Listen: Poet laureate(Hemphill)-1167

MPR’s Stephanie Hemphill talks with Bart Sutter, Duluth’s first-ever Poet Laureate. Sutter discusses the honor and reads a poem.


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SPEAKER 1: Bart Sutter says we can credit or blame Governor Tim Pawlenty for Duluth's having a poet laureate.

BART SUTTER: He had vetoed, I think, a proposal by the legislature for a state poet laureate. And the citizens of Duluth are ornery and soulful. And I think this was-- I would say, really, this is Jim Pearlman of Holy Cow press. This is his brainchild.

SPEAKER 1: Jim Pearlman put together a committee that included academics, bookstore owners, librarians. The committee sifted through lots of applications and chose Bart Sutter as Duluth's first poet laureate. And then I seem to recall there was a crowning ceremony where they put a wreath of laureate on your head.

BART SUTTER: I wasn't expecting that. I haven't worn it around town really. Actually, we're starting to put those leaves in stews and soups and so on.

SPEAKER 1: The committee is organizing a series of events. The first one is tomorrow. In early November, a short oral history of poetry in Duluth.

BART SUTTER: The first book of poems that we've been able to find was published in 1904. So that's 100 years of poetry in Duluth. And people have been scribbling away and reading out loud all that time. It's interesting that we tend to think this just started in our lifetimes.

SPEAKER 1: Well, now they say there's more poets than readers of poetry. But I don't know if it was always that way.

BART SUTTER: I think that very often, it's the case that people who read it are moved eventually to try to write it a little bit. There are lots of closet poets out there and lots of people who never think about even reading poetry much when they fall in love, suddenly start writing poems. This seems like the right thing to do.

And I've also noticed that when people are in deep grief, they might not normally think of poetry, but now they're searching for something. And they end up turning to poems. You see that all the time at funeral services, at wakes and memorial services. They're not reading novels there.

SPEAKER 1: Love letters and funerals are good places for poetry. So are churches, nature centers, and union halls. Bart Sutter plans to bring poetry events to these and other places during his tenure as Duluth's poet laureate. Here's a new poem he brought in to read for us.

BART SUTTER: Dead evergreens. These trees along the shoreline, veiled in pale green gauze, remind me of old women who simply won't be bossed to lie down in the nursing home or quit their cigarettes.

They stay up late with paperbacks and seldom call their kids. Their kids can argue till they're hoarse and purple in the face. They never cared that much for town. They've sunk roots in this place. And here's that bearded hermit who let his hair go wild, whose clothes hung loose as birch bark, though he flashed a gentle smile.

He came to town four times a year to meet his few desires. He did his own damn dentistry with whiskey and a pliers. They say he lived on venison, pickled fish, and berries that birds would flutter to his hand, though children thought him scary.

This hunched and twisted cedar looks like a man I knew who had to crawl from room to room. His dog was crippled too. He stuck like lichen to his farm and milked a dozen cows till a corporate decision finally shut him down.

He'd fry a pan of pork chops and cut big chunks of cake. Eat up, he'd shout. There's one thing that nobody can take. These trees are clearly done for. Bound to drop and drown. But silver gray and sturdy still, they somehow hold their ground. I've cut them feeling desperate, shivering for heat. Their limbs flashed incandescent. Their scent was smoky sweet.



Digitization made possible by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.

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