Turn Left at Nowhere: A Century of Morris Poetry

"This anthology is a love letter to my newest hometown, to the rural, and to the small," writes Julie Arhelger in the introduction to Turn Left at Nowhere: A Century of Morris Poetry (2014). Compiled as her capstone project for the University of Minnesota Morris' (UMM) honors program*, Turn Left is a lovely volume of pieces inspired … Continue reading Turn Left at Nowhere: A Century of Morris Poetry

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A Column in a Newspaper that Doesn’t Exist

My First Column: We're Living in a Russian Novel ... From where I write, Elmer Springs is a pale glow through winter fog, and as the long arms of night stretch across the road, I feel as though I could be anywhere. In fact, as my little wood stove crackles and growls against the cold, I feel like I'm living in a Russian novel. Having grown up here, I know all about Elmer Springs' generational conflict. I know its class tensions (though in a city whose per capita income is less than the state and national averages, antagonisms exist only between the have-nots and have-lesses). Instead of St. Petersburg and Moscow, we have Minneapolis and St. Paul, cities our little state representative decries for its excesses but insists having the right to visit every two years. Whether any of us are Utopians or Anarchists is as much dependent on the number of ducks in the pond as any coherent political philosophy. Perhaps there's a story here, but I have no ambition to be my generation's Tolstoy. ...

Garrison Keillor to Robert Bly: “Few poets can re-order our consciousness…”

While going through the Robert Bly Papers at the University of Minnesota, I came across two letters I wanted to share. In the past I've posted pieces from young writers like Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, and Hunter S. Thompson, but the following come from two of the state's most-famous contemporaries. The first excerpt is from Garrison Keillor (age 27) and the other from Bill Holm (age 26). Both letters are dated 1969 and written after Bly gained fame for his literary magazine The Fifties (then The Sixties) and first book of poems, Silence in the Snowy Fields (1963). In 1966, Bly co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War and through it staged readings on college campuses across the country, which introduced him to many young poets. This kind of literary activism culminated in his winning the National Book Award for his politically-charged The Light Around the Body (1967). It is hard to overstate the influence Bly had on his contemporaries during the decade. Although both Keillor and and Holm later found their own fame for A Prairie Home Companion and The Music of Failure (1985), respectively, these were still decades away. In fact the two would become good friends with Keillor calling Holm, "The sage ... a colleague of Whitman born one hundred years too late."

What Did I Get Out of It? – Joshua P. Preston

Four years ago I was invited to attend the National Rural Youth Assembly in Santa Fe, NM. There I joined 50 other young activists to discuss rural issues and policy, but being nineteen, I spent most the time quiet, nervous. Looking back, though, it was an experience that later framed my work in the DFL Party and elsewhere. In this brief article, I discuss how so.

[Excerpt]:
Following the election, I spent the next two years attending as many DFL meetings as I could, spending all of my money on gas. Quickly, I developed the reputation of being “That Guy from Morris,” and, at the 2012 State Convention, was elected to serve on the DFL State Executive Committee. As both the only rural youth and its youngest member overall, I served one two-year term doing what I could to make the party more welcoming to young people.

While serving, I also immersed myself in the state’s rural political and literary history. Everyone wants to see their home, their experiences, represented in the culture, so I read everything I could. I read about the Nonpartisan League and the Farmer-Labor Party. Through Sinclair Lewis, Robert Bly, Paul Gruchow, and others, I saw through their eyes the prairies I walked, the same roads I drove, the people I knew. Together these gave me a broad sense of what rural organizing could amount to and formed the basis of my own rural identity. The development of this identity is the difference between being from just another small town and a hometown. Without it, there is no sense of place. …

National Rural Youth Assembly

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What Did I Get Out of It?

When I attended the National Rural Youth Assembly, I was a freshman at the University of Minnesota Morris. Being nineteen, I had no experience in politics and no grasp of public policy. So, traveling to Santa Fe, I worried whether I’d have anything to contribute – and, as I discovered, I didn’t. Nervously, shuffling from one workshop to another, I filled my notebook with everything I heard. Two days later, when I was on the plane back to Minnesota, I wondered what the experience meant. What did I get out of it? At the time, I wasn’t sure, but in one’s formative years, mere exposure is its own takeaway.

Looking back four years later, I take it for granted that I have an immense pride being from southwestern Minnesota. Far from being an epithet, I embrace the label “rural,” and am proud knowing…

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The Colonel Surrenders in Minnesota

I'm posting here an article I originally wrote for the Kandiyohi County Historical Society newsletter titled, "The Colonel Surrenders in Minnesota" (here's the original .pdf). In it I tell the story of something that, growing up in Montevideo, I was vaguely aware of but knew nothing about. So, turning to the archives I tried to learn more about the only time (as far as I'm aware) a U.S. President visited western Minnesota. The fact that it happened to be Teddy Roosevelt just as he was planning his political comeback should be no surprise. Two years later, in 1912, the state rewarded Roosevelt's efforts with its 12 electoral votes. Radical politics were nothing new to the western part of the state -- in fact, the seventh district's first congressman was a member of the Populist Party and, later, represented by the prohibitionist Andrew J. Volstead. (It's forgotten now, but prohibition was a progressive movement that advocated for women's suffrage and workers' rights among other things). Because of this and the fact that the major rails to the Twin Cities ran through the region, it was not uncommon for satellite cities like Willmar to receive its fair share of speakers. Everyone from William Jennings Bryan (source) to Eugene V. Debs (source) and "Big Bill" Haywood (source) at one point or another visited the city. As I've written elsewhere, this region was later a hotbed for the Farmer-Labor Association. It was Appleton, for example, that Farmer-Labor Party Governor Elmer Benson called home.

“A Butterfly Sleeps on the Temple Bell” by Don Olsen, Midwest Printer

Recently, SMSU English professor and Rural Lit RALLY Advisory Board member David Pichaske was kind enough to send me a copy of Don Olsen's A Butterfly Sleeps on the Temple Bell: A Reminiscence on the Ox Head Press, 1966-2000 (Cross+Roads Press, 2003, 124pgs). Unfortunately, it's out of print but I wanted to say a few words about it since, sadly, nowadays if it can't be found on a Google Search, it doesn't exist. Consider this short review my way of contributing to the western Minnesota paper trail. Don Olsen was a letterpress printer who, prior to retiring in the late-'80s, was a librarian at Southwest Minnesota State University. It was during time that he founded Ox Head Press. In addition to printing cards and broadsides, Olsen published several small pamphlets by an impressive list of writers including Robert Bly, Bill Holm, Ursula K. Le Guin, Pablo Neruda, and Stephen Dunn. Many of these can only be found in university archives (in fact, a Google search for "Ox Head Press" only returns archive catalogs). As the book unfolds, so too does his printer's philosophy, which incidentally was opposed to exactly what's happened to his pieces.