Thursday, May 25, 2017

Blood on the Tracks Express Preview & Poets of the Northland Overview

Typical scene in the electric car... youth and energy.
Duluth Dylan Fest has been picking up steam, building toward a crescendo that includes tonight's first peak, the annual Blood on the Tracks Express featuring a host of acoustic and electric music acts including Red Mountain, Rich Mattson & The Northstars, Gaelynn Lea & Al Church, Erik Berry & Ryan Young of Trampled By Turtles, and the Freewheelers, plus Kyle Ollah in the Million Dollar Bash car which will include finger foods by Chef Jonathan Berthel in this historic dining car VIP experience.

In short, it's been a historically memorable event. You can buy tickets and read more about the musicians here.

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Last night the Poets of the Northland was a special time that went too fast as far as I was concerned. Five poets laureate and another seven shared their thoughts about Bob Dylan, and their own poetry assembled for the occasion. The event took place in the newly renovated Spirit of the North Theater upstairs in the Fitger's Complex. Andrew Lipke was strumming tunes on his Fender-amped Gibson guitar as the crowd slowly sauntered in, many of them nibbling on Valentini's Bob Dylan chocolate mocha birthday cake. At 6:30 Zane Bail of the Duluth Dylan Fest team introduced Karen Sunderman of The Playlist, who served as our moderator for the evening.

Jim Johnson, painting word pictures about the Northland.
MC Karen Sunderman in the background.
The featured poets were all quite good, so much so that the time simply disappeared with a blink. Ellie Schoenfeld, our current Duluth Poet Laureate, always entertaining and thought-poking, read several poems including "The Rain Poem" from her book The Dark Honey, which I dip into now and then. Jim Johnson next took the stage, sharing two short poems and a long poem, including a vivid "Frozen Lake In April." He prefaced this by noting that not too many years ago his lake still had ice on it on May 25. Sheila Packa, who has lived in Hibbing, began by affirming Dylan's influence and that he is a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize. Her poem "Keg Party" painted a picture of working-class people in small town America with "nothing to lose but our chains." The expression "Around the Horn" -- title of her next poem -- was an Iron Range expression used to describe a rural road trip accompanied by a 12-pack. Packa's poems are full of phrases that carry you places. She introduced her poem "Time When" by noting that "Dylan said speak out against the darkness."

Deb Cooper shared how deeply she was touched by Dylan's lyrics. She read a passage from Chimes of Freedom bfore sharing her own work which included "The Poetry Reading" and "Deliverance" and "Van Gogh's Starry Night Seen Through the Window of His Asylum Cell." Maybe the poem was titled "Blue Window" and that log title was an intro remark. Either way, an insight was conveyed.

Tbe Basement Tapes Band served up the afterparty entertainment.
The last of the featured speakers was Max Garland, a professor at UW-Eau Clair who grew up in Western Kentucky and served as former Wisconsin poet laureate. His first poem featured an uncle of his who was a Pentecostal minister. His other poems included "Green Day", "Hold On Me", an amusing "The Best Things Are the Most Expensive" and a final one for the child in the audience.

The poetry was evocative, and the audience responsive. A panel discussion followed with Karen Sunderman initiating, then questions from the audience. Sheila Packa, in response to one question, affirmed that Dylan is "very much of the soil of Northern Minnesota." Like a Minnesota working man, Dylan was himself on the road, too busy working to go get that award initially. "Isn't that just like an Iron Range man?" she said.

Max Garland noted that the division between poetry and music is a relatively new phenomenon. Dylan brought the two forms together, taking simple form and bringing the surreal and abstract to bear upon it.

One question pertained to the manner in which rhyme may have been affirmed by the Nobel committee in choosing Dylan. Sheila Packa noted that for a while rhyme was considered old-fashioned, but it's coming back.

The local poets were equally fluent and stimulating.... but if I don't get this published I will miss the train!

Amy Lynn, one of our local poets whose work I admire, was unable to read, so one of her poems was shared by another reader. Here's a poem she'd also intended to present, and since it applies so well to this evening's event, it has to be shared here.

Blood on the Tracks

when I opened the morning door
to take the rotting garbage out
a small bird lay on the bricks
of the walkway, one eye staring up at me

barely fledgling, it was unclear
if he had hit the big window above
or had a run-in with the cat
but he was still breathing, begging
me to grant him mercy

startled, I stepped back inside
and, like a coward, waited
for death to claim him


in winter here, when it snows
the big machines scrape their metal
blades over the roads

it’s an awful sound, in a world
where even dying things make
a cruel kind of music

and in this land, already ravaged
by years of digging through the earth for ore
I cannot bear to watch the road grader
push piles of diesel-soaked snow
onto the sidewalks


but before the machines came,
when the lake was angry, and dark,
and the idiot wind howled,
and from miles away
my lover reached out to tell me
he was restless and unsettled –

the young sparrow perched
high in some weathered tree,
tucked his head into his wing,
and let the cold snow settle on his feathers,

* * * *

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Engage it. 

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