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Harley Elliott photo

Harley Elliott

All Beautyfull & Foolish Souls by Harley Elliott

The Resident Stranger by Harley Elliott

Sky Heart by Harley Elliott 

Cottonwood Review Number 18 

Animals That Stand In Dreams by Harley Elliott

The Secret Lover Poems by Harley Elliott

The Tiger's Spots by Harley Elliott 

Darkness at Each Elbow by Harley Elliott 

The Monkey of Mulberry Pass by Harley Elliott 

Loading the Stone cover

Fugitive History


--from The Tiger's Spots    

--from The Tiger's Spots    

--from The Tiger's Spots    

--from Sky Heart, illustrated by Harley Elliott and his daughter, Elaine                  

illustration by Harley Elliott 
--from Sky Heart




Harley Elliott was born in South Dakota in 1940.  He moved to Kansas at two years old, and has lived in the Salina area most of his life.  

Elliott is an artist and a poet.  He earned his B.A. from Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina, and his M.A. from New Mexico Highlands in Las Vegas, New Mexico.  He taught art at Marymount college in Salina for many years, until it was closed, and then worked as the coordinator of education at the Salina Art Center.  Elliott's job with the Salina Art Center involved presentations to elementary children that inspired them to stretch their imaginations.  He also communicated information about current exhibits to the public, to provoke thought and enjoyment of the art being presented.  He participated in a 'Poet in the Schools' program, as well.   He is now retired.

Elliott's work defies narrow classification.  His poems reflect a strong connection to the land and open sky of Kansas, and he is very interested in the true history of people, but he is also the highly imaginative poet who created 'JoJo the whorehouse monkey,' the voice of the collection The Monkey of Mulberry Pass.  

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Bibliography ( - housed in Thomas Fox Averill Kansas Studies Collection)  


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Poetry and Audio Selections  

"Dark Country"
--from Dark Country (1971); also published in Cottonwood Review No. 18 (1976)

The pioneers are
leaving narrow beds

appearing at the exits of county museums
they are returning
in the shape of dreams.

The prairie wind
rises pure as crystal. In dark fields
the horses run again.
Their hooves are yellow flint.

The pioneers unfold
their minds like treaties.
They have called back
the names put on the land.

They are waiting on night porches
shirts open at wrists and throat
eyes wild
with a memory of earth

that lay asleep
too long in that dark country.

"After Picking Rosehips"
-- from All Beautyfull & Foolish Souls (1974)

With every soft gush of my feet
walking in tall pasture grass
the rosehips at my belt rub together
an old rosebush song.

   The moon rings.  The clouds
are frozen full of geese

and I can feel the darkness
growing on my skin.
The world ends tonight

    It is so
beautiful    this time
I have decided to move here forever.  Even after
reaching that yellow square of light
drinking soup
and going to bed
I am only another man there

lost in the covers and quilts.
   I am only dreaming
moving still in that space
of grass and goldenrod

a man with rosehips

walking in the speechless night. 

"At the Painter's House"
--from Sky Heart (1975)

burgundy wine
and the old black labrador
rumbling in the corner
like everybodys worn out plumbing

night soft
frogs swelling in the fields
three men    three women
and a baby sleeps
between a still life and self portrait

while the painter speaks of venetian red
burnt sienna and a brother
dead   who knew the hearts of violins

the wine glows in six glasses
the dog gallops in a field of dreamy clover
between each note
of the painters voice

we hear stones   slowly turning
on the distant muddy river bottom.

--from Animals That Stand In Dreams (1976)

Full fire of that which
only glows in dogs
let him be    the only
moving thing along the timberline

his eyes cold suns
in the mountain whiteness.
At night:    dark maps
of entrails on the snow.

There is no hero hidden
in the plume of his breath

although men pack together and declare
themselves wolves    lone wolves
werewolves.   Six million boy scouts
follow Akela to their doom
his face pinned to their hearts.

There is no man inside his skin.

He is
his own brother.

Private Property, audio track by Harley Elliott

What to Do Around Here, audio track by Harley Elliott

The Ladies In My Life, poem

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Author Interview


Miranda Ericsson interviewed Harley Elliott on October 4, 2006.

ME:  Could you share a little about your background in Kansas?  Are you a Salina native?

HE:  Pretty much! I was born in South Dakota, and came here when I was two.  I've been here ever since, except for trips.  I lived a year in Colorado, a year in New Mexico, and four years in Syracuse, New York, but I came back here.

ME:  What are your feelings about Kansas?

HE:  What aspect?

ME:  Yeah, I guess that's a wide question, isn't it?

HE:  Well, I'll tell you, the reason I like to be here is largely environmental. I like the landscape of the prairie.  I guess it would be more appropriate to say that I like the landscape of the sky, because eighty percent of it is sky.  I like that sense of space.  I like the subtleties.  I've spent a lot of time out in the country, hanging out.  I have an ongoing relationship with five or six fields.  One of the things I've liked to do since I was about 16 is go walk in the fields and look for flint artifacts.  So, over 40 years these 5 or so fields have gotten very dear to me. I really like them, and it would be tough for me to sever that tie and go somewhere else.  I like this landscape.   In fact, when I lived in Syracuse for four years, one of the things that made it so negative, other than the six month winters, was the fact that I couldn't really see much sky.  It was always just irregular patches between trees and buildings.  I really found that I was missing that sense of horizon to horizon.  Space.  I didn't know that I cared that much, but when I got away from it for a while, I felt kind of choked up in those tight places.  

ME:  That appreciation for the land and for nature is definitely reflected in your work.

HE:  Yeah, it shows up.  But, you know, people are fond of categories, which we have to have, they make things simpler.  But I was really conscious that if I wasn't careful I would get put into this box called "prairie poet."  Some poets that I know kind of wanted that title, and went towards that title, and ended up getting that title.  So there they are, and they're happy with it. I'm thinking of Ted Koozer, for example, up in Nebraska.  You know, talking with him, he says, "This is my stuff, this what I'm all about."  But it seems like anybody who comes out of Kansas or Nebraska is automatically labeled.  They're prairie poets, and blah, blah, blah.  Sometimes there's not much consideration of their work beyond that, they kind of get stuck in that identity.  It's kind of like because you're a woman, and you write poetry, you're a feminist poet.  Maybe you're not, you know?  Even though you're a feminist, your poetry may be concerned with a lot of things beyond that simple category.  So, I wanted to write poems about whatever took my fancy.  King Kong, or a candy wrapper, or whatever.  I was really kind of conscious that I didn't want to promote that idea, that all I write about is the sky and the plains and critters.  Although a lot of that, like you say, inevitably it's what it's about.  A lot of it speaks in those terms.  Prairie terms.  But I didn't want to limit myself.

ME:  Labels can be restrictive.

HE:  Yeah, pretty soon people believe in the label, and if you step outside of it, it's like, 'Well that's not his business.' I've been aware of that, of not wanting to jump into one of those categories, or boxes.

ME:  I think that you've done really well with that.  When Tom and I were talking about topics of your poetry on the way here, that was the conclusion that we came to.  There are so many different things that you write's difficult to pin you down!

HE:  (laughing) Good, good.

ME:  You mentioned collecting flint earlier.  Tom told our class about your differnt way of looking for flint.  I think it's really interesting, that you take into consideration what people might have been doing when they were making things from flint.

HE:  Well, I have a nonfiction book, due out from Woodley press, called Loading the Stone.  It's about that activity, looking for these objects, and then the speculations that they call up.  When you look at an object you might wonder, 'Why did this maker choose this stone?' or 'Why did he make it this way?'  The objects can give you ideas or clues about the process of making.  That's part of what I wanted to consider in the book, and the process of finding.  I also wanted to consider the process of fathers and sons.  It doesn't aim at one thing, it goes a lot of ways.  It's really kind of a great big sloppy bastard of a book.  But basically it's about the integrity of process.  I'm really happy with it.

ME:  It sounds really interesting.  I saw the title mentioned on a web site, but it didn't describe what the book is about.  I'm glad to find out more.

HE:  That's what it's about! I could have done a memior, but I didn't want to write a first person account.  You know, 'I found this,' and 'I did that.'  In fact, I wanted to keep 'I' completely out of the story.  I have a journal that I've been keeping since I was in junior high school of Native American names.  I read a lot, I always have, and I would read a lot about the histories of different people, and early on I really liked the idea of these names, which were image names that told you something about the individual.  Rather than Bob, and Mary, and Bill, names that don't really say anything aobut who we are.  Names like 'Mysterious Walking' or 'Her Holy Door.'  They give you a hint of something about the individual, and I really like that.  So, instead of writing about myself in the first person I gave myself a character name, 'Walker.'

ME:  Ooh, I like that.

HE:  It tells something about the activity.  Then I was able to write about young walker and old walker, generations held together by this activity of looking for objects.  And by writing for that name I was able to get away from the 'I' and write more about the objects themselves.

ME:  I love the idea of connection between generations, and the flint that you find is also a connection to the past.

HE:  Yes, and when you look at the objects they give you ideas, or maybe call things into question.  A particular one I'm thinking of is a projectile point that I found.  It was made by people over in Illionis, or somewhere in the east, who somehow got this far west.  It's really nicely done, and very symmetrical, except along one edge as it comes down to a point there's a kind of bulge.  So, it's not a purely symmetrical shape.  Well, in the area of that bulge the nature of the flint changes.  It's made of grayish, dense flint, then over in that area is a rougher, more airy flint, a brown color.  So when the maker got over there, and it was chipping, he pulled the flint off from that area and it went down in and jumped back out, threw the flake off and left a big divit in the stone.  So apparently in that rough brown area, the stone acted differently when he chipped it, and it showed him that if he went on he was liable to break the piece.  So, I can see where the maker went on from there, but his flakes were very light and tentative.  He just lifted off a little at a time.  Then he got down into that nice gray stuff again, and boom boom boom, he was back to work, and it was all beautifully done.  So I posited the idea that the stone said to the maker, 'well, you're taking a chance with this, if you go on you might break the piece, and if you go easy around this rough area you'll have a whole piece, but it's not going to be symmetrical.'  Well, he chose to have an object that is not symmetrical but is complete.  Its an example of the stones as a gateway to the maker's thoughts, his thought process.

ME:  That's really interesting, that the objects reveal the creative process.

HE:  And it is creative!  90% of these objects you find, like projectile points, are perfectly functional and utilitarian, they'll do the job great.  But every so often you find one that looks like somebody went way beyond what they had to do in order to have a functional object.  They've chosen a really pretty stone, maybe a really interesting pattern or color, and they worked it beautifully and it's so perfectly symmetrical...the object has been loaded with something.  Loaded with some kind of intent.  That's why the book is called Loading the Stone.  Some objects go way past utility, and the question is 'why?'  The book is about that question, too.

ME:  What is your advice for someone who wants to be a writer?

HE:   I always remember one of Carolos Casaneda's books.  He says, 'First you find a spot, second you settle down, third you pay attention.'  Well, I think this is my spot, and I think I have settled down.  Now, paying attention is a daily job, you have to remind yourself to pay attention.  So, I like that as a way of living and writing, 'Find a spot, settle down, and pay attention.'

ME:  Do you think that gets harder and harder with all of the distractions available to people in modern times?

HE:  Oh, I'm sure it does!

ME:  You say you don’t use the computer at all? I know that’s a huge distraction for a lot of people.

HE:  If I got computer literate and got on a computer I probably would never leave it, because it is so seductive. Anything I wanted to know I could find it, and of course I want to know a lot.

ME:  Of course!

HE:  I do have a television set now. I went for ten years without one of those. My brother gave me an old black and white that he was getting rid of, so eventually I got into television. I only get three channels. If I got cable it would be the same problem, I’d never get up. A little bit works for me, but I don’t dare get myself 200 channels to watch because I would watch them. I don’t want to get a computer because I know that I would get sucked into it. I could go online and find all of the known prehistoric flint quarries in the United States, and what kind of flint came out of them. In fact, a friend asked me once, “How long have you been picking up these things and wondering about them?” I told him about thirty years, and he said, “Well you could go on the computer and in a couple of days learn everything that you’ve learned over thirty years.” And I don’t doubt that I could learn a lot that way. But it would be a different kind of knowledge. It wouldn’t have the weather, it wouldn’t have the animals I’ve run into, it wouldn’t have the people I’ve met, like farmers that you have to know and ask permission to go on their land. All of that stuff is part of my process, and it wouldn’t be there. I could have the hard data I guess, but I wouldn’t have the context.

ME:  Right! You have the hands-on experience. Knowing facts about something is a lot different from experiencing it in life.

HE:  Well, it’s like that old joke that says there’s a crossroads with signs pointing in two directions. One sign says ‘To Heaven,’ and followers of Eastern religions go that way. The other sign says ‘To Lectures on Heaven,’ and that’s the way Western cultures go. You can just learn words about something, or you can go out and live it. And then write about it.

ME:  Sometimes I think that technology separates us from the humans behind what is being written.

HE:  And from the hands-on experience. When I write, I always write in pencil, in longhand, and do four or five drafts until it’s ready to be typed up on the typewriter, which is the apex of my technology. I like the idea that my thoughts are coming out of this stick and leaving a trail, my hand is connected to my ideas. That’s why it’s really vital to me to do it that way. I can’t compose on a typewriter. A word processor would be even worse. It’s like there’s a wall between me and the thing, I know that my hands are still involved punching keys, but that’s not like the trail that comes from the end of my pencil when I write. There’s something refreshing and reassuring to me about that.

ME:  I understand what you mean. I always write poems in longhand first, and then transfer them onto the computer after I feel that they are coming together. Sitting down in front of the computer is not nearly as productive for me as sitting down with paper and pen.

HE:  Do you draw?

ME:  Not for others to see!

HE:  To me writing is directly related to drawing. I’m drawing symbols, words. It’s a body motion, a dance, that I think gets lost when you start typing everything.

ME:  I’ve spent a lot of time with music, and I find a lot of connections between that and my writing.

HE:  Making music? What do you play?

ME:  Clarinet and trumpet, and I sing.

HE:  Ah! I’m a guitar player, and I’ve written a lot of songs. There is a connection there.

ME:  Yeah! Rhythm and sound. Sound is very important to me in what I’m reading, and when I’m writing. The way something rolls off of the tongue…

HE:  Absolutely. In fact, that’s one of my last tests before I say that a poem is done. I need to stand up and read it out loud. If there’s a false word or phrase in there, my voice will feel embarrassed saying it. That’s a pretty good indicator to me. If I read it out loud and something in me cringes, then I know it’s not really what I meant to say, that it’s not really my language. That’s where I ferret out a lot of the false notes.

ME:  I think that’s always a good test.

HE:  Works for me!

ME: What inspires you to write a poem?  A lot of your poems seem to be inspired by particular moments.

HE: For me it happens two ways, whether it’s a visual piece or a poem.  There are some times when I have an idea, and I decide that I’m going to make a thing to express that idea.  So I consciously set out to develop what I want to say about that concept.  The other way is when they grow out of a moment.  A phrase or an image shows up, or something gets noticed or recognized as a possibility.  That happens below the conscious level, and those works are usually more successful to me.  I feel happier making them and happier with the result, I think they’re more effective than the ones where I started out with this conscious idea like, ‘I’m sick of war, so I’m going to write a poem against war.’  Those poems are more thought-bound, more stilted and harder-edged.  I prefer the ones that grow out of a moment’s image.  Sometimes I’ll be driving and an idea will come into my head, and I don’t know what it’s about, but it has some kind of allure, so I write it down.  That might be the seed for something creative to happen.

ME: I have a lot of those that I haven’t developed.  I’m not quite sure what to do with them yet!

HE: Well I get a lot of those too, and they end up in a folder, and I do believe that work makes work, so if you mess with that stuff a little bit, things start to happen.  With visual pieces, if I just get the materials out and start messing around, a little purple, or some stain here, then connections start to happen.  Pretty soon the work starts giving me ideas about where I want to go next.  With the poetry I end up with this folder of one or two line things that haven’t gone anywhere, and I can sit down and go through that, start rewriting them, rearranging them, and messing with them, then something else might come up.  A line can get added, and it’s like a mud ball that keeps rolling.  The process is what generates it.  If I just sat around and thought about it, nothing would happen.  I think play is a really big part of it.  Forget about thinking and just play!

ME: Do your poems usually come out pretty much done when you first write them, or do you do a lot of revisions?

HE: I’m a big believer in revisions.  I’ve found that if I keep whatever first comes out, I’ll end up with some cliché language, or something that just doesn’t sound right.  My mind will throw me a cliché sometimes, something like, ‘Dark as night.’  It maybe works, and you go on with the poem, but in the revision you hit that cliché and say, ‘Geez, that’s awful!’  In revision I can get rid of that flat language that has somehow slipped in there, it’s almost always a process of subtraction for me.

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The Kenneth Spencer Research Library in Lawrence
Beloit Poetry Journal's
Kansas Poet Index
Robert Lawson's Kansas Authors
Poster advertising The Secret Lover Poems
Letters to William Stafford from Harley Elliot

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