Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Schoonering Through Nebraska

A Blog of Sorts

Kwame Dawes and Marianne Kunkel are embarking on a goodwill tour across Nebraska, from public library to public library to connect people with the journal and to celebrate the value of the literary arts in the states. Along the way, they are blogging about their journey. This is Kwame’s sixth blog entry after his visit to Omaha, Nebraska.

Omaha, NE
Pop. 415,068

Omaha suddenly feels massive after several days on the road across this state. Nebraska, of course, is lopsided. In terms of population, the east is crowded, and in terms of open space the west is the hands-down winner.

So we arrived in Omaha after our stop in Stromsburg to the typical maze of interlapping highways, with the soft-spoken GPS woman trying her best to keep up with the rush of directions to get us to a broad bungalow of a building close to a busy area of strip malls where the Charles B. Washington Branch Library is located. The library is named after the great Nebraska civil rights leader whose virtual absence from the Internet is ample evidence of why we continue to need libraries and folks who will rely on them for knowledge.

In South Carolina I would comfortably say that this is the African-American library, but I suspect such obvious acknowledgement of race is seen as impolite in Nebraska. Still, the liveliness of the space; the fact that the library is named after an African American; the white board listing activities in the library like Zumba classes, book clubs, and much more suggested a focus on a culture that has a long and exciting history in Omaha. Browsing the shelves, I saw a copious helping of minority-themed works, journals, and posters—Cedric the Entertainer encouraging readers and listeners to enjoy books on tape and much else. And apart from the two uniformed (full black) security men, and the occasional patron who was white, the vast majority of those around were people of color.

I make something of this here because, of course, this is a little unusual for us during the tour.

We set up in the middle of the library under the guidance of the spritely and effervescent Adult Services Librarian, Anna Wilcoxon, who has mastered the language of enthusiasm for a new generation. The crowd was small at first but gradually, as we raised our voices and goaded the audience to applaud loudly, the guys working on computers, the young girls browsing magazines, the folks at the information desk and the security folks started to gravitate toward the center of the library to hear us.

There were great questions during the Q&A session about how we select work for the journal; about our disposition to Nebraska writers; the extent of our bias toward poetry, fiction, or essays; and so many queries that made us talk a great deal about the journal...

I have found that the best conversations happen afterwards. I watched Marianne talk intensely to a young woman who said she likes poetry, and Dave held forth an intense and funny political discussion with a young Alabama transplant, while a woman asked me questions about her son who was headed to Nebraska from Nigeria and who writes and would love to know about what to do with the several books he has finished writing.

We had a good chance to talk about Prairie Schooner, contemporary writing, and the pleasures of being transported by a writer's imagination.

Mostly, I am finding myself finding language to define the pleasures of reading a journal. My list is growing: work never seen before from new and established authors, work that represents what writers today are doing, work that is risky and potentially fails that is still there for us to check out, a taste for writers whose work we can get to know more after the teaser, a place for dipping and sipping of good writing, a writing experience that feeds the eclectic in us... The list will get longer.

We left the Omaha library in search of Ethiopian food. Unfortunately they had run out of food. So we found Caribbean Delight, a decidedly Jamaican restaurant, and the food was sublime. These tours have their perks.