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Schoonering Through Nebraska

Ninth Stop: Vibrant Norfolk

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 Marianne’s seventh blog entry in the series after visiting Norfolk, Nebraska.

A city's a city's a city. That is, until I started visiting extremely small and slightly larger cities. Driving out of Battle Creek to Norfolk, which holds about 24,000 people, I laughed at how big Norfolk seemed in comparison. It has chain restaurants, streetlights, and a long drag of a main road that reminds me of the central strip in southern beach towns like Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

I'm starting to revisit my assumptions about Nebraska. At the beginning of the tour, I was excited to explore rural communities in the state and only our stop in Omaha stood out as a vast exception. It turns out each city we've stopped through is immediately unique in some way; Norfolk struck me as a vibrant and wealthy city, even down to its large library with high ceilings decorated with black metal scaffolding. The first librarian we met, Ann, laughed disbelievingly when we told her we'd been in western Nebraska days before; she seemed skeptical that there were cities there, as I was once skeptical that Norfolk could deliver the nicest Hampton Inn I've ever stayed in (it did!).

Ann and the head librarian, Jessica, along with an employee named Tom, were so welcoming. Before the reading Tom brought Kwame and me cups of water, and Jessica shared funny stories about when she lived in Tennessee. Remarkably, Jessica was the first librarian on our tour not to warn me of a small crowd; she said little about who was coming, so I enjoyed imagining that our decent-size audience comprised Norfolk residents naturally curious about the journal and writing.

Kwame read from his book "Impossible Flying" a wonderful poem about being mistaken for his younger brother by a former acquaintance of his brother's. He has read other poems from the book throughout the tour, paraphrasing to other audiences the incident he so powerfully describes in the poem he read in Norfolk. It was fascinating to hear a familiar story retold in verse--the verbs were just right, the mystery amplified, and the poem ended at the most dramatic moment. It didn't matter that I'd heard Kwame tell what happened after that moment.

Traveling through Nebraska, I'm becoming familiar with particular landscapes, with Midwestern mannerisms, even with reading my work aloud. I can feel myself progressing from writing about my experiences casually and spontaneously to writing more purposefully, with ideas and impressions that recur and sharpen in meaning. It's why I like poetry--the chance to use the best verbs, pacing, details, etc. in the presentation of a moment. So perhaps it's time for me to write a Nebraska poem!