My poetic sequence “The Sun is Leaving the Hill Now” in Literary Orphans

Many months ago I tried my hand at the pantoum form, using lines pulled from “last letters,” to produce a series of poems that are simultaneously haunting, anxious, and desperate. I’m proud to say that on April 20 all four were published in Chicago’s Literary Orphans magazine (Issue 24: Audrey). Here’s the title poem:

“The sun is leaving the hill now”

The sun is leaving the hill now, I hope nothing else happens.
I have tried to think of some way to go on but can’t.
Cathy, don’t go in the bedroom. I know what I’m doing:
all will and determination to fight on has left me. …

I have tried to think of some way to go on (but can’t).
This is not an easy thing to do (it’s hard to do anything) for
all will and determination to fight on has left me.
Cathy, don’t come in. Call your mother. (She’ll know).

This is not an easy thing to do. It’s hard to do anything for
the sun is leaving the hill now. I hope nothing else happens
—Cathy, don’t come in. Call your mother. She’ll know.
Cathy, don’t go in the bedroom. I know what I am doing.

You can read the rest of the sequence here.

John Carter of Minnesota: The “Convict Poet” Who Won His Freedom

Stillwater State Prison c1912

Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater (c. 1912)

“Only the first ten years matter,” a Minnesota State Prison inmate told John Carter, and “[w]hether or not the first ten years are all that matter, there is no doubt that the first six months are by no means six little drops of time.” It was 1905 and as the 19-year-old Carter listened, he settled into his ten year sentence–arrested for burglarizing the station in Karlstad, MN, while hopping trains westward. He’d taken $24 to buy food and shelter.

Not much is known about John Carter—in fact, that’s a penname and the public record’s silent about his personal life. All we know is that he was an Englishman from a well-to-do family, and when he’d failed the family business he was sent to Canada. After he was arrested, like so many who pass through the prison system, Carter was on his way to spending his sentence hidden from the public eye. But this changed as, trying to pass the time, Carter wrote essays and verse, publishing them in the nation’s major magazines. Through his art he won public support and, eventually, even his freedom, leaving the state prison hailed as a brilliant, creative mind.

Continue reading

The Poems of Julius B. Baumann: Five Translations

Julius Baumann grave marker

Julius Baumann’s grave marker in Cloquet, MN, donated by the “Sons of Norway” in 1926.

Some of the best advice for a young poet is to learn translation. It’s the advice Pound gave to Merwin, and it’s the advice Bly gave to me. So, always one to try new things, in the winter of 2014-15 I began translating the work of Norwegian-American poet Julius B. Baumann (1869-1923). Reading up on the Nordic languages (and relying extensively on digital copies of turn-of-the-century Norwegian-English dictionaries) I translated ten pieces from Baumann’s Fra Vidderne: New Poems (Augsburg Publishing House, 1915; Google Books). As far as I know, this is the first time these poems have appeared in English.

To provide a little background on Julius B. Baumann, in 1869 he was born to a family of fishermen in Vadsø, Norway. At the age of twenty he befriended two emigrants who offered to pay his way to the United States, and it was with the young writer’s yearning for life and experience that he left his native land. As a logger in Wisconsin he saw his first pine forest, and it was later as a farmhand in North Dakota where he first gazed upon plains of prairie and wheat. Working in the timber industry for much of his life, in his later years he moved to Cloquet, MN, where he managed a lumber store and served multiple terms as Carlton County’s register of deeds. Continue reading

My review of Bill Berkson’s “Expect Delays” in Rain Taxi Review

expectdelays-181x271My review of Bill Berkson’s latest book of poems, Expect Delays (Coffee House Press, 2014) was published in the Fall 2015 online edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books:

There are few poets writing today with the range and talent of Bill Berkson. The author of more than thirty books of poetry, collaborations, and criticism, his latest volume—Expect Delays—is typical of Berkson’s work in that there is nothing typical about it. One finds here Dante-inspired cantos, New York School-style prose, and excerpts from his diary—and while this gives his book a sense of scatter, it also keeps things fresh. Where other poets find a formula that works and then promptly poison themselves with it, Expect Delays is anything but formulaic.

You can read the full review here.

Welcome to the Promise Zone: Secretary Julian Castro Visits Minneapolis

On October 30, 2015, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro participated in a Minneapolis forum on affordable housing. With nothing better to do on a Friday morning, I picked up a notebook and decided to play journalist. Enjoy.


Secretary Castro at Mayflower Church in Minneapolis. From the Star Tribune.

I first saw Julian Castro as the nation did, the keynote speaker of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Young and charismatic, the San Antonio mayor shared the story of his childhood, the influence of his Chicana activist mother, and all the that carried him to that stage that night. Watching live on the small-screen of my iPad, eating leftovers in a Houston apartment I couldn’t afford, like many around the country I wondered if this was his “Audacity of Hope” moment. Like that state senator of Illinois, he stressed the importance of the one thing that makes all the difference for those who find all the world pointed at them: Opportunity. It’s this that allows us the chance to rise above our circumstances—and the more we have, the freer we are to live the life we seek.

I was so enamored with Castro’s message that, afterward, I texted a friend of mine who was a delegate to the convention and asked she bring back one of the placards with the word on it. Hanging on the wall right above my desk, I’d often rest my eyes on it, reminding myself that you can’t fault a man for not trying if he’s never had the chance to. That’s something we forget about—because it’s so much easier to judge a man for staying on the ground than offering a hand.

The next year I saw Castro in person at the 2013 Young Democrats of America convention in San Antonio, though truthfully I can’t recall a word of what was said—either of his speech or at the convention as a whole. All I’ll say of those nights is that the rumors are untrue, I’ve already apologized to the state of Delaware, and yes, I’m also surprised I could fit a whole bottle of wine in my coat pocket. (See you in 2017, young liberals). Continue reading

Joining Sinclair Lewis on the Trip from Main Street to Stockholm

From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930

“From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930” edited by Harrison Smith, 1952.

BOOK REVIEW: From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930 edited by Harrison Smith, 1952 (full text on the Internet Archive).

“[D]on’t be such a damn fool as ever again to go to work for someone else. Start your own business,” the 34-year-old Sinclair Lewis advised his friend Alfred Harcourt. “I’m going to write important books. You can publish them. Now let’s go out to your house and start making plans” (p.xi). That business became the publishing house Harcourt, Brace, and Company, and the next year, in 1920, it published the book that made Lewis famous: Main Street. Thus began the decade-long trip from the prairies of Minnesota to Stockholm, when Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

As the only volume of Lewis’ letters, From Main Street to Stockholm was published in 1952, the year after he died, and collects together his correspondence with Harcourt’s publishing house. Given their relationship the letters just as often pertain to business as they do Lewis’ European travels and the politics of the literary world. While the reader may not close the book with a richer understanding of Lewis’ psychology, they will have witnessed an iconoclast at work. Through these letters one follows Lewis through the “Big Five” and the public’s response, from Main Street (1920) being declared the most monumental book of the century to Boston’s District Attorney banning Elmer Gantry (1927) from the city. (As a response to the latter, we find out, Lewis and Harcourt forewent a lawsuit and instead bought billboards capitalizing on the controversy …  at a Methodist convention in Kansas City).

What stands out the most in his letters is his self-confidence and keen sense of what will stick in the public mind. One sees firsthand, for example, the amount of care he took in naming his character. Writing about a middle-class businessman and booster, he considers Pumphrey and later Fitch but at last settles on a name he predicts will enter the lexicon (and it did)!

The name now for my man is George F. Babbitt, which, I think, sounds commonplace yet will be remembered, and two years from now we’ll have them talking of Babbittry (12/17/1920; p.57). 

Here and elsewhere his confidence is prescient. Even while still working on the manuscript for Main Street he doesn’t hide his ambition. Anticipating the book’s success he asks,

Would it be perfectly insane and egotistic to suggest that you .. send a copy of the book to the [Pulitzer] prize committee, suggesting that the dern thing is a study in “the wholesome atmosphere of American life” etc. (11/12/1919; p.18)?

And he’s writing that before the book’s even finished.

“You mustn’t suppose … 70,000 [words of Main Street] means it’s almost done though. I’m afraid I shall be doing well … if I keep it down to 180,000 words, even after cutting first draft” (12/15/1919; p.19).

One shares in Lewis’ joy when at last the book is published and, as he snoops around book stores to eavesdrop on what people are saying, Harcourt is rushing to get more off the press. None of this confidence wanes over the years and by 1925, with the publication of Arrowsmith, Lewis wonders if it will be the book that finally gets him the Nobel Prize. Someday–but he’s still got a few years to go.

Interestingly, for as much as Lewis dreamed of these major prizes almost nothing is said of the two he almost received. As the events unfolded, nothing was said of the fact that both Main Street and Babbitt were chosen by the Pulitzer Prize committee and both were vetoed by the Columbia Board of Trustees that oversee it. It’s only when there are rumors of Arrowsmith winning the prize that he acknowledges these “matters”:

I hope they do award me the Pulitzer Prize on Arrowsmith — but you know, don’t you, that ever since the Main Street burglary, I have planned that if they ever did award it to me, I would refuse it, with a polite but firm letter which I shall let the press have, and which ought to make it impossible for any one ever to accept the novel prize (not the play or history prize) thereafter without acknowledging themselves as willing to sell out. There are three chief reasons — the Main Street and possibly the Babbitt matters, the fact that a number of publishers advertise Pulitzer Prize novels not, as the award states, as “best portraying the highest standard of American morals and manners” or whatever it is but as the in every-way “best novel of the year,” and third the whole general matter of any body arrogating to itself the right to choose a best novel (4/4/1926; p.203).

The next month when it was announced he’d in fact won the prize, that’s exactly what he did. Over the next five years, two more novels followed, their successes culminating in his being awarded the 1930 Nobel Prize in Literature. But upon achieving the success he predicted, it wasn’t enough and he was letdown by how Harcourt handled the news. In one of his last letters to the publisher, he writes as both a disappointed author–and a hurt friend.

To put it brutally, I feel that the firm let me down, let my books down, in regard to the prize award. It seems to me that you failed to revive the sale of my books as you might have and that … you let me down as an author by not getting over to the people of the United States the way in which the rest of the world greeted the award. It would have meant the expenditure of considerable money on your part to have done this, but never in history has an American publisher had such a chance.

… If you haven’t used this opportunity to push my books energetically and to support my prestige intelligently, you never will do so, because I can never give you again such a moment (1/21/1931; p.300-1).

Harcourt’s final words are moving:

I know you have some idea of how sorry I am that events have taken this turn. You and we have been so closely associated in our youth and growth that I wish we might have gone the rest of the way together. If I’ve lost an author, you haven’t lost either a friend or a devoted reader (2/3/1931; p.302).

In the end, the book’s a wonderful case study of the relationship a writer has with their publisher. These letters show us firsthand everything that goes into the writing process, from hard work and support to, yes, an insatiable ego. Turning the last page, one finds they’ve walked with Lewis and Harcourt the long road from Main Street to Stockholm, and even if it ends with a sigh, along the way neither needed to stop to catch their breath.

From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930 is available for free on the Internet Archive here.

“Made while under fire”: Elijah E. Edwards’ Civil War sketches

Elijah Evan EdwardsBefore there were cameras to document warfare, there were sketchbooks. So imagine then sketching a battlefield and, as smoke filled the air and bullets zipped past, trying to keep your pencil straight. This, though, was the experience of many artists, including Elijah Evan Edwards (1831-1915), who served as chaplain of the 7th Minnesota Infantry during the Civil War (1864-1865).

The Minnesota Historical Society has three volumes of Edwards’ journals, including a 1910 typescript he wrote synthesizing his pocket diaries from the war. In it he discusses daily camp life, the people he met, different battles, and so on. Besides being an invaluable, firsthand account of the Civil War, what makes the text rich is its being accompanied by several dozen sketches made from “hasty outlines finished from memory when I had leisure.” “This is especially true of the battle scenes,” he added, “since I had during the critical moments of the conflict neither leisure nor opportunity to make sketches.” (p.1). It’s these that distinguish Edwards’ written account from others.

In describing how he made his sketches, he noted that at least a few “were made while under fire, but none to the neglect of any of the duties devolving upon me as Chaplain.” Describing a few such cases,  he reflected upon “the difficulties in the way of an ‘artist on the spot’ who attempts to depict war scenes.” (p.1).

His art is a dangerous pastime. It will also suggest a reason for the differences between his sketches and those of the professional artist, who immured in his studio paints battle scenes from the descriptions of others aided by the suggestions of his own fervid imagination. (p.2).

The consequence of this, Edwards continued, is that

Conventional ideas of both the artist and the public require battle scenes in which human agents are conspicuous and active. There must be heroes in the fight. There must be martial music, the roar of artillery, the waving of banners, soldiers marching in serried gaily uniformed and keeping exact time as they march. There must be romantic accessories to the scene, or it is no true picture. This ideal is undoubtedly a survival of the old Ossianic and Homeric conceptions of war, and has but little foundations in the conduct of modern warfare. (p.2).

Thus, in his writing as well as his sketches, he aspired “to report only what I saw or learned from observers of what I saw myself, and in no case to create or vary from its realism for the sake of effect.” (p.2).

Elijah Evan Edwards - On the Road to PontotocElijah Evan Edwards - On the Way to TupeloElijah Evan Edwards - Imago Mortis

Elijah Evan Edwards - Body of Lewis Hardy

“Body of Lieut. Hardy carried from the Battle-Field of Tupelo, July 15th, 1864” and “General A.J. Smith, The Last to Leave the Field of Tupelo.”

While reading through the typescript, I was drawn to Edwards’ account of the Battle of Tupelo (July 14-15, 1864), a Union victory. After a vivid description of his experience (working primarily with the wounded) he writes of surveying the field and coming upon a Lt. Col. Lewis Hardy. Inspecting him, it was clear the young man was “was mortally wounded and could not be moved.” (p.27-28). So as ambulances and medics passed Edwards asked for their help, being told there was either no room or no hope.

Staying with Hardy, as the artillery came up followed closely by Union General Andrew J. Smith, the general looked over Hardy and “answered by a great oath that sounded like an evidence of Grace in heart, saying as he did […] that no brave soldier of his, man or officer, should be left living or dead on the field.” General Smith then halted a nearby artillery wagon and ordered Hardy be fastened to the box–but “by the time we had fastened the Lieutenant to the caisson, he had breathed his last.” (p.28).

Elijah Evan Edwards - Burial of Lewis Hardy

“Burial of 1st Lieu. Lewis Hardy, of Co. 7t Minn. July 15, 1864.”

Riding beside the corpse, when Edwards arrived at camp the unit came together and buried Hardy “near midnight and by torchlight.” As they did so, Edwards made a few sketches in his notebook of the scene as the Confederate artillery “continued shelling our deserted battlefield […] But he was too badly beaten to pursue us any great distance.” (p.28). The next morning the unit rose early and marched on toward Memphis.

When Sunday morning passed without service, the chaplain gloomily recorded:

My sole religious duties thus far have to speak a word of cheer to some soldier on the march, to commend the dying to the infinite mercies of God and lastly

“to carry off the wounded-
to cover up the dead.” (p.30)

Although I’ve read several history books about the Civil War, I’ve always been more interested in personal accounts like Edwards’ (i.e. letters, diaries, and journals). While (good) historical writing offers context and analysis and from many particulars draws designs of an era and its influences, it is just one of many ways to engage with history. The reason why I love personal accounts so much is precisely because it lacks these grand schemes and doesn’t hide its quirks, biases, and urgency. It’s this last trait that revives the dead and, for me, humanizes history–that very real, very human obsession to pick up a pen or, in Edwards’ case, sit down at a typewriter and say: I need to tell this story.