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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 eighth blog entry after a visit to Battle Creek, Nebraska.

Battle Creek, NE
Pop. 1,207

The story is that at Battle Creek, no battle took place. But a battle was threatened. Indeed, more precisely, the Pawnee leaders, faced with an imminent attack by a combination of local militia and American troops in retaliation for what Wikipedia describes as depredations enacted by the Pawnee on the settler community, decided to surrender. That was the end of the Pawnee war. The stream beside the settlement was renamed (one must assume) Battle Creek. The name stuck. Stories like these, of course, make me so unsatisfied with Wikipedia and the web. I am so certain that the details of this "war" were far more complicated, and far more interesting in actuality than this narrative which is told, as usual, by the "victors.”

We arrived at Battle Creek after our visit to Neligh sometime after four o'clock in the afternoon. This is a small "one-street" town. The street is wide and bears the pink hue of the tarmac that runs through these parts of northeastern Nebraska. The massive silos line the street, along with quaint wooden homes with tidy front gardens and the requisite trucks. Apparently, the sign on the road declaring the population of the town is not accurate. The new sign with updated numbers was stolen as soon as it went up, so they had to put back the old sign. Apparently, no one wants the old sign.

The Battle Creek Library is a narrow white bungalow across the street from a gas station and convenience store, Tilly's. A large electronic marquee blazoned the name of the library and the coming attraction, a poetry reading by Kwame Dawes, in blue and red neon hues. This felt more like a warning than an invitation.

The library was locked, and so we made our way across the street to Tilly's. The folks there assured Marianne that this was the only place where we could kill three hours in town, do some work, and wait for the library to open. The woman at the till thought we could pick up wireless from the library in the store, but it turns out that we needed a password to do that, and she did not have it. Bars, generally, were quite sparse in Battle Creek—Internet bar lines on our computers, I mean. So we worked on things that we could.

I was soon aware of how cold the place was. Really cold. So I had coffee, and we worked until we confirmed that the library was open and folks were waiting for us.

The audience was now a familiar one—lively, laughing "regulars" with great stories about the day—this is the period of recitals, church programs, final sports games, band concerts, and the like. So the stories were about who was such a lovely singer and we never knew, and which child had now mastered the piano, and which child had finally mustered up the courage or the care to sing on stage, and so on. Norfolk, the big city next door, often drew people and so there may have been some people who could have come but did not. People, though, were in good spirits, and I was struck by the boldness of the political discussion.

I had not imagined that a gathering in rural Nebraska would be so outspoken about gun control issues. One woman said it was ridiculous that people had assault rifles. "To do what? Blow away deer?" The fact that the mother of Adam Lanza, the young man who murdered twenty-six people a couple of days before, had done so with an assault rifle that was part of the arsenal his mother was hoarding in her home, struck the group as absurd. I imagined that even those who had more generous views about gun ownership and use were at least aware that something untoward was going on and perhaps something had to be done.

Marianne and I did our usual song and dance. We have become more aggressive about selling the journal and encouraging folks to subscribe. My approach is to read from a short story—I have been reading Dinah Cox's "The Canary Keeper," a gloomy and whimsical Walter Mitty-like tale that is also quite delicately funny, and then telling folks that they should buy the issue if they want to see how the story ends. This gets a laugh, but I have the feeling that it also leads to a few sales. I have also been reading Marilyn Chin's hilarious epistolary prose poems in which a mother writes quite outrageous and devious notes to her precocious daughter Mei Ling who has decided, at a very early age, to become vegan. It is a wickedly scandalous set of poems, and I have relished reading them.

Marianne has been dipping into Alicia Ostriker's poems and in Battle Creek read a Fleda Brown poem about loss. Neither of us has yet dared to read Sharon Old's "Ode to a Clitoris," but one of our audience members at Neligh, browsing through the issues, declared, "Well, well, these are quite interesting titles, aren't they? Well, well. Oooh." I don't think hers was an expression of excitement, as she pointed accusingly at Olds’s quite lovely poem.

I enjoy the fact, though, that the librarians in these parts are dogged protectors of the freedom of speech and the freedom to read. They also laughingly say that their patrons are not shy about borrowing books that might be deemed as a tad scandalous. "We have no brown paper covering our books. And they just come in and borrow." It is clear that the community understands the safety of the library. It is a wonderful thought. Freedom is enacted here in startlingly beautiful ways. This is where the real freedoms of the country happen—in the right of people to read whatever they want without fearing serious recriminations.

The Q&A after our reading at Battle Creek was lively. One woman was disappointed that our poetry did not rhyme. I read a sonnet of mine to her, but I could tell she was not happy. So I quoted Emily Dickinson in a happy canter (you know how Emily can gallop along with her anapests) and she was satisfied. Of course, I took the opportunity to talk about how broad poetic styles are all over the world, and how limiting the tyranny of rhyme can be. She assured me that my reading voice was a helpful asset—a kind of consolation prize.

I remain convinced that we are doing a horrendous job in teaching poetry in schools. People are still leaving school hating poetry and hating poets. I could go on and on about how some of the efforts to change that are actually misguided. I want to take a program I developed in South Carolina around the country: “Towards a Poetry-Friendly School.” It is a foolproof method to help teachers who secretly and openly hate poetry. One of these days.

We drove out of Battle Creek with lovely homemade mint and vanilla fudge dancing in our blood and the cheerful farewells of the librarian, Kathy Bretschneider, ringing in our ears. The Hampton Inn in Norfolk is very, very, nice.