Bill Holm named McKnight Distinguished Artist

Bill Holm
Poet and essayist Bill Holm is the 2008 McKnight Foundation Distinguished Artist.
Photo by Einar Falur, courtesy McKnight Foundation

Ask Bill Holm why he thinks he's getting the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, and he says it's because he's stuck around. It's not what he planned when he was young, growing up in Minneota in southwestern Minnesota.

"My old essay, 'The Music of Failure,' begins with my longing when I was a kid of seeing the city limits of Minneota receding in the rear view mirror of a car driving east," Holm explained.

He got his wish eventually, although his trip east was just to St. Peter and Gustavus Adolphus College. While he kept traveling over the years, to the Iceland of his ancestors, to Europe, to China and to Africa, he kept coming back to Minneota.

"The further away from Minnesota that I got, the more I realized that my material as a writer -- not just the material, but the way that I saw the world, and the lens through which I observed America, the world and my life -- had something to do with this funny little town where I was born," he said.

"I'm going think about what school amounts to in America, what it means, and what good is it? I don't know the answer to that question until I've started thinking."

While Holm has produced a pile of books of prose and poetry over the years, he's earned his living as a teacher.

Now, newly retired Bill Holm says he realizes he's been in school as a student or teacher since 1949, when he entered the first grade. As a result, he wants to write a book about schools and schooling.

"I'm going think about what school amounts to in America, what it means, and what good is it," he said. "I don't know the answer to that question until I've started thinking."

Holm remembers how out of his own high school graduating class of 40, about a half dozen people went to college. The rest worked the farm or at other jobs and got married.

Last week, when he spoke to a high school class in Minneota, Holm said he asked how many were college-bound.

"And I think all but two hands in a pretty good sized class went up," he said. "There were two guys who were going to go straight back to farming, and everyone else was going to go to college. And this was in Minneota for heaven's sake. That means essentially that college is now the extension of high school, and that we expect everybody to go to college, whatever that amounts to."

Bill Holm said he wants to explore the modern expectations of college.

"It's a great gift, and sort a mark of honor in America. But what does it amount to?" Holm asked. "And what do you find out by going to college? What is college? So I'm going to think about that question a little bit."

Holm also has a book of poetry about Iceland to finish. In fact, he said he has a goal of writing better poetry and improving his skills at the piano, particularly with the works of Bach.

"And I've started another project that pianists shouldn't avoid for too long, and that is trying to play Chopin decently. I used to make fun of Chopin, but now, the more I play him, the better he gets," said Holm. "He's an extraordinary genius. So I am going to see if I can play a half dozen Chopin pieces decently before I can't remember who Chopin was."

Before all that, Holm is going to spend the summer in Iceland, to finish that book of poetry.

But he also points out he's pleased to be leaving before the first Minnesota mosquito hatch. They don't exist in Iceland.