Sunday, February 1, 2004
Winning an award named for "Black Poet Laureate" Langston Hughes has been especially meaningful in different ways for fiction writer Tasha Haas and poet Nedra Rogers.
For Haas, who prizes rhythm in her stories above all else, Hughes' jazz- and blues-inspired lines strike chords.
Rogers grew up in tiny Bison and didn't see a black person until she was 16. Still, she's always considered herself sensitive to multicultural issues. However a course Rogers recently took at Kansas University helped her realize people of color "live in a different United States" than Caucasians and, since then, she's made a point of reading writing by people of color, including Hughes.
"This year was probably the best year for me to win that award," she says, noting she has applied two other times. "It was more meaningful to me this year than it would have ever been because of that class, and I feel like I understand where (Hughes) is coming from more with his writing."
Rogers' and Haas' work rose to the top of the pack of 40 applicants.
"In both cases, we had unanimous decisions," says Jerry Masinton, a retired KU English professor who sat on the selection committee. "None of us had to make a case to argue for one or the other. We tabulated the votes and -- bang -- it was clear who won."
Blurring literary lines
Although Haas tells stories in paragraph form, she characterizes the distinction between poetry and fiction as arbitrary and strives to inform each line of her writing with a poetic sensibility. For her, that means focusing on rhythm.
"Rhythm will supersede meaning if I have to make a choice between two words," she says. "Since we don't read literature out loud much -- even poetry -- in our culture, I think reading on the page I like to have an auditory experience."
The judges noticed Haas' poetic efforts in their favorite of her two submissions, "Spring, Sunday Morning."
"I think that poetic element might be seen in the steady rhythm of the phrases. They tumble forth," Masinton says. "The sentences tend to be quite long, but they're not hard to follow. They pour out in a rhythm that, to me, is reminiscent of poetry."
True life inspired "Spring, Sunday Morning" after Haas' childhood friend called to say her childhood priest had answered the door of his urban apartment and been brutally struck at the base of his skull by a stranger and left to die. No one discovered him for five days, and it's unclear how long he lay there before he finally died.
Haas, moved and disturbed by the violent crime, explored its psychological and religious ramifications in "Spring, Sunday Morning," a reference to the time of year she heard the news.
"I was, as I always am, working out my own questions," says Haas, who was raised Protestant. "One of the biggest questions that Christianity wants to answer or struggles to answer is evil, the problem of evil in the world. How does it fit into this picture of God?"
Haas, 33, grew up in Coldwater, a small southwestern Kansas town. She wrote her first novel (about race horses) at age 9. She graduated in a class of 24 and studied English, French and creative writing between Fort Hays State University, the University of Southwestern Louisiana and Bowling Green State University, where she earned her MFA.
Now she teaches creative writing and literature at Kansas University and concentrates on her own writing whenever she can.
Haas counts Virginia Woolf, Henry James and other modernists among her influences.
She views the Langston Hughes award as a reason to keep writing.
"The main thing with this award is not the money, not the recognition, certainly, which I'm not that comfortable with actually, but it's the encouragement," she says. "It's few and far between, for me anyway. I think it's a cultural thing. Literature still has power, it still has potency, but it's in competition with so many other media."
Rogers shares Haas' humble appreciation of the award.
"I feel honored," she says. "This really inspires me to continue writing and to be worthy. When you get an honor like this, you want to be worthy of it."
What makes Rogers worthy of the award, Masinton says, is her ability to create "brilliant moments that you want to dwell on," using concrete imagery and a unique poetic voice.
"We thought the situations depicted in these poems were consistently interesting and arresting."
One of those nice moments comes in Rogers' poem "Finding Power at the Juvenile Detention Center (September 13, 2001)." In the first-person piece, Rogers recounts tutoring a suicidal juvenile inmate named Dwayne about the concept of "cubic dimension or how numbers can have power." (Rogers works as a para educator at the Lawrence facility.)
Searching for an illustration, Rogers turns the textbook page and finds a picture of the World Trade Center towers under the heading "Enormous Rectangular Solids." She writes:
"... The sky
on page 75 in 'Algebra' is clear and blue, and things are as they were
day before yesterday. In the background of the photo, Dwayne and I
can see the Hudson, and we just sit a while taking in the view, not caring
one bit how many cubic liters are flowing out to sea."
Rogers, 56, writes free verse and bases her poetry on life experiences, emotions, relationships, motherhood, travel and work. She usually jump-starts her writing by reading other poets; her favorites are Steven Dunn, Billy Collins, Stephen Dobyns and Emily Dickinson.
She wrote poetry for pleasure in high school, but she married young, had five children and didn't take up writing seriously again until six or seven years ago. She has a teaching degree from Emporia State University and has studied poetry at KU, Kansas State University, Indiana University and the Lawrence Arts Center.
Her work has appeared in Lawrence's Coal City Review. She won the 2003 Council on National Literatures Poetry Award, presented by Potpourri, for her poem "Under the Moon" (see "Poet's Showcase," Page 2D). She also received first place for New Talent Poetry from ByLine Magazine for her poem "Most Days."
Rogers and Haas will read their work today during an awards ceremony at the arts center. The public is invited to attend and, the winners hope, to experience their words in a very personal way.
"When I read -- this sounds kind of corny -- but it's really from the heart. It's hopefully from some depth of emotion," Rogers says. "I think when you hear someone read, you hear their voice and the emotion they're putting into the words. It's a little different than reading it yourself."