Larry Gavin might seem quite alone while knee-deep in a southeast Minnesota stream, casting to trout, while squinting into the low sun over a duck marsh on a November morning, or while arriving early at the Faribault high school where he teaches English and writing.
Or while appearing, as he will today, at Tom Helgeson’s Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo at the National Sports Center in Blaine.
But accompanying him always is Larry Gavin the poet, the smile or nod beneath his ball cap a mask for the open floodgate of words that tumble endlessly within, awaiting order.
Which sooner or later some of the words will be given, perhaps when Gavin rises early one morning before school to write, or perhaps in the evening after he bank walks the Cannon River not far from his home.
It’s then that Gavin the fisherman, hunter, teacher, also husband, father, former small-town policeman, bicycle rider and, perhaps fundamentally — Minnesotan — casts the tumbling words in rhyme, rhythm and meter; the poet’s work.
Let it be the moment
before stepping into the water to fish.
Flies lined up in a box like
days on a calendar. A cigar
still unlit waiting: cows,
the definition of bliss, graze along
the far bank like those things
in life we hope to never forget.
Born in Austin, along the Iowa border, Gavin, who grew up on the outskirts of that town, knew early on he would be a writer.
Not just any writer, but a poet.
“I wrote all the time in high school,’’ he said. “Austin was a great place to grow up. Where we lived, we had a creek that flowed into East Side Lake, then into the Cedar River, which flows through Austin and down into Iowa. It was there that I fished smallmouth, northerns and carp.
“I fished carp a lot.’’
Trout, too — especially after he was old enough to drive, when he regularly commuted from Austin and its surrounding corn and soybean fields to the hardwood bluffs and bending streams that lay eastward.
An able angler, he caught fish there as well, and with them, over time, a yet-deeper appreciation for flies and fly tying, also casting, the unfurling of leaders on still water and the effervescence of swirling eddies on warm summer mornings.
Even then, as a boy, the words tumbled, soon taking shape and still more shape.
Be there in that moment.
Just before water presses and
chills against legs; the gentle
pressure of time passing.
Wait a moment and study rocks
or insects diaphanous as the skin
on a girl’s wrist, and the sky
so blue: and high, and clear,
Nowadays Gavin teaches poetry and other writing to his high school students, and is an admirer of Yeats and Hopkins, Frost and Stevens, also Wordsworth, Gary Snyder and certainly Jim Harrison, who like Gavin in addition to being a poet is a fly fisherman, dog man and a bird hunter.
But the shaping of Gavin’s poetry that occurred immediately after high school when he attended Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minn., fell less to them than to Minnesotans Robert Bly, Bill Holm, Howard Mohr, Leo Dangel, Fred Manfred and others whose writing canvasses bore the prairie hues of the state’s western counties: Lac qui Parle, Lyon, Chippewa, Jackson, Redwood.
Where, as a resident, eventually, of Belview, population 350, Gavin would enlist for a three-year stint as town cop, his degree from Southwest in literature and creative writing gaining less attention on his application than his willingness to walk the town’s mean streets at night to ensure, mostly, that doors that should be locked, were locked.
He also kept an eye peeled for the occasional revelry of yahoos.
“I applied for the police job because I lived right across the street from where the City Council met,’’ Gavin said. “It helped that I didn’t know anyone in town.’’
His qualifications to lead Faribault’s high school juniors, among other students, toward greater understanding of literature and writing are more formidable, including a master’s degree in English from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English in Middlebury, Vt.
“My first love is teaching,’’ he said. “It’s a remarkable way to spend your life, dealing with great literature every day and seeing young people come to it for the first time.’’
Published widely, including three volumes of poetry — “Necessities’’ (2004), “Least Resistance’’ (2007) and “Stone and Sky’’ (2011), each by Red Dragonfly Press in Northfield — Gavin also edits Tumbling Crane, a magazine devoted to haiku in English, and he was for many years a field editor for the late Tom Helgeson’s Midwest Fly Fishing magazine.
Helgeson was a onetime Minneapolis Star reporter and assistant managing editor who died in 2010 at age 71. Aside from his family, his first love was fly fishing, and when he left newspapering, he opened a Minneapolis fly shop, published his magazine and, ultimately, founded and promoted fly-fishing shows in the Twin Cities and Chicago.
Since his death, his children, including Baird Helgeson, a Star Tribune reporter, have continued the show, now rebranded Tom Helgeson’s Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo.
“I met Tom early on, when he had his fly shop, and we were close friends,’’ Gavin said. “From the first [fly fishing] show he promoted, he had a portion of it dedicated to writing — not just writing about fly fishing, but about conservation.
“A bunch of us will do the writing seminar again this year [at 10 a.m. today], and I’m also going to talk about fly fishing for carp [at noon].’’
Tom Helgeson would have appreciated that. Words tumbled in his head, also.
And like Gavin, he lived for time well spent between riverbanks.
Let it be the moment
before stepping off the bank
from solid ground to gravel
and sand, and the muck we originally
crawled out of, into a new world
that contains our better self. And
let that world last for our
own particular kind of forever.
Editor’s note: The poem cited is “Before Stepping,’’ by Larry Gavin.