Saturday, May 14, 2016

10 Minutes with Author/Poet Barton Sutter of the 2016 Duluth Dylan Fest's Poets of the North Country

As noted several times May 24 marks Bob Dylan's 75th birthday and with that comes many celebrations of this occasion in all parts of the world. Here in the Northland, the Duluth Dylan Fest team has stepped up its game with a number a new events, and several amped up versions of existing events. This is the third year that a poetry event is slated for the 8-day week of Dylan Fest. But thanks to poet/publisher Jeffrey Woolverton this year's Poets of the North Country, to be held at The Underground on May 25, is going to be an exceptionally special event.

Readings by Duluth Poet Laureate Jim Johnson, Past Poet Laureate Barton Sutter, and local poet Ellie Schoenfeld have already begun creating anticipation. The fourth featured speaker will be Minnesota writer and publisher David Pichaske, author of Song of the North Country, followed by readings by local poets including Gary Boelhower, Michelle Matthees, Julie Gard, Liz Minette, Jan Chronister, and more.

As a warm-up I've been reaching out to several of the poets so I could introduce them here in greater depth. In addition to being selected as Duluth's first Poet Laureate in 2006, Barton Sutter has won the Minnesota Book Award for Creative Non-fiction (Cold Comfort: Life at the Top of the Map) along with numerous other awards. Sutter is the only author to have won the Minnesota Book Award in three different categories -- for fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction.

EN: How did you come to take a serious interest in poetry? Who were your biggest influences?

Barton Sutter: I had a terrible teacher for Freshman English in high school, but we had a very good text, and I was struck by quite a number of poems in that book. I also participated in competitive speech, and that sort of work is apt to develop your ear and draw you toward poetry. As Donald Hall says somewhere, “If, when you read it aloud, it gets better, it’s literature.”

My deepest influences were probably 1) the reticent Scandinavian-American culture in which I grew up, where I absorbed the idea that words were too valuable to waste, 2) my father’s work as a Lutheran minister, where I saw him shift back and forth between everyday speech and something I’d call “utterance,” 3) my maternal grandmother’s way with a story, and 4) my brother’s work as a folk singer specializing in Celtic and Scandinavian music.

If you’re talking about more strictly literary influences, I would name Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Bly, James Wright, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Maxine Kumin, and that’s just for starters. Not Wallace Stevens, that son of a bitch.

EN: There are some who have written that because of the manner in which poetry is being “performed” (presented in live readings more often than read) that poetry has been changing. What are the pros and cons of live poetry readings?

Barton Sutter: Poetry began and persisted as an oral art form for centuries before the invention of the printing press. It was closely related to music and drama. I think it still should be. Fine poetry well performed can move an audience to tears, laughter, wonder, even provide a spiritual experience. That’s why we still go see Shakespeare. I’ve performed in a poetry-and-music duo with my brother for more than 30 years. My fourth verse play will be produced in June. Obviously, I’m a big believer in the performed poem. On the other hand, I also really value the solitary reading experience, with the chance to re-read, mull, and savor. And performers get away with a lot of crap because they’ve got a blue mullet or swear a lot. Honestly. Some of the dreck that people applaud in live performance, it slides right off the page. Nothing worse than a bad poetry reading, whether dull, pretentious, or melodramatic. As Michael Dennis Browne says, “I’d rather watch re-runs of Hawaii Five-0.”

EN: I heard it said that when you were named the first Poet Laureate of Duluth you demurred and said there was another before you, meaning Dylan. Care to elaborate?

Barton Sutter: I don’t remember saying that. I might have because I run my mouth much more than the Scandinavian farmers I grew up around. If I did say it, I shouldn’t have because Bob Dylan left Duluth as a wee boy, so I suspect his oeuvre was pretty limited at that age, nor did he write much about this place later that I’m aware of. But I’d be happy to vote for him to be made the Poet Laureate of Hibbing. I’m sure he’d appreciate that. Or not.

EN: What is it that has made Dylan such a significant influence over the course of our lifetimes?

Receiving the Medal, painting by Ed Newman
Barton Sutter: First, the guy is in the running for greatest American songwriter ever—and he would be even if he had quit halfway through his career. He’s original, but he knows his stuff, knows the tradition and uses it. He’s been tremendously prolific, and he’s mastered a multitude of styles. Second—and I think this is just a gift because plenty of excellent songwriters don’t have it—for the first ten years or so of his career, he absolutely channeled the spirit of the times. He’d react to something personal, but the song he produced based on that incident spoke to the concerns of thousands, millions. I mean, it was a quantum leap from the enjoyable chewing gum of the Everly Brothers and the Beach Boys to “Hard Rain,” and most of a generation made the jump with Dylan. Third, lots of his lyrics last. They hold up and still apply. They linger in people’s heads. I look around at the landscape of this year’s election: There’s Trump and his followers; there’s Bernie and his backers. And the Washington insiders don’t know what the hell is going on. And in my head, I’m hearing, “Because something is happening here, / And you don’t know what it is, / Do you, Mr. Jones?”

EN: Where did you grow up and how did you end up in the North Country?

Barton Sutter: I spent the first six years of my life in a village of fifteen people outside of Roseau, which may explain my lasting affection for hockey. For some reason, I don’t see many other poets at hockey games. Didn’t have many playmates, spent a lot of time alone, wandering around in the woods and hanging out in culverts, which make a cool sound when you bang on them with sticks. Then a village of fifty, south of Jackson on the Iowa border, great place for kids, where we ran wild on the river and in the gravel pits. Then—exile!—over the border into Iowa, a village of 200, surrounded by corn and beans, where, among other things, I discovered the music of Bob Dylan. I was a nature boy, read Sigurd Olson, and vowed I would make it back to the green spaces on the map of Minnesota I had hanging on my wall. I went to Bemidji State for my first two years of college and began making runs over to the North Shore with friends. Dropped out at one point and spent a year in Grand Marais. My maternal grandparents spent all of their adult lives in the Twin Ports. My mother graduated from Denfeld. It’s a long story, but this place was mythic in my mind, so, finally, at age 37, I moved to Duluth without a job—and stuck. Still love it, peculiar as it is.

EN: Do you have a website or place online where some of your poems reside?

My poor website is perpetually out-of-date. But the Poetry Foundation hosts several of my poems: As does the Writer’s Almanac.

* * * *
Poets of the North Country will be a catered event that begins with an opening reception at 5:30. Readings by featured poets will start at 6:00, with an afterparty at Karpeles Manuscript Museum Library, music by Cowboy Angel Blue. Details here. The Underground Theater is located in The Depot, adjacent to the Train Museum.  Note: This event is Free and open to all.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Get into it.

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