Exclusive to TNE: Book Review of Chuck Peek’s “Where We’ve Managed Somehow To Be”
When J. V. Brummels responded to an inquiry from Chuck Peek that, yes indeed, Wayne State College Press would be interested in publishing a chapbook of Peek’s poems, the news came close on the heels of his fifth rejection letter from Prairie Schooner and the news that another chapbook had been a finalist but not the winner at another press. You can believe that Brummels’ note was received as pretty good news!
The result several months later is Wayne State Press’s publication of Where We’ve Managed Somehow to Be. This is Peek’s first chapbook, although some of his individual poems have won previous poetry competitions around the country, including one judged by one of Ireland’s best-known poets, Desmond Egan.
The volume cites other poets who praise the quality of the poetry. New Nebraska State Poet Twyla Hansen wrote, “Peek leads us on a journey through all stages of life . . . in poems that . . . dance to the tune of love.”
The volume also includes a short introduction tracing in brief how Peek came to write it. One contributing factor is performing in “Prayers for the People: Carl Sandburg’s Poetry and Songs,” including the Heartland Emmy award-winning NET production that included Ted Kooser.
Peek says that publishing poems requires a lot of patience. “You send off a poem, and sometimes you don’t hear back for not just months but years! You have to believe in what you are writing and keep on trying,” he said. “I took my models in this from poets like Nancy and Hargis Westerfield, Don Welch, Charles Fort, Bill Kloefkorn, and J. V. Brummels, and songsters like Mike Adams, the Salestroms, and Todd and Lois Thalken.
Peek says, “It’s a wonderful little volume, and a lot of the credit goes to the great folks at Wayne State College Press, including my editor Abby Rodriguez.” He also credits the managing editor Chad Christensen.
“I thought I was a careful editor myself,” Peek said, “but Rodriguez’s first set of ‘author notes’ numbered 41 items that needed attention.” (Author Notes cover correcting simple typos to deciding how to say something in a clearer way.)
During the course of production, the number of poems went from 25 to 45 to 17 to 30—and much of that depended on the how the thinness or thickness of the paper affected type “bleeding through” the page or the ability of the spine to hold the volume together. “I can’t think of a detail Abby didn’t think of,” the author said.
Peek made his selection from poems he has written over the past decades. The earliest came from the mid 1960s, the latest from just a year ago. The title of the chapbook suggests the theme that holds the poems together—life is sometimes perilous and always fragile and yet somehow we make it through. The poems celebrate our survival, highlight some of the joys and brief victories along the way, and cast a warning light on some of the dark corners along the journey. The cover photo shows the precarious perch of a wildflower on the Cather Prairie near Red Cloud.
Some of the poems arise from life on the prairie, a poem entitled “Haunted Prairies” noting:
“times here are not what they used to be.
They never were.”
Three of Peek’s favorite poems come out of his experience of the Sandhills. Others arise from his childhood. In “Salida” he recalls sitting below the white rock of the initial “S” on a foothill outside of Salida, Colorado, just as his family is preparing to move to McCook, Nebraska, recalling being:
The mount, glad for the warmth of
Summer coming on, the snow melted
Away, the mountain passes clear again,
The grades, third, fourth, fifth,
Slipping by like the little clouds.
Another, “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” recalls finding himself in a coffee shop run by fundamentalists near Christmas time where the manger scene stood next to the video rentals: “nearby the sign promising ‘Overnite Rentals, One Dollar’.”
Three poems in particular celebrate Peek’s family. “Land Ho!” depicts a scene in the life of his son George and daughter-in-law Laura Grace’s children, Will, Greta, and Henry (on the way); “Declaration of Independence” takes up Peek’s wife Nancy’s life-long affection for dance; and the occasion for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is his grandson Rowan’s speculation about the birth of his brother Brody, sons of Peek’s daughter Noelle and her husband Harlan Ptomey.
Part of the charm of chapbooks is that they are printed in limited quantities. Peek’s run was a bit larger than usual at 160 copies. The book is available for purchase at Wayne State College Press, the Museum of Nebraska Art gift shop, and the bookstore at the Red Cloud Opera House.
Fr. Peek retired from St. Stephen’s, Grand Island, in 2012. He had previously been rector of St. Luke’s, Kearney, and at various times priest-in-charge at Calvary, Hyannis; St. Joseph’s, Mullen; and Christ Church, Central City. He began his priesthood at St. Mark’s on the Campus, Lincoln. Although he continues to supply (most recently at St. Alban’s, McCook; Christ Church, Beatrice; and Grace Church, Columbus), he has focused his retirement on writing, beginning with editing his father’s childhood memoir, Loneliness Is a Train Whistle (available on Amazon/Kindle). He continues to shepherd various poems and poetry collections through submission to other presses, some of which will appear in collections this fall, and his current project is a set of stories as well as the publication of the homilies he has given at the Willa Cather Spring Conferences in Red Cloud over the past 30 years.
Fr. Peek and Nancy live in Kearney where they attend St. Luke’s and enjoy Fr. Jerry Ness’s pastoral care, and where Chuck teaches occasionally for Senior College on the same campus (UNK) where he taught for 21 years. He will also offer a short course this fall in Lincoln for the OLLI program.