Neal Shusterman in Scottsbluff, and messages from adults who remember their first time hearing Bill Kloefkorn or John Neihardt. So now I wonder—who is your Ivy Ruckman?
As Director of Literary Programs for Humanities Nebraska, Erika Hamilton works with readers and writers to develop and fund book discussions, public readings, workshops, and Nebraska Book Festival offerings. She also coordinates Prime Time Family Reading Time, an award-winning program for families with children ages 6-10 who struggle with reading. Erika has a B.A. in literature, writing and education from Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois; M.A. in creative writing (fiction) from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln; and is finishing her Ph.D. in American literature focusing on Willa Cather and book advertising.
I was about seven years old when the teacher at my one-room school suggested that I read Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It seemed really daunting at first, but soon I was totally engrossed in the story of Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura, and Baby Carrie starting a life in a place not that far from where I called home. I made a little nook for myself on the floor of the walk-in closet in the bedroom my little sister and I shared and missed many different calls for supper that first evening!
From that point on, the social studies became a passion! With the encouragement of my parents, besides finishing the “Little House” series, I was constantly reading books covering a variety of topics from the Civil War and settlement on the Great Plains to World War II and the Titanic. During the first Gulf War (at the age of 10), I found myself poring over maps of the Middle East and trying to learn everything I could about the region that was being shown on TV every evening. As I got involved in a range of activities at my small high school including sports, music, and drama, my favorite novels in English class still had a common historical theme, and for quiz bowl I memorized just about every fact about the Presidents that could be handled. It certainly was not a surprise when I decided early on that I wanted to be a social studies teacher; as much as I loved the subject, I also felt driven to inspire others to see how important the social studies are.
Thankfully, I have always had an opportunity professionally to utilize that love of the social studies and encourage others in learning about those topics whether it was on Capitol Hill, in my classrooms in Indiana and Nebraska, or now through Chautauqua, Capitol Forum, and the grant programs that we fund. Especially fitting is the opportunity I have now to help communities engage with history and the humanities through our current Chautauqua theme, Free Land? 1862 and the Shaping of Modern America, where the public encounters important historical figures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the lady whose words started it all for me, Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Kristi Hayek has been a Program Officer at Humanities Nebraska since October 2009. As part of her duties at HN she serves as the coordinator for both the Chautauqua and Capitol Forum on America’s Future programs along with handling a portion of the grants HN awards.
She is a fifth-generation Nebraskan and grew up on a farm near Friend. A graduate of Concordia University in Seward with a degree in education and an emphasis in secondary level social sciences, Kristi has served as a deputy legislative assistant in Senator Ben Nelson’s Washington, D.C. office, a social studies teacher at Concordia Lutheran H.S. in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and an instructor in American Government at Concordia University. When not involved in the humanities, she enjoys watching and playing sports, music, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.