Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Bringing poetry to the people in Mankato & I’m in January 19, 2018


NEARLY SIX MONTHS have passed since I stopped at Spring Lake Park in North Mankato to view my poem posted there as part of the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride.


The post just to the front left of the car holds a sign with my poem printed thereon.



Looking back across the lake toward the willows and my nearby poetry sign.


Located at the edge of a parking lot next to a trail and within a stone’s throw of drooping weeping willows, my award-winning poem about detasseling corn contrasts with the tranquil setting of lake and lawn separated by bullrushes flagged by cattails.


The Sibley Farm playground inside Sibley Park features these cornstalk climbing apparatus. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


The poem may have been more appropriately placed next to cornstalk climbing apparatus at the Sibley Farm playground in Mankato’s Sibley Park.


A beautiful setting for poetry.




Still, I am grateful for this opportunity to get my poetry out there in a public place. This placement of selected poems along recreational trails and in parks in Mankato and North Mankato brings poetry to people in an approachable and everyday way. That is the beauty of this project—the accessibility, the exposure in outdoor spaces, the flawless weaving of words into the landscape.


Inside a southern Minnesota cornfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


My poem, as with much of my writing, reflects a strong sense of place. In Cornfield Memories, I take the reader into a southwestern Minnesota cornfield to experience detasseling corn, a job I worked several summers as a teenager. It’s hard work yanking tassels from corn stalks in the dew of the morning and then in the scorching sun of a July afternoon. All for $1.25/ hour back in the day.


My poem, Bandwagon, previously posted at Lion’s Park in Mankato as part of a previous Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.


My poem shares rural history, a story, an experience. Just as my past poems—The Thrill of Vertical, Off to Mankato to “get an education” and Bandwagon—selected as part of previous Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride contests did.



I value public art projects like the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Not only as a poet, but as an appreciator of the literary arts. Poetry doesn’t need to be stuffy and mysterious. And this project proves that.

I’D LIKE TO HEAR your thoughts on bringing poetry to the public in creative ways like this. Have you seen a similar project? Would you stop to read poems posted in public spots?

NOTE: All photos were taken in early September, within weeks of the 2017 Poetry Walk & Ride poems being posted.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


West of Mankato August 23, 2017

Cattle graze in a pasture along U.S. Highway 14.

Cattle graze in a pasture along U.S. Highway 14.


WHEN I TELL FELLOW MINNESOTANS I grew up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, specifically near the small town of Vesta, I typically get a blank stare. So, when “Vesta” doesn’t register with them, I mention Marshall to the west and Redwood Falls to the east of my hometown. Both are county seats and fair-sized communities, in my opinion.


Driving on U.S. Highway 14 around Mankato traveling to southwestern Minnesota.

Driving on U.S. Highway 14 around Mankato traveling through southern Minnesota toward the prairie.


Even after dropping those two names, I still often get that quizzical look. It’s as if they have no idea there’s anything west of Mankato.


This barn along U.S. Highway 14 west of Sleepy Eye always catches my eye.

Gotta love this barn between Sleepy Eye and Springfield.


Grain storage along U.S. Highway 14.

Grain storage along U.S. Highway 14.



But there is. Lots. Land and sky and small towns and oddities and grain elevators, and corn and soybean fields stretching into forever. There are pitch-black skies perfect for star-gazing and sunsets so bold I sometimes wonder why I ever left this land.


There are so many well-kept barns along U.S. Highway 14, this one between Mankato and Nicollet.

There are so many beautiful old barns along U.S. Highway 14, this one between Mankato and Nicollet.


I understand beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I simply want others to see that this corner of Minnesota, just like the lakes and woods to the north and the rolling hills and rivers to the south and the Twin Cities metro, is lovely and quirky and interesting in a peaceful prairie way.



U.S. Highway 14 passes through many small towns, like Sleepy Eye where these guys were shopping for a car.

Shopping for cars in Sleepy Eye, one of many small towns along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.


A farm site between Mankato and Nicollet.

A farm site between Mankato and Nicollet.


Baling the road ditch between Mankato and New Ulm.

Baling the road ditch between Mankato and New Ulm.


If you appreciate barns, this area of Minnesota offers plenty of barn gazing.

If you appreciate barns, this area of Minnesota offers plenty of barn gazing.


FYI: All of these photos are from my files and were taken along U.S. Highway 14 between Mankato and Lamberton. That would be west of Mankato.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Poetry in Minnesota beyond the classroom, beyond anthologies March 21, 2017

I EXPECT MANY OF YOU dislike poetry. You sat in a high school English class bored to death by the required reading of poems you didn’t understand. Or worse, you had to pen a haiku or a rhyming poem or free verse. And then you had to take a test. You couldn’t wait until the poetry unit was done.

You struggled. You didn’t care. I get it. I felt that way about math. But poetry I’ve always embraced. I am grateful for the educators who taught, and continue to teach, poetry to resistant students.


Sidewalk poetry in downtown Northfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


If you’re one of those non-poetry people, I hope you’ll give this literary art a second chance. Poetry is certainly less rigid and stuffy than years ago. It’s also much more accessible beyond a collection published in a book. Now you’ll find poetry creatively presented in videos such as Minneapolis-based Motionpoems; online in Gyroscope Review, co-founded and co-edited by a Minnesotan; imprinted in sidewalks in cities like Northfield and St. Paul and Mankato; and more.


A graphic I created for Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Cardboard walls that once held poetry inside an intellectual box have collapsed and been recycled. The result is poetry that maybe, just maybe, you will find approachable, understandable and enjoyable.


My poem, “Bandwagon,” posted in 2014 in Lion’s Park in Mankato as part of the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. The poems are changed annually. Each poem must be 18 lines or less with no more than 40 characters per line. They must also be themed to the area. “Bandwagon” was inspired by a Mankato TV show by that name. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Take the 2017 Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. I’ll join other poets at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 23, at the Emy Frentz Arts Guild Gallery in Mankato for a poetry reading and awards reception. I’ll read my poem, “Cornfield Memories,” which won honorable mention. While that’s an honor, the truly exciting aspect of this project is the public accessibility and visibility of poetry.

Michael Torres, a CantoMundo fellow, creative writing teacher and co-host of art workshops for homeless and at-risk youth in the Mankato area, selected 29 poems from about 70 submissions for inclusion in the Poetry Walk & Ride. The poems will be posted on signs along recreational trails in Mankato and North Mankato. This endeavor brings poetry to people in parks, playgrounds and other outdoor spaces in an unassuming way. What a great idea. Poems cover a broad range of topics from experiencing the outdoors to Minnesota to water, says Erin Dorney, writer and project organizer.


My poem initially printed in In Retrospect, The Talking Stick, Volume 22, an anthology published by The Jackpine Writers’ Bloc based in northern Minnesota, has been crafted into a song by Rochester, Minnesota composer David Kassler. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


The next day, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 24, poetry will also be showcased publicly, this time at a concert. My poem, “The Farmer’s Song,” is among seven being sung by a chamber choir at the Hill Theater at Rochester Community and Technical College. Admission is $7.50. The same concert will be presented for a free-will offering at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 26, at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Rochester. I’ll attend that Sunday concert and read my poem. A reception follows the Sunday concert.

I appreciate that Rochester composer David Kassler invested considerable time in creating choral settings for selected poems. It’s just one more way to bring poetry to the people of Minnesota in an inviting public way. Please join me and other Minnesotans in celebrating poetry at either or both events.

TELL ME: What’s your attitude toward poetry?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Thoughts & scenes along the Highway 14 detour October 5, 2016

TYPICALLY, ROAD CONSTRUCTION frustrates me. Unexpected delays and detours add to travel time and sometimes to distance.

U.S. Highway 14 under construction between Mankato and Nicollet.

U.S. Highway 14 under construction between Mankato and Nicollet, nearing the detour.

But I welcome at least one major road project in southern Minnesota—the expansion of U.S. Highway 14 between Mankato and Nicollet in to a four-lane. This stretch rates as one of the most dangerous roadways in rural Minnesota. Traffic volume along the narrow highway is high. Passing is mostly difficult and dangerous.

The improvements are needed to make this a safer highway. If only the expansion would run all the way to New Ulm.

On the detour route.

The detour route took us through Nicollet County farm land,aiming for Courtland.

Traveling to southwestern Minnesota last Saturday, my husband and I steered away from the Highway 14 project by taking Minnesota Highway 99 between St. Peter and Nicollet. Except this time 99 was closed before we reached Nicollet and we were rerouted onto the official Highway 14 detour route.










The detour added about 15 minutes to our drive time. But that was OK. I enjoy rural landscapes and passing places like Immanuel Lutheran Church and School, rural Courtland, the home congregation of my maternal ancestors.




As we rounded Nicollet County Road 25 near its intersection with Highway 14, a spectacular view of the Minnesota River Valley unfolded before us. Vast blue sky striped with grey clouds butted the distant tree line. I could see for miles and miles and miles. It is not the mountains. But, still, the scene wrote lines of poetry before my prairie native eyes.

TELL ME: What are your thoughts on road construction, detours and/or dangerous roadways?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


My favorite small scale Minnesota zoo June 23, 2016

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I grew up on a dairy farmer, thus was excited to see these calves.

I grew up on a dairy farm and am always excited to see calves.

WITH SUMMER OFFICIALLY on the calendar, it’s the perfect time to take the kids or grandkids to the zoo. For many Minnesotans, that most likely would be the Minnesota Zoo or Como Park Zoo.

Just a small section of the Farm, which includes two barns.

Just a small section of the Farm, which includes two barns and a shelter available for rent, right.

But I’ve discovered a much smaller rural-themed zoo in Greater Minnesota that impresses me. And, bonus, no metro traffic or pressing crowds. Welcome to Sibley Farm at Sibley Park in Mankato. I’ve posted previously about this southern Minnesota zoo. But now seems a good time to showcase it again during peak season.

Kids can climb aboard this tractor and another on the adjoining playground.

Kids can climb aboard this tractor and another on the adjoining agriculturally-themed playground.

I last visited Sibley Farm on a cold and windy day in mid-May with minimal time to explore. Even with less than ideal weather, families were there enjoying the baby and other farm animals and the farm-themed playground.

The sheep were snuggling on the spring day I visited Sibley Farm.

The sheep were snuggling on the spring day I visited Sibley Farm.

It is the full-on rural aspect of this zoo which most appeals to me. Most families are so far removed from farm life today that they need this indirect exposure. Even kids who live in the country. Even those who live in Mankato, right in the heart of Minnesota farm land.

A shorn alpaca.

A shorn alpaca.

Sibley Farm provides a place to connect with and learn about farm life. It also preserves Minnesota’s rural heritage. That’s important. My own three grown kids are only a generation removed from the farm. Yet, their knowledge of farming is limited. It’s important to me that they recognize and value the rural heritage that shaped the Kletscher and Helbling families. I expect many farm-raised parents and grandparents feel the same. Sibley Farm is a great place to learn about farming in a fun and interactive way.

Sibley Farm includes a water feature complete with goldfish.

Sibley Farm includes a water feature complete with goldfish.

Tell me, what’s your favorite zoo and why?

FYI: Sibley Farm is located at 900 Mound Avenue, Mankato, within Sibley Park and is open from 6:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. daily mid-spring through early fall. Admission is free.

Besides the farm, Sibley Park offers softball fields, tennis courts, walking trails, lovely gardens, fishing, a winter sliding hill, poetry and more.

Click here to read my previous post about Sibley Farm. And click here to read a story about Sibley Park.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


How photos & life inspire poetry at a Mankato exhibit April 25, 2016

THE VARIETY OF POETRY a single photo can inspire always amazes me. As do other poets.

At the recent opening of Image and the Word 9 at the Emy Frentz Gallery in Mankato, I mingled with poets. One writes a poem a day. Amazing.

Each year for the past several, I’ve participated in this exhibit which features inspirational photos and reactionary poems by southern Minnesota photographers and writers. I wrote four poems, including one about my automotive machinist husband, Randy. A photo of laced work boots prompted that personal poem.


Chippewa boots have replaced athletic shoes.

A photo similar to this inspired the poem about my husband. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


My Husband at the End of His Work Day

Leather boots lace your aching feet.
Grease outlines your fingernails.
Oil smudges stain your standard blue uniform.
You come home bone-weary, eat, shower, change,
then settle into the recliner with your Sudoku.
Your head nods. You are napping
long before the ten o’clock news,
just like every other hard-working blue collar man.


Standing in a small circle with poets Henry, Ed and Susan, I agreed that our experiences often shape our poetry. Consider that the next time you read a poem. We concurred also that we love words. As a poet, there’s a deep sense of joy and fulfillment in words falling together. Sometimes, oftentimes, we don’t understand how that happens. But when it does, it’s magical. It’s poetry.

FYI: The Image and the Word 9 exhibit will run through May 18 at the Emy Frentz Gallery, 523 South Second Street, Mankato. Gallery hours are from noon to 4 p.m. each weekday except Thursday, when hours are 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. Southern Minnesota Poets Society members Yvonne Cariveau and Derek Liebertz produce the exhibit annually.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Mankato photographer focuses on hands and water in new exhibit October 7, 2015

IF I WERE TO STUDY your hands, what would I see? Would I see earth or art, youth or age, strength or weakness…

My left hand, which I photographed in 2011.

My left hand, which I photographed in 2011.

When I look at my hands, I see brown spots sprinkled across skin streaked blue with veins. I notice the slight bump on the knuckle of my right pinkie, a writer’s callous from finger rubbing against paper.

Would my hands show you that I am of the land and also a wife, mother, writer and photographer? Would you see the poetry that flows from my fingertips in both words and images?

Four separate photo projects meld in Kay Herbst Helms' new exhibit.

Four separate photo projects meld in Kay Herbst Helms’ new exhibit. Image courtesy of Kay Herbst Helms.

A Mankato photographer has chosen for the past five years to study hands, to tell their stories through a series of photographic projects. Kay Herbst Helms’ photos come together in “Seeking What Sustains Us: a photographic journey of hands and water,” an exhibit of four photo projects showing at the Carnegie Art Center, 120 South Broad Street, Mankato.

The exhibit opens at 1 p.m. Thursday, October 8. I will join five other area poets—Yvonne Cariveau, Susan Chambers, John Hurd, Derek Liebertz and Gwen Westerman—at 5 p.m. in reading original poems about water. Dick Kimmel will also entertain with bluegrass music.

But it is Kay’s images which will be the focal point. As she tells it, the decision to photograph hands happened in a prophetic way—when she awakened one morning with the single word, hands, in her thoughts. That led to “Blessed Are the Hands That Have Served,” a photo exhibit focusing on the hands of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

Viewing Kay Herbst Helms' photos in "What Sustains Us."

Viewing Kay Herbst Helms’ photos in “What Sustains Us.” Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

Her second hands project, “What Sustains Us: considering the hands and the land of south central rural Minnesota,” features the hands of those who work the land and their rural surroundings. It’s an exhibit I viewed in 2012 at the Arts Center of Saint Peter. In that display of black-and-white photos, Kay also shared brief stories of those she photographed.

In her third project, “inner necessities,” Kay photographed the hands of area artists and musicians.

Her fourth hands-themed photo compilation, “Water Vapors,” debuts this week as a consideration of what our hands have done to, in and for water. “We all have connections to each other and to water,” Kay says. “How we manage those connections will determine the future of our great-great grandchildren.”

Several of Kay's images focus on cattle, enhancing the exhibit's rural theme.

Several of Kay’s images focus on cattle, enhancing the exhibit’s rural theme in her “What Sustains Us” photo project. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

I expect that I will connect with all four of these photo exhibits because I, like Kay, hold a deep appreciation for storytelling via photography.

An elderly man turns to a hymn in the old pocket-size songbook that's been used for decades.

I shot this hands photo at an old-fashioned mission fest in Marquardt’s Grove south of Janesville in 2012. To this day, it remains one of my favorite photos of hands. It tells a story of enduring faith.

And for hands. (Click here to read one of my most beloved posts about hands, my mother’s hands.)

Activities related to the exhibit. Image courtesy of Kay Herbst Helms.

Activities related to the exhibit. Image courtesy of Kay Herbst Helms.

FYI: Kay Herbst Helms’ exhibit runs through October 24. An opening reception is set for 7 p.m.- 9 p.m. on Saturday, October 10. Additional arts activities include the free “Fish Prints for Kids” at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 15, and “Marbling for All Ages” at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 17 (fee is $5). Click here for more information.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling