Minneapolis poet Janna Knittel reads us a favorite poem

A person smiles in front of a dirt trail, trees, and a river.
Janna Knittel is a Minneapolis-based poet originally from the Pacific Northwest. Knittel's latest poetry collection, Real Work, is a Minnesota Book Award finalist.
Courtesy of Janna Knittel

April is National Poetry Month, so we’re turning to poets to tell us what’s inspiring them.

Janna Knittel is a Minneapolis-based poet and the author of the poetry collections “Fish & Wildlife” and “Real Work.” “Real Work” is a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award. Janna read MPR News host Cathy Wurzer a favorite poem and talked about their inspiration.

Listen to Knittel read their favorite poem here:

Janna Knittel reads 'Inversnaid' by Gerard Manly Hopkins

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: April, as you know, is National Poetry Month, so we are turning to poets to tell us what's inspiring them. Janna Knittel is a Minneapolis-based poet and the author of the poetry collections Fish and Wildlife and Real Work. That second book, by the way, is a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award. Wow. Janna's is on the line. Congratulations.

JANNA KNITTEL: Oh, thank you so much, Cathy. I am both grateful and giddy to be here.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, please, no. Don't be giddy. It's just me. It's just me. [LAUGHS] But congratulations. That is huge to be nominated for a Minnesota Book Award.


INTERVIEWER: I'm going to get a copy of Real Work. I want to know the story behind it.

JANNA KNITTEL: It started growing out of these memories that were coming up completely unbidden when I had just started the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. And if you had told me years and years ago that I would be writing poems about family and farm life, I probably would have laughed. But these memories just kept coming, so I started writing about that.

And I was also writing a lot about my own experiences hiking, biking, cross-country skiing in Minnesota and memories of camping trips in Oregon. And finally, the title came to me with a line from a poem by Alice Oswald where she says, "This is what keeps you and me alive. This is the real work of the river." And that seemed to tie together the themes of physical labor on the farm, emotional work of dealing with loss, and then the environmental themes that are in the book.

INTERVIEWER: The loss, by the way, I know that's really hard. I know you lost your sister. She was young, too.


INTERVIEWER: It's a lot of grief and loss to work through.

JANNA KNITTEL: Yes, it was, and I actually have a story of a fellow poet recommending that I include a poem at the end. She said it would be really great to have a poem at the end of the collection that shows us that the speaker is doing OK now. And I think my response was something like, "Well, what if they're not?" [LAUGHS] But I did end up-- the final poem in the collection on the trail is one where I find maybe a bit of reconciliation in where I am these days.

INTERVIEWER: Each poet we're talking to this month, Janna, has been asked to bring a poem that first got them hooked on poetry. What did you pick?

JANNA KNITTEL: I picked a poem by the 19th-century English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who's a favorite of mine, and the title of the poem is Inversnaid, which is a rural location in Scotland.

INTERVIEWER: I was going to have you read it but I think what I might do here is to ask you to, with about a minute left here sadly, for our listeners who are not into poetry, what's your pitch for why they should pick up a book of poetry and just read it, just let it wash over them? What's the pitch?

JANNA KNITTEL: I really try to tell people to focus on the sounds that they're experiencing and not worry so much about what the poem means. You can work that out with multiple readings of a poem. But some poetry, like Hopkins, is very musical, and there's a play with sound that's just delightful and should be heard out loud. And just really get a feel for, you know, not so much what the poem means but what the poem is trying to do and the sounds that it's creating. And then you can piece together what those images add up to. And I just really enjoy it. And I do really encourage people to come out to poetry readings and hear poets perform their work, because it is meant to be heard out loud.

INTERVIEWER: It is. It is, and it's lovely. Janna, thank you and again, congratulations.

JANNA KNITTEL: Thank you so much.

INTERVIEWER: Janna Kendall is the author of the poetry collection Real Work, which is a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award.

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