Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Oh, for the poetic beauty of sunrises & sunsets in Minnesota May 1, 2017

 

SOMETIMES I WONDER if nature can offer anything more beautiful than a sunrise or a sunset. But then I have not seen the mountains of the West or the deserts of the Southwest or the ocean other than the Atlantic once.

 

 

Still, the sunrise and sunset are universal. We all see the same sun, just in different places.

 

 

Farm fields and a wide sky backdropped my youthful vision of the sun. To this day, for me, there’s nothing quite like a prairie sunset, the blazing ball of the sun overwhelming the southwestern Minnesota landscape. Those childhood memories leave me grieving for the sunsets I’ve missed while living in a valley within a city for 33 years. Hillside and trees filter and block the sinking sun.

 

 

Still, living in Faribault, a southeastern Minnesota community situated along rivers and lake, gives me an opportunity to view the sunset waterside. And there is beauty in that, too, in the reflections that dance poetry across water backdropped by a day shifting from twilight to dusk to dark.

 

 

FYI: These images were taken in mid-March from the shores of Wells Lake at King Mill Park along the Cannon River in Faribault. Click here to see additional photos of the above sunset as I entered Faribault along Highway 60 from the east.

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Writing poetry as the sun rises

My fingertips linger within a mere whisper of the keyboard
as I pause, half-thought, words interrupted mid-phrase,
to tilt my head toward the window and the sunrise
spreading gold and pink across the sky like jam on toast.

In that morning moment, I desire nothing more
than to dip my fingers into the jar of dawn,
to sample her sweetness, to taste of her earthy goodness,
to delight in sunshine and rain and succulent fruit plucked from vines.

But language beckons me back to the keyboard,
to dip my fingers into the jar of words,
to choose and shape and share the poetry that rises within me,
in rhythm and verse upon the breaking day.

 

FYI: My poem about the sunrise published in Poetic Strokes, A Regional Anthology of Poetry From Southeastern Minnesota, 2012.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Published in Oakwood: My latest rural-rooted poem honors my farm wife mom April 28, 2017

An abandoned farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 east of Vesta, my hometown. The house is no longer standing. This image represents my rural heritage and looks similar to the house I called home for the first 11 years of my life. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

MORE THAN 40 YEARS removed from the farm, my creative voice remains decidedly rural, especially in the poetry I write.

My latest published poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother,” honors the woman who raised me, alongside my father, on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm. My parents were of good German stock, a hardworking couple who believed in God, in family and in the land. I carry that heritage with me, ever grateful for my rural upbringing.

 

Dad farmed, in the early years with a John Deere and Farmall and IH tractors and later with a Ford. (Photo by Lanae Kletscher Feser)

A photo of my dad, Elvern, taken in 1980.

 

Life in rural Minnesota in the 1960s and 1970s was hard. I see that now from the perspective of an adult. My dad worked long hard hours in the barn milking cows and equally long hard hours in the fields. Farming was much more labor intensive then.

 

The only photo I have of my mom holding me. My dad is holding my brother, Doug.

 

Likewise, my mom’s job of caring for our family of eight required long hard hours of labor. She tended a large garden, preserved fruits and vegetables to stock the freezer and cellar shelves, baked bread from scratch, washed clothes with a wringer washer, did without a bathroom or telephone or television for many years, and much more.

 

My parents, Vern and Arlene, on their September 25, 1954, wedding day.

 

Sometimes I think how much easier my mother’s life would have been had she not married my dad and stayed at her town job in Marshall.

 

Our family Christmas tree always sat on the end of the kitchen table, as shown in this Christmas 1964 photo. That’s me in the red jumper with four of my five siblings. I write about this red-and-white checked floor in my poem.

 

But then I remind myself of how much family means to my mom and I could not imagine her life without any of her six children. She centered us, grounded us, taught us kindness and gratitude, instilled in us a loving and compassionate spirit.

 

Arlene’s 1951 graduation portrait.

 

She has always been mom to me, a mother now nearing age 85. But there was a time when she was Arlene, not somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother. There was a time when she and my dad danced away a Saturday night in a southwestern Minnesota dance hall. They met at a dance.

 

The promo for Oakwood 2017 features “Dancing with Fire,” the art of Samuel T. Krueger. Promo image courtesy of Oakwood.

 

Those thoughts inspired me to write “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother,” published last week in South Dakota State University’s literary journal, Oakwood. I am honored to have my poem selected for inclusion with the work of other writers and artists from the Northern Great Plains. It’s a quality publication that represents well those of us who call this middle-of-the country, often overlooked place, home.

 

Ode to My Farm Wife Mother

Before my brother,
you were Saturday nights at the Blue Moon Ballroom—
a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey in a brown paper bag,
Old Spice scenting your dampened curls,
Perry Como crooning love in your ear.

Then motherhood quelled your dancing duet.
Interludes passed between births
until the sixth, and final, baby slipped into your world
in 1967. Thirteen years after you married.
Not at all unlucky.

Life shifted to the thrum of the Maytag,
sing-song nursery rhymes,
sway of Naugahyde rocker on red-and-white checked linoleum.
Your skin smelled of baby and yeasty homemade bread
and your kisses tasted of sweet apple jelly.

In the rhythm of your days, you still danced,
but to the beat of farm life—
laundry tangled on the clothesline,
charred burgers jazzed with ketch-up,
finances rocked by falling corn and soybean prices.

Yet, you showed gratitude in bowed head,
hard work in a sun-baked garden,
sweetness in peanut butter oatmeal bars,
endurance in endless summer days of canning,
goodness in the kindness of silence.

All of this I remember now
as you shove your walker down the halls of Parkview.
in the final set of your life, in a place far removed
from Blue Moon Ballroom memories
and the young woman you once were.

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Four generations: Great Grandma Arlene, Grandma Audrey, mother Amber and baby Isabelle, all together for the first time in July 2016 in rural southwestern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

I took some liberties with my poem. I doubt my mom ever drank whiskey. But back in the day, folks brought booze bottles in brown paper bags to dances for set-ups. She didn’t dance in the Blue Moon Ballroom, although one once stood in Marshall. Arlene went to dances in Ghent, in a dance hall whose name eludes me. Blue Moon sounds more poetic. But the rest of the poem is factual right down to the Naugahyde rocker and my mom shoving her walker down the hallways of Parkview.

FYI: You can view my poem on page 78 of Oakwood, found online by clicking here. My bio is published on page 89, listed among the other 40 contributors’ bios. I am grateful to SDSU in Brookings for the opportunity to be part of this magazine which showcases the creative voices of Plains writers and artists. I shall always feel proud of my rural upbringing, the single greatest influence on me as a poet, a writer, a photographer.

Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Embracing the writing & art of the Northern Great Plains at SDSU April 19, 2017

“The Prairie is My Garden,” a painting by South Dakota artist Harvey Dunn, showcases the prairie I so love. Here I’ve photographed most of a print which I purchased at a yard sale. I bought the art because I liked it and only learned afterward of its value and prominence. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

ONE OF MY FAVORITE PRINTS, “The Prairie is my Garden,” is rooted in South Dakota. The artist, Harvey Dunn, was born in a claim shanty near Manchester, west of Brookings.

I’ve been to Brookings. Once. While in college, I accompanied a roommate to her hometown where her dad owned the John Deere dealership. I don’t remember a lot about that visit except the fancy house in which my roommate’s family lived and our attendance at the annual Hobo Day Parade. That tradition of South Dakota State University, which peaks in a Jackrabbits football game, is going on its 105th year.

As you’ve likely surmised, Brookings is rural oriented, the university known for its ag focused majors. Students, for example, make ice cream and cheese from milk produced at the SDSU Dairy Research and Training Facility. This is a hands-on college that draws many a rural raised student.

 

The promo for Oakwood 2017 features “Dancing with Fire,” the art of Samuel T. Krueger. Promo image courtesy of Oakwood.

 

This university, where students work with farm animals and where the prairie paintings of a noted Plains artist are housed in the South Dakota Art Museum, seems the ideal setting for Oakwood, a literary journal. Featuring the work of SDSU students, staff and alumni and also of greater Brookings artists/writers and others in the Northern Great Plains region, the magazine releases this Thursday. According to the Oakwood website, the journal embraces a regional identity.

I am happy to be part of that identity with the inclusion of my poem, “Ode to my Farm Wife Mother,” inspired by my mom. She raised me and five other children on a dairy and crop farm about 1 ½ hours northeast of Brookings in Redwood County, Minnesota.

 

A gravel road just north of Lamberton in Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Most of the poetry I write is based on prairie life. I write with a strong sense of place. The endless open space and wide skies of the prairie lend themselves to creativity. Within the stark setting of rural southwestern Minnesota, I noticed details—the strength of the people, the blackness of the earth, the immensity of the setting sun, the sharpness of a winter wind, the quiet of stillness. I can trace my poetry, my photos, everything I create, to that rural upbringing. I am honored to have my latest poem selected for inclusion in Oakwood 2017 as a writer from the Northern Great Plains.

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FYI: A public reception will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 20, at the SDSU Briggs Library & Special Collections for writers and artists whose work is included in Oakwood 2017. Readings and talks will be featured. Because I live nearly four hours away, I can’t be there. When I can share my poem with you, I’ll do so.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In concert from Rochester: “The Farmer’s Song” & six other poems April 1, 2017

 

IT IS MY PLEASURE to present to you a video that includes “The Farmer’s Song,” my poem performed last weekend at two concerts in Rochester.

Click here to listen to a Choral Song Cycle by David Kassler on Texts of Minnesota Poets. I read my poem at about 39 minutes followed by a Chamber Choir singing “The Farmer’s Song” with cellist and pianist accompaniment. This concert was held at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.

To Rochester composer David Kassler and to all of the musicians, thank you for this gift of an artsong. Fueled by your musical passions and talents, you took my poem and crafted a moving tribute to the Minnesota farmer I remember. To share my rural roots in this way has been a truly joyful experience. And to be in the company of six other gifted poets was also an honor.

Thank you.

The Farmer’s Song

Out of rote he follows the path from house to barn,
from barn to shed, steel-toed boots beating a rhythm
upon the earth, into this land which claims his soul.

He reaches for the paint-chipped handle,
his grease-stained fingers connecting with worn metal
like hammer to nail in the movements of his day.

Farming defines the lyrics of his life written upon hands
that have measured yields, directed tractors, pitched manure,
stroked calves, performed seasons of backbreaking labor.

Inside the shed, as he latches wrench to bolt,
he ponders the final verses of his years, the songs he’ll sing
when age frays his memory, grips his hands in a hallelujah chorus.

 

FYI:  If you are a choral conductor interested in having this music performed by your ensemble. please contact David Kassler. He will work with you. Like Kassler, I would love to see these artsongs reach an even broader audience.

Click here to read my initial blog post about the concert.

A special thank you also to Park Rapids-based The Jackpine Writer’s Bloc for originally publishing “The Farmer’s Song” in the anthology In Retrospect, The Talking Stick, Volume 22.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Featuring poetry in original songs at a Minnesota concert & I’m in March 28, 2017

 

INSIDE THE SANCTUARY of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Rochester, voices rose in poetic song while the composer/director focused with eyes intent, arms rising and falling in a mesmerizing rhythm.

From my aisle seat chair, I watched and listened, swept into details of the concert—the shape of a singer’s mouth, the hands of the cellist gliding bow across strings, the strength of the piano in a place with wonderful acoustics.

 

 

I listened, too, to the strong voices of poets who read or recited poetry with the practice of seasoned writers. I was one of them, reading my poem, “The Farmer’s Song,” selected for inclusion in the weekend world premiere of “A Choral Song Cycle on Texts of Regional Poets” at two concerts in this southeastern Minnesota city.

Rochester composer David Kassler crafted music for seven selected poems written by myself, Jana Bouma, Meredith Cook, Janelle Hawkridge, Robert Hedin, John Reinhard and Michael Waters. Mine was part of a Minnesotan Rondos trio: “The Famous Anoka Potato,” “The Farmer’s Song” and “The Old Scandinavians.”

 

 

To hear my rural-themed poem performed by an impressive and talented Chamber Chorale with accompaniment of an equally gifted cellist and pianist, was humbling and honoring. I am grateful for this unique opportunity as a poet.

 

 

When I consider music, I view it as poetry in the sound of instruments, in the lyrics, in the voices that sing, in the direction of the conductor, in the reaction of the audience. I received numerous positive comments on “The Farmer’s Song,” including that my poem reflects a way of life that is disappearing from rural America. It is. The small family farm and the intense backbreaking labor that once defined agriculture is mostly gone, replaced by automation, equipment and large farms.

 

Audrey Kletscher Helbling reading “The Farmer’s Song.” Photo by Randy Helbling

 

My inclusion in this particular project, funded through a Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council grant, is especially notable for me personally. I cannot read a single note of music. I never had the opportunity as a child growing up on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm to pursue anything musical. Yet, despite the absence of studied music in my life then, music was a part of the daily rhythm of farm life, expressed today in the poetry I write.

 

A scene from the 2012 Rice County Steam and Gas Engines Show. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

The Farmer’s Song

Out of rote he follows the path from house to barn,
from barn to shed, steel-toed boots beating a rhythm
upon the earth, into this land which claims his soul.

He reaches for the paint-chipped handle,
his grease-stained fingers connecting with worn metal
like hammer to nail in the movements of his day.

Farming defines the lyrics of his life written upon hands
that have measured yields, directed tractors, pitched manure,
stroked calves, performed seasons of backbreaking labor.

Inside the shed, as he latches wrench to bolt,
he ponders the final verses of his years, the songs he’ll sing
when age frays his memory, grips his hands in a hallelujah chorus.

 

FYI: The Friday evening “A Choral Song Cycle on Texts of Regional Poets” concert at Hill Theatre, Rochester Community and Technical College, was recorded and will be available soon for viewing online. I will share that link with you when it becomes available.

“The Farmer’s Song” originally published in In Retrospect, The Talking Stick, Volume 22, an anthology produced by Park Rapids based The Jackpine Writer’s Bloc.

© 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

 

The music of poetry comes to Rochester February 15, 2017

Stoney End Music Barn, 920 State Highway 19, Red Wing, Minnesota

Poetry on Stoney End Music Barn, 920 State Highway 19, Red Wing, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

POETRY. Do you throw a mental roadblock the instant you encounter that word? Or do you embrace poetry? And, yes, you can be honest. I realize poetry isn’t for everyone. Just like science fiction or fantasy. I don’t read either. But I do read and write poetry.

The most unusual place my poetry has been published, on billboards as part of the Roadside Poetry Project in Fergus Falls.

The most unusual place my poetry has been published, on billboards as part of the Roadside Poetry Project in Fergus Falls in 2011. This is the fourth billboard with the posting of my poem: Cold earth warmed/by the budding sun/sprouts the seeds/of vernal equinox. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

My poems have been published in newspapers, magazines, anthologies, in poet/artist collaborations, on signs along recreational trails and on billboards. I’ve also read my poetry at events and for radio. But now my poetry will be showcased in another way—in a song to be performed at two concerts.

My poem initially published in In Retrospect, The Talking Stick, Volume 22, an anthology published by The Jackpine Writers' Bloc based in northern Minnesota.

My poem initially published in In Retrospect, The Talking Stick, Volume 22, an anthology published by The Jackpine Writers’ Bloc based in northern Minnesota.

Rochester, Minnesota, composer David Kassler selected my poem, The Farmer’s Song, for inclusion in a project that pairs his original music with poetry by seven regionally and nationally-recognized poets. In other words, my poem became the lyrics for his song. It’s part of a set, Minnesota Rondos.

I nearly flipped when I saw this toy accordion, just like one I had as a child. I loved my accordion and it is the only musical instrument I've ever played.

The only instrument I ever learned to play was a toy accordion exactly like this one, photographed several years ago in a Mankato antique shop. I received the accordion one childhood Christmas.  Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The irony in all of this is my inability to read a single note. I never had the opportunity growing up to take piano lessons, to participate in band or anything musical. I ad libbed my way through required school music classes. So to now have my rural-themed poem set to music is, well, remarkable for me personally. I am honored.

Connie, right, and I posed for a photo after a 90-minute presentation in which poets read their poems and artists talked about how their art was inspired by the poem. Note Connie's "Pantry Jewels" painting just above my head to the left. If I could buy this $490 watercolor on aqua board, I would in a snap.

Connie Ludwig, right, created a painting, Pantry Jewels, based on my poem, Her Treasure, as part of a 2012 Poet-Artist Collaboration at Crossings at Carnegie in Zumbrota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

I am especially honored to be in the company of poets with incredible resumes of teaching, leadership, advanced degrees, publication of their own poetry collections and more. Featured poets include Jana Bouma of Madison Lake, Meredith Cook of Blue Earth, the late Janelle Hawkridge of Winnebago, Robert Hedin of Red Wing, John Reinhard of Owatonna and Michael Waters of New Jersey.

Randy has enough musical knowledge to play a short tune.

In downtown Mason City, Iowa, home of The Music Man, pianos sit outdoors for anyone to use. Here my husband plays a simple tune during a visit several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Kassler, who teaches music at Rochester Community and Technical College and is the music director at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Rochester, received a $5,000 established artist grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council to help fund the project that includes two concerts. A 30-member chamber choir of collegiate and professional musicians conducted by Kassler with piano and cello accompaniment will perform the choral works.

I attended and read my poem, "Wednesday Night Bingo at the Legion," at an invitation only Poetry Bash at The Rochester Civic Theater on Tuesday evening.

Two years ago I read my poem, Wednesday Night Bingo at the Legion, at a Poetry Bash at The Rochester Civic Theater. Two of my poems published that year in an anthology compiled by my regional library system. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I am excited to hear the music my poem inspired. Concerts are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 24, at Rochester Community and Technical College. Tickets are $7.50 and will be sold at the door; Kassler needs to recoup an additional $2,000 of his own monies invested in the project. He’s that dedicated to this.

The second concert, and the one I plan to attend, is set for 3 p.m. Sunday, March 26, at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Rochester. A free-will offering will be taken.

A lone musician performs.

A Shattuck-St. Mary’s student plays the cello at the Faribault school’s annual Christmas Walk. Stephen Pelkey will play the cello at the Kassler concerts in Rochester. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo December 2016.

If you’re so inclined, attend either concert. Please seek me out if you come on Sunday. But, most of all, enjoy this opportunity to hear poetry set to music. Because really, when I consider it, all music is poetry.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling