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."
A history of the Scientology movement, a biography of Benjamin Franklin's sister, and a poetry collection published by Graywolf Press are among the finalists for the National Book Award, announced this morning on MSNBC's talk show, "Morning Joe."
And Minnesota poet Matt Rasmussen's debut collection, "Black Aperture," is among the finalists for poetry.
Rasmussen, born in International Falls, now lives in Robbinsdale and teaches at Gustavus Adolphus College. His book, "Black Aperture," also won the Walt Whitman Award. It was published by Louisiana State University Press.
Winners will be announced Nov. 20. Here's the whole list of finalists, with links to Star Tribune reviews, when available:
"Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin," by Jill Lepore
"Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields," by Wendy Lower. (Review runs next week.)
"The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America," by George Packer
"The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia 1772-1832," by Alan Taylor
"Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief," by Lawrence Wright.
"The Tenth of December," by George Saunders
"The Lowland," by Jhumpa Lahiri.
"The Bleeding Edge," by Thomas Pynchon. (Review scheduled.)
"The Flamethrowers," by Rachel Kushner
"The Good Lord Bird," by James McBride
Young People's LIterature:
"The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp," by Kathi Appelt
"The Thing About Luck," by Cynthia Kadohata
"Far, Far Away," by Tom McNeal
"Picture Me Gone," by Meg Rosoff
"Boxers and Saints," by Gene Luen Yang. Yang is a faculty member of Hamline University's low-residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults
"Metaphysical Dog," by Frank Bidart
"Illusion," by Lucie Brock-Broido
"The Big Smoke," by Adrian Matejka
"Incarnadine," by Mary Szybist, published by Minneapolis' Graywolf Press.
The 20 finalists were chosen from a long list, which included Minneapolis young-adult writers Anne Ursu and Kate DiCamillo. The winners will be announced Nov. 20 in New York.
The Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul was packed Tuesday evening with moms and little girls (and also some dads and some boys)--out on a school night! But surely this was an occasion their teachers would approve of: the book launch of Newbery Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo's latest YA book, "Flora & Ulysses, the Illuminated Adventures," and the author herself in bright and hilarous conversation with Minnesota Public Radio host Cathy Wurzer.
DiCamillo's book, longlisted for a National Book Award, is the story of a little girl named Flora, a neighbor with a vacuum cleaner, a squirrel that develops superpowers (after being sucked into the machine), and the adventures that ensue. She wrote the book shortly after the death of her mother, and, like all good books--and all DiCamillo books--"Flora & Ulysses" has, Wurzer noted, "themes of loss, abandonment, and death." Is this appropriate for a children's book?, she asked.
"I didn't mention themes. You did," DiCamillo said. "It kind of surprises me that they're in there. But they're in everything that I do. Children are human beings and they're going to experience all of those things, and it's nice to have a book that admits those things are out there."
At this, the little girls--or maybe it was their moms--burst into applause.
The idea for the book came from two things: The vacuum cleaner that DiCamillo inherited from her mother, and a dying squirrel that she noticed on the front steps of her Minneapolis home a few years back. "This is a book a lot about a mother-daughter relationship," she said. "That's because every time I pulled into the garage, I'd see that vacuum cleaner and be reminded of my mom."
Though a friend suggested whacking the dying squirrel with a shovel, DiCamillo left it on the steps and, instead, went into the house and re-read E.B. White's essay, "Death of a Pig."
"And I started to think of ways to save a squirrel's life."
The squirrel on her front steps disappeared--crawled off to die somewhere else, she surmises--and she began work on her new book.
DiCamillo read aloud from the first few chapters of the book, and when she got to the part where Flora performs CPR on the squirrel she barely made it through, she was trying so hard not to laugh. "It tasted funny. Fuzzy, damp, slightly nutty."
Wurzer roared with laughter. And, in unison, they read it again.
"That line kept me going through rewrites," DiCamillo said. "It always made me laugh."
There was more--oh, so much more. Discussion of the writing process, and the importance of editors, and then questions from the young crowd. (One of the last questions was from a serious little girl with dark hair who began by saying, "My name is Flora," and the crowd, and DiCamillo, were delighted.)
The evening was taped for broadcast later on Minnesota Public Radio. Watch for it.
Wednesday (Sept. 18) is the first day of nearly a month of readings, at coffee shops, bookstores and cafes across St. Paul. If you can't make one, surely you can make another.
It's the St. Paul Almanac Literary Festival, a joint venture of the smart folks at the St. Paul Almanac, and the equally smart folks at Cracked Walnut. Cracked Walnut did something similar in the spring, hosting a reading a day for 21 days. Now, with the help of the Almanac, they're going themselves four days better.
Writers who contributed to the 2014 Almanac (on sale now, because, of course, it's almost 2014) include Joyce Sutphen, Carol Connolly, Ethna McKiernan, John Jodzio, Margot Fortunato Galt, and Jim Moore (though there are many, many others).
You can catch them at readings at J&S Bean Factory (6:30 p.m. Wednesday), Subtext: A Bookstore (7 p.m. Sept. 21), Khyber Pass Cafe (7:30 p.m. Sept. 26), and places in between. Check out the full schedule at the Cracked Walnut page.
Here comes round two of the National Book Award long lists, and here come more books with Minnesota connections. The long list for poetry was announced this morning, and here is Matt Rasmussen, winner of the 2012 Walt Whitman Award from the American Academy of Poets, nominated for "Black Aperture." You can't get more Minnesota than Rasmussen, who was born in International Falls, lives in Robbinsdale, and teaches at Gustavus Adolphus. His book was published by Louisiana State University Press.
Other Minnesota connections on the list: "So Recently Rent a World," by Andrei Codrescu and published by Coffee House Press. And "Incarnadine," by Mary Szybist, and published by Graywolf Press.
Yesterday's long list for young adult books included Minneapolis writers Kate DiCamillo and Anne Ursu. Tomorrow's list is nonfiction.
Here's the full long list for poetry:
"Metaphysical Dog," by Frank Bidart.
"Bury My Clothes," by Roger Bonair-Agard
"Stay, Illusion," by Lucie Brock-Broido.
"So Recently Rent a World," by Andrei Codrescu.
"Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire," by Brenda Hillman.
"The Big Smoke," by Adrian Matejka.
"American Amnesiac," by Diane Raptosh.
"Black Aperture," by Matt Rasmussen.
"Transfer of Qualities," by Martha Ronk.
"Incardine," by Mary Szybist.
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