PITTSBURG — The book “Ghost Sign” is a compilation of illustrative poems which embodies the “fragrance” of southeast Kansas.
Four local poets, Al Ortolani, Melissa Fite Johnson, Adam Jameson and J.T. Knoll — also known as the White Buffalo, dug through all of their poems, old and new, which described their home — southeast Kansas.
The collection has been recognized by the State Library of Kansas as one of the 2017 Kansas Notable Books and the group will read at an awards ceremony at the Kansas Book Festival in September at the State Capitol.
“The Kansas Notable Books Committee considered the eligible books published in 2016. I was delighted to receive the recommended list and make the final decision,” State Librarian Jo Budler said in a release. “Our list is intended to showcase Kansas’ unique talent and history while encouraging residents to visit their library and check out the celebrated titles.”
The book’s title “Ghost Sign” was in reference to the faded signs which were painted on buildings years ago.
“We enjoyed the idea of ghost sign,” Ortolani said. “It is a reference to all the signs painted years ago on buildings that have faded.
“Those signs shared local history — the poems are reflections of history.”
When reviewing the collection Fite Johnson said she found it interesting that all but one had mentioned “The Wheel of Fortune.” The small detail highlights an interesting connection between the poets.
“It is interesting how it was on in the background of our poems,” she said.
The “four part harmony” has characters and their stories, which are representative of the people and places in the area.
Ortolani has been reading poetry in groups and performing for audiences, for a long time — since the 1980s.
“The most recent group of poets worked real well together,” he said. “We thought it would be good to take a collection of poems we liked reading to southeast Kansans — about southeast Kansas.”
Fite Johnson and Jameson were students of Ortolani’s, who was a high school English teacher.
“I’m real proud of them,” he said. “I’m proud of how well they write. It is inspiring to be around them — they have such good energy.”
Fite Johnson said she was glad to have an opportunity to work together.
“We are excited to do something together,” she said. “I’m glad to be part of it.”
Ortolani’s section has a quirky title named after one of his poems — “Vienna Sausage.”
“The strip pits are very much part of local culture,” he said. “People would go there to party, have bonfires and talk.
“After all that, a can of vienna sausage is left.”
His poem, “The Night of Bacon and Baseball,” tells a story about sitting at the shelter at Lakeside Park during a storm, which he combines with life ongoing during the storm.
“It is a description of a Kansas storm and the people living in the area,” he said. “It is something that happens when we have a good Kansas storm.”
Fite Johnson’s section titled “Backyard Universe” comes from a phrase in one of her poems about chickens.
“The chickens’ entire universe is in the backyard,” she said. “It works metaphorically.
“The book is like a love letter for Southeast Kansas — our entire universe is Southeast Kansas.”
Fite Johnson said she mostly wrote about her life and tried to capture the stories people could relate to growing up — for example, house concerts and The Mall Deli.
She also included one of her favorite poems in the collection, “Good Housekeeping,” which is a personal poem about her dad.
Jameson’s section is called “Small Town,” written about ball games at Lincoln Park and other small town experiences Pittsburg residents could relate to.
“It takes them back to these times,” Jameson said.
Knoll’s poems range from the convenience store on Jefferson and Joplin in 1965 to coal mines.
Knoll’s section includes songs, one of which is “Coal Miner Man” which recounts what it was like to be a miner — the tools, the hard labor and risks the miners took.
Knoll said his brother, John Knoll, described the book to him as having the “fragrance of southeast Kansas.”
“I think that is a fine way to put it,” J.T. Knoll said.
— Stephanie Potter is a staff writer at the Morning Sun. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @PittStephP and Instagram @stephanie_morningsun.