A major academic conference on the work of Minnesota poet Robert Bly will be held this week at the University of Minnesota. In addition to daylong sessions Thursday through Saturday, there will be evening events for the public at large and a Sunday road trip to Bly's hometown of Madison, Minn.

Bly, of course, will be in attendance all weekend. Not only does he want to be, but he has to be.

"I mean, if I don't come to one lecture, then, oh, no, they feel bad," he said last week. "But anyway, I guess it'll be interesting. I'll be happy to see how many generalizations are made without foundation." He laughed.

On Saturday night, he'll do a reading for the public, along with his longtime friend and fellow translator, poet Coleman Barks, of the University of Georgia. They'll be joined by musicians Marcus Wise and David Whetstone.

A conference like this is "a very generous thing to do. It produces feelings of unworthiness," Bly said. "I just feel how much generosity there is in Minneapolis toward the writers that are here. I think it's very beautiful."

Minnesota grown

Bly, 82, grew up in Madison, in western Minnesota, and attended St. Olaf College, Harvard University and the University of Iowa. A Fulbright grant sent him to Norway in 1956, where he began translating Norwegian poets into English. It was there that he first encountered the works of a multitude of other foreign poets, including Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and Georg Trakl.

Upon his return to the United States, he started a literary magazine called the Fifties (later called the Sixties, and the Seventies), dedicated to publishing poets in translation, as well as essays, original poetry and other work.

Bly's work grew to include not just his own poetry and translations, but essays, work with the men's movement (and his surprise 1990 bestseller, "Iron John"), compiling anthologies and holding conferences on spirituality, including the annual "Great Mother" conference.

"Robert keeps moving on," said James Lenfestey, a Minneapolis writer who is helping organize the conference. "He keeps moving so fast, he leaves everyone else behind."

Bly's longtime editor at Harper Collins, Hugh Van Dusen, said all three of the poetry anthologies Bly has compiled are still in print. His best, Van Dusen says, is "The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart," a collection of poems from the men's movement compiled by Bly, Michael Meade and James Hillman.

"I've been an editor 52 years," Van Dusen said. "I've edited maybe thousands of books. This is the book I am proudest of. It was a perfect marriage of a very good idea with the absolutely perfect editors."

Weekend conference

The conference, called "Robert Bly in This World," will bring together all facets of Bly's own world -- people he's worked with on translations, his magazines, poetry and books, and in the men's movement. "It'll be fun for them to meet each other," Bly said.

The University of Minnesota acquired Bly's papers a year ago, and the conference is, in part, a way to celebrate that and make the public aware of the wealth of material. An exhibit at the Andersen Library, running through May 9, includes early Bly manuscripts, old family photos and other memorabilia, including a book of poetry, bound with wooden covers, that Bly wrote back in his high school days and dedicated to a teacher who inspired him.

"It's so moving to me that this is the woman responsible," said Ann Mulfort, Bly archivist at the university. "Certainly Bly has put Minnesota on the poetic map. The university feels very fortunate that we have these papers."

Laurie Hertzel, the Star Tribune books editor, is at 612-673-7302.