Tag Archives: poetry

All the Best in Omaha

November 8, 2018 by

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Thursday, Nov. 8: It’s here. The celebration everyone’s been talking about—the Best of Omaha Soirée: A Night of the Best. You’ve probably heard about it (especially if you subscribe to our newsletter), so we won’t bore you with a bunch of details. But rest assured, this is one soirée you don’t want to miss. Sadly, VIP tickets are sold out, but general admission tickets are still available. And you will still get to taste the food, enjoy the performances from Flowtricks Entertainment, and mingle with the best. Oh! Plus you’ll get two drink tokens with your purchase, and there will be a cash bar once you’ve used those. It’s a celebration of the Best of Omaha contest winners you voted for, so come out and show your support! Simply click here for your chance to attend this elegant, inaugural event.

Thursday, Nov. to Saturday, Nov. 10: If you weren’t already aware, it’s Ruebenfest 2018 at the Crescent Moon this week. Weren’t able to make it out earlier this week? No worries. You still have three days left to head down and enjoy one a wide variety of specialty Rueben items from this Omaha institution, including Rueben deviled eggs and egg rolls. Vegetarians can also get in on the deliciousness, with a blackened tempeh Rueben. Items are limited, so be sure to get there early! Find out all the details here.

Saturday, Nov. 10: Some people will say it’s too early for Santa, but this is Fat Brain Toys. What better place to get an early start on your wishlist? Enjoy their Holiday Fun with Santa & His Reindeer event this Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Be sure to head next door for hot chocolate and raffles going on at UMB. Learn more about this Santa-rific event here.

Saturday, Nov. 10: Poetry is good for the soulsoothing,cleansing, transcendent poetry. Well, most of the time. The Clash Of The Poets at Opollo Music Hall may be a whole different kind of “poetry reading.” Think “Def Poetry Jam meets URL, meets WWE.” If that sounds like some rhyming that’s more your speed, head right over here for some more information.

Sunday, Nov. 11: Think you had your fill of chili last weekend? Better rethink that. The 3rd Annual Chili Cook-off is at Office West Lounge this Sunday, with 13 unique chilis to choose from. Most importantly, your $5 tasting fee goes to a good cause! This event is hosted by Hands, Hearts and Paws and money raised will go to help these perfectly good pups find their furever homes. Some of these adorable babes will be on hand to help you out with that chili eating (jk, don’t give them chili!). Find out more about the event here.

Omaha Poets Populate 2018 One Book One Nebraska

October 24, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nebraska poetry is not all about farms and cornfields (although some of it is). 

The state has inspired a wide variety of poets and poems, as demonstrated by the 2018 One Book One Nebraska selection, Nebraska Presence.

The book presents an anthology of poetry written by Nebraskan poets. Some of the poems do reference Nebraska land and farming communities, says book editor Greg Kosmicki, but many poems also discuss “major life events, births and deaths, weddings and funerals… the fabric of life.” 

“It’s not just Nebraska stuff; it’s human stuff,” Kosmicki says. 

The Backwaters Press (a small publishing press in Omaha that mainly focuses on poetry) published Nebraska Presence in 2007. Kosmicki, founder of The Backwaters Press, co-edited the anthology with Mary K. Stillwell, author of The Life & Poetry of Ted Kooser. 

Prior to 2007, the most recent anthology of Nebraska poets was Forty Nebraska Poets, edited by Greg Kuzma in 1981. 

Kosmicki says the idea for the new anthology was conceived by poet Marjorie Saiser and himself, born out of the desire to highlight the many modern Nebraska poets.

Nebraska Presence features poems from more than 80 Nebraska poets, including up-and-comers and nationally acclaimed veterans. Kosmicki and Stillwell used word-of-mouth and classified advertisements in Poets & Writers magazine to solicit poetry submissions. 

They invited poets to submit work on a variety of topics. Aside from Ted Kooser—a former U.S. Poet Laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry—no one had more than two poems included. 

Kosmicki says, “We didn’t want to have an anthology that was typical of a lot of anthologies that will be lopsided with three or four or five [poems] of the really well-known poets, and then one by everyone else.” 

Looking back on their selection process a decade ago, Kosmicki says they tried their best but did miss some people and types of poems. 

Twenty poets in Nebraska Presence are Omaha residents (though two died in the years following the anthology’s 2007 publication).

According to Kosmicki, the goal of Nebraska Presence was to provide a collection of poetry that was accessible to the average reader. Many of the poems are about the events of ordinary life and are relatable on a basic human level. 

“I’d like people to know that it’s accessible, and that the poems in it will make them think and make them move,” he says. 

The editors at The Backwaters Press were ecstatic when the anthology was named the choice for the 2018 One Book One Nebraska on Oct. 21, 2017. In addition to bringing recognition and potential donations to the nonprofit press, the selection of Nebraska Presence marks the first time in the program’s 14 years that the One Book One Nebraska committee has chosen a collection of poetry. 

As the 2018 One Book One Nebraska selection, Nebraska Presence has been the focus of library book clubs and reading groups across the state, allowing the general public to read poetry that they would not have otherwise. The program’s website states that the goal of One Book One Nebraska is to promote one book, either written by a Nebraskan or set in Nebraska, for all Nebraskans to read and discuss. The focus on poetry across Nebraska this year promotes a different kind of discussion and spurs new ways of thinking about Nebraska—including its land and people—that the previous selections of fiction and nonfiction could not. 

“I think that reading poetry can take the reader into a different place and to a different way of thinking about their world,” Kosmicki says.

Visit onebook.nebraska.gov or centerforthebook.nebraska.gov for more information about One Book One Nebraska.


Odes to Omaha

Short Home-Aha Poems by Local Poets

Omaha Magazine asked local Omaha poets featured in Nebraska Presence—the selection for the 2018 One Book One Nebraska—to provide a short poem about how the city inspires them (along with a brief biographical summary).

Twelve poets responded. Their poems are featured alongside bios, listed in alphabetical order by author’s last name.

Two of the Omaha poets published in the book, Brian Bengtson and Fredrick Zydek, died in the time that elapsed between the anthology’s original publication and the statewide recognition. 

 

Brian Bengtson
(May 13, 1966—Mar. 13, 2015)

Bio: Bengtson was born in Omaha and wrote poetry from the time he was “old enough to hold a crayon.” He was the author of three collections of poetry: Leavenworth Street (The Backwaters Press, 2009), Gay…Some Assembly Required (Lone Willow Press, 1995), and First Chill (PublishAmerica, 2005). Bengtson passed away on .

Michael Catherwood

Bio: Catherwood’s first book was Dare, by The Backwaters Press. His second book, If You Turned Around Quickly, was from Main Street Rag. His third book, Projector, was from Stephen F. Austin Press. His work has recently appeared in The Adirondack Review, Bluestem, Louisiana Literature, Kentucky Review, Measure, The Minnesota Review, Numero Cinq, Red River Review, Galway Review, and Westview. Since 1995, he has been an associate editor at Plainsongs, where he writes essays. He is the editor of The Backwaters Press. 

“The Prayer”

These are the days we imagine
all light will soon go out, that our lives
will end sooner than we want. It’s expected
as we age while the sun directs the light 
show early mornings, the cardinals
in their dances in the backyard sky, our 
histories that sit like gargoyles 
in the trees. Fatalist. No. 
Just the spring days 
with their documentary of joy and beauty—
all the splendor that will be missed. All 
the beauty we will add slowly to 
while we return and

Marilyn June Coffey

Bio: Coffey, a Nebraska native, lived for 30 years in New York City. While there, her controversial novel Marcella broke a world record (for being the “first novel written in English that used female masturbation for its main theme”) and her wry poem “Pricksong” won a Pushcart Prize. Now an internationally published author, Coffey lives in Omaha with a feisty orange cat and an undisciplined garden. She writes history books. Her work has appeared on the cover of The Atlantic, including “Badlands Revisited: A 1974 Memoir of Murderous Days in Nebraska” (which can be found online). Coffey’s Mail-Order Kid was a bestseller on Amazon, and her Thieves, Rascals & Sore Losers also garnered accolades. Coffey’s latest—That Punk Jimmy Hoffa!—details her trucker father’s clash with the Teamsters. 

“From That Punk Jimmy Hoffa!
by Marilyn June Coffey”

“That cussing of yours must of
burnt up the reporter.”

“Come on. What difference
would my swearing make?”

“In the Omaha World-Herald?
It’s a family paper, .”

Lorraine Duggin

Bio: Duggin was born and raised in Omaha, a graduate of South High with B.A. and M.A. degrees in English from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and a Ph.D. in English/creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She’s been a Master Artist in Schools/Communities since the 1980s with the Nebraska Arts Council and Iowa Arts Council and is on the Speakers Bureau of Humanities Nebraska. Her poetry, fiction, and memoirs have been published widely in literary magazines and anthologies, winning numerous awards, including a Pushcart Prize nomination, a Mari Sandoz Prairie Schooner Award for short story, an Academy of American Poets first prize, and a Nebraska Arts Council’s Individual Artists’ Award in Poetry, among others. She is an international folk dancer in three groups who perform locally and regionally, and plays recorder with an early music ensemble (Women of the Glen). She teaches English-language learners at Metropolitan Community College, where she won an Excellence in Teaching Award in 2010.

“Poets in Omaha—a Series of Haiku”

Imagination,
creativity blossom;
secret gardens thrive.

Heavenward, earthbound,
a cello’s sonorous drone—
Symphony of words.

Like fish multiplied,
gold splashing in backyard ponds,
plotting our dreamscapes.

Lyrical lines form
—Missouri’s meanderings—
A poem is born.

Shagbark hickory
—hiking Fontenelle Forest—
Inspirational.

Cumulonimbi
lure us; unlimited skies
nourish this.

Greg Kosmicki

Bio: Kosmicki is the founding editor of The Backwaters Press. His own poetry has been published in more than 100 literary magazines, and he is the author of 12 books and chapbooks of poems. His book of selected poems, Leaving Things Unfinished: Forty-some Years of Poems, is slated for publication by Sandhills Press. He and wife Debbie are retired, live in Omaha, are parents of three, and grandparents of two.

“A Visit From the Master”

Housefly lands on my keyboard 
Shows me I must write
v, f, r, 4, e,

Steve Langan

Bio: Langan earned his MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he received the Paul Engle Postgraduate Fellowship from the James Michener Foundation. He is the author of Freezing, Notes on Exile and Other Poems, Meet Me at the Happy Bar, and What It Looks Like, How It Flies. Langan’s poems have appeared in a variety of journals, including the Kenyon, Gettysburg, Chicago, Iowa, Colorado, North American, Notre Dame Review, Southern Humanities Review, Fence, Verse, Jacket, Slope, Pool, Diagram, and others. He teaches at UNO in the English department and Writer’s Workshop (where he serves as program development coordinator). He also holds the title of UNO’s interim director and community liaison for medical humanities. Additionally, Langan is founder and director of the Seven Doctors Project, established at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in 2008.

“Omaha”
(Excerpt from a longer poem)

City no one’s said it best about;
city that ignores its river,
its young, its elderly, its myths.

I sat in its taverns for five years,
my pledge not to miss a day—
that pledge got me nowhere,

no perched bar to lean on, elbows
dug in like roots, to watch its river
spill mighty waste set down

to join its hostile older sister,
the Mississippi. For five years
I searched for the perfect tavern

like Ponce de Leon…

(Reprinted from Witness’ American Cities Special)

 

Matt Mason

Bio: Mason won a Pushcart Prize and two Nebraska Book Awards; was a finalist for the position of Nebraska State Poet; and organizes and runs poetry programming for the State Department, working in Nepal, Romania, Botswana, and Belarus. He has over 200 publications in magazines and anthologies, including Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry. His most recent book, The Baby That Ate Cincinnati, was released in 2013. Mason lives in Omaha with his wife, the poet Sarah McKinstry-Brown, and daughters Sophia and Lucia. Mason is also the executive director of the Nebraska Writers Collective, an Omaha-based nonprofit that supports and promotes both established and emerging writers. He was instrumental in organizing the Omaha affiliate of the national Louder Than a Bomb slam poetry competition.

“Omaha”

Omaha is more
than what you knew,
this dirty town carnival windy
small town metropolis
you thought
you were only
passing .

J.J. McKenna

Bio: McKenna is professor emeritus of English at UNO. For him, Omaha is a great place to observe and participate in people’s lives: to see former students like David Martin, who directs a writer’s camp at UNO each summer; or Leslie Irwin, chair of the English department at Millard North; or his grandson, Mason, who wrote an award-winning poem about Martin Luther King Jr. Day. McKenna witnessed the scene described in his poem, “On the Last Day of School,” one May as he was driving past Westside High School and four girls in high spirits swirled onto Pacific Street in a bright red Ford convertible. “I shared their joy, if only for a moment,” he says.

“On the Last Day of School”

On the last day of school
four in a cherry red Ford
cruising topdown
long hair flying

wind lifting their laughter
their spirits rising now
this day this time

Sarah McKinstry-Brown

Bio: McKinstry-Brown is the author of Cradling Monsoons (Blue Light Press, 2010) and This Bright Darkness (Black Lawrence Press, 2019). Born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, McKinstry-Brown is the recipient of two Nebraska Book Awards and an Academy of American Poets Prize. Her poems appear in RATTLE, Ruminate, Smartish Pace, Sugar House Review, West Virginia’s standardized tests (a beautiful irony given that she was, is, and will always be, a terrible standardized test-taker), and elsewhere.

“What the Farmer Knows”
(For Julie)

Breathing
is about giving each seedling a name,

though it may not take.
Hope is backbreaking.
Even in dreams, feel the pull, the till,

turning earth, soil so dark
it becomes night sky, and the seeds
in your hands, .

Michael Skau

Bio: Skau is professor emeritus of English at UNO, where he taught for 37 years. He studied under Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Gregory Corso at Naropa Institute in Boulder, and has published books of literary criticism on Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Skau was named the Winner of the 2013 William Kloefkorn Award for Excellence in Poetry. Wayne State College Press published his collection of poems, Me & God, in 2014. His chapbooks After the Bomb and Old Poets were published by WordTech Editions in 2017 and 2018. In 2014, Skau founded the Imaginary Gardens Reading Series, which he coordinates and hosts every month.

“James Joyce in Omaha”

My first year teaching at UNO,
I gave an exam in my fiction course.
One of the students, a little below
a B so far, chose Joyce’s “The Dead”
for his test topic, the lyrical force
of the ending, its melancholy awe:
“It would put your mind in
a wonder,” he said.
I found my vocation in .

James Solheim

Bio: Solheim is a children’s author with books from Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, Penguin Random House, and other publishers. He gives presentations at schools, conferences, and libraries, with previous programs all across the nation—including Florida, Washington, Minnesota, Alabama, Vermont, Arkansas, and Nebraska. His inspirational Think Big! presentations involve fun-filled activities to help kids aspire to greater futures. The Wall Street Journal and PBS included his book It’s Disgusting—and We Ate It in their lists of best books for getting boys to read. A graduate of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he has taught writing at Southern Illinois University, Northwest Missouri State, and Washington University in St. Louis. He is also active in Omaha’s folk music and dance community.

“Winter’s First Note”
(A triple haiku about the after-concert
air outside the Holland Center)

After Beethoven,
the cool loose noise of night wraps
us with Omaha’s

last fall snap. Feels like 
the pond wind’s chilled just for us.
Whirling from on high,

one flake, light enough
to float, dimples the water.
A touch and it’s .

Sarah Voss

Bio: Voss, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, currently serves as a contract chaplain at Methodist Hospital and is a state family-plan mediator. Her first chapbook of poems—Possum, Beaver, Lion: Variants—was released in October 2017. A mother, grandmother, and step-great-grandmother, she lives in an old Omaha farmhouse with biochemist-spouse Dan Sullivan and two cats, Orange and Gravy. In an earlier career, Voss taught math at UNO and then was the math program director at the College of St. Mary. She carried math into her ministry. Her doctoral dissertation eventually turned into What Number Is God? (SUNY, 1995) and she has since published and lectured extensively about the relationship between religion and math/science. She’s now working on a collection of essays based on metaphors drawn from math, i.e., “mathaphors.” One such essay—“The Miraculous in Number(s)”—can be found in the summer 2018 edition of Parabola: The Search for Meaning.

“The Gravel Road”

where else can you live
as close to a gravel road
as the one framing the farm 
of my midwestern youth yet

still be smack in the midst
of a city filled with arts 
music, math, metaphor
poetry, philanthropy, pride 

pleasure

Richard David Wyatt

Bio: Wyatt was an associate editor of The Backwaters Press for 15 years. He retired from UNO’s Criss Library in 2016, after 20 years. He has published poems in publications such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Christian Science Monitor, Poetry, Southern Indiana Review, and The Midwest Quarterly. A book of poems, Gathering Place, was published by WSC Press in 2016. Born in California, Wyatt has lived in Omaha for 30 years, having earned a BFA in creative writing from UNO in 1977. He has also lived for stretches of time in Oregon, Illinois, and Long Island, New York. But Omaha, on the edge of the “sea that once solved the whole loneliness of the Midwest” (to borrow the words of James Wright) has been his “true home.”

“Sunset”

What the crow flies toward
isn’t important—rather his shadow,
ever-present, the sky, too,
afraid it won’t have enough stars.

Fredrick Zydek
(May 18, 1938—May 6, 2016)

Bio: Zydek was the author of eight collections of poems, a biography of Charles Tase Russell, Learning the Way of Coyote (a novel), and numerous articles, reviews, and essays published in a wide variety of religious, commercial and educational journals. He published over 1,000 poems in literary magazines. Born and raised in the Northwest, he taught at UNO and later at the College of Saint Mary. When retired, he divided his time between home in Omaha, from which he edited Lone Willow Press, and a small working farm near Brunswick, Nebraska. Fredrick passed away May 6, 2016. 

Other Omaha poets published in Nebraska Presence include: 

  • Paul Dickey 
  • Art Homer 
  • Bruce Koberg 
  • Clif Mason 
  • Sally Molini 
  • Ernst Niemann

Visit thebackwaterspress.com for more information about Nebraska Presence: An Anthology of Poetry.

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

From left: Michael Catherwood, Matt Mason, Lorraine Duggin, Michael Skau, Sarah Voss, J.J. McKenna, Rich Wyatt, and James Solheim

Ted Genoways

August 19, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Award-winning poet, journalist, editor, and author Ted Genoways of Lincoln, Nebraska, has long been recognized for his social justice writing as a contributor to Mother Jones, onEarth, Harper’s and other prestigious publications. While editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, the magazine won numerous national awards. 

His recent nonfiction books—The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of Our Food, and This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Farm—expand on his enterprise reporting about the land, the people who work it, and the food we consume from it. The themes of sustainability, big ag versus little ag, over-processing of food, and environmental threats are among many concerns he explores.

He often collaborates on projects with his wife, photographer Mary Anne Andrei.

His penchant for reporting goes back to his boyhood, when he put down stories people told him, even illustrating them, in a stapled “magazine” he produced. His adult work took root in the form of secondhand stories of his paternal grandfather toiling on Nebraska farms and in Omaha meatpacking plants. 

His father noted this precociousness with words and made a pact that if young Ted read a book a week selected for him, he could escape chores. 

“I thought that was a great deal,” Genoways says. “Reading John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was the first time I remember being completely hooked. After that, I tore through everything Steinbeck wrote, and it made a huge impact on me. I thought, there’s real power in this—if you can figure out how to do it this well.”

Reading classics by Hemingway, Faulkner, and other great authors followed. The work of muckrakers such as Upton Sinclair made an impression. “But those Steinbeck books,” he says, “have always really stuck with me, and I go back to them and they really hold up.”

Exposing injustice—just as Steinbeck did with migrants and Sinclair did with immigrants—is what Genoways does. Nebraska Wesleyan professors Jim Schaffer and the late state poet of Nebraska William Kloefkorn influenced his journalism and poetry, respectively. Genoways doesn’t make hard and fast distinctions between the two forms. Regardless of genre, he practices a form of advocacy journalism but always in service of the truth.

“I’m always starting with the facts and trying to understand how they fit together,” he says. “There’s no question I’ve got a point of view. But I don’t show up with preconceived notions of what the story is.”

He’s drawn to “stories of people at the mercy of the system,” he says, admitting, “I’m interested in the little guy and in how people fight back against the powers that be.”

While working at the Minnesota State Historical Society Press, Genoways released a book of poems, Bullroarer: A Sequence, about his grandfather, and edited Cheri Register’s book Daughter of a Meatpacker. At the Virginia Quarterly, he looked into worker illnesses at a Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota, and the glut of Latinos at a Hormel plant in Fremont, Nebraska. He found a correlation between unsafe conditions due to ever-faster production lines—where only immigrants are willing to do the job—and the pressures brought to bear on company towns with influxes of Spanish-speaking workers and their families, some of them undocumented.

That led to examining the impact “a corporate level decision to run the line faster in order to increase production has up and down the supply chain” and on entire communities. 

“That’s become an ongoing fascination for me,” Genoways says. “I can’t seem to stop coming back to what’s happening in meatpacking towns, which really seem to be on the front line of a lot of change in this country.”

The heated controversy around TransCanada Corp.’s plans for the Keystone XL pipeline ended up as the backdrop for his book, This Blessed Earth. He found “the specter of a foreign corporation coming and taking land by eminent domain” from legacy farmers and ranchers “and telling them they had to take on this environmental risk with few or no guarantees” to be yet another challenge weighing on the backs of producers.

His focus became a fifth-generation Nebraska farm family, the Hammonds, who grow soybeans, and how their struggles mirror all family farmers in terms of “how big to get and how much risk to assume.”

“They were especially intriguing because they were building this solar and wind-powered barn right in the path KXL decided to cross their land, and that seemed like a pretty great metaphor for that kind of defiance,” he says. 

Pipeline or not, small farmers have plenty to worry about.

“Right now, everything in ag is geared toward getting bigger,” Genoways says. “The question facing the entire industry is: How big is big enough? What do we lose when we force farmers off the land or make them into businessmen more than stewards of the land? To my eye, you lose agri-CULTURE and are left with agri-BUSINESS.”

Farming as a way of life is endangered.

“Nebraska lost a thousand farms in 2017,” he says. “Those properties will be absorbed by larger operations. The ground will still be farmed. The connection between farmer and farm will be further stretched and strained. That’s the way everything has gone, and it’s how everything is likely to continue. Agribusiness interests argue these trends move us toward maximum yield with improved sustainability. But it also means decisions are made by fewer and fewer people. Mistakes and misjudgments are magnified. So we not only lose the culture of independence and responsibility that built rural communities, but grow more dependent on a version of America run by corporations.”

Chronicling the Hammonds left indelible takeaways—one being the varied skills farming requires. 

“We saw them harvest a field of soybeans while keeping an eye on the futures trading and calling around to elevators to check on prices; they were making market decisions as sophisticated as any commodities trader,” Genoways says. “This is one of the major pressures on family farms. To survive, you have to be able to repair your own center pivot or broken tractor, but also be a savvy business owner—adapting early to technological changes and diversifying to insulate your operation.”

The Hammonds weathered the storm.

“They are doing well. They got good news when the Public Service Commission only approved the alternate route for KXL,” he says.

Meanwhile, Genoways sees an American food system in need of reform.

“We would benefit mightily from a national food policy,” he says. “How can you explain subsidizing production of junk food and simultaneously spending on obesity education? How do we justify unsustainable volumes of meat while counseling people to eat less meat? If we really want people to improve their eating habits, we should provide economic incentives in that direction.”


Visit tedgenoways.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Shanketta Newsom’s National Poetry Slam Debut

December 9, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Shanketta Newsom describes the National Poetry Slam, she speaks of intense bouts in front of a panel of judges and a lively crowd.

In my mind, her passionate description conveys a scene akin to a gritty rap-battle competition, set in some abandoned building full of poets with stained sweaters reeking of their mom’s spaghetti (a la Eminem).

“It is nothing like that at all,” Newsom replies after hearing my absurd description. “The entire experience was beautiful, and the atmosphere was positive…I’d have to say that the poetry slam was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a long time!”

There goes my 8 Mile analogy.

Newsom is relatively new to the local spoken-word scene, a transplant with hometown roots in Sardis, Mississippi. Recruited by Union Pacific Railroad from alma mater Jackson State University in 2011, she eventually relocated to Omaha from Portland, Oregon, in 2014 to continue her career in marketing and sales.

She found herself drawn to local poetry showcases such as Verbal Gumbo at the Omaha Rockets Kanteen. Eventually, a friend’s encouragement coerced her to take the stage. She was hesitant at first, but the receptive audience inspired the performer within her.

As former captain of the Prancing J-Settes at Jackson State (the dance team that inspired Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” choreography), Newsom knows how to work a crowd.

“It was an awesome feeling and kind of therapeutic,” Newsom says, reminiscing on her first public foray into spoken-word poetry. “The local community is full of support, and I fell in love with the whole scene. I found myself coming back every month!”

Zedeka Poindexter is an established poet who holds the honor of being the first woman crowned Omaha “city champion” at the National Poetry Slam. As a slam master and organizer, she insists that Newsom’s voice is greatly needed for Omaha’s slam poetry team.

“Shanketta did incredibly well from the very beginning,” Poindexter says. “She was both a consistent performer and placed highly, so there was no question that she would make the team in April.”

After securing her spot on the national team, Newsom set about preparing for the competition, practicing daily in front of a mirror and a glass of fine wine.

She decided to use her most popular poems for the slam—a personal composition titled “This is Why” and a poem about life’s trials and tribulations titled “The Cycle.”

Sozos Coffee Shop in the Old Market would serve as her team’s preferred meeting place, where they could rent out space and let their creativity flow in the agreeable atmosphere.

The National Poetry Slam took place over the course of five days in early August, a beautiful time to be in Denver, Colorado. In addition to many poetry-inspired activities and workshops, each night’s competition took place at different venues throughout the city, providing participants a chance to soak up the city’s culture.

“It didn’t feel like a competition,” Newsom explains. “It was like performing in front of family, with everyone snapping and clapping. Even our competition showed us support.”

Newsom’s team would score a respectable second and fourth place in their preliminary bouts. Ultimately, they did not qualify for the semi-finals.

“We got a great crowd reaction,” she says. “There were a lot of good teams. It made me look at myself and realize that I’m good, but there is lots of room for improvement.”

With this year’s National Poetry Slam in the books, Newsom is excited to get ready for next year’s competition.

In the meantime, she auditioned for American Idol when the show stopped through Omaha in August. “Auditioning was a childhood dream, and I will definitely try out again,” Newsom says.

Positive response from judges inspired her participation in the #BodakYellowChallenge online. Her freestyle rap video for the challenge went viral, with more than 270,000 views and counting.

Between now and the next National Poetry Slam, she plans to continue performing at local spoken word showcases, running her “I Heartbeat Dance, LLC” majorette camp (that she started in January 2017), and working with the Nebraska Writers Collective to provide after-school creative writing programs for high school students.

Visit newriters.org for more information about the Nebraska Writers Collective. Learn more about local spoken-word poetry events by following @VerbalGumbo on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.

 

Watch Shanketta Newsom recite two poems for Omaha Magazine here:

The Masons

August 3, 2015 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

This article appears in August 2015 Her Family.

It seems like the stereotypically idyllic life of a poet: a gravel path leading to a house in the woods, one that calls to mind Walden Pond and literary greats such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Poet Matt Mason and his wife, poet Sarah McKinstry-Brown, share that home with daughters Sophia Mason, 11, Lucia Mason, 7, and rescue dog Max. Their lives are as busy and hectic as those of any other working parents—even if they do revolve around words and the constant effort to construct them into something profound and beautiful.

“Being two poets seems like this really romantic existence,” explains McKinstry-Brown, “but it’s a lot of hard work and love, sweat, tears, and making time for the kids. Sometimes I wish people would have more of an understanding of how hard it is.”

The couple’s professional achievements speak to exactly how hard, especially in terms of how hard each poet works. Mason, 46, is executive director of the Nebraska Writers Collective. He won a Pushcart Prize and served as a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department to Botswana, Nepal, and Belarus. McKinstry-Brown, 38, leads literary workshops and garnered the Academy of American Poets Prize as well as a Blue Light Book Award for her full-length collection of poetry, Cradling Monsoons. Each has received Nebraska Books Awards, and they are influential members of Omaha’s flourishing poetry slam scene, a scene that Mason was instrumental in creating.

The poets met in 2002, when McKinstry-Brown appeared at a poetry slam in Omaha. “I announced on stage that it was my birthday, and Matt ordered me a piece of cheesecake,” the mother of two remembers. “It was carrot cake,” Mason interjects. “No, it was cheesecake,” responds McKinstry-Brown. “Carrot cake,” insists Mason.

While poetry drew Mason and McKinstry-Brown together, Sophia and Lucia, who both attend St. Philip Neri Catholic School, remain nonplussed about what their father and mother do for a living. When asked what they think about their parents’ jobs, they shrug their shoulders.

“It’s funny,” remarks McKinstry-Brown. “It makes you realize how much your idea of normal is and how it’s shaped. Sophia’s asked a few times if everyone has a photograph on the back of a book. They’ve grown up going to a lot of readings. It’s their normal, and they’re very blasé about it.”

Indeed, rather than talk about their parents, the sisters are focused on Max’s affectionate antics and the next door neighbor’s puppy, which is staring plaintively into the living room window hoping to gain entry. “Don’t let the puppy in—we’ll never get rid of him!” exclaims McKinstry-Brown. The girls exchange mischievous glances as if trying to figure out how to get around this order without getting into trouble.

Each girl has a personality that mirrors one parent. Sophia, who sports a pixie cut and wears a t-shirt and shorts, is serious and introspective like her father. A Minecraft enthusiast, she loves the different worlds she can build. “There are so many things in it,” Sophia explains. “You can build absolutely anything. You can build a castle. I’ve gone really far.”

Lucia, despite being laid low with a cough, is outgoing like her mother and sprawls comfortably across the floor in a white sparkly dress. She loves to cook and is competitive with her sister in developing recipes. “Sophia likes gross stuff,” she observes with an impish grin before rattling off some of the ingredients for one of her sandwiches. “It had bread, yogurt, and chocolate sauce,” she recounts.

Even so, what Mason and McKinstry-Brown do for a living has influenced their daughters. At a young age, the sisters set up poetry slams, performing to audiences of stuffed animals seated around the living room couch. Sophia is interested in writing a children’s book with her mother titled Max at the Window, which would imagine the family pet’s fanciful daydreams while the the girls are at school. “I was thinking that for ‘about the author’ we should put something about Max and put glasses on him for his photo,” she suggests.

While the girls may not always be aware of the challenges facing full-time poets, Mason is keenly so, indicating they’ve just returned from Disneyland. “It was our first real family vacation,” he says. “You look at how everyone lives very different lives from us, and there is a certain attraction to that.”

“Like everyone else, it’s figuring out what’s sustainable,” McKinstry-Brown adds. “It’s more challenging because of the path we’ve chosen. The girls have given us so much of our art and how we see the world. They have given us so much insight. I’m really, really proud of us.”

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Marilyn Coffey

May 4, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Article originally published in The Encounter May/June 2015 edition.

Somewhere along the continuum of every poem and scrap of prose that ever was and ever will be, Marilyn Coffey’s canon hovers quietly like a fleck of dust swept from the spine of a leather-bound classic.

She was never in it for the fame anyway.

“It’s going to be a very tiny part,” Coffey, 77, says of her contribution to the whole of literary history while holding her thumb and index finger an atom’s width apart, “even if it’s a huge part to me at the end of my life.”

But for those loyal readers of the national prize-winning and internationally published author known for her brazenness and ability to reconcile casual, everyday language with contextually strange words, Coffey will be remembered as a revolutionary. She’ll be remembered as a second-wave feminist who fought for sexual freedom, one lover at a time.

“Any woman who loves/one man and only one man/is mad (or sane),” wrote Coffey in her 1960s poem, “Credo”. “I see it this way: why love one when you can love two/or three or more.”

Coffey was probably damned to put up a fight from the beginning, she says. It’s easy to see why. The author says she was raised in the middle; the middle of nowhere in the middle of the United States in the middle of last century, with an undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder and a lot of sexual feelings that she didn’t know what to do with.

“I masturbated a lot and then I found out I wasn’t supposed to,” Coffey admits while laughing off a slight embarrassment for her puritan generation. “I got involved with this Christian youth leader…and that didn’t go well. I actually did try to kill myself at that point in time.”

After religion failed to exorcise her lust, she says, Coffey denounced her faith and eventually left the comforts of her home state. She found inspiration in a brand new novel called On the Road by a then relatively unknown Jack Kerouac.

“And then I left and I went on the road,” she says, pausing as if she still doesn’t believe it to this day. “I went on the road…I went on the road and it was definitely an experience, not like his [Kerouac’s], but it was like mine—it was an experience I wouldn’t have had otherwise if I hadn’t read On the Road.”

Her trip lasted about a year before she landed in New York for roughly the next 30 years. It was in Greenwich Village where Coffey started her discourse on female masturbation through her adolescent heroine, Marcella, and where she won the Pushcart Prize for “Pricksong,” a poem described by the Los Angeles Times as “a wry poem about an obscene houseplant.”

“I was so delighted that it was that poem that was recognized,” Coffey says, weighing the award’s fatalistic importance, “because had it been one of my more conventional poems, I would’ve felt the push to behave like you’re supposed to.”

MarilynCoffey

Zedeka Poindexter

February 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Zedeka Poindexter has had a good year.

In the spring, the Omaha-born performance poet was named slam master of the Om Center Poetry Slam, a monthly event where Omaha’s nationally recognized slam teams come together. She was named a 2014 fall fellow at the Union for Contemporary Art. In January, she—alongside Nebraska State Poet Twyla M. Hansen—will present in a new interactive poetry reading series at KANEKO called Feedback. A week and a half after that, she’ll read at a Backwaters Press-sponsored reading at the Community Engagement Center. She was nominated for the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Award’s Best Slam Poet title for 2014 and again for 2015.

“It’s really strange,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting it. It’s like all the things I thought I possibly might want are all happening.

“Matt told me I should probably start investing in lottery tickets, because this is a pretty good run.”

That Matt is Matt Mason, the longtime master of the Om slam who handed the reins to Poindexter in May. A longtime fixture of the slam scene—and a three-time member of the Omaha Slam Team, the rotating members of which compete at the National Poetry Slam—she was well-positioned to take the role. Now that she’s in it, she’s been hosting regular “slam family meetings” and trying to connect the city’s slam poetry, spoken word, and other creative communities.

“It hasn’t been without its challenges,” Poindexter said. “While slam has a very specific following, I wouldn’t say it’s as wide-reaching as I would like it to be. A lot of it is just a matter of making sure we’re talking to each other. Spoken word is so diverse, and slam is just one specific outlet. There’s so much out there—it’s a matter of us all appreciating things we do well and opening our arms wide.”

To that end, Poindexter has her eye on bringing one of slam’s most prominent national competitions, the Women of the World Poetry Slam, to Omaha in 2016. Started in 2008, WOWPS is a three-day event designed to foster women’s involvement in the global slam poetry scene.

“We could have the top 80 women in performance poetry from this country and other countries here,” Poindexter said. “I think we’re well-placed for that.”

She’s also at work on an exhibition piece she’ll show with the other Union for Contemporary Art fall fellows at the completion of their fellowship. She’s been working with the ideas of food and family, building a table with place settings and love letters for people living and dead she’d like to have at her table.

It makes sense for this poet locally known for a piece about her family’s recipe for peach cobbler, for a writer who’s filled a notebook with the Southern idioms her mother and grandmother would use, for a woman who wants to help people tell stories while she tells her own, too.

“There’s this idea that you can go into someone’s mind,” she said. “Slam is the perfect vehicle for that: You can see it in [poets’] faces and their reactions, and they can see it in your face and your reactions. No matter how tired or frustrated or fed up I get with art in general, I don’t think I could ever truly walk away. There are so many stories out there to hear that keep me coming back. I’m certain there’s something I haven’t heard yet. And then I think if I listen hard enough, I’ll be able to write it myself.

“With the way things have been going, maybe I’ll be the first to write something I’ve been waiting to hear. I hope. I hope.”

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Artists for Inclusion

February 24, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Iggy Sumnik is a noted artist. Bryan Allison is a young man with intellectual disabilities. Their worlds may seem galaxies apart, but the two have more in common than one might suspect. Both share a love of art, and both would appear to live by the same simple philosophy.

“I like to approach each new day as if I were going for a walk,” says Sumnik, a ceramic artist who worked for three years as a studio assistant under the internationally acclaimed Jun Kaneko. “I sense that Bryan and I might be a little alike in that regard. We keep our eyes and ears open during our walk through the day, and maybe we stumble onto something that is a little bit different. Maybe we even learn something new. I expect to learn something from Bryan today. I hope he feels the same way.”

Sumnik was introduced to Allison through a collaboration between local nonprofit organizations WhyArts and VODEC. WhyArts works to ensure that visual and performing arts experiences are open to people of all ages and abilities throughout the metro area. VODEC (see the related story on page 117) provides vocational, residential, and day services for persons with intellectual disabilities in Nebraska and Iowa.

Sumnik unpacks the tools of his profession—a massive block of malleable “potential” and a jumble of clay-working implements—as he explains to Allison and nine of his VODEC friends what would unfold over the next hour or so.

20131213_bs_8014“I didn’t come in with any particular project in mind for you,” he explains. “I’m just here to be an extra set of hands, so I want to see your creativity today—your ideas, not mine.”“Our ideas,” the perpetually smiling Allison replies. “I’m going to make an island. Hawaii. I’m going to be an artist!”

From senior centers and middle schools to the Completely KIDS campus and vocational facilities like VODEC, WhyArts offers a broad slate of programs backed by a small army of talented artists from the arenas of the visual arts, theater, dance, music, poetry, storytelling, and beyond.

The roster of WhyArts artists reads something like a Who’s Who of the creative community. Jill Anderson is the popular chanteuse, recording artist, and Actors’ Equity performer. Roxanne Nielsen makes magic as a frequent choreographer of Omaha Community Playhouse productions. Ballet legend Robin Welch was featured in the last issue of Omaha Magazine. Add spoken word impresario Felicia Webster and Circle Theater co-founder Doug Marr, to name but a few, and it’s a line-up that represents the very best—and most caring—of a city’s imagination pool. “These are more than just talented professionals with long resumes who happen to do workshops,” says WhyArts director Carolyn Anderson. “They are advocates of the arts, but they are also passionate advocates for inclusion.”

Originally known as Very Special Arts Nebraska when the group formed in 1990, the WhyArts model is one that recognizes the simplest of ideas—that creative expression is a foundational attribute of the human condition.

“The underserved populations we reach generally do not have access to the arts,” Anderson continues, “but creativity is innate in us all, regardless of age or ability. What we do is to help people discover that creativity. We don’t try to ‘teach’ art. We experience it right along with them—and on their terms, just like you see Iggy doing here today. Everything we do is carefully tailored to the needs and abilities of the people we serve, but we do it in a way that respects the individual and encourages the artistic expression that is waiting to be released in each and every one of us.”

It’s a formula that also works well for organizations like VODEC.

“The WhyArts mission of inclusion mirrors our own in a perfect way,” says Daryn Richardson, VODEC’s services development   director. “Both of our organizations build bridges to the community with as many organizations and with as many people as we can. That’s the goal of every program we develop.”

Making art in a group, Sumnik adds, is a two-way street. “I try to be nothing more than an enabler for their imaginations,” he says, “but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found inspiration for my own work through people like Bryan.”

Sumnik’s artists have now completed a menagerie of clay creations that will be fired by WhyArts before being returned to their makers. Allison’s fanciful island paradise features a larger-than-life giraffe towering over a lava-spewing volcano.

“We’re getting ready to photograph my art for a magazine!” says Allison, now the center of attention throughout VODEC’s humming-with-activity work floor. “I’m going to be an artist!”

“Going to be?” Sumnik replies. “You’re already there, my man. You’re already there.”

 

Lydia Kang is in Control.

December 16, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Lydia Kang has delicate, tiny hands. A long ponytail. She wears simple jewelry: a couple bracelets and some earrings.

That’s nearly as much detail as you’ll get about the characters she writes. Kang’s debut novel, Control, will be released the day after Christmas. “I would say I write for the impatient reader,” she says with a laugh. “I won’t spend three pages discussing why a certain scene is meaningful. I’ll try to get to the core of what is important and emotional and move onto that.”

A young-adult novel with a sci-fi twist, Control follows a young woman named Zelia as she overcomes her father’s death, her sister’s kidnapping, and her own introduction to a society of misfit teens that the government wants the world to forget.

While Zelia is kind of a blank slate, Kang does allow a couple extra descriptors for some of Control’s more unique characters. “Hex is Asian,” she says, describing a young man with four arms, “and Vera is Latina, although you can’t really tell because she’s green.” Oh, and Wilbert has two heads. He switches his sentience between them so he never has to sleep.

This is the kind of medical-thriller world readers get when it’s provided by a sci-fi fan who also happens to be a doctor. Kang, a New York City transplant, has worked at University of Nebraska Medical Center for the past seven years as a general internal medicine physician. She minored in English and has been published in a few medical journals, but, she says, “I have to credit Omaha—this is where I really started writing.” 

Shortly after moving to Omaha with husband Yungpo Bernard Su and giving birth to her youngest of three children, Kang took a stab at writing some poetry. “And it was really horrible poetry, really bad stuff,” she says, “but I thought, you know, this is kind of fun.”

After a few writing seminars and a couple of what she calls “practice novels,” Kang was ready in 2010 to put her latest idea to the test—a story centered around a young woman living with Ondine’s curse, an ailment that can cause respiratory arrest during sleep. “I was studying for my boards recertification,” she recalls, “and I couldn’t remember hearing about it in medical school. And I thought it was really fascinating and horrific and sad. And wouldn’t it be interesting to have a character with that?” She wrote her first draft in three months, she signed on with an agent in 2011, and a couple weeks later Control was picked up by Penguin.

To make herself more attractive to the publishing world, Kang also began blogging in 2010. But what to blog about other than the challenges of writing? “There are a million blogs out there like that,” she recalls thinking. “Do I have anything else to offer? And I sat there wondering, what makes me different, what do I have to offer, do I have any skills that I can share with people? And then—oh. I’m a doctor.” She laughs now at how completely she had separated her life in medicine from her writing life.

Kang spread the word online that if a writer were struggling with a fictional medical scenario, she’d assist them with authoritative advice. For example, an author might need a character to wake up after, say, a half hour; Kang could suggest a drug that might work in such a situation. She’s advised on medical situations that have been published in other books, and one author even gave her a cameo appearance in a book as Dr. Kang.

For the foreseeable future, she’ll remain Dr. Kang in both literary and real life. Though she plans to release Control’s sequel, Catalyst, in early 2015 and is currently revising a fantasy novel for her agent’s consideration, Kang says it would take a lot to make her give up practicing medicine to write full-time. “I really love my patients. It’s a bit hectic at times,” she admits, laughing, “but I’m managing.”

 A book release party for Control will be held Jan. 18 from 2-4 p.m. at The Bookworm in Countryside Village, 8701 Pacific St.

Verbal Gumbo

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Felicia Webster’s voice produces chills up the spine. “And then he kiiiiissssssed me, and I melted. Like buttah.”

Her friend, Michelle Troxclair, nods and waves a hand. “Mhm, girl, we know what that’s like.”

This is spoken-word entertainment. It’s theatrical, it’s heartfelt, it’s ethereal, and it happens every third Thursday of the month at House of Loom on 10th and Pacific streets. This is not your safe-bet night out. The words you’ll hear could be dark, could be sexy, could be hilarious. It could be anything really, which is why Webster and Troxclair, the open-mic evening’s organizers, call this night Verbal Gumbo.

Troxclair arranges the club’s random chaise lounges, velvet chairs, and embroidered hassocks on the dance floor. Webster picks out the candles and incense. If guests outnumber the usual crowd of around 70, there might be a few people standing. A $5 cover charge gets you a simple meal, like Troxclair’s white chicken chili or her brother’s highly requested mac-and-cheese.

The evening begins around 7 p.m., giving guests enough time to sign up to speak if they wish, get their bowl, and settle into a seat. Troxclair is strict about minimizing distraction during the spoken word sets that begin about 8-ish. Of course, feel free to get up from your seat to wait for the massage therapist set up in the corner or the body painter off to the side as someone else speaks at the mic.

“For those who haven’t come here before,” Webster explains, “they’ll find out that it doesn’t matter what order you sign up in.”20130321_bs_8812

Troxclair laughs and says, “It’s whoever I’m feeling like hearing at the time.” The two women make sure speakers alternate male and female, but other than that, there are few rules. People offer poetry about anything from relationships to violence to the triumph of breaking cycles. “Sometimes it’s comedic,” Troxclair says, “but there’s always a message.”

The only requirement is that “you respect the mic,” as Webster puts it. Verbal Gumbo creates a flow between audience and speaker, almost a conversation. The speaker shares his work, and the audience participates in the performance by responding verbally when something resonates.

“Say yes, say amen, say all right, honey!” Troxclair suggests. “You’re validating what they’re saying.”

About 15 people speak per night for about three to five minutes apiece. If time’s not running tight, each person should feel free to offer two pieces. A short intermission makes room for a few public service announcements and to refill a drink.

Felicia Webster

Felicia Webster

If the easily stage-frightened start to come out of their shells as the evening progresses, all bets are not off. Walk back to the sign-up sheet, add your name, and you’ll probably be called on. Deliver your offering with confidence that whatever you bring will be accepted. “This is not The Apollo,” Webster says. “You don’t get the hook.”

Let’s be clear. Verbal Gumbo is not another poetry slam. A poetry slam is an entertaining competition. “Spoken word incorporates storytelling,” Troxclair says, separating spoken word from slam. “It can be prose or poetry.” Historically, it’s an artistic—and sometimes secret—way to spread information. It’s an oral tradition shared by Africans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and many other cultures.

“You are disseminating information to get people to think, to move, to change, to progress, to become empowered,” Webster says. That recipe ensures that Verbal Gumbo, like its culinary counterpart, is savory, spicy, and never the same twice.

Sample the next Verbal Gumbo on Thursday, May 16, or Thursday, June 20.