Earlier this year, prompted by a gig for the Kansas City Public Library, I spent several weeks immersed in Kansas City literature. From Civil War era narratives to 20th-century landmarks of history, memoir and fiction, the exercise carried me through a substantial part of the evolution of the social fabric and language of this place.
It was good, for example, given our city and nation’s current reckoning with race, to get back in touch with Charles Coulter’s essential history of Black Kansas City, “Take Up the Black Man’s Burden.” The book spans the years 1865-1939 with illuminating portraits of notable individuals and many aspects of local history that dominant-culture accounts tend to overlook.
And there was much more (find the recommended reading on the library’s website) in the way of revealing how people — regular folks and high society — lived at various points in the city’s dusty, leafy, corrupt, creative and ever enlightening past.
A couple of new books with Kansas City connections came along too late to incorporate into that event. So here goes an addendum:
• The portrait that emerges of Pat Metheny, the Lee’s Summit-bred global guitar phenom, in Carolyn Glenn Brewer’s new book about his early life is one of pure musical obsession. In Beneath Missouri Skies: Pat Metheny in Kansas City, 1964-1972 (University of North Texas Press), Brewer recounts the tooth-braced teenager’s single-minded devotion to becoming a musician. He would listen to records over and over again — to Wes Montgomery, to Miles Davis — to absorb the architecture and technique of music, especially jazz, into his fingers, his brain, his blood.
Nothing else mattered. Certainly not school.
Metheny spent so much time practicing and gigging in clubs, restaurants and pizza joints as an underage teen, he barely, somewhat miraculously, graduated from high school. I’ve always loved the story about his recruitment to the University of Miami in Florida, where after a semester as a freshman he was offered the chance to teach. Brewer expands on the anecdote a bit. We learn, for example, that because of Metheny’s poor showing in the college entrance exam, he was rejected by the UMKC Conservatory of Music. Such a shame for the local contingent, but we’re probably better off for it. After a year in Miami, he joined the faculty of the Berklee College of Music in Boston. His path to stardom was secure.
I left Brewer’s book appreciating the details of the late-1960s jazz scene that predated my arrival in Kansas City. But if I also wanted more of his person, so be it. You can find what you need of his life in the expansive, often inquisitive body of music Metheny has made ever since, music that ranges from Missouri simplicity to multicultural complexity and challenging explorations to the edge of things and back.
• Two pieces of good news accompany the next book under consideration.
One, it represents the survival and new chapter in the story of BkMk Press. Early last year, I wrote about the publisher’s precarious status as UMKC (vision-challenged again) put a budget squeeze on the operations of the “New Letters” literary magazine and its affiliated projects, including the book-publishing arm, BkMk. With its demise almost certain, BkMk found some angel supporters, a new physical home, and, apparently, a new distribution arrangement that kicks in this fall with the release of the second bit of good, although bittersweet, news.
The book is Luminous Blue Variables by the late Michelle Boisseau. Boisseau, (full disclosure) a dear friend of mine, had been editor of BkMk Press and a founding faculty member of UMKC’s MFA program in creative writing. She died of lung cancer in late 2017. Her husband, Thomas Stroik, a linguist and retired faculty of the UMKC English department, delivered to the press this gathering of her longer poems, which were gleaned mostly from Boisseau’s previous six books.
It is such a career revelation to have all these poems breathing on the pages in this one place. They not only remind us of her exquisite sensory and memory details but also of her fertile imagination, infinite curiosity and astounding range. Boisseau’s poems take us to remarkable places in the world and in her consciousness — from the Civil War battlefield of Cold Harbor to Kristallnacht in Poland, from this region’s landscapes to family secrets that converge in the late-in-life discovery of slave-holding ancestors in Virginia (see “A Reckoning”). Boisseau makes history — her history and ours — personal
As Stroik puts it in a Foreword, “Having these poems speak to one another allows us to overhear celestial conversations.”