Is Topeka the Most Poetic City in America?
Racism, Iniquity, Fundamentalism, and Poetry!
There’s an old joke told among residents of Topeka, Kansas that goes like this: “What’s the difference between Topeka and yogurt?” “Yogurt has an active culture.” It perhaps goes without saying that Topeka, the capital city of Kansas, is known less for its cultural output than for the late Pastor Fred Phelps and his nefarious Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). Throughout the state, and beyond, the city keeps a reputation of violence, bigotry, poverty, and far-right conservatism. In recent months, if national broadcasters have mentioned Topeka at all, it’s been in the context of the devastating impact Governor Sam Brownback’s austerity plan has had on the Kansas economy. In short, Topeka is not the kind of place one expects to produce great poetry.
And yet, it has. A lot of it.
Topeka poet Dennis Etzel, Jr. maintains a blog dedicated to the many poets who have come out of Topeka. His site currently boasts 33 names, including luminaries like Gwendolyn Brooks, who was born in the city, and Langston Hughes, who went to school there in the first grade. Most of the other names belong to prolific contemporaries: Nick Twemlow, Ben Lerner, Kevin Young, Ed Skoog, Anne Boyer, CA Conrad, Cyrus Console, Gary Jackson, Thomas Fox Averill, Matt Porubsky, Leah Sewell, and the current Poet Laureate of Kansas, Eric McHenry, to name a selected few.
Etzel’s criteria for what constitutes a bona fide “Topeka poet” is murky. The Topeka poets do not share an aesthetic or a singular focus, though some of them on occasion write about Topeka. (Porubsky’s “The Kansas Voice” was inspired by William Carlos William’s “Paterson”). The Topeka School is “not like the Black Mountain School where people are working off the same ethos or philosophy of poetry,” says Averill, who is also a novelist and a professor at Topeka’s Washburn University. Some, like Skoog and Lerner, experiment with montage and collage, while McHenry works in a more traditional mode, crafting poems in rhymed iambic pentameter.
There’s also the question of what makes the poets “Topekan.” Some, like Brooks, were born in the city but moved soon thereafter. Lerner and Young grew up in Topeka and graduated from its high schools but have since left. Some still live there, including Etzel, who teaches at Washburn with Averill and McHenry. Sewell, who says her poetic vision appears from the “beautiful tragedy” of Topeka, works at the local public library. Porubsky is heir to the legendary Porubsky’s, a tiny, decades-old café on the outskirts of town that caters to both farmers and lawyers. When not writing and publishing books of poetry, he works down at the railroad.
Taken together, this group of experimentalists and traditionalists, Topekans and “Topekans,” add up to an impressive cohort of actively publishing poets. So what is going on in Topeka? How is it that this town, surrounded not by mountains, oceans, or the usual sights of poetic inspiration but instead by Monsanto-owned farmland and remnants of failed industry, has produced so many poets? According to Porubsky, it can’t be the water, because “the water around here is full of crud.”
In an essay for Solitude Atlas, Aaron Kunin, a poet not from Topeka but fascinated by the Topeka poet phenomenon, wonders, too, just what’s going on. He concludes that “we have no idea” and probably never will. That’s fair. From my conversations with several Topeka poets, it’s clear that no one completely agrees on how the phenomenon came about or why it persists. But their thoughts on the subject also hold some fascinating similarities.
To the extent that theories are formed out of repeatedly observed phenomena, here are four theories that emerged from my conversations with Topeka poets for why their hometown produced several generations (Etzel would say “waves”) of poets.
Theory 1: A City of Contradictions
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff Oliver Brown in Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark decision that rendered racial segregation in American public schools unconstitutional. CA Conrad describes a visit to the museum dedicated to the court case: “The exhibit that I will never be able to shake out of my body is a room flanking you with two long movie screens showing a film montage of the vicious, evil things white Topeka people were saying [back then].” The court case marks a more recent moment in a long history of racial struggle in Kansas. As a border state during the Civil War, Kansas became the site of a proxy war where pro- and anti-slavery forces came to a particularly bloody head.
Racial tensions still tear at the fabric of the state’s capital, as do struggles of economic class (the state’s current minimum wage of $7.25 is one of the lowest in the country). “Struggle” is the key word here. Topeka may have a reputation for cultivating some of the country’s worst pathologies (racism, classism, sexism, homophobia), but deep in its folds are pockets of political moderation, even Leftist radicalism. The fanatic madman abolitionist John Brown came to Kansas in the mid-1800s to fight for his cause, and now a painting of him brandishing a shotgun and hollering into tornadic winds adorns the second-floor rotunda of the Topeka Capitol. The early 20th-century American Socialist movement began in small towns across Kansas and found strong support in the state capital. During the 1980s, at the dawn of Reagan conservatism, Ben Lerner remembers his home as being “Lefty Jewish and fairly intellectual.” McHenry says that growing up in Topeka, he “didn’t know anyone who voted for Reagan.” Today, a nascent Occupy Monsanto movement continues to grow throughout the city.
Twemlow captures the political contradictions of Topeka in a memory of going to a state book fair that was held at the Topeka capitol building: “I remember Governor Brownback coming down the stairs and standing beneath that painting of John Brown. I thought to myself, what have we come to?”
The city’s tumultuous political climate seems to have contributed to at least some of the poets’ lyrical way of seeing the world. For example, McHenry remembers the various perspectives he encountered in high school as a “mind-expanding experience:”
Though I wasn’t conservative I came to understand the intellectual roots of libertarianism and conservatism and realized that it is not the caricature that people who disagree with those viewpoints believe.
Simultaneous exposure to dialectically-opposed ways of seeing, says McHenry, “allows negative capability.” That is, it helps a budding poet to understand that “writing can be subtle, even ironic, that contradictory ideas are actually complementary.”
Averill agrees that Topeka “nurtures a poetic sensibility, an irony” through contradiction:
In Topeka you have to occupy two or more worlds at once. That feeling makes people have a double sensibility that you need as a writer. It makes you more intense or fierce in your practice in being a poet, of having something to say.
If Topeka’s contradictions indeed played a role in producing a great number of poets, it’s worth noting that most of these poets identify as straight males. Anne Boyer told me she feels like a “Topeka School” outsider:
If there is a Topeka School, I’m in detention with CA Conrad. We are carving ludicrous phrases on the desks, and I think a fire alarm is about to go off, and the strange thing about the Topeka School is that there hardly seem to be any other women or queer people in it at all.
For Boyer, living and writing as a Topeka poet is an act of resistance, and the thing she is resisting is Topeka itself.
Theory 2: Poetry as an Act of Resistance
Anne Boyer was born in Topeka and lives there still. She was “educated in its public libraries, miseducated in its public schools and universities,” and feels “pretty much like an alien to [Topeka]” as well as “its most natural product.” Some of her favorite poets are those with connections to the city (Brooks, Hughes, Conrad), but she feels she and her colleagues came out of Topeka “despite Topeka.”
In the poem “In A Torrent Virgin Plain,” Boyer wields line after line of angry words at the people of Kansas. In one particularly pointed stanza she writes:
stupid fucking rednecks–
they do not believe in science (which is evolution)–
then they in Kansas is everything hick–
Boyer’s words can be read as representative of a collective negativity, or at least ambivalence, that several Topeka poets feel toward Kansas in general and Topeka in particular. Gary Jackson, a poet who grew up in Topeka and went to college there, “really hates” the place. He says that he “felt like the Highlander,” being one of the few African-American students in Washburn University’s English department. For him, “poetry was a way of forming and then preserving [his] identity.”
Of course, “it’s easy to be critical of Topeka,” Cyrus Console reminds us, “but that’s not fair.” He’s right that there are dozens of towns of similar size all over the Midwest that mirror the city’s imperfections, but Kansas does have a particularly violent past. As Kevin Young puts it, the state is known as “Bloody Kansas,” not “Free-love Kansas.”
That history of violence continues to threaten the city’s gay community. “Being a faggot I need to consider the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka whose platform is one of the most bizarre forms of homophobia ever conceived of on our planet,” says CA Conrad. “This kind of Othering of fellow human beings is so powerful and so unforgettable that poetry is the only clear channel frequency those of us born in Topeka can tune into to be able to address a nation still thirsty for the blood of people of color and faggots.”
Ben Lerner was a champion debater in high school and so learned early on how to use words to confront an opponent. Language, he says, became for him a tangible way to defy an abstract enemy—the economic collapse of the 1980s that devastated the city:
Poetry is an effort to keep language particular in the face of rampant standardization. Many poets have emerged out of the confrontation with the peripheral malls and collapsed downtowns and big box chains etc. Topeka was one of so many Midwestern towns flattened by that moment in capital and I feel like poets there were, in different ways, talking back.
Nick Twemlow describes growing up in Topeka as a “shared misery.” His family traveled half way around the world from New Zealand to Topeka so that his father could work at the Menninger Foundation, a world-famous psychiatric hospital that used to occupy 500 acres on the north end of Wanamaker Road, one of the city’s busiest throughways. Menninger’s was a point of Topeka pride. It served as a groundswell for innovative psychiatric practice and became a favorite treatment center for Hollywood celebrities.
Twemlow says that, for him, poetry was a way to resist the “psychic pain” he associates with both Menninger’s and the city. His emphasis on mental hurt makes sense in light of another notable fact about Topeka: in the 1990s, it was home to three mental hospitals—Menninger’s, Topeka State Hospital, and the Topeka VA—an astounding number for a town of less than 130,000 people.
Theory 3: The Menninger Foundation
Menninger’s moved to Houston in 2003, but not before attracting a population of well-educated doctors and thinkers to Topeka. Indeed, Twemlow isn’t the only Topeka poet with a connection to the clinic. Like Twemlow’s family, Lerner’s moved to Topeka to work at Menninger’s (both of Lerner’s parents are psychologists.) Lerner remembers Menninger’s as helping inculcate the city’s poetic sensibility by providing a “way for other intellectual traditions—including European Jewish emigres—to get mixed in with the local.” What’s more, he says, psychologists have more in common with poets than one might initially think: “Just as there are a shocking number of per capita poets in Topeka, the place was full of psychologists. I suppose poets and psychologists share a belief in the power of language and the significance of certain silences.”
Menninger’s also brought money to the city. In our conversation, Boyer explained why the influx of capital that Menninger’s provided might have given at least some of the poets an early advantage: “The presence of the Menninger Foundation most likely created a class of children with affluent, hyper-educated parents who had access to the material and cultural resources that made something as economically perilous as being a poet thinkable.”
Indeed, wealth of any kind was and is hard to come by in Topeka. Boyer points to the novelty of those who came from money but also understand the “extremity of feeling” that coming from a place like Kansas provides. Such a combination, she says, gives rise to a “grand sense of possibility.”
Not all the poets came from privileged economic backgrounds, but this sense of possibility is the one thing (other than a connection to Topeka) that each appears to have in common.
Theory 4: Espirit De Corps
Thomas Fox Averill is a generation older than most of the other contemporary Topeka poets. In fact, he taught many of them in classes at Washburn or in extracurricular workshops. His philosophy in the classroom is one of nurturing mentorship: “I just let people know that they’re doing good work and that what they have to say is interesting and important,” he says. It’s likely, then, that he instilled in his students not only an appreciation of the written word, but a belief in the necessity of reciprocal support.
“Competition doesn’t create good art,” he continues. Camaraderie does. The Topeka poets certainly have that.
“We’re just a bunch of buddies,” says Porubsky, who shares his work regularly with Skoog, McHenry, and Sewell. Lerner likewise feels a connection to the group: “I think Topeka has a lot of distinctly American sicknesses but I am also proud to be from there and feel a strange fellowship with the writers it has produced.” Sewell always looks forward to returning to Topeka after attending the annual AWP conference, where “there’s so much competition and people jockeying for power positions.”
Cyrus Console remembers feeling “cut off from cultural resources” growing up in Topeka, but he found illumination in his cohort. “Ben Lerner’s work is very important to me,” he says. “He’s a close friend and an essential influence on me. And someone I admire a great deal. As well as Anne Boyer.”
Boyer, the self-described outsider, claims a kinship with Conrad. Conrad, in turn, dedicated his Topeka (Soma)tic Poetry Ritual and Resulting Poem to her.
Despite his status as a beloved teacher, Averill brushes off the idea that he played a role in strengthening Topeka’s unlikely literary scene. He points instead to the work of others. “Dennis [Etzel] and Leah [Sewell] are cultivating the current culture of Topeka poets,” he says.
It’s hard to prove whether the ongoing relationships between these poets boosted their chances of success. But such closeness certainly provided inspiration, motivation, and a mutual sense of having overcome the same obstacle—Topeka. “There’s this feeling of yeah, we’re from Topeka, but that doesn’t mean we are unsophisticated,” says McHenry. “There’s something defiant in our attitude against the outside world.” McHenry’s words could be extended to Topeka itself.
Driving down the city’s streets it’s hard not to wonder whether time here stopped 30 years ago. An abandoned shopping center with a new-wave marquee crumbles and peels on the south side of town. Brutalist state office buildings glower across the street from the Capitol. Dentist offices and law practices operate under the angular roofs of 1980s Pizza Huts. As evidence from the outside world mounts that tax cuts for the wealthy actually don’t improve local economies, Topeka digs its arthritic feet in deep and just believes harder.
This is a city that continues to struggle on multiple planes, even as its poets thrive. But Averill, ever the optimist, believes it’s a city changing for the better. “It’s much more the kind of place I’d want to live in now than when I was growing up,” he says. Perhaps he’s right. Or, perhaps it isn’t changing, and that’s ok, too. After all, Topeka gave life to dozens of poets, and by extension, a vital body of work as diverse and at times as enigmatic as the city itself. What can’t be argued is that many of these poets, whether by choice, necessity, or something verging into the supernatural, remain tethered to the place. CA Conrad, for one, feels the pull of his hometown but chooses not to twist against it. “Poetry and Topeka,” he says, “are the two places where I surrender everything.”