Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

From Northfield: Snapshots of an abbreviated Defeat of Jesse James Days September 17, 2020

The site of the 1876 attempted bank robbery, now the Northfield Historical Society.

 

TYPICALLY, THE DEFEAT OF JESSE JAMES DAYS in Northfield finds Randy and me avoiding this college town only 20 minutes from Faribault. Crowds and congestion keep us away as thousands converge on this southeastern Minnesota community to celebrate the defeat of the James-Younger Gang in a September 7, 1876, attempted robbery of the First National Bank.

 

Waiting for fair food at one of several stands.

 

But this year, because of COVID-19, the mega celebration scaled back, leaving Northfield busy, but not packed. And so we walked around downtown for a bit on Saturday afternoon, after we replenished our book supply at the local public library—our original reason for being in Northfield.

 

The LOVE mural painted on a pizza place in Northfield drew lots of fans taking photos, including me.

 

On our way to Bridge Square, a riverside community gathering spot in the heart of this historic downtown, I paused to photograph the latest public art project here—a floral mural painted on the side of the Domino’s Pizza building by Illinois artist Brett Whitacre. (More info and photos on that tomorrow.)

 

One of the many Sidewalk Poetry poems imprinted into cement in downtown Northfield.

 

Northfield’s appreciation of the arts—from visual to literary to performing—is one of the qualities I most value about this community. As a poet, I especially enjoy the poetry imprinted upon sidewalks.

 

An impromptu concert in Bridge Square.

 

A fountain, monument and the iconic popcorn wagon define Bridge Square in the warmer weather season.

 

Buying a corn dog…

 

I was delighted also to see and hear a guitarist quietly strumming music in the town square while people walked by, stopped at the iconic popcorn wagon or waited in line for corn dogs and cheese curds. Several food vendors lined a street by the park.

 

The Defeat of Jesse James Days royalty out and about.

 

Among fest-goers I spotted Defeat of Jesse James royalty in their denim attire, red bandanna masks, crowns and boots, the masks a reminder not of outlaws but of COVID-19.

 

Photographed through the bakery’s front window, the feet-shaped pastries.

 

Yet, in the throes of a global pandemic, some aspects of the celebration remained unchanged. At Quality Bakery a half a block away from Bridge Square, the western-themed window displays featured the bakery’s signature celebration pastry—De-Feet of Jesse James.

 

A sign outside a Division Street business fits the theme of the celebration.

 

For a bit of this Saturday, it felt good to embrace this long-running event, to experience a sense of community, to celebrate the defeat of the bad guys.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Bridge Square in Northfield: Black Lives Matter August 4, 2020

Messages related to the Black Lives Matter movement are chalked in Northfield’s Bridge Square.

 

BRIDGE SQUARE in Northfield. It’s a gathering spot for the community. A place to relax and enjoy music and conversation and even popcorn from the popcorn wagon. Water flows from a fountain. Benches beckon visitors to linger. Colorful flowers spill from large, lush planters. Nearby, the Cannon River roars over a dam. People fish and picnic and walk along and over the river. It’s a beautiful setting of trees and sky and water.

 

This is a common phrased used in the current Black Lives Matter movement. Chalked names fill the sidewalks at Bridge Square.

 

The downtown park also provides a place to express public opinion, most recently related to the Black Lives Matter movement. On a recent walk through Bridge Square and several blocks along the River Walk and Division Street, I read the concerns expressed about lives lost, about racial injustice…

 

A broader view of the names and messages leading to and surrounding the fountain.

 

Written in chalk were names of the dead. And messages. Powerful. Heartfelt. Even as rain and sun have faded the chalk writings, the meaning remains that Black Lives Matter.

 

Next to the fountain, this fading portrait of James Baldwin.

 

Next to Baldwin’s portrait, one of Paul O’Neal.

 

Chalk portraits of James Baldwin and Paul O’Neal give faces to names that we should all remember. Like Baldwin, an author and Civil Rights activist. Like O’Neal, shot in the back by Chicago police in 2016. And, more recently, the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, sparking nationwide protests, unrest, destruction, and calls for police reform and justice.

 

Barricades have been set up along this street next to Bridge Square to separate traffic and pedestrians/protesters on a bridge spanning the Cannon River.

 

The poem I found particularly meaningful in relation to Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd.

 

After crossing a partially barricaded street to follow the River Walk, I paused to read a poem imprinted in the sidewalk as part of Northfield’s Sidewalk Poetry Project. Reading the seven-line poem, the final line—Just breathe—struck me. George Floyd, when he lay dying on a Minneapolis street, said, “I can’t breathe.”

 

I followed the River Walk, eventually turning onto this footbridge across the Cannon River.

 

And so I walked, down steps, along the pedestrian river path hugging the banks of the Cannon River. I thought of that poetry and of those names and messages in Bridge Square.

 

One of many Black Lives Matter signs I spotted in downtown Northfield, this one in the upper story window of an historic Division Street building.

 

I considered how, no matter our skin color, our background, our education, our whatever in life, that we are all just people. We see beauty. We feel sunshine. And sometimes we share the silence that forms in our minds.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The poetry of trees at sunset April 14, 2020

 

 

SUNSET. I FIND IT profoundly beautiful. Poetically beautiful.

 

 

Last week while walking a tree-lined trail in Faribault’s North Alexander Park, I stopped to appreciate the sunset through the trees.

 

 

I aimed my camera lens skyward, toward treetops. Branches, like lines drawn in wide chisel and felt tip markers, traced the sky. Sharp against backdrop canvases of blue, pink and orange. Lovely. The literary and visual work of an artist.

 

 

Scenes like this are so ordinary, yet extraordinary. Nature, when viewed in pause mode, seems even more stunning these days.

 

 

When I lift my camera and look through a viewfinder to frame a photo, I see so much. I notice details. Shapes. Colors. Patterns. Light.

 

 

It’s a process similar to writing poetry. I immerse myself in creating something beautiful. Poetry requires sparse, well-chosen words. Photography requires that, too, but in a visual way.

 

 

In this unprecedented time of social distancing, isolation and concern about COVID-19, I feel especially grateful for a quiet place to walk, to appreciate the art of nature and then create my own art via photography.

 

 

April is National Poetry Month. Celebrate by reading a poem, writing a poem or finding a poem in nature, like I did at North Alexander Park on a cold April evening with strong winds gusting from the northwest, sometimes shaking my camera lens.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Featuring Faribault poet Larry Gavin March 11, 2020

Cover art courtesy of Red Dragonfly Press.

 

FARIBAULT RESIDENT AND FELLOW poet Larry Gavin reads at 7 pm Thursday, March 12, from his latest poetry collection, A Fragile Shelter—New and Selected Poems, at the Northfield Public Library. This marks his fifth volume of poetry published by Northfield-based Red Dragonfly Press.

I’ve known Larry since he taught English to my eldest daughter at Faribault High School. And then to my second daughter and son. It was during parent-teacher conferences that I learned more about this gifted poet and writer and the connections we share.

 

An abandoned farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 east of Vesta on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. The house is no longer standing. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Like me, Larry writes with a strong sense of place. His poems are down-to-earth, descriptive. I see his love of the outdoors, the natural world, imprinted upon his writing. He grew up in Austin, in a decidedly rural region of southeastern Minnesota. And he lived for 15 years, decades ago, in rural southwestern Minnesota to study writing with some remarkable writers like Robert Bly, Bill Holm, Leo Dangel and others. The prairie influence of place and details is there, in Larry’s poetry. Just as it is in mine as a native of the Minnesota prairie.

I’d encourage you to read a post I published in 2011 featuring a Q & A with this poet. Click here.

 

Larry and I both had poems published in the 2013 volume of Poetic Strokes. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

Over the years, Larry and I have sometimes found ourselves crossing as poets—work published in the same places, reading together with other area poets at events, our poems selected for poet-artist collaborations, our poems published on billboards…

It’s always been an honor and a joy to read with Larry, especially to hear him read. His voice is a radio voice—flawless, dipping and rising with the rhythm of his poem, each word flowing into the next in a way that mesmerizes. He taught me that poetry is meant to be read aloud. I find myself now, whenever I write a poem, reading it aloud to hear if a word/line works or it doesn’t.

 

I took poetic license and photoshopped this image of the button I wore identifying me as a poet at a poetry event. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Poetry today is not your grandmother’s poetry of rhyming verses and flowery, fancied up writing. At least not the poems I write nor those written by Larry. At a poetry reading last year, he talked about “found poems,” poetry inspired, for example, by a note posted in a public place. His humorous poem about a would-be babysitter, who cited experience picking rock, prompted an outburst of laughter. I like that, too, about Larry’s writing. His poems aren’t all stuffy and serious.

To my friend, fellow poet and recently-retired English teacher, Larry Gavin, I extend my congratulations on publishing another collection of poetry. To read or hear his poetry is to recognize his talent as a wordsmith, for he crafts with a love of language, of the land, of life.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Public poetry in Mankato & I’m in, again November 15, 2019

That’s my poem, viewed through the opening in the flood wall in downtown Mankato, Minnesota.

 

ALONG A BUSY STREET in the heart of downtown Mankato near Reconciliation Park, across a duo set of train tracks and then through an opening in a flood wall mural, you’ll find a work of literary art. Mine. A poem, River Stories.

 

Me, next to my posted poem, River Stories. Photo by Randy Helbling

 

 

Photographed from the opening in the flood wall, the mural showcases the Minnesota River, to the right.

 

My poem was recently selected for inclusion in the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride, a public art project that now boasts 41 poems posted on signs throughout Greater Mankato. This, my fifth poem picked in recent years for the project, will be displayed for the next two years at the site along the Minnesota River Trail hugging the river. I am honored to share my poetry in such an accessible way via this ongoing effort of the Southern Minnesota Poets Society.

 

 

To hear River Stories, call 507-403-4038 and enter 406 when prompted. (That’s not me reading.)

 

This 67-ton Kasota stone sculpture stands in Reconciliation Park. It symbolizes the spiritual survival of the Dakota People and honors the area’s Dakota heritage. The park is the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The U.S. government tried and hung 38 Dakota here following the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862. The location of my poem near this park seems fitting as part of the city’s river stories.

 

The Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride is a competitive process which challenges Minnesota poets to pen poems of no more than 18 lines with a limit of 40 characters per line. River Stories is short at only nine lines. Just like crafting copy for children’s books, creating poetry is among the most challenging of writing disciplines. Every word must prove its worth. Poetry has made me a stronger and better writer.

 

The Minnesota River, which runs through Mankato, inspired River Stories.

 

In writing poetry, I often reflect on my past and on a strong sense of place. Rural. My previous Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride poems include Cornfield Memories, Off to Mankato “to get an education”, The Thrill of Vertical and Bandwagon.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A refrigerator love poem for my husband April 30, 2019

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Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An original poem crafted with magnetic letters and words and posted on my refrigerator. I purchased the set at an Owatonna thrift store.

 

Thoughts on listening, understanding & more, plus a poem April 25, 2019

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I’LL BE THE FIRST to admit that I am not bold. I am not a risk taker. I dislike change.

But to read this poem I crafted with magnetic word tiles and posted on my fridge, you might think I am a bold risk taker. Not all of us are. Not all of us can be. And that’s alright. We each hold value in who we are. This poem simply expresses my creativity.

I don’t pretend to be someone I am not. Call me authentic. I like that word.

I am not loud, but I will speak up when necessary. Sometimes the quietest voices are louder than the loudest.

I value listening more than talking. Too many people like the sound of their own voices. We should all strive to listen better. It seems a mostly lost art.

When we listen, compassion and understanding happen. When we place ourselves in the shoes of someone struggling with challenges, we begin to understand. Begin to understand how words and actions can hurt. Or heal.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of judging, of thinking we have all the answers, that everything in life is black-and-white. It isn’t.

Life is a mix of colors. Some days vibrant. Other days muddied. But it is a life we are in together. If only we recognize that and try harder to care for one another. With ongoing understanding, love and compassion.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How I love this poetry collection April 22, 2019

 

HOW DO I LOVE THEE? Let me count the ways.

Those introductory words to sonnet number 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning imprinted upon many a heart, mine included. Not that I can recite the poem. But I remember that first love line and the two lines that follow.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My Soul can reach, when feeling out of sight.

 

 

Ah, how I appreciate lyrical love poems. Words with depth penned from the soul.

 

 

And how I appreciate those who embrace poetry. Like my friend Barb. She recently gifted me with a 1967 Hallmark Editions volume of Sonnets from the Portuguese and Other Treasured Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It’s a beautiful vintage collection of Browning’s love poems written between 1845-1846 and published in 1850. The British poet wrote the sonnets before her marriage to Robert Browning, a union disapproved of by her father. The couple secretly married in 1846.

I won’t pretend to understand everything Browning writes. If I chose to study her works, I would gain that depth of understanding. But I’m OK with simply reading and interpreting on my own.

 

 

My delight in unexpectedly receiving this 52-year-old slim collection reaches beyond words. The book is a work of art with poems printed in Garamond typeface on Hallmark Eggshell Book paper and with several illustrations interspersed therein. The covers, too, are lovely in a muted sage. To hold and page through this book is to hold creativity.

I feel intentionally and richly blessed when friends like Barb understand how I value the literary and visual arts. Barb knew this collection of Browning’s writing would hold meaning for me as a poet, as a creative. Especially during April, National Poetry Month.

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite poet or poem?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Found poetry April 15, 2019

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A POET FRIEND COLLECTS found poetry.

Larry Gavin’s most recent found poem, read recently at a Cannon Valley Poets Poetry Reading at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault, caused the audience to burst into laughter. He read a short “looking for work poem” collected from a public space. The poster sought babysitting jobs, but stated she’d rather pick rock. Alright then. A potential babysitter who prefers rocks to children is unlikely to get hired by any parent.

Like Larry, I find publicly posted messages interesting and often humorous. Unlike Larry, I’d never considered those notes as poetry. But I understand why he views them as such.

Inspired by my poet friend, I’ve upped my public message board reading, something I’ve done only irregularly in the past. I was quickly rewarded with a unique note tacked onto a bulletin board at the Salvation Army Thrift Store in Owatonna.

 

 

I snapped a photo with my smartphone and then edited out the phone number.

The note inspired me to write this poem:

Missing

She rocks—the cool blonde
with hair sculpted in a do,
stripe ribboned across locks,
eyes shaded behind sunglasses
like Jackie O.
Call if you see her.
She’s missing.
Last seen at the Salvation Army Thrift Store.

 

TELL ME: Do you read publicly posted messages like Larry and me? If yes, please share an interesting/humorous/bizarre one you’ve spotted.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling