by CHRIS ROGERS
Laurel-crowned poets will be all over Winona this week. Minnesota Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen will read for the second-to-last installment of the Winona Poet Laureate’s First Tuesday series, and three of Winona’s own poets laureate past and present will perform work from an anthology of Great-Lakes-region poets laureate.
“… I pet / the wet coat that curls over his sharp / backbone, scratch ears that are thick as / tulip leaves, bent in the womb. Angus baby,” Sutphen writes in “Feeding the New Calf,” a poem in her latest collection, “Carrying Water to the Field.”
“You really get a sense of her being grounded in life on the farm where she was growing up, but also her thoughtful approach to language,” Winona Poet Laureate Ken McCullough said of Sutphen’s writing. “When you read the book, you think, ‘This is someone I’d really like to know, to be friends with,’” he added.
Rural life and her childhood on a Central Minnesota farm are common settings for Sutphen’s verses. “I think that it was a beautiful way to grow up, and it’s pretty much not there anymore,” she explained when asked why she returns to the subject. “Little farms — they’ve disappeared, and it’s really hard for someone to make it as a farmer unless they go really big. I feel it’s my way of keeping the land and keeping something that I think a lot of people value and giving it a place.”
Asked about the role her position fills, Sutphen said that having a state poet laureate is a sign of how much Minnesota values poetry and it allows her to give the art form a “friendly, approachable face.” Once, the laureateship put her in a position to give a stamp of approval for Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature. A Twin Cities radio station called her up one morning. “They asked whether I thought he was a real poet,” Sutphen recalled. Dylan inspired Sutphen’s own writing, and he even appears in one of her poems. She wasn’t shy about her response. “I said, ‘Yes, yes!’” she explained. “He’s a troubadour in the tradition of the Renaissance. I was so happy I just kind of jumped — yes!”
McCullough and former Winona Poets Laureate Emilio DeGrazia and Jim Armstrong will be offering their own reading on Monday from “Undocumented.” The book is an anthology of social justice poems by various poets laureate from the Great Lakes region.
Co-editor of the anthology Ron Riekki got the idea for the collection while walking into a movie theater to see “The Music of Strangers,” a documentary in which the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma recruits musicians from all over the globe to play together in powerful, culture-bridging collaborations. “I saw that and just thought, ‘I want to do that with poets,’” Riekki explained. “When I walked into the theater, I already had the whole concept in my head,” he continued. When the film wrapped up, Riekki ran home to email the Michigan State University Press. Would they be interested in publishing an anthology of poems on social justice? “A lot of times, you have to do a book proposal and that’s like 20 pages, and that was just an email and they said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’”
It was a topic that people were eager to talk about, Riekki said. The poems are divided into chapters based around the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guidebook “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response,” with recommendations like “Speak Up” and “Educate Yourself.” “With each chapter, it’s giving you steps to take in your own life and the poems are all about those steps,” the editor explained.
“The readings have been amazing,” Riekki continued. He is in the middle of cross-country tour, and in each city, the question-and-answer sessions focused on different subjects, from race to climate change. “[Poet] George Clarke was talking about missing Indigenous women. His reading was one of the best I’ve seen in my life. You look into the audience and you can just see in everyone’s eyes they are so attentive.” Riekki added, “The poets laureate want to write about these issues. The communities want to speak about them … We’re hoping Minnesota will be the same thing.”
The state poet laureate’s visit comes as the long-running First Tuesday series of poetry and literature events is nearing an end. December’s event will be the last. The series was funded in part by the city of Winona’s $1,000 budget for the city’s poet laureateship. Faced with a shortage of fresh faces to take on the laureateship, the city’s Fine Arts Commission recommended and the City Council approved changing the poet laureate position to “creative laureate” — a post open to musicians, dancers, painters, writers, and artists of any kind. The change opens up new opportunities for Winona, but also means funding for the First Tuesday series will end.
McCullough said that while he is not personally interested in trying to continue to organize a poetry and literature event series, he hopes that some form of local poetry events can live on. Gatherings create community, McCullough said. “There is magic in words … but, to me, it’s only half-alive until it’s presented by someone,” he continued. “If it’s in there — in your heart — it doesn’t do any good unless the words come up and go out out your mouth and strike people,” he added.
However, organizing events takes time, commitment, and some funding, McCullough advised. Well-known poets have generously agreed to read for a modest fee, he said. “But to ask them to read for nothing? … If we have someone come down from the Cities, we should have it so they at least break even,” he stated.
“What we’re looking for is to pass the baton to younger poets,” McCullough said.
Riekki, McCullough, DeGrazia, and Armstrong will read from “Undocumented” on Monday, November 4, at 4 p.m. at Paperbacks and Pieces, at 429 Mankato Avenue in Winona.
Sutphen will read from “Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems” on Tuesday, November 5, at 7 p.m. at the Blue Heron Coffeehouse, at 162 West Second Street in Winona.