Pull Up the Nose and Soar: An Interview with Al Ortolani

I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand contributor Al Ortolani chats with George Wallace

Al Ortolani's poetry and reviews have appeared in journals such as Prairie Schooner, New Letters, Word Riot, and the New York Quarterly. He is the author of four collections of poetry: The Last Hippie of Camp 50 and Finding the Edge (Woodley Press, Washburn University, 1988 and 2011), Wren's House (Coal City Press, 2011) and Cooking Chili on the Day of the Dead (Aldrich Press, 2013). Al is on the Board of Directors of the Kansas City Writers Place. Find his work in the latest great weather for MEDIA anthology I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand.

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GW: You're originally a New Yorker but widely known for your work as a poet in Eastern Kansas. Do you consider yourself an East Coast guy at this point? Or a Kansas guy? What's your take on the life and culture of your place? What's it like to be a poet in Kansas?

AO: I don't recall a time in my life when I wasn't proud to be a New Yorker. As a kid in Kansas, I sometimes felt that New York was what distinguished me from other kids. I was quite young when we moved to Kansas so I think my mannerisms are definitely Midwestern. I move slowly, drawl a bit, chew tobacco. I love cowboy boots and have worked in the hay fields. The New York side I picked up from my father and uncles, Italian, eastern, strong opinions, good storytellers. So I find myself slipping easily into both roles. I just can't walk fast. I've tried. I saunter. I get run down on Mulberry Street.

I was fortunate to grow up in a small town in southeastern Kansas—Pittsburg. No H. My father was the athletic trainer at the university and he began the baseball program. I grew up in a locker room, surrounded by good-natured, wisecracking jocks. As a little boy, I was their mascot so to speak. On a larger note, Pittsburg is an oasis of liberal thought, surrounded by conservatism. I really wouldn't learn how much this was true until I began to work and live outside of my community. Pittsburg is small, but quite cosmopolitan. It is surrounded by the Bible belt and conservative Republicans. Election returns often show it as a blue dot surrounded by red.

Kansas poets and New York poets have a lot in common. I think they both feel that they're talking to themselves at times or writing poems for a trunk in the closet. I'd love to see more exchange between the city and the bean fields. We both like the same beer. We speak from the same heart.

GW:  Some people might think of Kansas in the political and social monotones of a rural agrarian Midwest or 'near-western' state. Somewhere between the Wizard of Oz and Wyatt Earp. Others may think of John Brown and the abolitionists. Or the early 20th century radical journalism that underwrote Upton Sinclair and the exposes of the muckraking era. Please clue those of us who have limited awareness of the complex history and cultural fabric of the region. 

AO: Eastern Kansas is especially complex. It's where the Civil War actually began. Bleeding Kansas was letting blood well before 1861. John Brown is a local hero. His mural is on the wall of the State capital in Topeka, Bible in one hand, rifle in the other. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, Bat Masterson are all embraced as part of our colorful history, especially in the western parts of the state. I'm not sure how much is really known about Upton Sinclair and the Jungle and the hot bed of socialism that existed in the early 20th century in Southeast Kansas. The Jungle was initially funded by the Appeal to Reason, the largest socialist publication in America at the turn of the previous century. Sinclair infiltrated the meat packing industry and began to write. The first chapters were published in the Appeal—only for the Appeal to see its subscription numbers dropping because of the graphic descriptions in the Jungle’s narrative. They were too much for the sensitive Victorian sensibility. The Jungle was published tempered and published elsewhere. All of this originated in Girard, Kansas, the seat of Crawford County, fifteen miles west of Pittsburg. Until recently, this was a well-kept secret. I never learned about it in history class. Writers and historians like Eugene DeGruson in Pittsburg have been instrumental in bringing that aspect of our history into the mainstream.

Sometimes I think Kansas is actually two states, divided into the east and the west. I’m comfortable in both. I love the landscape, the lush green, the hills that stretch as far as the eyes can see. The people are tough and for the most part well-educated. Politically, there are some great divides. It’s been this way since the state’s inception, since the Civil War. I've been confused by the Kansas position on teaching evolution or on government's lack of support of the arts and education. I guess that's part of the divide.

Now, Dorothy and Toto…well, they are a bit of a problem from my point of view. I can't go anywhere without someone alluding to the face that you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. I like dogs, I like Munchkins, and I've run from a few Flying Monkeys, but the Emerald City is a myth and the wizard lives behind a curtain. So Kansans need a break on this one.

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GW: Kansas City is a kind of foundational vortex when it comes to the jazz heritage of the United States. Does that play into the present poetry scene, particularly the performance scene?

AO: This is a good question. The history of Jazz is vibrant in Kansas City. The 18th and Vine Street neighborhood has become an historic landmark. Jazz is still very much alive. Poetry and Jazz have embraced. Jazz poets like Dan Jaffe and Glenn North have done a lot to bring this about. I was lucky to work with Glenn and the Kansas City Jazz Museum to help organize a reading series with the Kansas City Writers Place. We had three exceptionally well-attended readings with a number of fine spoken word and Jazz musicians. Similar venues exist across the city: Prospero's Book Store, The Uptown Jazz Bar, The Writers Place, and so on. I've given readings with Dan Jaffe, he's been a wonderful mentor. I learn something every time I step on stage with him. Personally, if there's a father of jazz poetry in Kansas City, I'd have to say it’s Dan Jaffe.

GW: You've been a key player in literary magazine publishing regionally. Tell us about that.

AO: After Eugene DeGruson passed away, the journal he founded along with co-editors Shelby Horn and Ted Watts, The Little Balkans Review, was shelved. It had been running since 1980 as a quarterly. Years later a small group of friends decided with the blessings of Horn and Watts to revive the LBR. It was one of the hardest literary endeavors of my life. Frankly, I had no idea how much work would go into it. I learned a lot about myself. For instance, I'm not a good copy editor. I've forgotten more grammar than I know. The LBR has been well-received across the state. Its focus is on the history, culture, and arts of the Little Balkans area of southeast Kansas. We have tried to publish poets, fiction writers, historians, visual artists and the like. We've supported the magazine, initially by painting a house and donating the proceeds, but since then we've existed on private donations from individuals and businesses. We are a 501c3 non-profit corporation. Personally, the experience has helped put me in touch with an array of wonderful people across the state. There's a real need for publications like the LBR, not only to showcase contemporary art, but to keep alive the local, colorful history and culture. We've been fortunate to have a number of excellent contributors like Thomas Fox Averill, Maryfrances Wagner, William Trowbridge, Robert Bly, Garrison Keillor, Alarie Tennille, Robert Stewart, Denise Low, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Brian Daldorph, Adam Jameson, J.T. Knoll, Gordon Parks, Charles Banks Wilson…the list goes on. DeGruson had published Michael McClure, William Stafford, and James Tate. We had a lot to live up to.

GW: Tell us about the poem that appears in the great weather for MEDIA anthology I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand.

AO: "Daddy’s Car" is one of those poems which just fell out onto the page. There was little revision involved. The poem came in response to feeling the loneliness and heartbreak that some of my students go through. It's a poem about emptiness in the land of plenty. It's possible to have it all, and yet, to have nothing. Then, you're left confused, even feeling guilty for your lack of happiness, your despair. Yet, the pain is real. You return again and again to what's been given to you. If you're young, especially, it's really hard and complicated to sort through. Sometimes you're left in a cold parking lot with just the car's heater on, the dash lights dimming. You wonder if you have enough gas to keep the car alive. It's all you have—after all.

GW: Kansas poets... Burroughs? Stafford? Neither? Both?

AO: William Stafford is the patron saint of Kansas poets. I had the pleasure to meet him after a reading of his at Pittsburg State University. I even had the over-confidence to ask him, via letter, to write the introduction to an early collection of poems. He declined politely, even complimenting my sample work. The book never made it. LOL. Recently, I met Stafford’s son, Kim Stafford, at an event at Washburn University in Topeka to commemorate the work of his father. We spoke about writer's block and the need to sometimes lower standards, and then, to write anyway…a William Stafford adage I'd been passing on to students for years. I asked Kim if his dad would have said something like that—and he said, by all means, yes. And he added to the anecdote by saying that his dad would have compared the writer to a pilot who wants to take his plane up into the clouds, but fearing that he'll stall, must first take it into a dive to build up speed. Then he can pull up the nose and soar. Great advice, don't you think? Writing begets writing.

Burroughs is much admired. However, I haven't read him like the other beats. I prefer Ginsberg and Snyder. At the River City Reunion in 1985 in Lawrence, Kansas, I had the privilege to hear Ginsberg, Burroughs, Leary, di Prima, Waldman, and others. Burroughs sat at a table and growled at us. He amazed me and scared me a bit. Still, he is much revered in the Lawrence-Kansas City area. I just haven't gotten into him. Naked Lunch is on the shelf with Finnegan's Wake...

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Read Al Ortolani's poem "Daddy's Car" in our anthology I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand.

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