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Poet contrasts gentility with 'actual care'

Thursday, October 29, 2020


LAWRENCE – Read during the COVID-19 pandemic, one passage in particular jumps out from poet Megan Kaminski’s new book, “Gentlewomen.” 

“We are all alone together sipping coffee while staring at screens. ... hands reaching across quarantine zones.”

While she and her editor considered the book, which always included that line, complete long before the pandemic hit the U.S., Kaminski said that the current world health crisis and other events caused her to revisit and significantly revise the book, recently published by Noemi Press.

“It feels like these past six months have brought the horrors of economic exploitation, white supremacy and environmental devastation into a glaring spotlight — and that crisis point is very much the focus of the book,” said Kaminski, associate professor of English.

The book is a continuation of her exploration of the natural world and our place within it. Through taking on the personas of three allegorical sisters — Fortune, Providence, and Mother Nature — Kaminski creates a poetic landscape rooted firmly in the Great Plains.

These “Gentlewomen” are not as genteel as the title might suggest, favoring real care and fierce love over performative kindness. By pointing this out, the collection asks the reader to look at their own lives and to consider how they relate to and care for others.

Kaminski writes both about early-blooming magnolias about to freeze in a cold snap and about the industrial runoff that accompanies life-giving rains. She mentions usual components of nature poems — plants and creatures ranging from squirrels to rabbits to birds — and she also includes features of industrial agriculture and fracking with the inclusion of “high-yield seeds,” “all-weather tires” and “injectable water.”

“I really was trying to write the place that I live in — to write the prairie, to write Kansas,” Kaminski said. “People have this idea of poetry as being only about pretty, idyllic places. But how can I write poems about the natural world if I leave out the storm runoff? Or how could I write poems about the prairie if I leave out the fact that much of it has become monoculture crops? We lie to ourselves, and with dire consequences, when we imagine that we live outside of the natural world — that it is something separate. Look at the fires raging up and down the West Coast this summer.”

It’s not about making people feel bad about their SUV or decrying individual actions, the author said. Rather, it is giving readers something deeper than the daily news to think about — something that moves them to make changes in how they live their lives.

“The book isn't trying to shame people for being human and needing to make a living or needing to eat,” Kaminski said. “It’s certainly not written as a critique of farmers or the place I call home. I think the landscape of the book is beautiful, but it’s a sort of haunted beauty, with feedlots and oil derricks and all the violence that those sites entail. I wanted to write about that because that's what's here.

“I wanted the book to be this moment that the reader can inhabit to really think about how they relate with others in ways we don't on a day-to-day basis, but also to imagine beautiful possibilities for the future.”

Those possibilities, Kaminski said, “come out of caring for each other and expanding our notions of who we consider kin to go beyond bloodlines and species, instead of thinking about ourselves as being completely independent and on our own.”

“This particular historic moment really brought a lot of the things going on in the book into focus,” she said. “The book, in a lot of ways, is about the kinds of resilience that are asked or required of the Earth's most vulnerable people. But I am also thinking about more-than-human people — like animals and plants, thinking about them as persons, and about how ... our values of rugged independence force things that should be matters of collective concern onto individuals. And we see this definitely now during the pandemic.”

Kaminski said the titular “Gentlewomen” serve to contrast “between gentility — performative politeness — and actual care, or what it would mean to actually be gentle.”

Photo: Poet and professor Megan Kaminski. Credit: Steve Puppe Photography