A Celebration and A Goodbye

by Benjamin Curttright

Filed under: Blog |

Last Wednesday, Prairie Schooner staff, submitters, and subscribers gathered at the UNL International Center for Quilt Studies, for what was in some ways a celebration and in others a goodbye. The occasion: the publication of Fetish by Orlando Ricardo Menes and Domesticated Wild Things by Xhenet Aliu, winners of the 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. The presenters: Menes and Aliu, composers Casey Kettler and Rachel Whelan, photographer Josh Fiedler, and Prairie Schooner Editor-in-Chief Kwame Dawes.x

orlando ricardo menes and xhenet aliu

(Xhenet Aliu and Orlando Ricardo Menes before the reading)

Dawes opened the evening with a few brief remarks on Prairie Schooner and our place as a journal. ‘We’re publishing poetry; some people think, too much poetry,’ he said wryly. ‘But, that’s their problem.’ Dawes went on to thank departing managing editor Marianne Kunkel for her many contributions to Prairie Schooner. ‘When she goes off like a free bird,’ he said, ‘we will miss her greatly.’

Poet Orlando Ricardo Menes stepped up to the podium next, wearing a deep-pocketed tweed coat and holding a bright new copy of his Prairie Schooner Book Prize-Winning collection, Fetish. Menes read five poems from his collection to an eager audience. They were poems of creation and innovation; they focused on one time, one place, one photograph, one object, and asked powerfully, ‘How was this made? How did this begin?’

Menes closed with a personal poem, ‘Adderall,’ a beautifully metaphoric account of his daughter Valerie’s struggle with ADHD: ‘the brain clamorous for / Gardens to be resown on fallows of synaptic silt.’ It was this poem that inspired Casey Kettler’s atonal, jilted electronic composition, and the feeling extended into photojournalist Josh Fiedler’s short exhibition. Fiedler, inspired by the work of writer Xhenet Aliu, documented one day of his life in detail. After showing photographs of the flags outside Memorial Stadium, the dying sunset, and his cat, Chester, Fiedler implored the crowd, ‘Just slow down; notice life around you.’

Finally, fiction writer Xhenet Aliu took the stage to read from her book, Domesticated Wild Things and Other Stories. Aliu’s reading of ‘Feather Ann,’ a second-person account of a troubled child at the local YMCA, was lively and gripping. Aliu is clearly a writer with a huge personality, and her voice shines through the sometimes-abrasive-but-always-funny dialogue of Honor Jones and Feather Ann.

Somewhat fittingly, Aliu ended her reading with an abrupt, ‘I’m gonna stop. Thank you.’ It was a cliffhanger, an unresolved cadence, a missing note; as an audience and as a readership, it leaves us wondering what will follow. It’s a big question in the dynamic literary field, but it’s one that innovative, personable artists like Menes, Aliu, Kettler, and Fiedler are ready to answer. As the audience prepared to leave, Dawes took the microphone once more to thank those present. ‘I’m glad you came,’ he said. ‘That’s kind of important.’