Thursday, May 19, 2016

Poets of the North Country: Introducing Jim Johnson and Ellie Schoenfeld

One of the many events I'm looking forward to during next week's Duluth Dylan Fest will be Poets of the North Country at the Underground on Wednesday, may 25. Four guest panelists will have an extended time to share in the first portion of the program followed by readings from a number of local poets including Gary Boelhower, Michelle Matthees, Julie Gard, Liz Minette, Jan Chronister, and others.

The four panelists include Duluth's first Poet Laureate Barton Sutter, Minnesota author and publisher David Pichaske, author of Song of the North Country, and the two people I'm introducing here today, Jim Johnson and Ellie Schoenfeld.

Jim Johnson is Duluth's current Poet Laureate. I asked him several questions about how he came to be interested in poetry, who have been his influences and why poetry is important. And naturally I asked about Dylan.

Jim Johnson: I became interested in poetry when I attended UMD. After college I participated in a workshop led by Sigurd Olson. I was inspired and wanted to write about plants and animals of the North Country, only I wanted to write poetry. I later wrote about the Finnish immigrant experience and about labor and political issues, especially pertaining to the people of our area. My books are titled: Finns In Minnesota Midwinter, A Field Guide To Blueberries, Wolves, The Coop Label, Dovetailed Corners, Driving Gravel Roads, The First Day Of Spring In Northern Minnesota, and Yoik. That probably gives you a list of my themes, or obsessions as I call them.

While at UMD, I listened to Bob Dylan and read Dylan Thomas. I was inspired by both, even though I don't remember which one was the first. I loved the way Dylan Thomas used words and the way Bob Dylan used ideas I had thought about. BD is a wordsmith as well, but his social concerns are very important to me. Songs like "Blowin In The Wind," "Who Killed Davy Moore," "The Walls Of Red Wing," "I Shall Be Released" have the same concern for humanity as the great poets like Whitman and Neruda. People often ask if BD is really a poet. To put him in the company of Neruda or Whitman is to say he is not only a poet but a great poet.

Feelings are important. Poetry is about feelings. Therefore poetry is important. It will continue even if the forms change.

Here's one of a pair of poems Jim submitted to me, the second was called Rutabagas.

Rock Tripes

Rock tripes are lichen, like an old couple

who depend on each other to live

out their black and white lives. Though

neither will ever admit it. He

traipsing all over the rock they live on. She

cooking up greens for eons.

But O how they liked to polka.

* * * *

For near two decades one of my favorite poets has been former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. In a 2009 blog post I wrote of him, "There's a down-to-earth whimsical quality to a lot of his work." I share this because reading Johnson and Schoenfeld gives me that same sense of pleasure as the works of Collins who repeatedly brings an original angle to the most ordinary moments.

Of the four I'm most familiar with Ellie Schoenfeld's work, having first met her through the Poetry Harbor group when I came to Duluth three decades past and having heard her read on numerous occasions including this evening in 2014. For the longest time The Dark Honey, her award-winning book of "new and used poems," lay next to my easy chair along with a few other favorites to dip into on occasion at the end of a day. Poetry makes a nice nightcap.

Here's a typical piece that takes one to unexpected places that you might enjoy.

by Ellie Schoenfeld

My country is this dirt
that gathers under my fingernails
when I am in the garden.
The quiet bacteria and fungi,
all the little insects and bugs
are my compatriots. They are
idealistic, always working together
for the common good.
I kneel on the earth
and pledge my allegiance
to all the dirt of the world,
to all of that soil which grows
flowers and food
for the just and unjust alike.
The soil does not care
what we think about or who we love.
It knows our true substance,
of what we are really made.
I stand my ground on this ground,
this ground which will
recruit us all
to its side.

"Patriotism" by Ellie Schoenfeld, from The Dark Honey. © Clover Valley Press, 2009. 
Published here without permission at the moment, but keeping my fingers crossed.

* * * *

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.

Join us.

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