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."
It can get raucous, what with the book-throwing and all. But if you keep to your time limit, you should come out unscathed, and maybe with a bunch of new fans.
"Words at WAM," the literary open mic program hosted by Hazel & Wren and WAM Collective, will be back at the Weisman Art Museum on Sept. 18. Sign-up starts at 6 p.m., with readings beginning at 7 p.m. It's first come, first reads, and the whole thing ends at 8:30, so getting there early is probably a good idea.
You can read whatever you like -- your latest love poem, your diary entries, a short story, a few pages of that biography of Ayn Rand you've been working on for the last 15 years -- but you only get four minutes. Four minutes and 30 seconds, with the grace period. After that, prepare to get pelted off the stage by a sea of hurled paperbacks.
Featured readers for the night will be Katie Sisneros and poet Dobby Gibson. And, if you're lucky, you.
The judge for the competition was Paisley Rekdal, who praised McCann's book for using language in "new and exciting ways." McCann will be awarded $3,000 and publication.
Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, and West Branch. She teaches at Northwestern College and has worked at Milkweed Editions.
Finalists for the competition include Juliet Patterson of Minneapolis, for her collection, "Threnody."
Seriously. I am telling you. Do not go shaking any sticks around in these parts, because you're sure to hit a writer, and we do not want to hit any writers.
But here comes another list, another writers' series, this time the English@Minnesota series at the University of Minnesota, which runs in October and November:
First up, the tall and fascinating Bonnie Jo Campbell, who will read at 7 p.m. Oct. 3 at the University Bookstore in Coffman Union. Campbell, who lives in Michigan, is the author of "American Salvage," a finalist for a National Book Award, and "Once Upon a River." (She was here a couple of years ago, reading at the Loft, and here's how it went.)
Poet David Wojahn will read at the Rain Taxi Review Twin Cities Book Festival on Oct. 12, held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Wojahn grew up in St. Paul and won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize last year from the Academy of American Poets.
On Tuesday, Oct. 15, at 7:30 p.m., Katherine Boo will discuss her highly acclaimed book of narrative journalism, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," winner of a National Book Award. This event will be in the Coffman Union Theater.
Oct. 29 will be the sixth annual Hunger Relief Benefit, hosted by Charles Baxter. This year, novelist Robert Boswell (whose latest book, "Tumbledown," was just published by Graywolf Press) will join poet Peter Campion to read and raise money for Second Harvest Heartland. This will be at 7 p.m. University Hall in McNamara Alumni Center. Bring a monetary donation for the food shelf.
Daisy Fried and Josh Weiner will read at 7 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Weisman Art Museum on campus. Fried is a poet and critic, and Weiner is a poet and the editor of "At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn."
Thomas Mallon will round out the season with a reading at 7 p.m. Nov. 19 at the Weisman. Mallon is a novelist, essayist and critic and the author of "Henry and Clara," and "Watergate," among other books.
How cruel can Mother Nature get? The winter storm that we are supposed to get tonight (but I am positive we won't; we can't; we cannot endure another half-foot of snow) has prompted the cancellation of tonight's Earth Day poetry reading at Open Book.
Poet and photographer John Caddy sent around an e-mail this afternoon, saying, "Our insane winter predicts nasty snow tonight with 6"-8", so the Earth Day reading is postponed for one week. We will read Monday, April 29, 7 pm at Open Book. Pray for Minnesota winter to fold its leaky tent and slink away."
Hear, hear. I mean, hear that, Winter?
The Earth Day reading will include Caddy, Joe and Nancy Paddock, George Roberts, Scott King of Red Dragonfly Press, Daniel McGuire and Joe Alfano, with music by the Tjornblom Quartet.
It is sponsored by Morning Earth and Milkweed Editions. Open Book is at 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls.
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