In April of 2001, at the age of 93, Irma Wassall received the Kansas Governor’s Award for individual artistic achievement in the literary arts at a ceremony at the Hyatt Regency in Wichita. Governor Bill Graves presented the award on behalf of the State of Kansas and the Kansas Art Commission.
This award came after a long series of achievements, dating back to the 1920s. Not only had Irma become the unofficial poet laureate of Kansas in that time, but she had contributed to the arts of the dance and the classical guitar as well, and had helped and encouraged generations of young artists and poets in their careers.
As recently as 2000, her poetry had been the focal point of a month-long CityArts exhibition curated by Curt Clonts. In the exhibit, more than twenty-five artists each took one of her poems and produced a sculpture or painting based on the work. Clonts described the show as “a tribute from the local cultural community”.
Irma was part of the circle of avant garde writers and artists that formed in Wichita in the 1930s. Earl Davis, Birger Sandzen, David Otto, Blackbear Bosin, Zona Wheeler, Bill and Betty Dickerson, Mary Jane Teall, Ross Taylor, Enrique Riveron, and her surrealist artist husband, Fred, were all her friends, mentors, and peers during the early years.
In an article on Irma in The Wichita Eagle in 1999, reporter Bud Norman wrote:
“By the 1950s, the Wassalls were established figures on Wichita’s cultural scene, but comfortable with the anti-establishment sentiments of the younger artists who were beginning to appear.“Irma Wassall published reviews and news in the jazz bible Downbeat, rubbed shoulders with the artists and musicians of Wichita’s African-American community, and recited her poetry at the coffeehouses where the city’s most notorious bohemians hung out.
“Her young fans included a soon-to-be-noted counterculture poet named Michael McClure.
“’He brought me a whole notebook of poems and wanted my opinion, and I read the first page and told him he was going to be famous. He laughed, but he is,’ Wassall said.”
Irma has published in a wide variety of magazines and newspapers and her work has been selected for a number of anthologies. Among others, these include The Kansas Magazine, The Kapustkan, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Poetry Dial, Orphic Lute, World of Poetry, Alentour, Berkeley, Commonweal, American Lyric Poetry, Antioch Review, Arizona Quarterly, Phylon, The Archer, Kaleidograph, Experiment, Blue Moon, Vers Libre, Kansas Poets, The New Mexico Quarterly Review, Hippocrene, and Dalhousie Review. Some of her books are: Loonshadow, Along the River, Fred and Irma Wassall: Drawings and Poems, The Fading Year, The Ruby-Emerald Jungles, and Richard’s Choice.
Today, Irma says her own favorite poet is Garcia Lorca, though many would name her as their favorite poet. Her influence on the Wichita scene has indeed been remarkable, and for many years she has been the unifying bridge from Wichita’s literary and artistic past to its present. One friend of hers described her as “a quiet force all her own in Wichita.” It is an accurate assessment of the vitality of her contribution over the many decades.
Heat rippled along the tarred flat roof in waves
under a grayed turquoise sky, while clouds
rolled upward white as paper. A summer tree
was filled with bird calls and the flash of wings—
one bird sailing like a little hawk,
a strange note deep as any bullfrog sings,
the dusty elm shaken by sparrow talk.
There was a wind that sprang up suddenly,
driving, while the birds screamed, the brown elm seeds
with a dry, rattling sound like autumn leaves.
Still the acacias preen their yellow plumes
Beside the chartreuse fountains of mesquite;
Still bougainvillaeas drip their purple fronds
Down ruined walls . . . . And I not there to see.
Still dogs at Taxco bark in orchestration,
Old bells ring out beneath the Southern Cross;
And still the hoofs of weighted burros click
Down cobbled streets . . . . And I not there to hear.
Mad quivering rhythm still insinuates
Beneath the eager skin its pagan urge;
Still pulses throb with drums, and dark blood sings
With sweet guitars . . . . And I not there to dance.
Here I, darkened by the sun of Mexico,
Walk with nostalgia through the falling snow.
from Kansas Magazine
There was a love like a dark young princess
from a far land, who, seeing snow for the first time,
went walking in a night
filled with the white enchantment
of whirling stars and floating plumes;
and vanished like a snowflake on the water.
The first spring thunder brought up from the depths
the bodies of those who had drowned in the winter,
among them the dark love once beautiful,
now distorted, having been long dead
under the cold deep water.
The Ruby-Emerald Jungle
Before the first rains they of
center a field with drums, and
with covered loins and rattles in
And to the dancers’ and spectators’
old men with cymbals and whistles
the mating of beasts and birds,
and a little girl
emerges from each compass point,
filled with red seeds to scatter as
from ancient time.
(Javara, Upper Volta)
We went among the Nounas, he said,
who live in flat-roofed houses of mud
patterned after the Moors, with the acacia
surrounding them. There walked among them the red
albinos; and every group had its totem,
an animal, each with a mask and a master
white with dust.
We heard the thin round
drums and the flutes; we watched the masks dance
until they fell upon the ground.
Along the River
Birds St. Francis loved
let fall their droppings