Laurie Hertzel is senior editor for books at the Star Tribune, where she has worked since 1996. She is the author of "News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist," winner of a Minnesota Book Award.

Posts about Robert Bly

Bly comes out for Poetry Month, and the poets come out for Bly

Posted by: Laurie Hertzel Updated: April 16, 2014 - 5:56 AM
Robert Bly autographs a book for a fan before his appearance at the University Club on Tuesday night. Star Tribune photo by Jeff Wheeler

Robert Bly autographs a book for Renee Valois before his appearance at the University Club on Tuesday night. Star Tribune photo by Jeff Wheeler

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.

Bly event a poignant evening of poetry

Posted by: Laurie Hertzel Updated: October 17, 2013 - 7:24 AM
Robert Bly, with friend and colleague Thomas R. Smith in the background. Star Tribune photo by Renee Jones Schneider.

Robert Bly, with friend and colleague Thomas R. Smith in the background. Star Tribune photo by Renee Jones Schneider.

He is not angry anymore, no longer a rabble-rouser. There was no sitar accompaniment, no drums, no rubber masks, no embroidered vest. Robert Bly is old now, and a wee bit forgetful, but he still knows how to put on a show, and he still comes deeply alive for poetry. On Wednesday evening, he launched his latest book, "Stealing Sugar From the Castle: Selected and New Poems 1950-2013," at the University of Minnesota in front of about 250 people.

After a tender and lengthy introduction by writer Michael Dennis Browne (who recalled helping to jumpstart Bly's blue P lymouth after a night of poetry in Minneapolis in 1967, and who also recalled how Bly once damned-with-faint-praise a poem written by one of Browne's students, saying it was as exciting as the phrase "I almost went to Hawaii once"), Bly and his friend and fellow poet Thomas R. Smith took the stage.

With Smith holding the microphone and occasionally offering a gentle prompt, Bly read. Twenty-five poems, some of the lines and stanzas read more than once, in the way that Bly does, for emphasis. He was playful and sly, joking after a couple of poems that he had no idea what they meant. He beat out a rhythm with his hand, he sometimes lapsed into funny voices, taking on characters. ("One day a mouse called to me from his curly nest: / 'How do you sleep? I love curliness,' " and giving the mouse a squeaky voice.)

He turned serious with "When My Dead Father Called," and then deliberately broke the mood afterward by saying, "Did I really write this? My memory's so bad every time I read one of my own poems I think I've never read that before."

But he had of course proved that wrong just a few minutes before, reciting--not reading--"Poem in Three Parts," looking out at the crowd with those blue blue eyes of his, never glancing down at the page.

While it might be early poems such as that one that are imbedded in his brain, his newer poems, dealing poignantly with aging and dying, were deeply affecting.  In "Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat," he says: "It's hard to grasp how much generosity / Is involved in letting us go on breathing, / When we contribute nothing valuable but our grief." And then he stopped, and looked up. "I didn't always believe that," he said; he used to believe we were valued for happiness and fun. And then he read the stanza again.

The poem ends, "Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for / Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat / When so many have gone down in the storm."

"When you get to be my age, you notice that," he said. "How many have gone down in the storm."

Such a poignant evening, watching this 86-year-old white-haired man read from fifty years' of poems, watching him grow animated at the sound of his own remarkable words. In the end, of course, thunderous applause, and an uncharacteristic modesty. "It's good of you to clap," he said. "It makes an old Norwegian happy."

Bly to launch poetry collection Oct. 16

Posted by: Laurie Hertzel Updated: September 23, 2013 - 10:01 AM

Poet Robert Bly.

Poet Robert Bly.

Robert Bly's latest collection of poetry, "Stealing Sugar from the Castle," will be launched Oct. 16 at the University of Minnesota. (Here's the Star Tribune review.)

Bly won the National Book Award in 1968 for his second collection, "The Light Around the Body." His latest book contains new and selected poems spanning 50 years and includes selections from his 2011 collection, "Talking into the Ear of a Donkey."

Earlier this year, Bly received the Poetry Society of America's highest honor, the Frost Medal.

The Oct. 16 event begins at 7 p.m. at Willey Hall and is sponsored by the Upper Midwest Literary Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries, which holds Bly's papers.  The event is free but reservations are requested. (Follow this link.)

A reception will follow the reading, and books will be available for sale.

Looking forward to autumn

Posted by: Laurie Hertzel Updated: June 12, 2013 - 11:31 AM

 

Robert Bly at the launch of "Airmail." Star Tribune photo by Jerry Holt.

Robert Bly at the launch of "Airmail." Star Tribune photo by Jerry Holt.

 

And why not look forward to fall, when this summer is refusing to make an appearance? Let's skip it, then, and head right for the fall books. There's lots to look forward to, locally, with Garrison Keillor and Kevin Fenton and Kate DiCamillo and Kevin Kling and Robert Bly and ....

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are some of the books by Minnesota writers we're looking forward to. Starting with .... poetry!

"Stealing Sugar From the Castle: Selected and New Poems 1950-2013," by Robert Bly (W.W. Norton, September). A new book by Minnesota's most venerable poet is always an event.

"O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound," by Garrison Keillor. (Grove Press, October) Named, I think for this poem about, well, about taking, a, well, how can I say this, about, um, going to the .... um.... bleeding the .... um.... let's just say this particular poem is more vulgar than profound.

"Dance," by Lightsey Darst (Coffee House Press, September). Darst, currently writer-in-residence at the Walker Art Center (you can follow her blog here), won a Minnesota Book Award for her first collection, "Find the Girl."

MEMOIR

"Leaving Rollingstone," by Kevin Fenton. (Minnesota Historical Society Press/Borealis Books, September). Fenton won the AWP award for the novel for his first book, "Merit Badges."

"Ready for Air," by Kate Hopper (University of Minnesota Press, October). A longtime writer and writing teacher, primarily about motherhood, Hopper here writes about premature motherhood.

"Prairie Sky," by W. Scott Olsen (University of Missouri Press, September). Olsen teaches at Concordia College and is the author of several books. This collection of essays is about viewing the world from the altitude of a pilot.

CHILDREN'S BOOKS

Mentioned before, but worth mentioning again...

"Big Little Mother," by Chris Monroe and Kevin Kling. The sequel, of sorts, to "Big Little Brother."

"The Illuminated Adventures of Flora & Ulysses," by Kate DiCamillo. A blend of novel and graphic novel, it's the story of a little girl, a magic squirrel, and a broken marriage.

We'll get to fiction in another blog post..... For now, remember: Rainy weather is good reading weather.

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Bly reads to a packed house

Posted by: Laurie Hertzel Updated: April 3, 2013 - 6:24 AM

 

Robert Bly at the American Swedish Institute, launching "Airmail." Star Tribune photo by Jerry Holt.

Robert Bly at the American Swedish Institute, launching "Airmail." Star Tribune photo by Jerry Holt.

 

It was only at the very end of the evening, when Robert Bly read a poem by his longtime friend Tomas Tranströmer, that he grew animated, his voice dipping and swaying, gaining in power. He crisply enunciated the words, added that famous little Bly twist, and looked straight out at the crowd.

Up until then, he had been a bit subdued, reading aloud softly from his new book, "Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer," not looking up. He launched the book Tuesday evening at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, reading aloud some of the letters he had written to Tranströmer in the 1960s and 70s and 80s. Roland Thorstensson of Gustavus Adolphus College read the Tranströmer replies.
 
The room was packed, 300 people there to listen to three dignified and serious men on stage--Bly, Thorstensson, and poet Thomas R. Smith, who spent ten years editing the collection, which was published this month by Minneapolis’ Graywolf Press.
 
Do not think he spent the full decade on the book, Smith told the crowd in his opening remarks. “The manuscript languished half-finished in a drawer until October 2011, when Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize for literature--after which I worked on it furiously.”
 
Jeff Shotts, Graywolf Press’s executive editor, called Smith a “tireless, passionate poet and editor,” noting that in the course of his research Smith had discovered among the letters a Tranströmer poem that had never been published.
 
“I can’t tell you what a remarkable moment that was,” Shotts said.
 
Thomas R. Smith and Robert Bly sign books after Tuesday's reading.

Thomas R. Smith and Robert Bly sign books after Tuesday's reading.

Later in the evening Bly and Thorstensson read that poem, “Conflict,” Bly reading it in English, Thorstensson in Swedish.
 
But the night really belonged to Bly, 86, a man whose “contributions to global literature cannot be exaggerated,” Shotts said.
 
His famous mane of white hair is shorter, and he was a little shaky mounting the steps to the stage, but his voice remains sweet and nasal and—especially when he read poetry—strong and true.
 
The letters, sometimes teasing, sometimes serious, always affectionate, reflect the close friendship between the two poets. They touched on life in the country (both in Minnesota and in Sweden), the Vietnam war, Lyndon Johnson, and their own work. Getting published in Bly’s magazine, The Sixties, Transtromer wrote, is “fully comparable to arriving in Valhalla and drinking beer with the heroes.”
 
At the end of the evening, Shotts read one last letter—a note written Monday by Tranströmer and sent, this time, by e-mail rather than airmail.
 
“Robert, we both have reached that time in life when we must avoid the really long trips,” Tranströmer wrote. “That’s why I am not right now by your side as our letters are opened in Minneapolis for everyone to read. But, as always, I await a spirited letter from you about this evening.”
 
He ended with a postscript, congratulating Bly on receiving the Robert Frost Medal, the highest award from the Poetry Society of America. Bly and his wife, Ruth, will travel to New York later this week for the ceremony.
 
And as Bly sat quietly in his chair on the stage, the 300 people in the room rose to their feet, and applauded.
      

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