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A Poet in 'the Heart of Tall Corn Country'

Published: 3-22-2010 2:40 pm

Poet. Teacher. Cattleman. J.V. Brummels entwines three callings in his life to bring a unique perspective to his students and his body of work.

"A poem comes out of a particular way of seeing the world, a vision of how the world is," Brummels explained. "Poets, like Hell's Angels, cowboys, and some other splinter groups, live at the margins of society, and that gives us a different perspective."

Descended from the region's pioneers of the 1870s, Brummels teaches in the English Department at Wayne State College, an institution that his grandfather once attended. His great-grandfather served as a fireman on the first train to cross Wayne County. His great-grandmother, Augusta Stark, was brought to the area as a child in the 1870s and met Peter Brummels at the newly formed railroad town of Hoskins.

Deep Nebraska roots and his style of writing have secured Brummels appearances at the 2009 Nebraska Book Festival at the State Historical Society's museum in Lincoln. He was among 15 authors invited to read from their 2009 work at the festival in November. His work received the Elkhorn Review Poetry Prize in 1987 and, more recently, the Nebraska Book Award for Book of Grass in 2008.

"Recognition is always welcome. I was very pleased to learn of the Nebraska Book Award," Brummels said. "Poets do often work in a vacuum. Someone once said that publishing a book of poems was like dropping a feather down a well and waiting for the splash."

"I've been lucky to have my work recognized - a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, invitations to read at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, for instance," he continued. "When someone takes notice, it's very encouraging. It makes sitting down to write the next day more fun. To win a Nebraska Book Award is very special. I was raised in Nebraska, and I've always identified myself as a Nebraska poet. So yes, an award for Nebraska poetry pleases me greatly."

As a writer, Brummels also received the Mildred Bennett Award for contributions to the literature of Nebraska. A member of the WSC English department since 1977, Brummels also attracted attention for the work of other writers through his direction of the Plains Writers Series and his editor's role for Nebraska Territory. He and Jim Reese, an assistant professor of English and the director of the Great Plains Writers' Tour at Mount Marty College in Yankton, S. Dak., operate Logan House, an independent publisher of contemporary poetry and short fiction.

Educated at the University of Nebraska‚ąíLincoln and Syracuse University, Brummels has written poems that have appeared in Chariton Review, Quarterly West, The Midwest Quarterly and Prairie Schooner. He has also been published in Rolling Stone. His books include 614 Pearl (Abattoir Editions, 1986), Deus Ex Machina (Spectra/Bantam, 1989) and Sunday's Child (Basfal, 1994). His most recent books are Clay Hills, (Nosila Press 1996), Cheyenne Line and Other Poems (Backwaters Press, 2001), Book of Grass (Grizzly Media, 2008) and City at War (Backwaters Press, 2009).

Brummels' latest book, City at War, contains contemporary American West poems about the land and its uses on a planet that shows distress. This book was released on the heels of the Nebraska Book Award for Book of Grass.

"I'm grateful for the time that [Scott] "Grizz" McIntosh ('02) and Eddie Elfers [Teaching and Learning Technology Director] put into the Book of Grass. Elfers is a very good book designer. I'm sure that Book of Grass won the Nebraska Book Award in large part due to his eye and know-how in putting books together," Brummels said. "My Book of Grass poems were written during a period when we had a particularly strong group of student-poets on campus. I had the sense of them as my audience."

Teaching has served as one of the main influences on Brummels' poetry.

"I've taught for a long time, and I've been very fortunate to have had some phenomenal student writers in my workshops," Brummels said. "Teaching is something I do all the time. This can irritate the heck out of my friends."

"I don't think that there's a single inspiration for Book of Grass, at least not one I can point to. I don't think a poem very often comes from a single source - life is too various for that.  When I was a student, I thought that some poets were trying to make simple things complicated. I've figure out since that it's really the other way around - poets are often trying to render very complicated experiences and perceptions as simply as possible. That's a hard thing to do successfully, which is why so many poems fail. Poets have to squeeze their work into their off hours, and we all have the same responsibilities as everyone else."

In addition to his writing and teaching, Brummels has spent a life running cattle in a natural way.

"I've produced grass-fed beef for years now with my partner, David Tobias. We're very old-fashioned. We use horses and feed very little," he said. "Cattle have legs for a reason, and hauling all they eat to them seems to subvert what cattle naturally do." 

"Teaching at the alma mater of John Neihardt and living in Nebraska fostered an interest in Native Americans and certainly made knowing something about the people who lived here for millennia a natural preoccupation," Brummels said. "It looks pretty obvious that finding a way to feed ourselves without the tremendous environmental and economic costs of conventional agriculture is a good thing. Anyway, I've spent nearly 30 years running a horseback cattle operation in the heart of tall corn country. The poems are a record of that."


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