“Rewriting the Body,” a Collection of Poems by Former Kansas Poet Laureate Wyatt Townley
In the biographical statement on the back of her new book, Wyatt Townley is described as living at “the curious intersection of poetry and poetry-in-motion.” And her rhythmic command of her chosen literary medium bears that out.
“Rewriting the Body” is the fourth and latest poetry collection by Townley, a Shawnee Mission resident who was Kansas Poet Laureate from 2013 to 2015. Encompassing four sections, the book combines personal reflection with more universal musings, including the occasional dollop of humor.
Townley, whose work has been published in the “Paris Review” and the “North American Review” and has been read on NPR by no less a cultural personage than Garrison Keillor, is a former dancer turned yoga teacher.
What relationship does she see between poetry and yoga?
“I used to think these were separate arts,” she said. “But now I think it’s all poetry — really, all of life is poetry, if we can open ourselves to seeing it. The body itself is a poem we rewrite with every breath. But we treat it like an object.”
A fourth-generation Kansan who grew up on the Missouri side of the metro area, Townley is a founding board member of The Writers Place in Kansas City and has appeared at literary festivals and writers’ conferences. Her other books include the poetry collections “The Breathing Field,” “Perfectly Normal” and “The Afterlives of Trees” and a yoga guide, “Yoganetics.”
Townley’s interest in poetry arose from being “raised in a family that valued being pleasant over being authentic. Poetry provided a safe space to explore and express anything more colorful — which is pretty much everything.”
“Rewriting the Body,” she said, is both a culmination and a new beginning.
“Each book builds on the last, yet starts over, each poem teaching me how to write it,” Townley said. “Probably because of my dance and yoga background, I write from the body, and use the body as a lens to look at everything. This book explores the body as place — as home — from room to room, trauma to revelation.”
Townley’s gift for detail is on splendid display in a poem from the new collection, called “Knowing the Difference” (right).
Townley credits her Kansas roots with having a significant influence on her poetic sensibility. Particularly the state’s “spaciousness.”
“That awareness probably comes from our long horizon and big sky, and I thirsted for them when I lived in New York for 17 years,” she said. “And of course, the wind! Kansas is named for the wind, and I know it roams through my rhythms and poems. The white space around the words is at least as important as the words, and I revel in negative space.”
Influences from the realm of poetry itself range from Walt Whitman to e.e. cummings, and from Anne Sexton to T.S. Eliot.
Poetry has acquired a reputation for being difficult to understand, but Townley’s poems are accessible in much the same way as those of Whitman and cummings. Whether looking back on a “First Kiss” or relating the “Force of Nature” to the facts of one’s life, she finds the universal in the personal.
“Everyone we read is an influence,” she said. “But those we return to again and again go deeper. I think we find the poets we need in order to grow, just as the teacher shows up when the student is ready.”
Her time as Poet Laureate of Kansas was “an honor and privilege.”
“People are hungry to talk about important things, and poetry can focus the attention like a laser,” Townley said. “The role of poet laureate was personally a challenge for me, because moving from private to public was a leap for this introvert. But I found my way, podium by podium, because my mission was bigger than my problem. That mission was bringing people home to poetry, and poetry home to people. It still is.”
What does she hope poetry aficionados and neophytes will take away from “Rewriting the Body”?
“As a reader, I always look to be moved,” Townley said. “I want my perception altered. I want new insight, or a breakthrough, whether micro or macro.
“Transformation and revelation are big words, but that’s what I’m after as a reader, and it’s what I’m after as a writer,” she said. “I hope readers can connect with my work, and find the door that leads into their own lives.”
“Rewriting the Body” Launch Events:
March 13, 6 to 8 p.m., Johnson County Central Resource Library, 9875 W 87th St., Overland Park, Kansas.
March 14, 7 p.m., The Raven Book Store, 6 E. 7th St., Lawrence, Kansas.
Photo of Wyatt Townley by Terry Weckbaugh