TODAY, THE FIRST DAY of spring, hope springs that this long winter of too much snow will soon exit Minnesota. Most Minnesotans, including me, are weary of days marked by new snowfall that has accumulated, pushing this 2022-2023 winter season into top 10 records in our state.
But now, with the official start of a new season on March 20—the season of new life, the season of planting and budding and greening—I feel a mental shift. Psychologically, my mind can envision a landscape shifting from colorless monochrome to vivid greens. I can feel the warmth of warmer days yet to come. I can smell the scent of dirt released, breaking from winter’s grip. I can hear the singsong chatter of returning birds. I can taste asparagus spears snapped from the soil.
All of this is yet to come. I understand that. A date on a calendar doesn’t mean spring in Minnesota. That season is realistically weeks away. April can still bring inches of snow.
But we are edging toward spring. I feel that in temps sometimes reaching just past 40 degrees. I feel it in the warmth of the sun, shining brighter, bolder, longer. I see dwindling snow packs and exposed patches of grass. I hear spring in vehicles splashing through puddles rather than crunching across snow. I see spring, too, in the endless potholes pocking roadways.
On this first day of spring, I am reminded of a poem I penned in 2011, a poem which splashed across four billboards along a road just off Interstate 94 in Fergus Falls in west central Minnesota. To this day, publication of that poem remains an especially rewarding experience for me as a poet.
I submitted the poem to the now-defunct Roadside Poetry Project’s spring competition. Poems changed out seasonally in this Fergus Falls Area College Foundation funded contest. It was a bit of a challenge writing a spring-themed poem, as I recall. Not because of the theme, but rather the rules—four lines only with a 20-character-per-line limit. But, as a writer, it’s good to be challenged.
I suppose you could say the same about Minnesota weather. It’s good to be challenged by an especially snowy winter so we appreciate spring’s arrival even more. Yes, that’s a positive perspective—a way to mentally and psychologically talk myself into enduring perhaps six more weeks of winter in this official season of spring.
NOTE: I intentionally omitted any pictures showing snow/winter.
My one regret is that Randy and I didn’t stay overnight, allowing more time to explore local sites without feeling rushed. Forty years have passed since I visited Marshall en route to the Black Hills on our honeymoon. The college and county seat town lies 20 miles to the west of my hometown, Vesta in Redwood County, and 140 miles from my current home in Faribault.
This area of Minnesota is the place of my roots. My prairie roots. It is the place of wide open space, expansive skies, small towns and endless acres of cropland.
The land where I grew up inspired my blog name, Minnesota Prairie Roots. The name fits me as a person and a creative. The sparseness of the prairie taught me to notice details, to fully engage my senses. To appreciate the landscape and people. The vastness of the flat land and the star-flushed night sky and achingly beautiful sunsets. Here I connected to the land—bare feet upon dirt, bike tires crunching gravel, dirt etched into my hands from working the soil. Here I connected to the people—down-to-earth, hardworking, linked to the land.
Tall grasses are often associated with the prairie. Yet, those grasses were mostly missing from the landscape of my youth as cultivated crops covered the earth. But on our farm site, a sliver of unmown grass grew between granary and grove and gravel driveway, stretching high, stems bending in the wind. That Little House on the Prairie (Walnut Grove is 20 miles from Vesta) space opened summer afternoons to imaginative play. I hold many memories rooted in those tall grasses, in the prairie.
Prairie Roots. That name graces a public art sculpture outside the Red Baron Arena in Marshall. Minneapolis artist Randy Walker was commissioned by the City of Marshall in 2018 to create the sculpture reflecting the prairie landscape. I knew in advance of my September visit that I needed to see this artwork if time allowed. We made time. Walker used 210 painted steel poles to represent tall stems of grass, prairie grass. They are colored in hues of yellow, orange, red and green, reflecting seasonal changes and light.
And in between all those steel stems, prairie grass grows, thrives.
I even spotted a grasshopper on a steel stalk, taking me back decades to the hoards of grasshoppers that amassed and hopped through that patch of uncut grass on the farm.
Walker’s sculpture holds visual appeal against an expansive backdrop sky and open field (when viewing the art from the arena entrance outward). Via that perspective, I see the enduring strength of the prairie, and the immensity of land and sky, this place of my Minnesota prairie roots.
Please check back for more posts about my day trip back to southwestern Minnesota in September 2022.
AS A WRITER, getting published adds to the joy of the craft. I write because it’s my passion, one which I want to share.
The newest opportunity to share comes via The Talking Stick 31—Escapes, the latest anthology released in September by Park Rapids area-based The Jackpine Writers’ Bloc. The Talking Stick, published now for 31 years, features a collection of creative nonfiction, fiction and poetry by Minnesota writers or those with a connection to our state. This year, editors chose 83 poems, 28 creative nonfiction stories and 18 fiction stories for publication from 82 writers. More than 300 submissions came from 140 writers.
I’m delighted to announce that three of my submissions are included in Escapes. My story, “Barbershop Prompt,” won second place and a cash prize in creative nonfiction. “Plans” earned honorable mention in fiction. And my second fictional piece, “Between Sisters,” simply published.
To have my work selected and honored by peers is, for me, reaffirming. This marks the 13th year my writing—a total of 13 poems, eight creative nonfiction stories and nine fiction stories—have published in The Talking Stick. I’ve earned seven honorable mentions and two second placings through the years. Every year I’ve entered this competition, my writing has published. That proves personally validating.
When I first ventured into penning fiction, I did so with hesitancy. My journalism education, background and experience rooted me in gathering information and reporting the facts with no bend to fictionalize. I didn’t know I could write fiction until I tried. And I found I rather enjoy this type of writing. It stretches my creativity in a way that traditional factual writing doesn’t. Yet, even when I write fiction, there is some truth within. I weave into my writing (often in subtle ways) that which I know or care about or which has touched me. I expect most fiction writers would say the same.
My award-winning short story, “Plans,” focuses on abuse within a family. Abuse has not been my personal experience. But it runs rampant in society. “Plans” focuses on abuse from the perspective of Henrietta, or Henri as her father calls her. He wanted a son, not a daughter. I’m not revealing more except to say the story leaves the reader wondering. And that’s exactly as The Talking Stick editors intend. Submission guidelines call for focusing on short forms, on compressed creations which hint of a longer, more complex story. You get that in my 457-word “Plans.”
Here’s, in part, what fiction judge Bonnie West said about my short story:
What a good story. Very clever, but also very poignant and surprising! Thanks for this delightful and entertaining revenge story!
I definitely appreciate West’s comment and that of creative nonfiction judge Marge Barrett. She evaluated “Barbershop Prompt,” praising the energy and cleverness of my story. A sign I spotted in the front window of Bridge Square Barbers by Bridge Square in Northfield prompted me to write this. I am an observer, someone who notices details. That often inspires. Like my winning fiction story, this fact-based story leaves the reader wondering, wanting more. The same can be said for “Between Sisters.”
The Talking Stick is an incredible collection of outstanding writing and I’m honored to be included with so much other Minnesota talent. Each year I see familiar names repeated, but then new voices, too. The small editorial team from the Jackpine Writers’ Bloc deserves recognition also for their hard work. This anthology truly is a labor of love. I’m grateful for their appreciation of Minnesota writers and for their dedication to the craft of writing.
Colton Kemp, a reporter for the Faribault Daily News, wrote a feature on me which published in the Saturday, October 8, edition. I encourage you to read that also by clicking here. I am grateful for Colton sharing my story and for the opportunity to connect with him, another individual passionate about writing.
IN THIS SEASON OF EARLY AUTUMN, the landscape of Minnesota transitions to subdued, muted, softer tones flashed with vivid orange, yellow and red in tree lines or a solitary tree. This time of year truly marks a change as we ease toward Winter, a season devoid of color.
A month ago, before Summer exited, I already observed Autumn’s entrance at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. Stands of cattails. Groups of goldenrod. Seas of drying prairie grass. All signaled the shift to September days.
I love this time of year. Sunny days give way to cool evenings to brisk mornings. I’ve pulled the flannel from the closet. I embrace the feeling, the glory, of each day, recognizing such days are fleeting.
But weeks before this end of September, I delighted in the final days of August with that short walk through the woods at River Bend, then along a grass-lined trail to the hilltop Prairie Loop before I retraced my steps.
Prairie grasses, looming well above my head, bent in the wind. I noted the gracefulness of the stems’ movement, the details on a single stalk. If you’ve ever paused to study a stalk, it’s almost like reading a poem. Grain after grain after grain ladders a slim line. In poetry, each word ladders into a line, into a verse, into a poem.
In the flashlight of the afternoon at River Bend, I spotted a lone Monarch flitting among thistles, black-outlined orange wings contrasting with the soft purple of the bloom. A metaphor. Or perhaps a simile when penned poetically. Poem upon poem upon poem.
Autumn edits out Summer, eliminating the excess wordage of a season that is lush and full and busy. Now the lines of the season shorten, every word carefully chosen, a harbinger of what lies ahead. Winter. Sparse. Barren. Cold.
But until then, Autumn settles in with the familiarity of a worn buffalo plaid flannel shirt. With the familiarity of cattails and milkweed bursting. Goldenrods. Tall prairie grasses drying, moving toward dormancy. I’ve seen this shift every September for past sixty years now. Yet I never tire of the shift, the change in seasons here in southern Minnesota.
Now I’m doubly honored that my rural-themed poetry inspired by my farmer father and farm wife mother were chosen to be part of this outstanding exhibit focusing on the people, places, businesses, communities, activities, events, history and arts of Lyon County.
finances rocked by falling corn and soybean prices.
As I read the “Imagining the Prairie” informational panel, my gratitude to the LCHS staff, volunteers and Museology Museum Services of Minneapolis (lead contractor for the exhibit) grew. I appreciate that an entire panel focuses on the arts: The Lyon County landscape…has inspired painters and poets and artists of all kinds. I’ve long thought that as I see the prairie influence in my writing and photography. Farms, vast prairies, wide skies and tumbling rivers define the landscape of southwestern Minnesota.
A quote from poet, essayist and musician Bill Holm of nearby Minneota, summarizes well the lens through which we prairie natives view the world and the creative process. The prairie eye looks for distance, clarity, and light…
Holm, who died in 2009, was among southwestern Minnesota’s best-known writers, having penned poetry and multiple books such as his popular The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth and Boxelder Bug Variations. His boxelder bug book inspired his hometown to host an annual Boxelder Bug Days, still going strong.
To see my poems featured alongside the work of gifted writers like Holm and equally-talented poet Leo Dangel in the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit was humbling. Dangel, who died in 2016, wrote six collections of poetry. The prairie and rural influence on his work show in the featured poems, “A Farmer Prays,” “A Clear Day,” and “Tornado.”
Both men taught English at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, reaffirming their devotion to this rural region and to the craft of writing. The exhibit includes a section on the university, which opened in 1967 within 10 years of my leaving the area to attend college in Mankato. I sometimes wonder how my writing would have evolved had I stayed and studied on the prairie.
When I returned to Marshall for the first time in 40 years, nothing about the town seemed familiar. Time has a way of changing a place. But when I reached the top floor of the county museum, saw my poems and began to peruse the “home” exhibit, I felt like I was back home. Back home on the prairie, among cornfields and farm sites and grain elevators and all those small towns that dot the landscape. Back home under a wide prairie sky with land stretching beyond my vision. Back home where I understand the people. Back home in the place that influenced my writing as only the prairie can for someone rooted here.
Please check back for more posts featuring the Lyon County Museum and the area.
HE APPROACHED ME inquiring whether I was the official photographer. I was not. But I was photographing the Valley Grove Country Social on Sunday afternoon in rural Nerstrand.
That unexpected encounter proved powerful, revealing why this hilltop location of two historic churches and a cemetery holds such deep personal meaning for many. From the Norwegian immigrants who built the stone church in 1862, replaced by a wooden church in 1894, to today, this land keeps stories and memories and provides a place to grieve.
For Brett Norgaard, Valley Grove is the final resting place of his beloved son, Bjorn Erik Norgaard, struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver on February 20, 2011, while skiing on frozen Lake Superior. He was only 23. Bjorn’s gravestone, imprinted with a ballad he penned, sits near the site of a massive oak felled in a September 2018 tornado. That tree, in the southwest corner, was a cemetery landmark, the spot where many baptisms occurred.
Now, in this chance meeting, I learned of Bjorn’s connection to that tree. His father held it—two boxes crafted from that fallen oak, the larger one holding a passport, an American Birkebeiner pin and other mementos of a dearly loved son.
But it was Bjorn’s poems that expressed to me the creative spirit of this outdoorsman, environmentalist, cross country skier, Alaska fly fishing guide, 2006 Northfield High School graduate, son, grandson, friend…
The second verse of his poem, “Oak Leaves,” seems almost prophetic. He wrote:
New season coming, you must change,
but please remain, not yet time to fade away.
For one day we will cease to be,
will you drop your leaves and cover me?
After Bjorn died, his father found 80 poems in his son’s journals. I understand why he cherishes them. These are the words of a soulful, introspective, nature-centered, sensitive spirit. And although the oak tree no longer stands, unable to drop leaves onto Bjorn’s gravestone, there’s a sense that the tree remains. Strong. Sheltering those who lie beneath the soil and those who walk upon the earth, come here to visit, embrace and remember loved ones. Only days earlier, on September 15, Bjorn would have turned 35.
On this day of a Country Social, Bjorn’s family remembered him, honored him. I saw love in a father’s hands wrapped around oak boxes, in watery eyes and precious stories. Here at Valley Grove, atop a hill edged by prairie, woods and farmland, and centered by two historic churches, humanity comes in moments like this, when a father shares his grief with a stranger. Compassion rises. A connection is made. Comfort comes. A loss is shared.
Please check back for a follow-up post featuring the Valley Grove Country Social in its entirety.
Thus begins a poem authored by 17 Northfield area poets and gracing steps leading to the River Walk in the heart of this historic southeastern Minnesota community.
Like the poets drawn to the river to create these inspirational Poem Steps, I, too, feel drawn to the river that runs through Northfield. Every time I’m downtown, I aim first for the path that traces the Cannon River behind the mostly aged buildings lining Division Street.
There’s something simply magnetic about a river. Listen to the words of these speaking waters. I can almost hear the stories—of the Indigenous Peoples, here first, of the settlers who followed and harnessed the water to mill flour, of the poets and others who today listen to these speaking waters.
The Cannon in Northfield, as it has for generations, brings people to water’s edge. To angle for fish, to dine, to gather as community, to celebrate the arts, to simply be in the river’s presence.
I appreciate how this community recognizes the historic, poetic and natural beauty of the river and shares that via the River Walk. It’s such a beautiful walk, beauty enhanced by potted flowers and hanging baskets that jolt vibrant hues into the landscape. A pedestrian bridge provides a middle-of-the-river perspective.
Listen. The river tells us where it needs to go.
And so I follow the river path, then loop up to the fronts of businesses along Division Street. Yet, the essence of the river remains, her poetry inspiring me.
AS A LONG-TIME WRITER, I’ve accumulated a lengthy list of publication credits. That’s rewarding. Publication validates me as a writer. But it is knowing people are reading my work which proves especially rewarding.
I’m not surprised by the book’s success. The collection of stories and poems selected via a competitive process is remarkable—packed with experiences, insights, emotions and more. I feel humbled and honored to be a part of this awarding-winning book featuring the work of talented Minnesota writers.
Paul Lai, formerly with Ramsey County Library, deserves much credit for his hard work on this MN Writes MN Reads project. It’s a mega undertaking to organize a contest open to writers throughout the state and then work through the process to publication. But it doesn’t end there. Lai also organized book readings and kept writers like me informed. I am grateful for his talent, enthusiasm and dedication.
If you haven’t read This Was 2020, I encourage you to do so. The book, Lai says, is available at all 14 library systems in Minnesota. Locally, Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault carries two copies. Writers need readers. And readers need writers. Thank you for reading.
ROB HARDY, poet laureate of Northfield, is the kind of laid back guy who appreciates a good craft beer. I know. Back in September 2017, I met him at Imminent Brewing, where we shared a table while enjoying a beer, listened to other beer lovers read poems about beer and then read our own beer poems. He organized that Beer Poetry Contest. Poetry at a brewery, how creative and fun is that?
Hardy is a champion of poetry. He tirelessly promotes poetry in Northfield, where poems, including his, imprint sidewalks. He organizes poetry events and publishes a poetry-focused newsletter and even has a poem permanently posted at the public library.
The influence of the pandemic upon this poet’s life and writing is easy to see. In “Lyrical Dresses,” for example, he writes about looking at ordinary life through the wrong end of a telescope and sometimes crying for no reason. In “Today’s Headlines” the fourth line reads: Rice County has the highest rate of new cases in the country. That would be our county.
But these COVID-19 themed poems are not necessarily doom, gloom and darkness. They are an honest, reflective historical record of life during a global pandemic from the creative perspective of a wordsmith. Just as important as a news story in telling the story of this world health crisis. In “Grounded” he writes of pulling a shoe box from the closet to relive travel memories while unable to travel. While grounded.
He did, however, put his feet to the ground, immersing himself in nature through daily walks. He writes of birds and prairie and sky and river and wind…in poems inspired by his deepening connection to the natural world.
I encourage you to read Hardy’s Shelter in Place and/or attend a reading at Content Bookstore featuring Hardy and Greta Hardy-Mittell, a Carleton College student and writer. That event begins at 7 pm on Thursday, April 21. Click here for details. Rob Hardy is also the author of two other poetry collections, Domestication: Collected Poems, 1996-2016 and The Collecting Jar.
ON THE AFTERNOON of the April morning I scanned the #811 shelves at Buckham Memorial Library for poetry books, I raked a banana from the boulevard.
“Hey, I found a rotten banana,” I hollered to Randy, who had just switched off the lawnmower as he mulched leaves.
“You didn’t eat it, did you?” he asked.
“No,” I shouted back, rolling my eyes at his humor.
“I found a dead mouse or squirrel earlier,” he shared in an apparent effort to top my discovery of a dried black banana. (We never know what we’ll find while raking in the spring.) He walked across the lawn to the curb along busy Willow Street and kicked up the dried carcass I really did not want to see.
It’s a must-read book which accurately, and poetically, reflects Minnesota. Among the poems published therein, “April” by Connie Wanek. The first four lines of her five-verse poem from St. Louis County, are so relatable. She writes:
When the snow bank dissolved
I found a comb and a muddy quarter.
I found the corpse of that missing mitten
still clutching some snow.
As someone who’s lived in Minnesota her entire life, I “get” most of the poetry published in this collection. These poets write about land and weather, experiences and observations, small town cafes and polka dancing and trains roaring down tracks and closing the cabin and picking rock and…
I laughed aloud when I read Leo Dangel’s “Stone Visions” from Pipestone County in my native southwestern Minnesota. The topic—picking rock. For those of you who’ve never picked rocks, it’s exactly what it says. Walking through a field gathering and tossing rocks that seem to sprout every spring. Poet Dangel viewed oversized stones in a field near Jasper in a poetic way while his farmer uncle observed, “I’d hate like hell to start picking rock in those fields.”
Uncovering rocks. Uncovering a dried mouse carcass. Uncovering a dried black banana. Uncovering poetry that resonates. Within the span of several hours, I found winter’s remains and a treasure of a poetry collection.
County Lines uncovers the stories of Minnesota in poetic voice from lesser-known to well-known Minnesota writers. Poets like David Bengston, Robert Bly, Philip S. Bryant, Susan Stevens Chambers, Charmaine Pappas Donovan, Angela Foster, Larry Gavin, Laura L. Hansen, Sharon Harris, Margaret Hasse, Bill Holm, John Calvin Rezmerski, Candace Simar, Joyce Sutphen and so many more.
From Willmar to Hibbing to Lac qui Parle and, oh, so many places in between, the layers of our state, our people, our stories, our history, our heritage are revealed. This April day I celebrate National Poetry Month in a Minnesota poetry book pulled from the #811 shelves at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault.
FYI: Former Minnesota Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen will read from her newest poetry books, Carrying Water to the Field and The Long Winter, at 1 pm Saturday, April 23, at the Little Falls Carnegie Library. “Making Rural Connections Through Poetry with Joyce Sutphen” focuses on the loss of small farms in Minnesota. Sutphen grew up on a Stearns County farm. Three of her poems are featured in the “Stearns County” entries in County Lines.
TELL ME: Do you have a favorite book of poetry you’d like to recommend? Or, if you’ve written a book (s) of poetry, please feel free to share information here.