Listen: Duluth poet (sutter)-1542

MPR’s Tom Crann talks with Duluth’s Poet Laurete Bart Sutter, who talks about his role. Sutter also shares a poem on his city.


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TOM CRANN: This is All Things Considered From Minnesota Public Radio News, I'm Tom Crann. This weekend, the city of Duluth got something that no other Minnesota city has, its own poet laureate.

Barton Sutter has lived in the city since 1987 and has won three Minnesota book awards, including for Cold Comfort, Life at the Top of the Map, and for the Book of Names-- New and Selected Poems.

Sutter teaches English and creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, and was the unanimous choice for poet laureate. He began his two-year term on Saturday. Bart Sutter joins me now from Minnesota Public Radio's studios in Duluth. And congratulations and welcome.

BARTON SUTTER: Thank you, Tom. It's not a Pulitzer prize, but I'm delighted. I'm pleased. Like so many other Duluthians, I probably could have moved somewhere else and tripled my income. But I stuck with this place because I had so much affection for it. And so it's especially satisfying to see the people of Duluth have some faith in me.

TOM CRANN: Tell me why you stuck with Duluth and what is the attraction for you to the region?

BARTON SUTTER: Well, first of all, the landscape. I like living in a city where there's-- in a city where there's a danger of getting in a car accident in the winter every time you take off from your house.

TOM CRANN: Because of the hills and the ice.

BARTON SUTTER: Yeah, thrills and spills. And you got that lake to look at every day. And I got to walk a couple of blocks and I'm down in a ravine that feels almost like the boundary waters.

TOM CRANN: And tell us how that inspires your work.

BARTON SUTTER: Well, I think it just opens you up when you see something-- I told somebody the other day, art, poetry, anyway seems to come primarily from aaw and wow. A lot of people writing now and again out of some personal pain that then ends up amounting to something else, trying to resolve that somehow.

And then, of course, wonder and awe is the other side of that. And there's plenty of that here. Most of us, most of the time, I think, rush around, especially in urban life with a kind of hide on. You have to have tunnel vision to get your work done and to get through the freeways and so on.

And art calls for a sort of opening up and listening. And I think that the natural landscape and certainly the lake here gives you a little pause in the middle of the day or in the morning whenever. And those kinds of openings are important for everybody, I think, but for artists in particular.

TOM CRANN: And give us an example of how Duluth has inspired you poetically with a poem, if we could, to ask you. We asked you to come in with a poem specifically that references Duluth or the region.

BARTON SUTTER: Yeah, well, I thought of just a little something here. I don't usually walk around saying I will now write a poem that memorializes the new parking ramp. They're not quite that closely attached, I think, especially when it comes to poetry. The sort of boreal northern area just kind of permeates all of the poems.

But here is one that is particularly set in Duluth from the time I was a little boy and would come to visit here, I'd have a wow when I saw all those oared boats. You're coming off the planes or out of the woods and, hey, there are ships. And I think that's still true for many people who come here. And even for us, that's another way the lake connects us with the larger world.

But those boats can be annoying, too, especially if you're trying to get on and off park point, because you have to wait for the bridge down there. And one day while I was waiting down there and out of the midst of my stressful life at the time, I thought, there's a metaphor.

That boat coming through this little slot here, there's a metaphor for just how hard it is to get through life without completely cracking up. So here's a short poem called The Thousand-foot ore Boat.

To live until we die--

The job seems just impossible.

The great weight of the past

pushing us forward, the long future

thrust out before us, and so little room to

Either side!

The least we can do is stay sober

Look sharp. The thousand-foot ore boat

slides through the ship canal

and eases beneath the bridge,

all engines thrumming,

Including the pilot's heart.

TOM CRANN: The Thouand-foot ore Boat by Barton Sutter, the newly named poet laureate of Duluth, who's speaking to us from Duluth today on Minnesota Public Radio. You said when you were setting up that poem that you don't memorialize the new parking, ramp, or parking structure.

But I wonder in this position as poet laureate of Duluth, are there going to be specific civic duties that they need you to write a poem for the new parking structure or the waste treatment plant or something like. Have they been that honest with you about it?

BARTON SUTTER: That's a great question. And when this position was first announced, I saw all kinds of poets in town were dancing shyly away because there is that sort of traditional association with that position because of its history in England where it is actually kind of connected with the court. And there are such official duties.

There are poet laureates in I think 37 states now, and I'm sure that plus the National one. And also some cities. And I'm sure that the position is defined a little differently in each place. In any case, I told them no official poems for occasions. I can't do that.

But I will have some responsibilities that I happily took on. I want to generate some public discussions on the role of poetry in this particular place and what we can do to strengthen it. There are some things I don't want to let this city miss out on.

We have people who've been writing here for a long time now, getting into their 50s, 60s, and 70s. So there's a long history here. And some of it is very funny. And I think we ought to get that down. So I've envisioned a short oral history of poetry in Duluth.

Just for instance, I know that Lewis Jenkins and Phil Denninger years ago had a poetry magazine called Steelhead put out for several issues. And at one time, they actually got a fish, a steelhead, inked it up, and printed it on the cover stock of that magazine. So those kinds of things should not be lost for posterity.

TOM CRANN: As you say, part of your job will be to promote poetry in the area, in the city. So give us your best argument as to why people should read poetry and care about it and even maybe write some themselves.

BARTON SUTTER: Well, I think there's a sort of misconception and a lot of people walk around with bad associations with poetry thinking of school and tests, or they're thinking of poems from Europe crammed with references to Roman gods and maybe obscure things that they can't understand.

But people in this country have been writing contemporary poetry now for decades that is clear, direct, and accessible. And you read a good poem like that, and it can move you to tears. It can move you to laughter, possibly both. And sort of like dropping a plumb line through your body, kind of getting emotionally, spiritually, getting your tires realigned. Life is better, at least for a while after that.

TOM CRANN: Can we ask you to grace us with another one.

BARTON SUTTER: Here's a sonnet such as Shakespeare never wrote. I think of this as a very Minnesota poem. It's a love poem to my wife. And it has a very competent woman, a shy guy, wall eyes, and black flies. So I think it's an appropriate Duluth poem. It's called The Necklace.

Ten tough years

and you are still the one I want

despite your steel backbone,

anxiety attacks, the lunatic hysteria

you carry in your blood like a dose of malaria.

I've heard you murmur odd thoughts about God

and sob as you shovel the grave for your dog.

I've seen you drive tractor,

drag a bush hog

and hunt for lady slippers in a quaking bog.

You can build a wooden fence and glaze a window.

I'm glad to have a wife who threads her own minnow.

The other night as you fried fresh walleyes,

I was way too shy to do what I felt,

but I wanted to kiss that necklace of welts

where you'd been bitten bloody by fierce black flies.

TOM CRANN: Barton Sutter, thank you very much for your time today and your perspective on poetry. And we wish you the best in your tenure as poet laureate of Duluth.

BARTON SUTTER: Thank you very much, Tom.

TOM CRANN: Barton Sutter is a writer, poet, and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He's the first ever poet laureate of the city of Duluth.


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