How Minnesota found its poetic voice

Wang Ping
Wang Ping grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, then came to the US, and now lives in the Twin Cities. She is a poet, she's published both fiction and non-fiction, including a book on foot-binding, and recently has become an acclaimed photographer.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

At Patrick's Cabaret in Minneapolis four poets perform their work. Patricia Kirkpatrick, Wang Ping and Margaret Hasse echo Angela Shannon as she reads her poem "Shadow Man."

As the evening progresses they continue linking and interjecting into each other's work. These are disparate voices, but they're exploring common themes.

Shannon says she moved to Minnesota from Florida and Oklahoma. She says here she's found a wide range of poetry, and a place for her to maintain her particular voice as a writer.

Poet Robert Hedein
Robert Hedin served as editor for "Where One Voice Ends Another Begins: 150 years of Minnesota Poetry," published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. He also runs the Anderson Center in Red Wing.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"Place is really important. I know that I carry history with me. I feel like I'm always really aware of history, of culture, of ancestors and at the same time I'm moving forward. I'm trying to figure out, what is it for me here? What's in Minnesota for me?" she asks.

Shannon is just one of the new writers included in the anthology. She's African American. Wang Ping left China after college and Hasse is originally from South Dakota.

Editor and director of the Anderson Center in Red Wing, Robert Hedin gathered these voices along with many others.

The anthology spans from the Ojibwe tradition of 1850, F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 20s, Robert Bly in the late 50s to Mayli Vang today.

He says his goal was to create a comprehensive collection that showed the evolution of the state's poetry. Hedin says a lot of people were writing when Minnesota was still the frontier, and even when Fitzgerald left for France. But most of it wasn't very good. He says Minnesota's evolution to great poetry is marked by the arrival of Robert Bly and his surreal images.

Robert Bly
Robert Bly is described as a pivotal figure in the history of Minnesota poetry by anthology editor Robert Hedin
Submitted photo

"What Bly has called for years a leap of the imagination. And you combine all those kinds of things -- the rhythm, the imagery, the sense of place -- and it all combines into something that was not seen in Minnesota prior to 1962," he says.

Hedin says Bly's work has a sense of place, and all great American writers, like Hawthorne, Frost and Melville, have that deep, clear sense of place.

This is part of Bly's poem "Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River."

"I am driving, it is dusk: Minnesota.

The stubble field catches the last growth of sun.

The soybeans are breathing on all sides.

Old men are sitting before their houses on car seats

in the small towns. I am happy.

The moon rising above the turkey sheds."

Turkey sheds wouldn't likely appear in Melville's writing, which was based in New York. But Hedin says a region's literature is about more than knowing the landscape. It's a distillation.

Angela Shannon
Angela Shannon is a poet and assistant professor of English at Bethel University. Shannon's poetry speaks of land and ancestry.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"Of getting to know the self and the land and the relationship between the two, that you are able to articulate it, or are allowed to articulate it," he says. That applies to Minnesota's latest writers, like Hmong poet Mayli Vang and Ojibwe poet Heid Erdrich. In these cases, the sense of places does not necessarily include the land. But Hedin says instead there's a politicized voice.

"That has to do with alienation and disenfranchisement. These poets being caught in a no-man's land, I guess you could say, between their old cultures, the cultures in which they find themselves firmly rooted, and a Minnesota culture that denies them any kind of meaningful assimilation," he says.

Hedin says these poets seem to be speaking with collective or communal voices of their cultures. And, as with Angela Shannon and Margaret Hasse reading, almost singing, Wang Ping's poem "Sequoia," in a round, those voices share and make space for one another.

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