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“Tall(grass) Prairie Song”

Posted on • Words by • Art by

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Collaborators’ Q&A

What inspired you to bring your work to Broadsided?
Poet Angie Vorhies: When I was teaching English in China in the late 1980s, the student pro-democracy movement was gaining momentum. On the campus where I taught, wall posters went up in support of student demonstrations happening around the country, demanding freedom, human rights, and political reform. Every time a new poster went up, crowds gathered to read and discuss the ideas contained within it.

I don’t know if poetry can have the same effect, but I’d like to think so. In my neighborhood, there is a house with a Poet Tree on the corner. The poet and artist couple who live there choose poems and images to go with them, print them on nice card stock paper, and hang them on strings from the branches with tiny clothespins. Anyone who walks by is welcome to take one. I always read every poem (and there are dozens!), then choose one based on what resonates that day–hope, grief, love, Spring. The gift of those poems–those broadsides–helped me and many of my neighbors get through the pandemic together.

What drew you to create a visual response to this poem, in particular?
Artist Kara Page:
I was inspired by the subject matter. I live in an area where agriculture dominates the landscape, but I’m originally from an area out West where mountains and desert are greater than the farming areas. The contrast of the two places has always intrigued me, and it made me wonder: what happens to a people when their natural landscape disappears? Since prairie is the native landscape in the area I currently live, I was immediately drawn to this poem. Would people feel differently about this area if more native prairie took root? If we could walk through cone flowers, Michigan lilies, and big bluestem grasses? I think yes, and I hope the more people learn about their native landscapes the more they continue to preserve and protect them.

How did this poem come to be?
Poet Angie Vorhies: This poem was inspired by a road trip I took on my birthday to explore my family roots. I knew my ancestors had arrived in Kansas in the mid-19th century, but I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until I took that trip and started doing some research into history (Indian Removal Act of 1830, Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854) that I finally connected the dots and realized exactly how my family came to be on that land.

My family no longer lives on the homestead, but I felt compelled to go there, to the Flint Hills and the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, an unbelievably beautiful and inspiring place, and the ancestral lands of the Kaw Nation. Where prairie once covered 40% of North America, now only about 1% remains. But the work being done there to restore and reconcile the damage we have done gives me some small measure of hope. This journey and the tallgrass prairie ecosystem has taught me how deeply interconnected we all are.

And I’m indebted to the late Myron Dewey, a Native filmmaker and Standing Rock activist, who inspired me by asking, “What are you going to do about that?”  That question lives inside me.

How did this image come to be?
Artist Kara Page: I slid through my camera roll of a variety of prairie plants and landed on a Michigan lily, in part, because the year I took it they were such a rare find for me in the prairie. Bee balm was everywhere that year, so the red flowers really stood out.

What did you think an artist would pick up on from your poem? Does the artist’s response make you see the poem differently?
Poet Angie Vorhies: I honestly had no idea. Maybe something about the prairie (Bison, grass)? Not that it should be merely illustrative. I don’t know if it makes me see the poem differently, but I’m interested in how the erasure happening in the piece echoes themes in the poem.

What question would you like to ask your collaborator?
Poet to Artist: Does the text you chose for the collage (pages from a children’s book) have any special significance?
Artist Kara Page:
Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner was a book that broke my heart as a kid and was the first book that made me cry. Despite that, it was one of my favorite books. The prairie hasn’t always meant something to me. I grew up in mountains, and never gave a thought to what would be in the Midwest if cornfields weren’t covering the landscape. Then, in college, we went a field trip to see native prairie. And I don’t mean a cornfield that was converted back to prairie, I mean real native prairie that happened to not have been converted.

I remember learning how rare native prairie like that was in my state and my heart kind of broke for a people who might not necessarily connected to the land in the same way I was growing up in the Rocky Mountains. Granted, that was all speculation, but that kind of heartbreak…of being disconnected from something you loved or could have loved, stuck with me. For me, using Stone Fox was a way of connecting my heart to the poem in a way it might not have been otherwise.
Artist to Poet: The question that comes up for me is one of wondering if this person feels the same way about the prairie that I do, and, if that is the case, is finding common ground in our native landscape enough to bridge the polarization that has plagued us the last few years.
Poet Angie Vorhies:
Even though I left Kansas when I was four, my mother instilled a love for the prairie in me: the huge sky, rolling hills and wide-open expanses, the annual burning of the fields and return of the wildflowers and grasses. You asked, “What happens to a people when their natural landscape disappears?” I wonder the same thing myself. Having moved so much in my life, the question of connection to land is one that has followed me everywhere and been a driving force in my life and creative work. Where do I belong? Where do I feel at home, and why?

I love the saying, “the more we learn about animals (birds, plants), the smarter they get.” Learning that the chaparral habitat of southern California is also a fire regime, just like the prairie, delighted me. Fire as a source of renewal, not merely destruction. The natural ecosystem has such a deep intelligence and balance, it adapts and restores itself constantly. That gives me hope.

And I have found beauty and delight are much better motivators for me than pessimism. I’m not saying it’s possible to get rid of all the freeways and houses and return to some idyllic landscape of yesteryear. But maybe we can start by planting a few native plants in our own backyard. (Or a birdfeeder in the window if you don’t have a yard.) That will bring the songbirds and the native bees. Then we can stop using pesticides on that lawn so they will keep coming back and have food for their babies. In return, they will delight us, gift us, with their beauty and their songs.

It’s a start, anyway. A small start. In our own backyards and neighborhoods. Getting to know one another, appreciating one another, letting each other live. I think that is the common ground we can all share.

Describe your ideal “Vectorization”—where, in your wildest dreams, would you most like to see this broadside posted in the world?
Poet Angie Vorhies: Kansas! I would love to see it at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, on a campus wall with a crowd of students gathered round, or hanging like leaves on a Poet Tree where anyone could stop, read it, and then take a copy home with them.
Artist Kara Page:
In public schools hopefully put there by students because it’d mean the next generation puts value in art and poetry. 

If this Broadsided collaboration were a type of weather, what would it be?
Poet Angie Vorhies: A thunderstorm, moving quickly across the prairie (dark clouds, lightning, strong wind).

Do you have a favorite, generative prompt for artists or writers you’d like to share?
Poet Angie Vorhies: Go outside. Go for a walk in your neighborhood. What Beings (plants, animals, insects, birds) do you see? What do you hear? Write this down. Name things. Do this every day for a week. What changes? What stays the same? Pay attention to what you pay attention to.
Artist Kara Page:
Generative prompts for me in painting generally look like “free paint.” I just paint random colors. I usually hate it, but it helps get the creativity flowing and an idea comes in the process. The under-painting is rarely ever seen, but it helps immensely! 

Read any good books lately?
Poet Angie Vorhies: Cascadia Field Guide: Art, Ecology, Poetry; Mecca by Susan Straight, and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay.
Artist Kara Page:
Irresistible by Adam Atler.

Seen any good art lately?
Poet Angie Vorhies: Remedios Varo: Science Fictions at the Chicago Art Institute and Desert X (a site-specific, outdoor biennial installation) 2023: Tyre Nichols’ Originals photographs, Rana Begum’s No. 1225 Chainlink, and Matt Johnson’s Sleeping Figure.
Artist Kara Page:
Currently inspired by MC Escher.

Anything else?
Poet Angie Vorhies: I love collaboration and this experience has inspired me to ask my daughter and other artists and poets I know to work together to create and share broadsides with our community. Thank you, Kara!

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