The round monk
with the kindest eyes
hands me a tiny bag of sand.
‘Release it into moving water
for the healing of the world.’
He bows away.
I am not good at this.
I spill a bit if it at Easter
and let some go in August
up at Grand Marais,
the waves applauding at my feet.
But I hold back
and now a year has galloped past
and I still hoard
this tablespoon of sand.
I cannot open up my hands
Duluth’s Poet Laureate from 2012-14 Deborah Cooper’s “Impermanence,” captures a truth about Duluth poets: Like the grains of sand that disperse, when we finally must let go, we know they will still be healing the world’s wounds with their words.
Duluth has been a vibrant hotbed of poetry for over a century. “The first collection of poems we know of was Lake Superior and Other Poems by Will J. Massingham, published in 1904,” says Bart Sutter, Duluth’s first Poet Laureate. “There was a lot going on in the ’30s, too, but things really took off in the ’70s.”
In 2005, Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed a bill that would have created a Poet Laureate Program for the state. When Holy Cow! Press publisher Jim Perlman heard this, “My agitated response was to work on organizing a poet laureate project for the Duluth area as a way of honoring local poets and encouraging the enjoyment of poetry.”
Scrabbling through the past 40 years of Duluth’s poetry reveals that we already had an unofficial poet laureate. Patrick McKinnon and his collaborators, Bud Backen, Ellie Schoenfeld, Andrea McKinnon, Kelly Green, and Liz Minette, solicited poetry from Duluth and beyond, wrote grants, edited and assembled quarterlies and chapbooks, and held periodic readings.
McKinnon served as co-editor for North Coast Review and general manager for Poetry Motel. Both journals are now defunct, but most of the collaborators continue to write to this day. “It was an insane amount of work,” says Schoenfeld. But it was a labor of love for nearly 15 years, and the journals began a Golden Age of Poetry in Duluth.
Sheila Packa grew up on the Iron Range and was Duluth’s Poet Laureate from 2010-12. During the Loft Mentor Series in Minneapolis, poet James Wright encouraged her not to dismiss her regional instincts. Packa’s poem “Work” capture the essence of mining:
These lives are shaped by notes
in the dark underground
jammed into coal for the furnaces
by the frictions of boom and bust.
We use everything until it’s gone.
Ellie Schoenfeld’s “Hibbing, MN” personifies the mines and the winds of Hibbing:
Purple mesas bleed
out of the earth
on the Iron Range.
with overcrowded popple,
people talk about skiing
into the pits, have built
museums to help us
interpret the holes.
The wind is disturbed here,
sings a song of the time before
people were interested
in turning the earth
Titles can sometimes camouflage the more nuanced meaning. Consider current Duluth Poet Laureate Jim Johnson’s “In Praise of Lutefisk.”
In late November he dipped the slabs—
whitefish, sucker, or burbot—
in lye and stockpiled them out back along the shed like stove wood.
each slab he sold he chopped out of its own ice.
That dogs pissed on them didn’t seem to affect the flavor.
The smell that steamed the windows of every Christmas Eve,
preserved his life and ours—salted, canned
like meat, dried like flowers, distilled like night. In coffee cans,
cookie jars, tin boxes
buried out in the orchard. Mattresses stuffed. Bank accounts.
Much less could be said
than that he invested wisely in lutefisk.
Much of Duluth’s poetry is regional in landscape, demographics, and climate, but our poets are concerned with matters both weighty and mundane, just like poets everywhere. Though many Duluth poets have passed or relocated, those still here today are as productive as ever.