I’ve never been to Minneota, Minnesota, but somehow it has intruded on my life.
My sixth grade teacher (1951-1952) was a young woman, Miss Matthews, whose hometown happened to be Minneota. She liked to travel a lot and sometimes told stories about being in places like the east coast where people in all innocence asked her if we were still having trouble with the Indian wars. When she told them she was from Minneota, Minnesota, they laughed; the name itself sounded ridiculous. I do not remember many specifics of the sixth grade, but that is one of them.
Notice of Minneota went by the wayside over the years, and it was not until around 1970 and living in Platteville Wisconsin that I met up with another connection. Judy Megorden, our associate pastor’s wife, was also from Minneota. We and the Megordens got to be very good friends. Still Minneota in itself remained a remote, unknown place.
More time went by and I was visiting my close college friend, Rolf Erickson, in Evanston. He was a librarian at Northwestern University, and I often stayed with him when the American Library Association met in Chicago. Rolf had a huge battery of friends, partially social and partially from his extensive endeavors on behalf of Norwegian-American studies. On that occasion, we were invited to dinner with some of his friends and acquaintances, three of whom were editors at Scott-Foresman Publishing Company. In the course of dinner conversation, the host trotted out a magazine – either Atlantic or Harpers – and proceeded to read aloud the story or article about life in a small town, Minneota, and its characters. The editor was from there, as was the author, someone named Bill Holm.
The hilarity of the piece made two things clear. Bill Holm was a gifted writer who made the seemingly mundane come alive. A tiny town of a thousand or fewer, like Minneota, had as much to offer as New York City, however different they may be in particulars. I kick myself now that I did not follow-up on the spot.
More years flow by. In the fall of 1988, the Minnesota Library Association was meeting in Rochester. While I was involved in the session “How Do Librarians Lead?” the Reader’s Advisory Round Table sponsored “Meet the Author” with Bill Holm, who talked about his new book, a collection of essays called Prairie Days. I had to miss him. However, as some of us ate lunch together, Tom Scott, Director of Plum Creek Regional Library System, called Bill Holm to come over and eat with us. Not only did Plum Creek encompass Minneota in its region, but Tom Scott was a great promoter of Minnesota literature and had involved Bill Holm in some of the region’s program offerings.
So here was Bill Holm in the flesh, over six feet tall and impressively big, with a resonant voice and quick to give his views. In minutes he had a book out and was thumping it at is. “You must read this book,” he championed, and began reading us a section that was truly magnetic. The book was The Cape Ann, by Faith Sullivan, who at the time lived in Los Angeles where her husband was a critic for the Times. Holmes may have known her from the Sullivans’ earlier years in Minnesota to which they would shortly thereafter return. I had now witnessed Bill Holm at his irrepressible best; or, so I thought.
Bill Holm, split his writing time with teaching at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota. SWSU had been founded in the latter years of my college career, just 30 miles down the road from my hometown. I was familiar with Marshall thanks to my uncle Odin Berge and his family who lived there most of the years I was growing up. If I had been older and had my MALS by then, I would have tried to get a library job there. But I was soon elsewhere.
Bill Holm had taught a year in China, 1986-1987, something I did not know until I heard him speak at a meeting of the Minnesota Association of Library Friends in 1989. He had a book coming out on his China experience and his talk was a wondrous mixture of the depth of Chinese culture, its intrinsic difference from our own, and the repression of ideas that the government held over everyday life. At one point, he even smuggled ancient Chinese classics from Singapore into China for his students. When I returned to my job at the state library agency, my first self-assigned task was to seek the possibility of getting Holm’s talk published by our office. “Book Smuggling” came out in Minnesota Libraries.
By 1989, I had become involved in the Minnesota Book Awards. After the Awards second year’s program, that fall, the committee decided it would work best to hold the event in the spring, and annually thereafter. Among the 1989-1990 nominees in the Biography category was Holm’s book Coming Home Crazy: an alphabet of China essays. The book received the award.
He autographed our copy of the book – “For Pat Sween and Roger too! Best regards from Minneota, Bill Holm.” I was now a full-fledged Bill Holm fan with more was still to come.
Bill Holm was coming to Red Wing for a performance at the Sheldon Auditorium, and the worry of the organizers was the challenge of filling the 400-seat theater. I volunteered to help popularize the event which including writing an encouraging letter to the Republican Eagle that promised an event not to be missed. The place was packed, certainly due to the momentum Holm already gained in his career from appearing on Prairie Home Companion and other Minnesota Public Radio Spots. His torrent of fans swarmed in from all along the coulees of the Mississippi River Valley. The show was a non-stop delight.
Bill Holm gave a one-man performance that came on full force. He read his poetry and some choice poems of other poets. He told stories and anecdotes. At times, he harangued the audience over politics, but jovially or with irony, always with the staying suggestion that we could be better than we are. He sang and played the grand piano with pieces ranging from J.S. Bach to jazz. I thought that though Minnesota is well-blessed with poets, and Robert Bly has the regard of the nation, likely no other Minnesota poet is as loved and popular as Bill Holm.
Later in the season when the Friends of the Red Wing Public Library wanted to start a book discussion group, I volunteered to facilitate a discussion of Coming Home Crazy. Scarcely a dozen people came, all women if I remember correctly. I compared this hardy core with the packed house at the Sheldon and thought of Holm’s view that we have too much entertainment and not enough enlightenment.
In 1997, Holm received his second Minnesota Book Award for The Heart May Be Filled Anywhere in the World: Minneota, Minnesota, which also received that night the John R. Flanagan Award for contributions to the literature of the Midwest. He commented in his acceptance how he appreciated living in a state where the citizens held books, reading and poetry in such high regard. Even politicians did, he said, as he mentioned in particular, former Governor Elmer Andersen, a noted collector, and former Senator Eugene McCarthy, a respected poet. After the tenth Awards program in 1998, I discontinued my association with the Minnesota Book Awards. Other work assignments had overcome me, and I had begun to plan and prepare for the day I would leave employment in 2000.
That did not mean that I lost all contact with the Minnesota community of the book, as we fondly called ourselves. Besides, I did see Bill Holm one final time.
The state convention of the American Association of University Women met in Willmar in April of 2007. The evening entertainment featured Bill Holm, a program that was open to the public, piano and all. He exuded the usual energy, but seemed to be suffering from a cold. He looked flushed and sweaty. The program was necessarily shorter than that glorious night at the Sheldon had been, but he ran through his usual shtick with the addition of tales related to his ancestral home, Iceland, where he had purchased a house on the island’s northern edge. I remain amazed about that evening in the number of people he knew in the audience and with whom he bantered even calling to them by name.
I always thought that Bill Holm gave himself to life more recklessly than I ever would or could. We may amplify our own life through the lives of others, but especially poets and other artists. I worried that he did not take care of himself as he in so revelatory a fashion leaped into the full flight of daily experience. I knew that he had heart trouble. Nevertheless, it was a shocking surprise when I learned yesterday as I drove back to Red Wing from Owatonna that upon a return from performing in Arizona, he had died on Wednesday, 26 February 2009, only 65 years old.
Once, I had seen Bill Holm at two events within one week. When he saw me in the audience at the second, he said, “Roger, what are you doing here? Haven’t you had enough?”
“I’m a Bill Holm groupie,” I said. He was not enough for me.
The Boxelder Bug Prays
I want so little
For so little time,
A south window,
A wall to climb,
The smell of coffee,
A radio knob,
Nothing to eat,
Nothing to rob,
Not love, not power,
Not even a penny.
Forgive me only
For being so many.
—Boxelder Bug Variations, © 1985, page 10.
Copyright © 2009 by Roger Sween.
Bill Holm appeared in CeptsForm on Blogspot, 28 Feb. 2009, and moved to WordPress, 17 Nov. 2010.
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