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He was larger than life, a man of letters, a man of the prairie, a man of the world. Poet and essayist Bill Holm collapsed Tuesday after getting off a plane in Sioux Falls, S.D., and died Wednesday night of complications from pneumonia. He was 65.
Six-and-a-half-feet tall and bearded, with a passion for justice, and a booming, generous personality, Holm was the author of "Coming Home Crazy," "Boxelder Bug Variations," and, perhaps his most beloved book, "The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere On Earth," his homage to his hometown of Minneota, in western Minnesota near Marshall.
"Though far removed from colleges, libraries, and bookstores, Minneota was a luckier birthplace than it might seem for a passionate lover of books," Holm wrote. "The Icelanders who settled in Minneota kept their Old Country habits of bookishness and contrariness in argument."
And that might describe Holm himself, who was Icelandic to the core, as well as bookish and contrary. A curmudgeon, said many, but one with an enormous, kind heart, just as likely to read someone else's poetry at a reading as he was his own.
He was "the sage of Minneota," said Garrison Keillor.
"The polar bear of American literature," said Duluth poet Barton Sutter.
"A missionary for the life of the mind," said his grad school friend John Calvin Rezmerski.
On a Fulbright to Iceland
Holm was a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter and went to grad school at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
"I noticed him before I met him," said Rezmerski, a writer who lives in Mankato. "I had just arrived in town and was walking down the main street, and along the sidewalk comes this huge red-haired guy. He didn't have the beard in those days; he actually looked quite boyish, so tall, and wearing a bright red jacket and carrying a bottle of bourbon under one arm. I thought, 'Oh, interesting local characters here.'
"And then the next day I went to the first meeting for new graduate assistants, and there he was."
Holm won a Fulbright and went to Iceland for a year, which stretched into longer. He continued to visit Iceland so regularly that his friends there helped him find a house. His last book, "The Windows of Brimnes," is about his time in Iceland.
Holm published most of his books with Milkweed Editions, where Emilie Buchwald was his longtime editor. "It was a delightful relationship," she said Thursday. "It was so much fun. His was a such a beautifully well-stuffed mind. Literature, politics, a great love of individuals. He didn't trust people as a whole, but he loved people as individuals."
Holm wrote his drafts in longhand on yellow note pads, and because Buchwald could not decipher his handwriting, he hired a typist to transcribe them. "I would give him written comments, and he would give his rebuttal. He was never tactful, but that's all right," Buchwald said. "He was forthright. He never turned down a comment or suggestion that he felt might genuinely help the book along."
Holm taught for 27 years at Southwest Minnesota State University at Marshall. "Boxelder Bug Variations" came about because of an assignment he gave his students, who complained that they had nothing to write about, out there on the prairie. "He told them, 'That's ridiculous! You can write about anything!'" Buchwald said. "A boxelder bug was crawling across his desk, and he said, 'You can write about this!' And he gave them that assignment. And then he gave it to himself."
Though Minneota was his home, where he lived with his wife in a book-stuffed house that Sutter called "an ark for the arts," Holm traveled the world, teaching English in China, spending summers in Iceland and late winters in Arizona, and visiting Europe and Madagascar.
"I think he was one of the best essayists in the country," Sutter said. "It was a natural form for him. Poetry is compressed, and he had an expansive talent and personality."
Holm was a frequent guest on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie "Home Companion" radio show, and some of his poems were included in Keillor's "Writer's Almanac."
Holm was a McKnight Distinguished Artist in 2008, an award that honors Minnesota artists for their life work.
"He was thrilled, to put it mildly," said Vickie Benson, arts program director for the McKnight Foundation. "The panel was unanimous that this was the time for Bill Holm to be acknowledged, for his lifelong commitment to Minnesota and the wonderful work that he's produced over the years."
A man of music and words
Holm loved music as much as he loved literature, dragging friends to the opera or to performances of touring Icelandic choirs, and playing the piano at home, at bars, sometimes at poetry readings. After reading a poem about Scott Joplin, Holm interrupted his own reading to sit down at the piano and play some ragtime.
"I remember a reading that he gave down at Southwest," Sutter said, "I went away thinking that the walls of the room were red, and I had to do two or three things to remember that the walls were light brown. It was the intensity of his performance that made them feel red."
Holm's health had been poor in recent years, with heart problems compounded by pneumonia, which compromised his lungs. His wife, Marcy Brekken, said Thursday that he became ill flying back from Arizona on Tuesday. "I'm not sure Bill was aware he was sick," she said. "Bill is not necessarily in tune with his physical self."
There was a long pause, and then she said, "I'm going to miss him terribly."
Laurie Hertzel, the Star Tribune books editor, is at 612-673-7302.