"Prairie Gold," and Down the Falls with My Academic Advisor

prairie-gold-cover-sacknoff-cavazos-trout-midwest-anthology-ice-cube-press-website-iowa-state-interns-writingsEarlier this year, Iowa's own Ice Cube Press published an anthology that gathered together previously unpublished prose and poetry dealing in a wide variety of ways with that strange, vast expanse of plains and lake country known collectively as the American Midwest.  The fearless editors of the collection, Lance M. Sacknoff, Xavier Cavazos, and Stefanie Brook Trout, have called it Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland, and it features the work of many emerging writers variously connected to the Midwest, including an essay of mine, and the book's three sections are introduced by three of my literary heros: Dean Bakopoulos, Debra Marquart, and Mary Swander.  Since I contributed one of the collection's essays, you can actually order a signed copy from me at a 10% discount, and I'll be joining some of the other contributors for a reading in St. Paul, MN during AWP 2015.  More on all that below.

But what is this "prairie gold"?  Well, the way the term is traditionally used, it's -- corn.  These days, at least in states like Iowa, it's mostly corn that is inedible to humans in its raw state, sold mainly for the purposes of cheaply feeding livestock or being reconstituted into high fructose corn syrup and other popular artificial sweeteners.  It's a pretty controversial crop, to say the least.  Contrary to what you may have heard if you are not a native of the region yourself, much of the Midwestern landscape is far from the idyllic, reassuring images that our culture likes to paint for us.  But, for that matter, much of it does not look like Iowa, either.

In this way, Prairie Gold's title is ironic.  Far from the monocultural metaphor we might glean from the federally subsidized corn/soy plains that characterize some of our highly cultivated midwestern landscapes, this collection blooms with a kind of diverse offering more akin to the much more native (and now much more endangered) prairie landscape, rife as it is with hundreds of plant species, both grasses and forbes, and a range of wildlife as diverse as almost any North American forest.  Like the inhabitants of the prairie landscape that once dominated much of the Great Plains -- a landscape of concealment and chasing, of wetland and savanna, of millions of flowers and of buffalo and big cats -- the poetry and prose of this anthology arise in simultaneous struggle and interdependence, for no single portrait can capture the diffuse proliferation of the American Midwest.  Prairie Gold helps provide us with a less nostalgic portrait of the defining bioregion of our middle states.  From Michigan and Ohio to Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, we begin to get a sense for the vastness of the plains, the closeness of the small town diner, and many spaces in between.

It's not all corn country -- in my contribution, "Fuckaroo!," I try to give some sense of the instability and wildness that characterize a certain much-beloved network of wilderness areas spanning millions of acres in northern Minnesota and Canada, known collectively as the Boundary Waters.  The labyrinth of rivers, bogs, and woods is revered by much of the upper Midwest as a mythical region, a place to disappear into the tangle and emerge transformed.  My first encounter with the Boundary Waters among a gaggle of MFA students, also my first experience canoeing at all, involves getting lost (unintentionally) with my canoemate and academic advisor, the wonderful and quirky human David Zimmerman, and ending up in a stretch of rapids where we decidedly did not belong.

In 1886, the agrarian author/horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey (my recent obsession), explored a similar area in the Boundary Waters by birch bark canoe with Ojibwe guides (chronicled in his unpublished travel narrative manuscript, Onamanni, housed in Cornell University's archives), and "Fuckaroo!" is adapted from my in-process manuscript Havening (more here), which explores Bailey's life in relation to the present day.  But while such historic expeditions tend to take on a possibly misleading sense of significance and deep intentionality when we read about them a century later, my ill-fated trip with David (of ambiguous intention to begin with) quickly loses its sense of direction and purpose as we find ourselves trapped in an unexpected and particularly dangerous "rapids" that turns out to be more than a rapids.  And, ultimately, I experience something that day more like the real turns that shape and scar our lives than anything I could possibly learn from my tamer academic advising sessions with David and the other MFA professors at Iowa State.  (And, as the essay's title indicates, I also learn about David's wonderful knack for inventing curse words.)

Prairie Gold is chock-full of stories like this, native to the complicated soils and communities of the Midwest, so I hope you'll consider picking up a copy.  And while you should certainly buy a copy of the book by whatever means are most convenient to you (or especially at whatever handy bookstore might be within walking distance), it is also true that you can order a signed copy directly from me for $18 (a 10% discount), plus $2 domestic shipping, with the publisher's blessings.  It should even contribute a couple dollars to my coffee fund.  If you are interested in this, please use my contact form to get in touch.  I'll also be reading from my essay "Fuckaroo!" at Subtext Books in St. Paul, MN, alongside other contributors, during AWP 2015, on April 9 from 6:30-9:00 PM.  More on that another time!

If you do get your hands on a copy of Prairie Gold, I hope you'll let me know what you think.  Being included among such great writers has been a humbling and rewarding experience.  I hope you'll agree that this book provides a true kind of "prairie gold," a collection of gems formed from the pith of the Midwest's ancient soil, of narratives and images that tap into a store of wisdom that we may soon come to need more than ever.

[Edited December 1, 2014.]