He was in good form Tuesday night, our Mr. Bly, Minnesota's most famous poet--funny and crotchety, coming alive, as he always has, for poetry. Though he is 87 now and growing frail, he declined the comfortable easy chair that had been set at the front of the room for him, and he declined the help of his old friend and fellow poet, Thomas R. Smith, who was willing to hold the microphone for him, and instead stood strong and firm at the lectern and read and occasionally recited, and made jokes (sometimes the same joke) and offered the occasional poignant aside.
Bly was at the University Club on Summit Avenue in St. Paul as part of the monthly Carol Connolly Reading Series. April is poetry month, and Connolly had packed this month's bill with nothing but fine poets. Louis Jenkins ("Nice Fish") was a crowd pleaser with his humorous prose poems; Freya Manfred, tall and strong, read her earthy poems of nature and family; and Smith opened the evening with a powerful poem of spring, which he read with vigor. "It's amazing how doing a good loud poem clears away nervousness," he said.
Each poet paid a little homage to Bly, the star of the evening. "We're all borrowing so much from Robert that in the next life we're all going to have to do his dishes and take out his garbage," Smith said, before reading a final poem that he acknowledged was inspired by Bly.
Jenkins' prose poems kept the crowd laughing--poems about regret and basements and forgetfulness and the nostalgia of red cars and blond girlfriends and the burden of too much zucchini. He, too, acknowledged a debt to Bly (who was laughing in the front row at some of Jenkins' poems), saying, "We steal from him all the time."
Manfred read a poem about the eye of a loon, telling the audience that Bly had influenced her last line, suggesting she remove one word, "dreadful." She shook her head, in amazement at herself for writing it that way in the first place, perhaps, or in amazement at Bly for the catch. "He was right about that last line," she said.
The audience was studded with poets--Charles Baxter and Joyce Sutphen, Ethna McKiernan and Su Smallen, Tim Nolan and Danny Klecko, James Lenfestey and Patricia Kirkpatrick. It was poets listening to poets on a mild spring evening during Poetry Month. But the star of the night was Bly.
He read some of the poems that he read last autumn at the launch of his latest collection, "Stealing Sugar from the Castle"--some of the old farm poems ("for a while we had goats. They were like turkeys, only more reckless"), "My Father at 86," "Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat," and several poems from "The Man in the Black Coat Turns," including "Snowbanks North of the House."
"That's the first poem I ever wrote that had some of my darkness in it," he said.
As always, as in the past, Bly's comedic timing was sharp, he repeated stanzas and last lines, he dipped his hand to the rhythm of the words. He was enigmatic, and the audience, while drinking in his every aside, wanted more.
At the end of "Snowbanks North of the House," Bly recited the final stanza twice:
And the man in the black coat turns, and goes back
down the hill.
No one knows why he came, or why he turned away,
and did not climb the hill.
"Maybe there's somebody like that in each of us," he said. "If I had known what that poem meant, I wouldn't have had to write it." And the poets and the fans and the readers in the audience sat forward on their chairs, listening, as outside the big windows of the University Club the light drained from the sky and the night grew dark.
April is poetry month, and St. Paul Poet Laureate Carol Connolly is pulling out all the stops with her monthly Readings by Writers. Robert Bly, Thomas R. Smith, Freya Manfred and Louis Jenkins will read at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (April 15) at the University Club on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. I've attended four or five Bly events in the last couple of years, and each time, frankly, have wondered if it would be his last. The venerable National Award Winning poet is 87 years old, his memory is beginning to fade, he has nothing left to prove. But in October, when he launched his latest book, “Stealing Sugar from the Castle,” he rose to the occasion on stage, telling stories, cracking gentle jokes, reciting some of the poems rather than reading them.
Thomas R. Smith is the author of six books of poetry and is the editor of "Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer," published by Graywolf Press.
Freya Manfred is the author of "Swimming with a Hundred Year Old Snapping Turtle," "The Blue Dress," and many other works of poetry. She is also the author of "Frederick Manfred: A Daughter Remembers."
When you saw that Garrison Keillor and Common Good Books had decided to offer a $1,000 prize for the winner of this year's love poem contest--and $250 for each of the four runners-up--you probably thought, Heck. I'll never win. It'll probably go to someone really good, like Walt Whitman, or somebody.
Fear not! Prithee! 'Zounds! And other vaguely poetic sounding exclamations! Because the bookstore is hoping to level the playing field a little--bring you up, so to speak, to Whitman's level. And so, on its website, it is offering free advice on how to write a love poem. This advice is from the tops in the field. No, not Walt Whitman (someone needs to break the news to you that Mr. Whitman is dead), but from others just as good (and very much alive).
And so we have advice from Jeff Shotts, executive editor of Graywolf Press and editor of some of the finest poets being published today. Also, advice from Washington State's poet laureate Kathleen Flenniken, Tony Hoagland (whose newest book came out in March) (and was edited by Jeff Shotts), and many others. More advice will pop up between now and the competition deadline of April 15, so check back.
The advice is sound and simple and much of it applies to good writing in general: Be direct and intimate, be fully honest, be unexpected. But of course, since they are poets, they said this so much better. Here's a sampling:
"While writing a love poem, you must ignore everyone but the beloved." (Shotts.)
"I learned that love poems could be more than just 'let me count the ways' and contain the dark as well as the light.." (Flenniken.)
"The love poet is advised to twist the data convincingly towards the eccentric as well as the esoteric. Show the beloved emptying a mousetrap. Describe the expression on the mouse’s face." (Hoagland)
So. Ready? Submit your poem (with a signed release, available on the Common Good Books site) by April 15. Winners will be judged by Garrison Keillor, Patricia Hampl and Tom Hennen--fine St Paul poets, all.
And even if you don't win the $1,000, when this is all over you will have written a love poem. And that's no small thing.
Last year, with its debut literary festival, the group known as Cracked Walnut promised a reading a day for a full month. This year they're doing almost as well: The second literary series debuts on Wednesday, April 2, and will run through May 7 with readings if not every single day, at least several times a week.
Cracked Walnut is the brainchild of Hamline University MFA candidate Satish P. Jayaraj, who found himself surrounded by writers (no surprise, in an MFA program) and was looking for a way to establish a venue for reading.
This year's 25 readings will take place in coffee shops, galleries, libraries, museums, a hospital, and other offbeat places--mainly in the Twin Cities, but also in Duluth and Rochester--and will include more than 100 writers. Each reading carries a different theme.
The lineup includes poets Tim Nolan, Ethna McKiernan, Adrienne Miller, Ryan Vine, Margaret Hasse and Matt Mauch. (Full disclosure: I am reading, too.) The list is still being firmed up and you can check back at www.crackedwalnut.com for updates.
Here's the whole list, current as of today:
Wednesday April 2nd 7:00 pm (Mirror Mirror on the Wall)
Underground music Café ‘Coffee Grounds’ (1579 Hamline Ave N, St Paul, MN 55108)
featuring: Laurie Hertzel, Kelly Hansen Maher, Maya Washington, Nick Metcalf,
Chilli Lor, Hawona Sullivan Janzen
Thursday April 3rd 7:00 pm (Richfield CW Festival Reading)
Richfield Community Center (7000 Nicollet Ave S Minneapolis, Minnesota 55423)
featuring: Vanessa Ramos, Anika Fajardo, Philip Simondet, Ted King,
Lorissa Gottschalk, Maggie Ryan Sandford,
Friday April 4th 20th 7:00 pm (Hooked)
The Coffee Shop Ne (2852a Johnson St. NE, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55418)
featuring: Creating community in average spaces through the magic of spoken literature, Evan Kingston, Laura Theobald
Patrick Werle, Mary Harold, Sharkhooks
Saturday April 5th 7:00pm (What Does Your Fox Say)
Blackdog Coffee and Wine Bar (308 Prince Street, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55101)
featuring: Wendy Skinner, Mona Susan Power, Ardie Medina,
Brian Baumgart, Marjorie Hakala, George J Farrah
Sunday April 6th 11:00 am (Fitting In)
Black Sheep Coffee Cafe (705 Southview Boulevard, South Saint Paul, Minnesota 55075)
featuring: Pam Schmid, Andrea Jenkins, Lisa Ann Pierce, Kimberly Eridon
Chris Vaughan, Jennifer Bowen Hicks, Andrew Cleary
Wednesday April 9th10:20am (Amplatz Children’s Hospital CW Festival Reading)
U of M Amplatz Children’s Hospital (2450 Riverside Ave., Minneapolis, Minnesota 55454)
featuring: Rebecca Ramsden, Bruce Peck, Satish Jayaraj, Anne Sawyer-Aitch
Thursday April 10th 7:00 pm (It’s a Wonderful Life)
J. Arthur’s Coffee (2441 Rice Street, Roseville, Minnesota 55113)
featuring: Paula Cisewski, Sarah Turner, Margaret Hasse
River Urke, Jamie Hagg, Kevin Hershey, Mindy Mejia
Friday April 11th 7:00 pm (Legacy and Heritage)
Royal Grounds (4161 Grand Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55409)
featuring: Sandra Evans, Chay Douangphouxay, Kris Bigalk
Saturday April 12th 7:00 pm (St Thomas Academy CW Festival Reading)
St Thomas Academy (949, Mendota Heights, MN 55120)
featuring: Donna Isaac, Satish Jayaraj, Michael Kiesow Moore, Tom Ferderer
Sunday April 13th 7:00 pm (Rochester CW Festival Reading)
C4 Creative Salon (324 1st St SW, Rochester, Minnesota 55902)
featuring: Daniel Solis, Emily Urness, Steven Vogel, Josh Fischer, Katrina Wollet, Matt Dahl
Monday April 14th 7:00 pm (Be a Lady)
Diamonds Coffee Shoppe (1618 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55413)
Featuring: Patricia Francisco, IBé, Matt Mauch, Rebecca Song
David Stein, Krisanne Dattir, Jenny McDougal
Thursday April 17th 7:00 pm (Divinity and Humor)
Angry Catfish Bicycle and Coffee Bar (Angry Catfish Bicycle and Coffee Bar)
featuring: Linda White, Kate Lynn Hibbard, Kristin Laurel, Benjamin Kowalsky,
Bryan Mazo, Lennon Sundance
Friday April 18th 7:00 pm (Home and Away)
Cahoots Coffee Bar (1562 Selby Ave Saint Paul, Minnesota 55104)
featuring: Jen March, Michael Dean, Ka Zoua Vang,
Louis Murphy, Darci Schummer
Saturday April 19th 7:00 pm (Duluth CW Festival Reading)
Prøve Gallery (21 N Lake Ave, 21 N Lake Ave, Duluth, MN 55802)
featuring: Ryan Vine, Satish Jayaraj, Felicia Schneiderhan
Monday April 21st 7:00 pm (Be a Man)
Hamline Midway Library (1558 W Minnehaha Ave, St Paul, MN 55104)
featuring: Andrew Blissenbach, Colin Mcdonald, Kate Shuknecht,
Ariane Sandford, Thomas Rohde, Moheb Soliman
Friday April 25th 7:00 pm (#phobia)
Hillside Chapel (2610 19th Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN 55418)
featuring: Leslie Adrienne Miller, Paul Canada,
Karen Youso, Sarah Hayes, Lisa Brimmer
Saturday April 26th 1:00 pm (Urbanization)
Mill City Museum (704 S 2nd St, Minneapolis, MN 55401)
Featuring: Saymoukda Vongsay, Tim Nolan, Carla Hagen,
Tracy Harris, Amy Salloway
Sunday April 27th 4:00pm (War and Strife)
Boneshaker Books (2002 23rd Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55404)
featuring: Ethna Mckiernan, Khary Jackson, Dain Ingebretson,
Wednesday April 30th 7:00 pm (Beware the Elements)
Fireroast Café (3800 37th Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55406)
Thursday May 1st 7:00 PM (The Final Frontier)
Solar Arts Building ( 711 15th Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN 55413)
Paula Cisewski, Alison Morse, Chris Title,
Paige Riehl, Peter Stein, Lynne Kuechle,
Friday May 2nd 7:00 PM (Year of the Horse)
Solomon’s Porch(100 W 46th St, Minneapolis, MN 55419)
Featuring: Victoria Peterson Hilleque, (more to come)
Saturday May 3rd 1:00 PM (Masks of Power)
Books and Tea(325 West 7th Street, St Paul, MN 55102)
Sunday May 4th 7:00 PM (Good and Evil)
Café Bene(53 Cleveland Ave S, St Paul, MN 55105)
featuring: Josh Wodarz (more to come)
Tuesday May 6th 7:00 PM (The Witching Hour)
Claddagh Coffee (459 7th St W, St Paul, MN 55102)
Wednesday May 7th 6:00 PM (Transmutation)
Peace Coffee shop Wonderland Park(3262 Minnehaha Ave. Minneapolis, Minnesota 55406)
It's cold outside but it's warm inside--inside bookstores and colleges, libraries and coffee shops and performance spaces, and if you can make it out of your alley and not spin out at those icy intersections you might want to check out some of these spring literary events coming up in the Twin Cities. And yes, I am using the word "spring" very loosely. And yes, I am bitter.
The list is long and I am not pretending to be comprehensive. Please feel free to add any missing events in the comments, so send me an email and I'll update this. Events are free unless otherwise noted. Here goes:
Talk of the Stacks with Lorrie Moore: 7 p.m. March 7, Central Library, Nicollet Mall
You know the drill--doors open at 6:15 and people start lining up ahead of time. Get there early. Some late arrivals might have to go into an overflow room, which was the case when Amy Tan spoke here last fall. The hour-long reading/q&a will be followed by a reception and booksigning.
Club Book with P.S. Duffy, 7 p.m. March 11, Merriam Park Library, St. Paul
P.S. Duffy, who lives in Rochester, is the author of "The Cartographer of No-Man's Land."
Birchbark Books Reading Series: 7 p.m. March 12, Bockley Gallery, Minneapolis
William Bearhart, Sun Yung Shin, Cole Bauer, and Margaret Hasse will read their poetry.
Poetry Out Loud State Competition: 11:30 a.m. March 13, Pohlad Hall, Central Library, Minneapolis
One high school from this competition will go on to represent Minnesota at the national finals in Washington, D.C., in April. Yes, poetry is a competitive sport! (Shouldn't it have letter jackets? With lots of letters?)
University of Minnesota "First Books": 7 p.m. March 13, Weisman Art Museum
This is a spring tradition at the U, a reading by new authors. This year, the three authors--all of nonfiction--will be in conversation with Chris Fischbach, publisher of Coffee House Press (which published two of the books).
Authors are: Kate Hopper ("Ready for Air," University of Minnesota Press), Andy Sturdevant ("Potluck Supper with Meeting to Folow"), and Joshua Ostergaard ("The Devil's Snake Curve: A Fan's Notes from Left Field").
Minnesota Book Awards Nominee Readings: 7 p.m. March 14, The Loft, Minneapolis
This is always a fun event, with most of the 30 or so finalists for the Minnesota Book Award reading from their nominated works.
Normandale Community College Writing Festival: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., March 19
This is the fifth annual festival, which is free and open to the public. Keynote speeches will be by Sarah Stonich ("Vacationland") and Benjamin Percy ("Red Moon"). Other speakers include Swati Avasthi and Ed Bok Lee.
Club Book with Nikki Giovanni and Dave Zirin, 7 p.m. March 19, Southdale Library, Edina
Dave Zirin is a sportwriter and the author of "Game Over: How Politics Have Turned the Sports World Upside Down." Nikki Giovanni is, of course, a poet, winner of an American Book Award.
North Hennepiin Community College Meet the Authors Reading Series, March 20 and April 21
I'm sorry that you've already missed the first two in the series--Kao Kalia Yang and Matt Rasmussen. But YA author Pete Hautman will read at 11:30 a.m. March 20, and Heid Erdrich will read at 10 a.m. April 21.
Echoes Across the Pond--Voices Irish & American: 7 p.m. March 26, The Loft at Open Book
Poets Joyce Sutphen, Tim Nolan, Patricia Kirkpatrick, Anne-Marie Fyfe, and C.L. Dallat.
Cracked Walnut Reading Festival: April 2-May 1, various spots around the Twin Cities and Duluth
The second annual spring series from this group will hold readings at coffee shops, community centers, and other neighborhood locations for most of April. The list of readers is long (and full disclosure, I will be one of them), and is still in the works, but it includes Margaret Haase, Mona Susan Power, Ryan Vine, Pam Schmid, and Anika Fajardo.
Talk of the Stacks with Ron Padgett: 7 p.m. April 3, Central Library, Mpls.
Poet Ron Padgett, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in poetry and also an editor and translator, has published his collected works this year with Coffee House Press.
Minnesota Book Awards Gala: 7 p.m. April 5, The Historic Union Depot, St. Paul
The glittering event of the season. Dress up (in black, of course, and maybe a hat with a jaunty feather? Or some jet beads? Go nuts), enjoy some jazz, have a glass of wine, and find out who wins the trophies this year. Tickets are $45 and you can register online here.
Club Book with Brian Freeman: 7 p.m. April 7, Rum River Library, Anoka
Minnesota writer Brian Freeman is the best-selling author of the Jonathan Stride mysteries.
David Mitchell: 7:30 p.m. April 9, Northrop Auditorium, University of Minnesota
Part of the notable Esther Freier Endowed Lectures, a continuing series that brings in significant authors to speak at a free event. Mitchell will discuss "Cloud Atlas," and will give a few peeks into his sixth novel, "The Bone Clocks," to be published in September. These lectures tend to fill up fast; go early.
Lawrence O'Shaughnessy Award for Poetry: 7 p.m. April 11, University of St. Thomas
This year's winner is Irish poet Catherine Phill MacCarthy, from Dublin. Go for the accent, stay for the poetry.
Club Book with Peter Geye and Amy Greene: 7 p.m. April 15, Roseville Library
Geye, who lives in Minneapolis, is the author of "Safe from the Sea" and "The Lighthouse Road," chosen as a 2014 World Book Night selection. Greene, a novelist, is the author of "Long Man," published this month by Alfred A. Knopf.
Poetry readings: 7 p.m. April 22, the Loft at Open Book, Minneapolis
Kate Green, Jane Yolen and Susan Deborah King read from their new books.
World Book Night: April 23, all day long, everywhere
This will be the third year for World Book Night in the United States (it's been going on longer in the UK), a day (and night) during which volunteers hand out free paperback copies of selected books to random folks. This year's titles includes books by Minnesota writers Garrison Keillor, Peter Geye, Eleanor Brown, and Cheryl Strayed. Try to hang out in a place where you think a giver might happen by. Good luck nabbing a free book.
Club Book with Amanda Coplin: 7 p.m. April 24, Stillwater Public Library
Amanda Coplin, who earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota, is the author of the highly acclaimed novel, "The Orchardist."
PenPals Lecture Series with Art Spiegelman: 7:30 p.m. April 24 and 11 a.m. April 25, Hopkins Arts Center
Artist and illustrator Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, "Maus," an illustrated history of the Holocaust (told by a mouse). Tickets are $50-40 and available here.
The Great Twin Cities Poetry Read: 7 p.m. April 26, Augsburg College, Minneapolis
Thirty poets will each read one poem. Names? Here's all thirty, in groups of five:
William Waltz, Elisabeth Workman, Sarah Fox, Christopher Bolin, Chay Douangphouxay.
Katrina Vandenberg, Kate Shuknecht, Patrick Werle, Jessica Welu, Heid Erdrich.
Paula Cisewski, Chris Martin, Dobby Gibson, Angela Mason, Jenny McDougal
Patricia Kirkpatrick, Dessa, Mary Austin Speaker, Sun Yung Shin, Kate Green
Betsy Brown, Kavi Jointe, Seth Abramson, Matt Mauch, Brad Liening
Steve Healey, Matt Rasmussen, MC Hyland, Emily Fedoruk, Tai Coleman
Children's and Young Adult Literature Conference: April 25-27, the Loft Literary Center, Minneapolis.
Register online here for the conference, which will feature workshops, lectures and panel discussions with Anne Ursu, Pete Hautman, Brian Ferrey-Latz, Molly Beth Griffin, and many others.
PenPal Lecture Series with Tracy K. Smith: 7:30 p.m. May 8 and 11 a.m. May 9, Hopkins Center for the Arts
Tracy K. Smith's "Life on Mars," published by Graywolf Press, won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. Tickets are $50-40 and are available here.
Talk of the Stacks with Francine Prose: 7 p.m. May 12, Central Library, Minneapolis
Francine Prose is a novelist and essayist; her new book, "Lovers at the Chameleon Club," will be published March 1.
And let's not forget all of the authors who will be coming through your neighborhood bookstores--Common Good Books, Once Upon a Crime, the various Barnes and Nobles, Magers & Quinn, Chapter 2, Valley Booksellers, Excelsior Bay, SubText, the Bookcase of Wayzata, Micawber's, Wild Rumpus, Red Balloon: check their websites for events.
And by the time you've gone to all of this events, it really and truly will be spring.
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