Louis Jenkins’s Favorite Poem

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Louis Jenkins reads at Zenith Book Store in Duluth, Minn.

Laconic prose poet Louis Jenkins gave a reading at a book store last week in Duluth.  He’s one of my favorite local writers (even though he lives in a Minneapolis suburb now instead of Duluth), so I went. I think of him as Duluth’s Earnest Hemingway. He has that larger than life quality and talent. A chance encounter with him once even inspired a poem out of me. (See “Two Poets in the Cereal Aisle.”)

The Poetry Foundation website describes Jenkins’s poems as having “a tight focus on the mundane particularities of ordinary existence, using deliberately flat language to comic and often heartbreaking effect.”

The last time I went to one of his readings years ago, I left my cell phone on. My children were home with a babysitter, and I wanted to be available. I told the sitter only to call me in an emergency. Right when Jenkins was reading a poem, my phone went off. I was in the middle of the crowd and everyone looked at me. I was too mortified even to turn off the sound; I just fled the room with my ringer intermittently blaring.

The call was not an emergency. After mildly chastising the inexperienced babysitter (I am a Minnesotan, after all, we can’t afford to get all riled up), I sheepishly returned to the reading, waiting until the crowd was applauding to cover my entrance.

At last week’s event, you can bet I turned that sucka OFF. Jenkins read from his new book, “In the Sun, Out of the Wind.” Afterward, he took requests for readings from his other books and he answered questions.

One memorable question came from my friend and partner in crime, Sharon. She asked which poem of his was his favorite. His response was, “The next one.” He went on to explain: “Sometimes you think, ‘I got pretty close with that one,’ and those are the good ones. Other times you wonder, ‘Why in the heck did I write that?’ ”

Another person asked him what he thought of living in the Twin Cities. “Bloomington’s a lot like Duluth,” he said. “It’s only got one good restaurant.”

The topic of actor Mark Rylance came up. In case you haven’t seen the Tony awards lately, Rylance is the actor who, for the last two Tonys he’s won, recites a Louis Jenkins poem instead of giving an acceptance speech. Rylance and Jenkins even did a play together based on Jenkins’s book, “Nice Fish.”

Although age has taken its inexorable toll, Jenkins still has a twinkle in his eye when he reads, and his wit is unmistakably intact. I felt privileged to see him once again, and to sit through the entire reading this time.

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A Visit From the Book Fairies . . .

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The books I hid today in a local shopping mall as part of International Hide a Book Day.

You may not know it, but today is Hide a Book Day. “Book fairies” around the world are hiding books in public places to encourage a love of reading and to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of Goodreads.

I had recently cleaned out one of my bookshelves and was going to give away these books anyway. There are some oldies, but goodies by Margaret Atwood, George Orwell and Nevada Barr. After watching the Emmys last night, I thought it especially appropriate to be giving away “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which won so many awards and fits with our current political times.

So if you’re in the Kenwood Shopping Center in Duluth today, keep an eye out for these gifts from Marie the Book Fairy. Enjoy and read in good health!

Polar Opposites: A Review of Two Frigid Books

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Ashley Shelby by Erica Hanna.

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By chance, I read two books about cold climates back-to-back. In some ways they are opposites, but in more ways they are similar, and both are good reads.

The reason why I am spending the fleeting Minnesota summer reading books about cold places is something you’ll have to ask my psychologist (if I had one). Maybe it’s just that it’s “safer” to read cold books during a warm summer. I certainly wouldn’t want to read them during the winter. It’s cold enough here then! That’s the best reason I’ve got for you.

The books are “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube” by Blair Braverman and “South Pole Station” by Ashley Shelby.

Ways the books are opposite: Braverman’s book is nonfiction – a memoir set in northern climes like Norway and Alaska. Shelby’s book is fiction and is set in Antarctica. So we have opposite genres and opposite geography.

Ways the book are similar: They are both written by Midwestern women. Braverman now lives in Wisconsin and Shelby lives in Minnesota. They’re also both about women who have put themselves into challenging situations, socially and physically.

Braverman, a California native, traveled to Norway as a high school exchange student, and later as a folk school student, and still later as a museum curator of sorts in an isolated town there. She also lived on a glacier in Alaska, offering dogsled rides as part of a tourist business.

She chose Norway in high school to pursue her love of cold places, but had a bad experience (well, several bad experiences) with her host family father that made her fear men and question her own mettle. To prove her mettle, she later enrolled in the folk school to learn how to train sled dogs and survive outdoors in the North.

She writes, “What I feared most was men, and what I feared for was my body, and yet my body wanted men, and there was no answer for any of it. No, that wasn’t right. There was an answer for some of it. And that answer, I felt certain, was somewhere in the north, if I would only go and find it.”

The folk school is a community unto itself where she must prove herself and earn the respect of her teachers and fellow students. She learns her crafts well enough to later on get the job in Alaska, which is another isolated community encapsulated by and encamped on a glacier. This is where the book gets its title – the workers refer to the glacier as the “ice cube” and newbies are welcomed to the hard and challenging life on the “goddamn ice cube.”

(As an aside, this reminds me of when I used to work on Isle Royale National Park, which is located on an island in the middle of Lake Superior. We referred to it as “The Rock.”)

It’s here she has her first relationship with a man, but when things start to get difficult between them, he retaliates emotionally and physically, and makes her living situation in the camp very uncomfortable.

Eventually, Braverman makes her way back to Norway again and helps out the keeper of a general store and local historical museum. Much of the book centers around conversations of the shop regulars, who gather for coffee. Even here, Braverman is isolated and feels she must prove her usefulness to the locals.

“South Pole Station” centers on the story of Cooper Gosling, an artist who earns a fellowship to spend time and paint at the South Pole. Like Braverman, Gosling and most of the other characters in “South Pole Station” put themselves in the situation because, as one character aptly states, “We’re all here because of some shit.”

They are fighting personal battles along with elemental battles. Gosling’s battle is with the suicide of her brother. When they were young, they both used to love reading about polar explorers and made up imaginary games centered around their exploits.

Gosling’s battle almost costs her her life when she walks out into the elements in a drunken stupor. But in the end, the polies all gather around her and help her pay homage to her brother at the bottom of the world in a most fitting way.

The author does a great job describing the various social cliques that develop at the South Pole. You have the beakers, who are the scientists, and the nailheads who are the maintenance crew, etc. Like Braverman in her situations, Gosling must earn her place in the social system and in the hearts of the other polies in order to survive.

The books are both interesting reads. I gave them 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. And although they are set at opposite ends of the world their major themes are eerily alike.

Author Interview on “Minnesota Reads”

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Lisa Johnson, multitasking radio goddess.

I had the good fortune to be in the radio studio last week with Lisa Johnson, host of KUMD’s Minnesota Reads show. We talked about the “Going Coastal” anthology project and Lake Superior Writers, the local writing group that produced it.

I had to leave home for the interview during the time of morning I’m usually just sitting down to eat breakfast. And here Lisa is, multitasking between radio songs, flipping switches, keeping records of what played, and then calming down enough between all that to sound incredibly composed on the air.

I don’t know how she does it! Plus, she reads a lot of books every month for her show about Minnesota authors. Here’s a link to my seven-minute interview. Enjoy.

The Joys of “Going Coastal”

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Six of nine “Going Coastal” authors. From L to R, Evan Sasman, Maxwell Reagan, James Brakken, Judy Budreau, Marie Zhuikov, Eric Chandler. Image by Ryan Swanson.

I’ve been working a lot lately to promote a new anthology of Lake Superior short stories, called “Going Coastal.” I’m finding that promoting a book written by a bunch of other authors versus a book written just by myself is a lot more fun. Having others to share in the workload of doing readings and events is well, way less solitary, and I enjoy helping to promote their writing careers.

We just had an event at a new local bookstore this week. A superb description of it can be found in “Ennyman’s Territory,” a local arts and culture blog written by Ed Newman. His story also includes a link to a recent review of the book.

And if you are ever in the Duluth area, stop by our newest independent book store, Zenith Books. If you love to read, you’ll feel right at home there.

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Zenith Book Store owners Angel and Bob Dobrow with a copy of “Going Coastal.”

Free Books!

Going Coastal

If you’re active on Goodreads, a book giveaway is currently open for “Going Coastal.” This book is a collection of short stories about Lake Superior. Authors hail from northeastern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. (A story by yours truly is included.)

The stories were chosen by a panel of judges during a contest offered by Lake Superior Writers last year. Lake Superior Writers is a nonprofit group with over 200 members that supports the artistic development of writers and fosters a vibrant literary arts community.

“If you like lighthouses, ships, beaches, ghosts, road trips up the shore, history, storms, agates, islands, family drama, and the mystical power of water, you’ll enjoy this book,” said Marty Sozansky, board chair of Lake Superior Writers.

Like the horizon blurs between sky and water, reality and fantasy merge in these tales of human struggle on the edge of one of the world’s largest lakes. Click here to enter the giveaway and the chance to win one of two copies. The giveaway is open until June 24, 2017.

If you don’t win, you can always purchase the book for $12.95 at Fitger’s Bookstore in Duluth and online through North Star Press, Amazon.com, and Barnes and Noble. Sales support Lake Superior Writers.

It’s Christmas on Easter!

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A book project I’ve been working on for about a year-and-a-half is complete! Copies of the book arrived this weekend, so I feel like it’s Christmas even though it’s really Easter.

The book is called “Going Coastal.” It’s an anthology of Lake Superior-inspired short stories written by nine local (northeastern MN and northern WI) authors, including myself. My story, “Water Witch,” is the first short story I’ve ever written, so I feel honored that it’s included.

All of the writers are members of Lake Superior Writers, a local nonprofit group that “supports the artistic development of writers and fosters a vibrant literary arts community.” Proceeds from book sales support this group.

The idea for the anthology started with a conversation I had with the manager of a bookstore in Duluth.  She asked me what I was working on and I told her “short stories.” She said, “You know what customers come in and ask me for? Short stories about Lake Superior. I have to tell them I don’t have any.”

**Bing** Lake Superior Writers has an annual contest. What if we made the contest theme this year about Lake Superior? And what if we were able to find a publisher for the stories? And what if the book could be sold in this bookstore? (And others, of course.)

I’m a board member of the group and brought the idea up at a meeting where we were discussing the contest. The other board members thought it was a great idea, too. And a project was born. After the contest was over and the judges had chosen the winning stories, I started contacting publishers about the project. Several were interested, but I ended up going with North Star Press, the publisher of my novels.

The name of the writing contest was “Going Coastal,” and the board thought that was also a good name for the anthology, and so did the publisher, so it stuck. Then came the need for a cover image. I’m on Facebook probably way more than is healthy for me, and I recalled seeing an image there by a local photographer who often gets into Lake Superior to take his photos. His stunning photo showed the iconic Split Rock Lighthouse seemingly swamped by a large Lake Superior wave. Perfect!

I worked with the authors to edit their stories, and then needed to decide how to organize them in the anthology. I offered the other board members the opportunity to help with this task (which was new to me) but they said I could have the “honor.”

Shoot – how was I ever going to decide? Well, a couple of the stories had Native American themes in them. Some were more mystical than others. A couple focused on ships. A couple others were about rocks. One was about a lighthouse. Another was about a family drama and had a super strong ending. Some stories were short, others were long.

I finally decided to organize them along themes, but I also kept story length in mind and tried to switch that up for variety. Figuring out the story order was as much an art as writing one of the stories itself, and was a fun exercise. I hope it worked.

If you like lighthouses, ships, beaches, ghosts, road trips, history, storms, agates, islands, family drama, and the mystical power of Lake Superior, you’ll enjoy this book.  It costs $12.95 and is available from North Star Press, but also Barnes and Noble and Amazon, which have it as an e-book, too. Take a read!

Anthology authors are Theresa Allison-Price of Superior; James Brakken of Cable; Evan Sasman of Ashland, Johnna Suihkonen of Lakeville; and Judy Budreau, Eric Chandler, Phil Fitzpatrick, Maxwell Reagan and me of Duluth.

We’re having a book launch sponsored by The Bookstore at Fitger’s on Sat., April 29 from 4-6 p.m. in the August Fitger Room on the third floor of Fitger’s Mall (600 E. Superior St., Duluth). There will be free appetizers from The Boat Club Restaurant and a cash bar. Each author (except for one who can’t make it) will read from their story.

Come on out and keep that Christmas spirit going through April!