LAWRENCE – If you visit a state park this spring and summer, you will be offered a literary entrée into nature, as well — a free, illustrated book of poetry inspired by our fine feathered friends, the birds.
Last year, Humanities Kansas commissioned Megan Kaminski, University of Kansas associate professor of English, to edit and co-write the chapbook “Words of a Feather,” illustrated by artist Brad Sneed. The nonprofit organization has now printed 3,000 copies, half of which will be distributed to state parks, where a copy will be placed in every cabin and welcome center.
The Elizabeth Schultz Environmental Fund is supporting the distribution of copies across Douglas County.
“Interest in the book has exceeded expectations, so we opened a competitive application for Kansas cultural organizations to receive copies,” said Leslie VonHolten, director of grants and outreach at Humanities Kansas. “We will announce those sites soon. This is the first time Humanities Kansas has published a poetry book like this. It’s exciting to see the interest out there for it.”
Kaminski has long considered birds and other nonhuman animals and plants her companions, and she expressed that in her poetry and research. That’s why VonHolten reached out to her with the idea for the project, Kaminski said.
“Like many of us during the pandemic lockdown, I think Leslie was spending more time at home and outside,” Kaminski said. “She came up with the idea of this book and thought of me and the work that I was doing to help people facilitate connections with and within our own ecosystems... and to help build practices that allow us to see other-than-human animals as sentient beings, as persons, worthy of our respect, reverence and attention.”
Kaminski said VonHolten asked her to include Emily Dickinson’s famous “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” but left the rest to her. Kaminski decided that she would write one poem, and to include one by the late, renowned nature poet Mary Oliver and one by the late, Kansas-based poet Ronald Johnson. Then she reached out to seven other living poets from Kansas or with Kansas connections and asked them to contribute.
“In setting parameters for poets, I focused on the idea of connection,” Kaminski said, “of seeing birds as a way to reawaken our sense of wonder with the natural world, and a sense of reverence, kindness and love that results from seeing ourselves in relation with the birds we interact with daily.”
The author said while most people like both birds and poetry, “they also are subjects that people often feel like they need specialized knowledge to appreciate ... and I wanted to create access for people, to create an invitation to enjoy poetry and to interact with the birds in our lives and through the poems – to maybe eliminate some of those perceived barriers.”
One of the Kansas poets Kaminski engaged was Ignacio Carvajal, assistant professor in KU’s Department of Spanish & Portuguese, whose untitled poem celebrates the mockingbird in a combination of English, Spanish and K‘iche’, the latter being an Indigenous Central American language that he teaches.
“I was really excited to have a poem from Ignacio especially given his long relationship with Kansas birds,” Kaminski said, “and it was a delight when Ignacio wrote a poem that engages across multiple languages and perhaps is also an invitation to the significant Spanish-speaking population of Kansas.”
In keeping with the theme of connection and the book’s focus on Kansas, Kaminski said, Sneed’s illustrations “are all birds you can see in your backyard or down the street or in your neighborhood. They might provide an inspiration for learning more about the birds around us, but the chapbook is meant to be a start, not a complete survey.”
The poems and illustrations give readers a chance to contemplate the birds and our relationship to them at a slow pace. If people will take a moment to engage in that contemplation, Kaminski said, they are likely to find it rewarding. It might even ultimately benefit the environment, she said.
“When we pay attention to and feel grateful for other beings in our life, that's an opening for reciprocity and care,” the poet said. “If I begin to recognize the birds that live in my surroundings, I begin to learn their names and their habits and understand how they live in relation to others. And we see their songs and presence as gifts, as an integral part of our own lives. Then we start to think about ‘What can I give back to support them?’”
Image: This robin illustrates Megan Kaminski’s poem, “Under tree canopy,” in the new book “Words of a Feather.” Credit: Courtesy Brad Sneed