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.
She's been called the "Hans Christian Andersen of America" for her great contribution to children's literature, but author Jane Yolen is also a poet and an essayist. Many of her children's books ride the wave between fairytales, fantasy and science fiction, though her range is much broader than that.
She will be in Minnesota this month for three appearances, the first of which will be Thursday, April 17, at the Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota, where she will deliver the annual Naomi C. Chase Lecture in Children's Literature.
The title of her talk is "Break Through into Faerie: A Meditation on the Surprising Rise of Faerie Tale Related Books, Poetry, Magazines, Conventions, TV, Movies, Games and Ephemera." But you don't need to remember the title; just remember that Yolen is the author of more than 300 books and the recipient of a whole host of awards, including two Nebulas, a World Fantasy Award, a Caldecott, the Golden Kite Award, two Christopher Medals, and many others.
She will also read from her newest collection of poetry of Tuesday, April 22, at the Loft at Open Book. Her new collection, "Bloody Tide: Poems About Politics and Power," is newly published by Duluth's Holy Cow! Press, which has published previous titles by Yolen.
The following day, Yolen will head to Duluth (let's hope for no snow) to deliver a talk on writing about the Holocaust as part of the annual Holocaust Remebrance events at UMD.
Here are the details of her appearances:
Thursday, April 17:
5 p.m. reception; 5:45 p.m. lecture; 6:30 p.m. Q&A, 7 p.m. book signing. 120 Andersen Library, University of Minnesota. Free.
Tuesday, April 22:
7 p.m. reading with Holy Cow! Press poets Kate Green and Susan Deborah King. The Loft at Open Book. 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls. Free.
Wednesday, April 23:
4 p.m., "The Swallows Still Fly Around the Camp Chimneys: The Lasting Impressions of Holocaust on Writers and Child Readers" Chem 200, UMD. Free.
It was all celebratory doughnuts and smiles at Graywolf Press in Minneapolis this morning when the news came out that "The Empathy Exams," an essay collection by Leslie Jamison, debuted at No. 11 on the New York Times print paperback best-sellers list.
The book, which is this year's winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Award, went into a sixth printing today, this time of 10,000 copies.
It's rare for a book of essays--especially a book published by a small independent press--to do so well so quickly, but "The Empathy Exams" has gotten extraordinary reviews. The Star Tribune called it "astonishing." The New York Times said "it's hard to imagine a stronger, more thoughtful voice emerging this year." The Boston Globe called it "a brilliant collection," and the Los Angeles Times says it is "remarkable and multifaceted."
Champagne corks might be popping over at Graywolf this afternoon. Champagne, I've heard, goes well with doughnuts.
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."
We're barely three months into the New Year, and Minneapolis writer Kate DiCamillo has already been showered with awards: She won her second Newbery Medal in January, just a couple of weeks after being named National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by the Library of Congress.
Now come two more: Her Newbery winner, "Flora & Ulysses," is one of 10 books to be honored with the Christopher Medal, an award that has gone for 65 years to writers, producers, directors and illustrators who affirm the highest values of the human spirit. It is given by The Christophers, a nonprofit founded in 1945 by Maryknoll Father James Keller, to honor the Judeo-Christian tradition of service to God and humanity.
The full list of Christopher winners is online here. The awards will be presented May 15 in New York.
DiCamillo also will be honored in early May at the Anderson Center for the arts in Red Wing. The A.P. Anderson Award annually is presented to a person for outstanding contributions to literature and the arts in Minnesota. Previous winners include Louise Erdrich, Emilie Buchwald, Jim Brandenburg, Joe Dowling, and Robert Bly and William Duffy.
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