An Hogshead of Real Fire

The Celebrated Mister E Performed his poems on Saturdee With Stephie French In the Pit upstairs at Prospero’s A group of Bards and Oracles Met in a pinch …

On the corner of West 39th Street and Bell, at the very western sliver of Kansas City’s Volker neighborhood, within spitting distance—in a high wind—of State Line Road sits a structure built of rich-red, kiln-dried brick that feels as if it has guarded this corner since before the calendar turned on the last century, before this little neighborhood folded into the booming cowtown and railroad hub beyond the ridge. It’s not actually that old. It dates to the 1940s, when this building housed Johnson’s Hardware store, a staple in the Volker neighborhood that in the Forties was no longer independent but part of an expanding Kansas City. It was built of bricks like in your Grandad’s hearth, earthy clay singed with the baking process. For all the awning and neon and mosaic of broken mirror that “gussies up” the space tonight, you can still see that same building that clings to the sepia surface of a curling Browning Instamatic photo someone scanned online. State Line Road, as you may have guessed, shoots straight up 94° 36’ 26” longitude: Kansas to the west side, Missouri to the east. Back when federal agents were surveying tracts of land within a Louisiana Territory so new it still had that Manifest Destiny smell, they set the westernmost edge of the section they were cutting out to call Missouri at the point where the Kansas River subsumed itself into the Big Muddy. It’s called Kaw Point. A theoretical line passing north/south through Kaw Point was the border and it is along that latitude State Line Road runs. Kaw Point isn’t “there” anymore. Oh, it exists, just northwest of the border. People should know better than to use geographic features to mark boundaries. Driving on State Line is kind of fun. Not as much fun as living in a home straddling a time zone, I imagine, but cheap amusement for out-of-town guests. The neighborhood takes its name from its premier resident, German-born entrepreneur William Volker. In the waning years of the 19th Century young Volker commissioned a 2½ story home in Walter Mellier’s Roanoke development. Mellier was a prodigal cattleman speculating in real estate. It was the Gilded Age. That money had to shake loose somewhere. Why not in the Paris of the Plains? Volker had emigrated from Hanover, one of the 19th Century German states. Hanover had been an independent kingdom at Wilhelm’s birth. By the time Wilhelm was seven neighboring Prussia had annexed his homeland. When the Franco-Prussian War later erupted his parents, Frederick & Dorothea, fearful the Army might conscript 12-year-old Wilhelm, booked passage to America. The Volkers settled first in Chicago. It was 1871. Mrs. O’Leary’s conflagration was just cooling. Five years later 17-year-old Wilhelm apprenticed himself to a framer, learning to craft picture frames. When the shop owner died in 1879 Volker bought the business and moved the stock to Kansas City. By this time he was thoroughly Americanized. He opened William Volker Company at 6 West 3rd Street, in the River Market area with access to both docks on the Missouri River and the original Union Depot radiating railroad lines out of the West Bottoms. In a short time Volker was running a prosperous concern selling not only picture frames, but linoleum and cabinets and all manner of home furnishings. Within a decade of opening William Volker Company, the up-and-coming businessman was delighted to commission a home on Bell, a few blocks north of what was then Rosedale Road, so called after its terminus in Rosedale, Kansas. Sleepy little Rosedale on the banks of the Kansas, where within the year Jim Cannon—a protégé of Big Bill Haywood, a Trotskyite expelled by the American Communists to found the Socialist Workers—would burst squawking into the world. From Kansas. Kansas. Rosedale Avenue is today 39th Street. It’s as hip as you want it to be. In the 19th Century, land-speculator Mellier marketed to men like Volker, successful men, civic-minded men, men with an interest in building the future of Kansas City. Local architect George Kessler embraced the City Beautiful movement seeking to rehabilitate the tenement neighborhoods of teeming masses swarming across their free-breathing land of opportunity. Others followed suit. Mellier’s clientele commissioned homes in styles popular with Turn of the Century America. Volker’s modest estate was an early example of the distinctive Kansas City shirtwaist style home: quarried limestone on the first story, woods siding on the second, and steep, gabled roof. Volker inhabited his new home in 1889, one of only three in this Roanoke subdivision before 1900. Outside the borders of either Kansas City or Westport, the development assumed its own character. That was the same year Andrew Carnegie published his Gospel of Wealth wherein he maintained a person’s only responsible attitude toward that wealth is to administer it during that person’s lifetime for the public good. They don’t make Robber Barons like that, anymore. Whether Volker ever read Carnegie, he had long since earmarked an annual third of his wealth to those less fortunate. He did so personally, through private organizations, and in association with civic organizations. He preferred to do so anonymously, holding audience in his office daily and stroking checks to those he deemed worthy, deliberately choosing to believe the risk of getting snookered was worth the obligation of charity. His lifelong philanthropy earned him the moniker Mr. Anonymous, which I doubt he found as funny as I do. The following year, 1890, a streetcar line opened, running from Rosedale up Broadway, then cutting over to Main Street in Kansas City. It is a short walk from there to Volker’s Rosewood manor, its name reflecting his father’s penchant for cultivating roses. Volker was still alive when Johnson Hardware was built. He was still giving away what was left of his fortune. Perhaps from the sidewalks of Bell he watched customers filing in and out of the building. Perhaps he wondered about their individual needs. For a decade and change the building has housed Prospero’s Books. Not the Peter Greenaway film. The used bookstore bulging with volumes of quaint and curious. Tonight the walkway outside the store echoes the footsteps of artists and writers and poets and aficionados of the writings and those who write. Each sports a costume of his/her own design. Or, perhaps it’s a uniform. Or maybe it’s just street clothes you wouldn’t wear. Herr Wilhelm, I’m afraid, would not have known how to take Ezhno Martín, the featured poet at Prospero’s Pit this evening. Ezhno is a Force of Nature. Ezhno can be found most nights clutching a partially-empty PBR can in one hand, wearing a leather jacket festooned with hand-painted slogans & vintage punk accoutrements over a torn tee-shirt sporting cracked screen-print irony, a mid-length skirt over tattered fishnet stockings. The Ezhno Masque includes dark eyeliner & scarlet lipstick each smeared with studious disregard for convention. Ezhno rejects binary genderfication, preferring to abide in both and neither traditional gender simultaneously and never. Ezhno is my friend. I once thought our friendship might be the best one I have locally. That passed. Quickly. Ezh would mock and/or pity such sentiment. Though, to be honest, Ezh mocks most sentiments. Some people find Ezhno abrasive. That is worth getting past. Ezhno knows writing. Ezh has been a reliable guest at the Pit for years. Prospero’s Books has long offered a space for those with poetic aspirations to gather and share their work. Think of the Inklings. Think Algonquin Round Table. Think Burroughs and his Beat protégés. Hell, think of Bacon and Marlow and DeVere quaffing ales in some 16th Century London rat cellar, if that’s where you go with this—they are all inexact metaphors. But what isn’t? Prospero’s is one space of many around the Kansas City metro, and the poets who gather here often gather at one or more of the others. Prospero’s Pit meets … sort of regularly. Most recently they have been meeting the 4th Saturday of each month. There is often a featured poet, and then those among the assembled who wish may step into the Pit with their own work. It’s a lot of fun. Prospero’s owner, Will Leathem, is himself a prolific writer, as well as being Purveyor of volumes, rare & regular. Immersed in the Kansas City arts and literary community, Will has a hand in Kansas City’s Spartan Press. 2015 has seen Spartan Press undertake publication of a dozen local poets in as many months. The series, called Pop Poetry, is the brainchild of Pit regulars Jeanette Powers and Jason Ryberg, conceived as a stick in the eye of the Arbiters of Popular. It has roots as deep as the Village Beats or City Lights. “Who gets to decide what’s popular?” Powers asked of a world infected with viral memes, a world saturated by the banal. The pair agreed in their world poetry is what’s popular. The people who buy books of poetry tend to be other poets. We all know that. Each other and perhaps our friends & families. If they want to be enablers. And some of us are sometimes apologetic to the latter for the dirty words. But maybe not. Jeanette wanted to publish another collection of her poems. “Why not publish twelve?” And an idea was born. They would publish local poets in a chapbook adorned with “selfies” of the writer in ironic homage to the very idea of Pop. They would release one each month When the Pit met. The writer could be the Featured Poet!

Ezhno’s Beautiful & Abominable is the fourth installment in the series. Previous releases include Iris Appelquist’s Where We Were We Were There, Al Ortolani’s Francis Shoots Pool at Chub’s Bar, and Powers’ Earthworms & Stars. As April’s featured poet, Ezh invited Steph French to share the Featured Poet spotlight. Steph is a young writer Ezhno met in the audience at the Wednesday night Poetic Underground Open Mic at the Uptown Arts Bar. Steph was shuffling pages of her work, mustering the nerve to step up to the microphone for her first time. Ezh gave her the nudge she needed. As opening poet Steph cut quite the contrast to Ezhno. Her clothing was more subdued, her delivery less animated, her poems less gritty. But her words were well-chosen and her verses sang her heart in a way that was her very own. It was the first time I heard her. She made me miss Poetic Underground. After Ezhno’s reading Jason Ryberg opened the Pit for participation. When my turn came I read This is Called Wacamole, a piece Ezh enjoys. As I read I heard a loud and distinctive fingersnap rhythm that I knew was Ezhno. And it made my night. Herr Volker is still shaking his head about that night.

About Mark Matzeder

By education a filmmaker, by trade an electrician, by avocation a writer and sometime scholar. Occasionally I wring an essay out of some observation I have made or experience I've had and share them here. Sometimes I'll share short fiction. Sometimes a poem. But mostly it's just my spin on this strange trip.
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