John Calvin Rezmerski, one of Minnesota’s best-known poets and storytellers and a longtime professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., died Saturday of complications from a stroke.
Lorna Rafness, his wife, said Rezmerski, 74, had been in poor health for a year and had struggled with diabetes and congestive heart failure.
“Everybody is saying what a gentle soul he was, and what a major intellectual,” Rafness said Saturday night. “He just knew everything about everything. And he loved language.”
Rezmerski, known to his friends as “Rez,” spent more than 30 years at Gustavus, teaching courses in creative writing, journalism, literature (including science fiction), linguistics and storytelling. He also wrote or contributed to some 20 books of poetry, including “Dreams of Bela Lugosi,” “What Do I Know?” and “Held for Questioning.”
Friends say he was an extraordinary coach and mentor to students.
“He was not celebrated for his skills as a lecturer, or for his ability to generate lots of heat and enthusiasm in his classes,” said Larry Owen, a longtime friend and colleague at the school. “But nobody in the department was better at one-on-one with the students, helping them write and think and read.”
Rezmerski was famous for walking around with a stack of index cards in his front shirt pocket, which he would whip out to record a quip or comment that caught his attention. Rafness said he had thousands of filled-out cards in his home library in Mankato, and he would sometimes refer to them when working on a new poem.
“He wouldn’t leave the house without them,” Rafness said. “If he had a doctor’s appointment, he’d say, ‘Get me my index cards and a pen.’ His shirts always had to have a pocket.”
Tim Nelson, a reporter at Minnesota Public Radio, said Rezmerski was his adviser during his senior year in the late 1980s and “guided my first steps into this business.”
Said Nelson, “There wasn’t a formal journalism program at Gustavus, but he managed to cobble one together for me, sending me off to visit newsrooms and meet journalists and open the door into this work. Wherever I go in this business, my steps trace back to the battered desk chair in John’s office, where he taught me to work up the nerve to look anyone in the eye and ask them what I wanted to know. It was a great gift.”
Rezmerski retired from Gustavus in 2002, but he continued to write and perform at poetry readings throughout Minnesota. Owen said his longtime friend continued to mature as a writer, noting that his favorite work by Rezmerski was his last, a 32-page poem about the Minnesota River titled “Cataloging the Flow: Elegy.” Rezmerski spent more than 40 years working on the poem, which can be heard below in a link via Nelson.
“He thought that was his best work,” Rafness said.
The poem begins:
Between threads of clouded current, granular windings of shifting sand and tangled clumps of wet-stemmed vegetation, unplotted stripings of black or tan —
Old bare banks become re-heaped midstream sandbars,
mudflats morph into resting-places ...
Owen said he loves the poem’s “sweep, breadth, passion and lyricism.”
“He was a great friend,” Owen said. “He made you feel awake to what was going on in the world.”
Rezmerski was born in Johnsonburg, Pa. His father worked at the local paper mill and his mother was a bookkeeper for an auto dealer, Rafness said. Rezmerski was not an early poetry lover.
“He thought about being a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist, but he happened to take a couple of English classes and he just fell for it, fell for literature,” Rafness said.
On his website, Rezmerski said he chewed tar as a kid and learned how to cook when he was 7. He said he got drunk at the age of 6 on lemon extract and once shook hands with Colonel Sanders, the iconic mascot for Kentucky Fried Chicken. In his senior year of high school, he recalled getting turned down five times for a prom date.
Rezmerski attended graduate school at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, where he met fellow Minnesota poet Bill Holm, who later introduced Rezmerski to the woman who became his second wife, Rafness.
“Bill had a huge influence on John’s life, and I am sure John had a big influence on Bill, too,” said Rafness, who didn’t meet Rezmerski until they were both in their mid-40s.
Rafness said she isn’t sure if any of her remarks were ever memorialized in one of her husband’s poems, but she said at public readings he often liked to perform “Butter,” a poem about her and one of her favorite things to eat.
“I am pretty slender, and people wouldn’t think that I love butter so much, but his poem about butter — and me — was so beautiful,” Rafness said.
Rezmerski was a world traveler. He toured in Iceland, lived in England for six months and once spent eight days in Las Vegas without gambling. He bragged of riding a raft down the rapids in Yellowstone National Park.
“John would be the last one to leave a party because he didn’t want to miss anything,” Owen said. “He was a wonderful neighbor and an amazing cook. He loved to cook elaborate Chinese meals.”
Rezmerski also enjoyed bringing poetry to the public. In addition to readings, he also helped organize an annual event in Cambria known as “Chairing of the Bard,” a poetry contest at which the winner was treated to a carved oaken chair. The event was based on a Welsh tradition that dates back centuries.
Friends said Rezmerski had a lively imagination and a knack for turning the ordinary into poetry. An example below, also via Nelson, is from Word Play Festival 2015.
“He loved wordplay and he loved the way that language connects us,” said poet Athena Kildegaard, who grew up in St. Peter and once worked as Rezmerski’s babysitter before studying with him at Gustavus.
Kildegaard said one of her favorite poems of Rezmerski’s is “Grandmother,” from his collection “What Do I Know?”
Here’s an excerpt:
In her house I learned to listen to sea shells, a house full of the smells of raisin bread, chicken soup, blackberry wine, lavender sachet, laundry bluing and coal smoke. The smell of work ...
Coming in from both coasts the family closes around her like a flower closing for the night. After the burial Friday morning, we open up and join each other’s company we have not had for so long. And settle her estate in an hour or so and keep what we had given her and sing and look through old photographs. And some who have been feuding for years sit down to dinner together. And I listen to sea shells in the attic. She has not stopped working.
Said Kildegaard, “This is a poem that sort of acknowledges that people who have died continue to be with us. He wrote about things that mattered. He wrote about things that touched our hearts. But he was able to dance around what could be hokey, what could be clichéd about those topics. And part of that has to do with his love of language.”
In addition to his wife, Rezmerski’s survivors include three adult children from his first marriage: Marysia Bubacz, Nicholas Rezmerski and Peter Jacob (PJ) Rezmerski.
A memorial service will be held Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mankato, 937 Charles Av., Mankato.