Sometimes youre a 13-year-old girl, and you grow 7 inches over a summer, to 6 feet tall.
By EDWARD M. EVELD, photos by KEITH MYERS
The Kansas City Star
Sometimes youre a dancer in New York, flying across the stage like you always wanted, until youre dropped on your head, neck broken.
Sometimes you write a book about yoga and record a video, to grateful reviews.
Sometimes Garrison Keillor picks one of your poems and reads it on air, and notice is taken.
Sometimes you lose both hips, which seems like everything.
Sometimes youre named poet laureate of Kansas.
Mostly, though, are the times in between. The transitions, the spaces. To a poet, to Wyatt Townley, its all grist.
Striptease (by Wyatt Townley)
It takes a lifetime
to shed our skin.
Take a lesson:
The snake slides out
the maple shakes off its propellers
and hair by hair we follow
like Hansel and Gretel
dropping what we can.
The cicada sings
only after leaving
its shell on the tree
just as the poem
unwinds down the page
losing its earrings,
its shoes on the stairs.
Wyatt Townley pays attention to the in-between spaces. Time for breath. And thought. And creativity.
Last spring, she was named Kansas poet laureate, a two-year post sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council. Not long after, she was in the small town of Harper in south central Kansas for a poetry presentation.
In the audience at the library was a reading therapy dog. Kids read stories to him, and he never judges. It was a very hot day.
When youre reading a poem, there can be pauses, silences you land in, like a deep pillow, Townley says.
Instead, that day there was panting. Big, wet and loud, Townley says with a broad laugh. Not quite the pause for breath she had in mind.
Still, she wants to focus there and on slowing way, way down.
I think the silences at the end of a poem or in the midst of it, or anytime in life, are often missed opportunities, she says.
For someone who spent her earlier years in New York performing as a dancer and actor, these have become life themes.
As is coming home, something she did two decades ago: Coming Home to Poetry is the theme she has chosen to take on the road as poet laureate.
How heartfelt she is about this is hard to describe.
Home is such a resonant idea, says Townley, whose work has been widely published, from the Paris Review to Newsweek, along with her three poetry collections. We think of home as the walls that surround us the house, the apartment, the room we live in.
Maybe its bigger than that, maybe its smaller, maybe its portable, maybe its invisible. And then theres the mobile home of the body. Its been with us since birth.
In art, its important to zoom in and zoom out.
Body, home, land, sky, she says. Smallest idea to the biggest.
Centering the House
All night Kansas
the lungs of the continent
takes a sip of the galaxy
swirling stars and barbed wire
sofabeds and willows
books and doors banging open
signs disappear whole towns
ditch themselves in the countryside
I stir the coffee to center the house
the place our mothers and fathers
and theirs and theirs passed through
their aprons strung on telephone wires
this tunnel of wind this trial
makes trees throw back their heads
and hair on our arms stand up
were nothing but breath on its way
through the woods
See what she did there, the reverse zoom? Galaxy to tornado to woods to home to coffee.
Townley is well-grounded in Kansas, although her growing-up years were on the Missouri side of the metro area. She lives in Leawood, and her grandparents farm, still in the family after 150 years, is 90 miles southwest.
The farms 200 acres is a place she goes even now, writing at her great-grandmothers oak desk.
Friends Tim and Susan Norris stayed at the farmhouse with Townley and her writer husband, Roderick, in August, knowing Wyatt was a stargazer but not knowing the extent.
She got us up at 4 in the morning to see the Perseids meteor shower, Tim Norris says.
We were lying on a second-story deck, there were no lights anywhere, and the stars were brilliant. It really reminded me of a line in her poem about her great-grandmothers desk. She says the wind pushes the farm down an alley of stars.
In middle school, Townley wanted to be a dancer and, in a dual but much more private track, she wrote in verse. She has never stopped writing.
You and the paper alone under the circle of lamplight, she says about those teen writing years. Its a safe place to land. One bad poem after another, but fully felt.
She calls it preposterous she had set her sights on dancing. She had grown awfully tall for a dancer, eventually 6-foot-2.
It makes one different, Townley acknowledges. And different is hard at 13. We all do feel like we dont fit.
Townley was pigeon-toed and flat-footed as a youngster, so much so she wore corrective steel arches. But she wanted to be a great dancer. She wanted to fly.
I persisted, she says.
And prevailed. Townley graduated from the dance conservatory at Purchase College in New York. By flouting dance department rules, she took enough English courses to also complete a thesis in literature.
The college decided to recognize her efforts, an award at graduation. Apparently there was a standing ovation, but Townley missed it, staring at the ground on the way to accept it.
Some stage hound, wigged out by an appreciative audience. At a recent poetry reading, applause broke out after Townleys first poem.
Thats very nice, she said hesitatingly, head lowered, her long auburn hair falling forward, but not necessary.
After graduation, Townley and two classmates formed a dance company and won support from the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
It was during a rehearsal of choreographer Jim Mays DAmbience that the fall occurred. In an extended, mid-air sequence, Townley was passed among 20 pairs of hands, weaving, dipping and rising. But the timing was off.
A dancer was too early, and he grabbed my hips instead of my waist, she says. My head hit the ground. I couldnt move it.
Her neck was broken, but her spinal cord was intact. Despite medical predictions, her dancing career continued.
And as it progressed, Townley also never stopped writing, and reading, poetry. She met her future husband, Roderick Townley, at a James Merrill poetry reading in Manhattan. Roderick wrote for TV Guide at the time.
They were two towering people across a crowded room. Actually, says Roderick, whos 7 feet tall, it wasnt her height that struck him: I noticed someone coming in late, and I thought, Theres a pretty person.
He introduced himself. He offered her a glass of wine. She accepted, then watched it slip out of her hand.
And he dropped down and mopped it up, Townley says.
They were married two years later.
The dance company enjoyed a healthy run, but after five years, funding diminished. The troupes last appearance was at Lincoln Center.
By then, Townley had been bitten by the acting bug. She took a position with a comedy improvisation group and acted off-Broadway. Some gigs meant working alongside the likes of Bob Hope, Joan Rivers and Sammy Davis Jr.
I fell in love with the theater, Townley says.
The way she tells it, the theater didnt exactly love her back.
I found out I was tall, she says with a smile, then an explosive laugh. I played a lot of monsters, cavewomen and queens.
In one off-Broadway show, she was made to appear taller still, a giant with outrageous shoes and an enormous hat. Her job was to clomp across stage, and with each step, the entire cast jumped.
I had a ball, she says, calling her five-year acting career enlarging.
I would have loved to play a person. Really I have the full range of personhood within me.
The fountain rises from a deeper place
and thrusts its liquid spear into the air
then turns to fall with death-defying grace.
But when we fall, we struggle to save face
and make our way with ever greater care.
The fountain rises from a deeper place.
Like the gymnast hurtling into space
who wraps around the trapeze in mid-air
then turns to fall with death-defying grace,
the falling and the rising interlace.
Its fear that holds us back from going there.
The fountain rises from a deeper place.
Its only life. Summer will replace
what Spring has cost. The tree will drop its pear
then turn in Fall with death-defying grace.
And so we fall into a hard embrace
and push our hips together in a prayer.
The fountain rises from a deeper place
then turns to fall with death-defying Grace.
Theres grace, and then theres Grace Whitman Townley, Wyatt and Rodericks daughter, born in New York two years before they came home to Kansas.
Graces arrival and toddlerhood: another reason to pause, to slow down.
So after years of dancing and then childbirth, Townley returned to yoga, which she first practiced after the big New York dance fall. She concentrated on the breathing and floor movements, not on the vertical. She wasnt concerned how her body looked in the mirror but how it felt on the mat.
It was the same tack she had taken earlier keeping to the floor, closing her eyes, recovering slowly with smart, measured movements.
Its almost anti-dance, she says. Youve got to get the weight off your feet, so balance is not an issue. And breathing isnt an add-on. Breath is everything.
Townley named it Yoganetics, and her book about it was published in 2003, Yoganetics: Be Fit, Healthy, and Relaxed One Breath at a Time.
At a recent Yoganetics class, Townley led students with her soft, encouraging tone through on-the-floor moves and stretches, sure and deliberate. She guided them through the accompanying breathing.
Whats the rush? she said.
Kim Harbur, a friend who takes Yoganetics, likes the smoothness of the experience, holding positions and paying special attention to breathing.
She wants you to close your eyes, Harbur says. She wants you to involve everything.
Townley says, Im the slowest yoga around, and proud of it.
Surely shes one of the few instructors who concludes each class with a poem.
Yoga and poetry arent so different, she says. Both have rhythm and movement and are in the business of yoking marrying our disjointed parts.
At a recent class she finished with an excerpt from The Current by W.S. Merwin:
For a long time some of us / lie in the marshes like dark coats / forgetting that we are water
dust gathers all day on our closed lids / weeds grow up through us
but the eels keep trying to tell us / writing over and over in our mud / our heavenly names
In 2009, Townley again had to assess her relationship with her body. Thats when deterioration in her hip joints had become so severe she could barely walk, which meant hip replacement. Both of them.
I was devastated, but there was no way around it, she says.
She learned a few things as she dived into the pain, resurfaced and recovered, using crutches, walkers and canes. She got better at accepting help, for sure. She learned that despite being tall, she couldnt always be the pillar.
I became a better yoga teacher, she says. I have a new visceral compassion for people with injury.
She liked the old hips better. As a dancer, she earned every degree of all that external rotation. Now she has none. But shes still improving, still learning to use the new joints.
Its not me yet, she says. Its steel. Fake.
Through it all, she says, she had Roderick, she had friends bringing meals and their company and poetry.
Theres comfort knowing the art is always there, she says.
Fire (read by host Garrison Keillor on National Public Radios The Writers Almanac)
Its only the body
Its only a hip joint
Its just a bulging disc
Its only weather
Its only your heart
Its a shoulder who needs it
This happens all the time
Its very common
For people your age
For people your age
Youre in great shape
Its nothing you did
The main thing is
Its only a doll
In a house thats burning
Before her poet laureate presentation earlier this month at Unity Church of Overland Park, the eighth of several dozen planned around the state, Roderick Townley gave the introduction.
It should be a simple matter to introduce her, he said. Ive seen her almost every day for almost 30 years, but its not so easy.
So Roderick, the successful childrens book author, made a metaphor, calling her a weather pattern full of swirling energies and complications.
Sometimes. Other times, he said, shes as simple as sunlight.
These two are partners in everything, and particularly in writing. His license plate says PROSE, hers says POETRY.
Everything we write goes through both sets of eyes and ears multiple times before it ever leaves the house, she says.
They start with praise, always deserved, Roderick says. Then they ask questions, make suggestions. There might be a struggle over a comma.
He puts them in, I take them out, Townley says. But were not competitive. Whatever it takes to make it better. We root for each other. Why wouldnt you root for the one you love?
Under the tall ceiling of their study, which looks out on woods, their desks are separated by a partial wall.
When we bend forward from the hips, we can glance at each other, she says, and we can lean back and be in our own worlds.
At her poet laureate stops, like the one in Overland Park, Townley engages a discussion about poetry, the very idea of it.
She observes that, except for the verse in song lyrics, most folks leave poetry behind in high school.
Why? Townley says theres a certain fear, maybe dread, of poetry, which she links to poetry analysis that emphasizes what it means.
Thats the booby prize, she says, the notion that a poem is a puzzle to figure out, a code to break, a math problem.
Billy Collins, a former U.S. poet laureate, wrote in a poem that all folks want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.
Instead, Townley says, we can read, even memorize, a poem for what it does, how it moves us, where it takes us. The same way, she says, certain colors can excite or calm us, and were not aware how.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, the past Kansas poet laureate, says Townleys poems are to be experienced.
They have very precise and original images, and just wonderful music holding them together, Mirriam-Goldberg says. These are poems that really breathe. When I read them, I find myself breathing in a more relaxed way.
To Townley, theres too much good in poetry to have left it behind:
The beauty of its distilled, compressed language.
Its delivery of big experiences in tiny spaces.
That it pinpoints and clarifies emotions.
The force it has for healing.
To name a few. Oh, and dont forget, humor and lightheartedness, Townley says. Please dont forget that.
A moth fl ew into Brahms
over the violins
under an arsenal of lights
flew past the black
holes of the horns
flew by the bellies of cellos
the moth near the mouth
of the pianist
through the arms
of the sweating conductor
heading for the cymbals
the slice of light
that opens and closes
with a bang
Townleys books of poetry
The Afterlives of Trees (2011; the poems in the article are taken from this collection.)
The Breathing Field: Meditations on Yoga (2002)
Perfectly Normal (1990)
Hear Wyatt Townley
When: 7 p.m., Nov. 14
Where: Cider Gallery, 810 Pennsylvania St., Lawrence