Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Gaining confidence as a poet October 19, 2011

I THINK ALL WRITERS, if we’re honest with ourselves, face insecurities about writing.

Can we write? Is our writing “good enough” to publish? Will anyone read, or even care about, what we write?

I’ve long overcome any issues I faced about journalism style writing. I’m confident in my abilities to pull together a good feature story or another journalistic piece given my educational background in mass communications and my years of experience in journalism. And with several years of blogging to my credit, I’m also confident in that writing style.

It’s poetry which has challenged my confidence. Although I’ve written poetry off and on since high school—which stretches back nearly four decades—I’ve never written much poetry, at least not enough to consider myself a true poet. Until now.

Finally, this year, with the publication of two poems in two Minnesota literary journals and winning the spring Roadside Poetry contest, I’m comfortable adding “poet” to my writing credentials.

Getting to the point of feeling comfortable with the term “poet” really began 11 years ago with publication of a poem in Poetic Strokes, A Regional Anthology of Poetry from Southeastern Minnesota, Volume 2. I considered that a stroke of good fortune. But when four more poems published in the next two volumes, I began to think that maybe, just maybe, I could write poetry. After all, I had competed against other writers to get into the Poetic Strokes anthologies.

Then I had a poem accepted for publication in The Lutheran Digest.

Next, I earned an honorable mention for my poem, “Hit-and-Run,” published last year in The Talking Stick, Forgotten Roads, Volume 19.

Finally, this year, I had an official poet epiphany when I entered three poetry competitions and was subsequently published on Roadside Poetry billboards, in The Talking Stick, Black & White, Volume 20 and Lake Region Review.

Although I don’t know how many poets I competed against in Roadside Poetry, I do have the numbers for the two literary journals. The Talking Stick this year published 140 pieces of poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction from 99 writers, me being one of them with my poem, “Abandoned Barn,” and my creative nonfiction, “Welcome Home.” That’s out of 326 submissions from 171 writers.

Look at the list of writers, and you may recognize a few names like Marge Barrett, Tim J. Brennan, Charmaine Pappas Donovan, Jerry Mevissen, Candace Simar…

It’s quite a process to get into The Talking Stick with five members of The Jackpine Writers’ Bloc reading all of the entries and then an editorial board meeting to vote and discuss. The top four to seven favorites in each category are then forwarded to celebrity judges—this year Kris Bigalk, Kevin Kling and Alison McGhee—to choose first and second place winners in each division.

As for Lake Region Review, the process of selecting the works for publication is equally as rigorous. Co-editors Mark Vinz—author, professor emeritus of English at Minnesota State University Moorhead and first coordinator of MSUM’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing—and Athena Kildegaard—author and lecturer at the University of Minnesota Morris—worked with a staff of 10. They read more than 200 submissions before narrowing the field to 27 established and emerging writers.

I’m one of those 27.

And so is Leif Enger, author of the 2001 New York Times best-seller Peace Like a River, which happens to be a favorite book of mine. It’s nice to be in the company of someone who, like me, writes with a strong sense of place.

Most of my poetry connects to the southwestern Minnesota prairie, where I grew up on a dairy and crop farm. Specifically, the barn on the home place inspired my two distinct barn poems which published in The Talking Stick and Lake Region Review.

I don’t know what moved the editors of either publication to select my poems for inclusion in their literary journals. But I did incorporate lines such as “hot cow pee splattering into her gutters” and “rusty hinges creaking like aged bones.”

According to Co-editor Kildegaard at Lake Region Review, editors chose pieces that were “fresh, creative, lively, interesting. We were looking for writing that has something new to say.”

Apparently I had something new to say about the old barn.

The early 1950s barn on the Redwood County dairy farm where I grew up today stands empty of animals.

WRITERS FEATURED in the recently-published 212-page The Talking Stick, Black & White, Volume 20, are from, or have a strong connection to, Minnesota. Those published in the 138-page debut of Lake Region Review live primarily in west central Minnesota. Eight writers have been published in both collections.

The cover of Lake Region Review is a detail of an original landscape painting, “Christina Lake: View from Seven Sisters,” by American impressionist painter Stephen Henning of Otter Tail County.

IF YOU’RE A WRITER, specifically of poetry, did you/do you struggle with confidence issues? At what point did you/will you call yourself a poet?

FYI: For more information or to purchase copies of either literary journal featured here, click on the appropriate link below:

www.lakeregionreview.net

www.thetalkingstick.com

And click here for more information about Roadside Poetry.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Meander west this weekend September 29, 2011

WEST WOULD BE my destination of choice this weekend.

Not west as in West. But west as in Fergus Falls or the Upper Minnesota River Valley.

Two arts events in western Minnesota this weekend will take you nearly into the Dakotas.

I’d like to be at the Lake Region Writers Network Conference at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus listening to author Leif Enger (of Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young and Handsome) talk about “place” in writing.

I’d like to be there picking up my copy of Lake Region Review, a literary magazine of regional writing. You see, two months ago I received this e-mail:

Dear Ms. Helbling,

The Editorial Board of Lake Region Review 2011, after careful consideration, has finalized selections for Lake Region Writers Network’s first literary magazine. While editors and readers were pleased with the number of submissions, the sheer volume of entries also made their choices much more difficult.

Regardless, the board is pleased to inform you that the work indicated below HAS BEEN ACCEPTED WITH REVISION for publication in Lake Region Review 2011, which will be released at the LRWN Oct. 1 writing conference at M-State in Fergus Falls:…

But I won’t be in Fergus on Saturday at the conference. It’s a long drive there from Faribault and I have this room to paint and…

…not only that, but back in June my husband and I traveled the 200 miles to Fergus Falls to see my winning entry in the spring Roadside Poetry competition splashed across four billboards near the college.

The last of four billboards featuring my Roadside Poetry spring poem.

So I’ll wait for the LRWN folks to send me a copy of their literary magazine, which I’m mighty pleased to be a part of because, well, any time you win a highly-competitive contest judged by others of literary talent, it’s an honor.

I’LL HAVE TO WAIT until another year also to attend an arts event that’s long been on my list of “things I want to do.” That’s Meander—Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl. Thirty-three art studios featuring the work of 45 artists will be open during a free self-guided tour that begins Friday (2 p.m. – 6 p.m.), continues into Saturday (9 a.m. – 6 p.m.) and ends Sunday (9 a.m.– 4 p.m.).

This event is happening in the Minnesota River Valley region of western Minnesota near the towns of Ortonville, Appleton, Madison, Milan, Dawson, Montevideo and Granite Falls. It’s beautiful land—prairie and fields, rock and woods, rivers, small towns, farms…

The region seems a mecca for artists, which doesn’t at all surprise me given I’m a southwestern Minnesota native. Something about this land fosters creativity. Remember my earlier mention of Leif Enger and his focus on place? At the writers’ conference in Fergus Falls, he’ll “look at how geography of a tale infuses it with gravity, wit and credibility.”

I suspect place, as much as anything, influences the photography, paintings, pottery, fiber art, woodworking and other art created by those artists featured in the Meander.

Meander featured artist Kerry Kolke-Bonk of Appleton created the painting, "What goes around comes around," to promote this year's art tour.

According to economic impact information I received from Kristi Fernholz, Community Development Planner for the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission, the Meander brings in an average of $1,652 in art sales per artist (2010 and 2009 statistics).

Last year, art sales during Meander weekend totaled $69,395. In addition, attendees infuse the area with more money spent on food, lodging and other shopping.

I won’t be one of those shoppers this year. But you could be. If you have an open schedule this weekend, consider a trip west, as in western Minnesota.

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FYI: Click here for more information about Meander—Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl.

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Click here for more information about the Lake Region Writers Network. If you would like to purchase a copy of the first-ever Lake Region Review with my poem (sorry, not going to yet divulge its title), send $10 plus $3 for shipping and handling to:

Lake Region Writers Network, P.O. Box 356, Battle Lake, MN. 56515

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Click here for more information about Roadside Poetry.

© Text and photos copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Poetry & more in Paul Bunyan land August 18, 2011

The lake side of the Hackensack Lending Library. To the left stands Lucette Diana Kensack..

Lucette Diana Kensack

SEVERAL SUMMERS AGO while vacationing in northern Minnesota, my family stopped in Hackensack, 50 miles north of Brainerd. The initial draw to this town of 285 was the 17-foot tall statue of Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart, Lucette Diana Kensack. I appreciate kitschy roadside art. What can I say?

Two other discoveries, however, trumped seeing Lucette. A stone’s throw from Lucette, along the shores of Birch Lake, sits the cutest log cabin—a Works Progress Administration project and today home of the Hackensack Lending Library.

And just down the street from Lucette and the library, I found the sweetest pink fairy tale cottage.

Those small-town treasures marked my introduction to Hackensack.

Now, fast forward to last summer. I wasn’t back in Hack, not physically anyway. Rather my poetry was among poems displayed at the town’s annual Northwoods Art and Book Festival. During that event, the featured poets are invited to read their poetry. Fest-goers can also vote for their favorites with six poems selected for “Popular Choice” awards. Six poems are also recognized as “Poems of Merit.” All of the original and unpublished poems are posted without author names attached.

I didn’t attend last year, didn’t win and didn’t deserve to win. My poetry wasn’t worthy of an award.

This year my poetry is back at the Northwoods Festival set for this Saturday, August 20, and I’m more confident that I’ve actually written poems that could win an award. Oh, I’d love to tell you which poem is mine (or it could be both poems that I submitted; I haven’t been told). But I won’t unfairly sway the voting. Suffice to say my rural background shines in my writing.

If Hackensack wasn’t such a long drive from Faribault, I’d be there taking in the poetry, the art, the music, the book-signings, the food. However, if you’re in the Brainerd lakes area or parts north on Saturday, check out the Northwoods Art and Book Festival from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. and then tell me all about it by submitting a comment.

Voting for the “Popular Choice” awards begins at 9 a.m. and closes at 1 p.m.

If you’re already thinking, “Audrey, I don’t like poetry,” rethink your thinking. I promise you that my poetry rates as down-to-earth, understandable and not at all stuffy.

This whole concept of getting poetry out to the public via a display like the one in Hackensack pleases me. Just like the Roadside Poetry billboards in Fergus Falls. I was fortunate enough to win the spring competition and have my four-line poem plastered across four billboards there.

These new poetry venues, and the increasingly popular sidewalk poetry in cities like St. Paul, Mankato and now Northfield, are bringing poetry to the people. That’s a good thing because, in reality, how many of us actually pick up a book of poetry for leisure reading?

Minnesota poet Todd Boss and designer/animator Angella Kassube are also making poetry even more appealing by utilizing visuals in their acclaimed motion poems. Click here to read some of those.

Poetry has certainly evolved through the years, a necessity to keep writers interested in writing it and readers interested in reading it.

Professionally, I’ve only begun to unfold my wings as a poet. Even publicly calling myself a “poet” still sounds foreign to my ears. But with publication in two magazines and four anthologies, soon to be five (The Talking Stick, Volume 20, published by Park Rapids-based Jackpine Writers’ Bloc); winning the spring 2011 Roadside Poetry competition; inclusion at the Hackensack festival; and recent notification that one of my poems will publish in the Lake Region Writers Network’s first literary magazine, I finally feel worthy of the title “poet.”

The last of four billboards featuring my Roadside Poetry spring poem.

The sweet fairy tale house in Hackensack, located near Lucette and the park and photographed in 2009.

"Curve around the corner/You are free/To change directions/Or your mind," reads this poem by Marlys Neufeld of Hanska and imprinted in a Mankato sidewalk.

HOW DO YOU FEEL about poetry? Do you read it? Why or why not?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Count me in on Roadside Poetry April 26, 2011

“We’ve selected YOUR poem for our spring Roadside Poetry installment!”

For nearly a month now, I’ve kept that exciting, boldfaced news mostly to myself, sharing it with only my immediate family, my mom and a few select friends and extended family members.

But now that the billboards are up—yes, I said billboards—I no longer feel obligated to keep this a secret.

I won the spring Roadside Poetry competition and my poem now sprawls across four billboards, Burma Shave style, 50 yards apart in Fergus Falls.

That’s it, my poem, the winning poem, which is posted along North Tower Road west of Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls, just down the road from Fleet Farm. Take exit 54 off I-94 on the west edge of Fergus.

Paul Carney, the project coordinator who delivered the good news to me via e-mail in early March, tells me that 100,000 vehicles drive by the billboards each month. “How’s that for readership?” he asks.

Well, mighty fine, Paul. Mighty fine.

Getting my poetry out there in this unusual, highly-public venue really is an honor for me, adding to my poems already published in two magazines and four, soon-to-be five, anthologies.

The mission of The Roadside Poetry Project “is to celebrate the personal pulse of poetry in the rural landscape,” according to roadsidepoetry.org. The first poem went up in September 2008 and was, interestingly enough, written by another Faribault resident, Larry Gavin, a writer and Faribault High School English teacher.

The poems, all seasonally-themed, change four times a year. Mine will be up through the third week of June when a summer poem replaces it. Yes, entries are currently being accepted for the summer competition.

About now you’re likely, maybe, wondering how I heard about this contest. I honestly cannot remember. But I do remember thinking, “I can do this.” So one night I sat down with a notebook and pencil and started jotting down phrases.

Like most writers, I strive to find the exact/precise/perfect/right words.

I scribbled and scratched and thought and wrote and crossed out and jotted and erased and counted and filled several notebook pages.

These poems do not simply pop, like that, into my head, onto paper.

To add to the complexity of this process, poets are tasked with creating poetic imagery that describes the wonderment of the season, all in four lines. But there’s more. Each line can include no more than 20 characters.

Now that character limitation, my friends, presents a challenge. Just when I thought I had nailed a phrase, I counted too many characters. Again and again, I had to restart until, finally, I had shaped and molded the poem I would submit.

“I love the language and the imagery,” project leader Paul said of my winning spring poem.

Honestly, when I wrote this poem, I could feel the sun warming my back as I stooped to drop slips of zinnia seeds into the cold, damp earth. Visualizing has always been a part of my creative process. Choosing the words “vernal equinox” simply seemed so much more poetic than the single, plain word, “spring.”

Even though Paul loved my poem and it fit the contest guidelines, there was a problem: Audrey Kletscher Helbling. Count and you get 23 characters and two spaces in my name, putting me five over the 20-character limit.

I understood the space limitations, but explained to Paul that I really wanted Audrey Kletscher Helbling, not Audrey Helbling, on the billboard because that’s my professional name. He agreed to see if the sign-maker could fit my full name and keep it readable. From my experience years ago writing newspaper headlines, I knew that the letters “l” and “i” took less space than other letters. The sign-maker was able to honor my request.

I haven’t been up to Fergus Falls yet to see my poem and Audrey Kletscher Helbling splashed across four billboards. But a trip will be forthcoming.

FYI: Paul Carney hopes to expand Roadside Poetry, supported in Fergus Falls by the Fergus Area College Foundation, to other locations in Minnesota. However, additional funding is needed to finance start-up, printing and other costs. If you would like to support this public art venue, have questions, need more information or wish to enter the seasonal contest, visit roadsidepoetry.org.

© Text copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos courtesy of Paul Carney