Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesotans write about pandemics & social justice in “This Was 2020” September 8, 2021

A collection of essays and poems by Minnesotans, including me. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

RAW. HONEST. EMOTIONAL. POWERFUL.

Those words describe This Was 2020: Minnesotans Write About Pandemics and Social Justice in a Historic Year. This collection of 54 poems and essays by 51 writers is a finalist for the Minnesota Author Project: Communities Create Award. Two other books are vying for this MNWrites MNReads honor supported by the Minnesota Library Foundation. The winner will be announced at the Minnesota Library Association’s annual conference in October.

The collection includes my poem, “Funeral During a Pandemic.” Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

I am humbled and honored to have “Funeral During a Pandemic” selected for publication in this award-nominated book. In my poem, I share my thoughts and experiences from my father-in-law’s funeral in a small rural Minnesota town. During a pandemic.

The book features short bios on each writer. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

As the title of this collection conveys, the 170 pages of writing focus on pandemics and social justice. Those who penned these pieces, solicited by the Ramsey County Library via a competition, are a diverse group. In age. In writing backgrounds, although many are seasoned writers with extensive writing credentials. In skin color and ethnicity. In perspective and experience. That said, most writers live in the metro with a few of us from other places in Minnesota, including several from my county of Rice.

Those from outside the metro include a 12-year-old from New Market. Evelyn Pierson, in “My Experience at the George Floyd Memorial,” writes of her emotional reaction to visiting the site where Floyd died at the hands of police on May 25, 2020. It’s heart-wrenching—to feel her torrent of emotions, to read her insights and thoughts, to envision her tears. But it’s important, even necessary, to hear the voice of this eighth grader.

Just like it’s necessary to read Brainerd resident Susan Smith-Grier’s essay, “Black in White.” I find her observations and experiences of a black woman living in a primarily white community to be particularly powerful. She moved with her parents/family to north central Minnesota in the early 70s to escape the violence in Chicago. One of very few black families in her new northern home. The death of George Floyd triggered childhood memories of tear gas and rubber bullets, fires and looting…and then, today, a bit of hope that things will change.

Hope weaves into many of the pieces. As does overcoming the fear, the loss, the grief and more that too often defined 2020.

In his poem, “The streets emptied out, but their lungs,” Moyosore Orimoloye reminds us that, despite lungs filling with fluid from COVID, lungs also filled with song on the balconies of Turin.

The incredible cover art features the work of Carolyn Olson, “Grocery Store Cashier and Bagger (Essential Workers Portrait Series #1). 2020, Duluth, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

So many writers detailed how the pandemic affected them—from worries about going grocery shopping to separation from loved ones to ways in which they learned to cope. I found Dave Ryan’s “Living and Dying in Memory Care” profoundly relatable given my mom lives in a long-term care center. I’ve experienced some of the same scenarios—trying to visit through a window, for example. Before he could no longer visit his mom due to COVID restrictions, Ryan installed a video camera in her room. That connected him to her. But then the unthinkable happened. As I read the conclusion of his essay, my heart broke right along with his.

On the back cover, a summary of the book and a list of the writers whose work was selected for inclusion in this collection. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

These are stories you need to read. Real. Life. Authentic. Eye-opening (especially Chee Vang’s “To Kuv Niam,” about how her mother was treated upon contracting COVID). I learned so much, particularly from those writers who have experienced social injustice. From those writers, too, who live in the Twin Cities, who are widely-traveled and who have seen and experienced much more than a farmer’s daughter from southwestern Minnesota.

But I share one commonality with poet and educator Katie Vagnino of south Minneapolis. I am, like her, a Rapunzel with overgrown hair.

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FYI: I encourage each one of you to purchase This Was 2020 by clicking here or buying it elsewhere (in print or as an e-book). Besides the 54 pieces, the book includes writing prompts, a discussion guide and a short list of grief, mental health, and anti-racism resources. This truly rates as an outstanding collection of writing that documents historical events which have forever changed us.

Publication of this book was made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Thank you, Minnesota voters, for supporting the arts. And thank you, Paul Lai of the Ramsey County Library for your hard work on, and dedication to, this book project. I appreciate you and every single writer who contributed to this exceptional must-read book.

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© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

And the winner is… October 3, 2020

Graphic from Minnesota Library Association

POWERFUL AND EMPOWERING.

Those two words describe the winner of the first-ever Minnesota Author Project: Communities Create Award announced Thursday during the Minnesota Library Association’s annual conference.

Justice Makes a Difference—The Story of Miss Freedom Fighter, Esquire by Artika Tyner and Jacklyn M. Milton won the award. And it’s a well-deserved honor bestowed on the 16-page book themed on making a difference in this world. Illustrators Jeremy Norton and Janos Orban also deserve credit for exceptional art.

The book tells the story of Justice and her grandmother, who teaches her granddaughter about her value. “…don’t let someone tell you that you’re too young to make a difference.” And then she goes on to cite numerous individuals who have made a difference, like Ida B. Wells, a journalist who advanced racial equality through her writing.

“Words are powerful,” Grandma tells Justice. “They can be used in powerful ways to do good or to do harm.”

And so the storyline goes with the authors weaving historical figures into the heart of their message—that we each hold within us the power to effect change, to help others, to make a difference. Individuals like Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to run for U.S. President, or attorney Charles Hamilton Houston, who worked to end segregation in schools. Or Justice.

This book is as fitting today as 60-plus years ago, which says something. We still need to hear the message that what we say and do, or what we don’t say or don’t do, matters.

I’d encourage you to read this award-winning book penned by Tyner, an educator, civil rights attorney and founder of Planting People Growing Justice Leadership Institute, and Milton, an educator and community advocate. Proceeds from the book will support educational programming at Planting People, an organization seeking to plant seeds of social change via education, training and community outreach.

By reading this book, I learned more about individuals who cared and led and worked hard for change. Brief bios on those six leaders who inspired Justice end this powerful and empowering book.

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SIX BOOKS COMPETED for the Minnesota Author Projects: Communities Create Award, including one in which my poem, “Life at Forty Degrees,” published. Although our collection of poetry, Legacies: Poetic Living Wills, did not win, I am honored to have been in the group of six books selected as award finalists.

Congratulations to all five finalists and to the winner, Justice Makes a Difference. Because yes, it does. And, yes she can.

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SPECIAL THANKS to Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy for submitting the collection of poems by 16 Rice County poets to this competition. He is an enthusiastic and much-appreciated poet and ambassador for poets and our poetry. I appreciate you, Rob.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My poem included in collection vying for Minnesota writing award September 23, 2020

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WE ARE SIXTEEN STRONG, 16 area poets whose collected poetry, Legacies: Poetic Living Wills, is now a finalist in the 2020 Minnesota Authors Project: Communities Create contest.

I learned of this honor only recently via Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy. A gifted poet and tireless promoter of poets and poetry, he submitted the collection to the debut contest sponsored by the Minnesota Library Foundation, Minnesota libraries and Bibliolabs.

According to the MN Reads MN Writes website, the new contest is designed “to recognize community-created writing and to highlight the central role that libraries play in providing support for local authors and the communities they serve.”

I crafted my poem, “Life at Forty Degrees,” in response to Hardy’s 2018 call for submissions to an anthology of “poetic living wills.”

The content of the poetry collections is summarized as “poems (that) deal with death and dying, with the things that make life meaningful in the face of death, and with the legacies that the poets hope to leave behind or have received from others before them.” My poem, about hanging laundry on the clothesline, focuses on the legacy passed on to me by my grandmothers.

You can read the collection by clicking here.

The winner of the first-ever Minnesota Authors Project: Communities Create contest will be announced later this month at the annual Minnesota Library Association’s annual conference. No matter the outcome, I feel honored to stand in the “finalist” category with 15 other gifted poets from Northfield and nearby (like me from Faribault).

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling