Listen: Poet Rediscovered (Hemphill)-4597

MPR’s Stephanie Hemphil profiles Joseph Kalar, a long-lost regional poet. Hemphill interviews Duluth poet Barton Sutter, who admires Kalar’s poetry; and poet Ted Genoways, who put together a collection of Kalar’s work, titled “Papermill.”

It's safe to say not many of us have ever heard of Kalar. He was a contemporary of the Midwest radical writer Meridel Le Sueur. And like Le Sueur, he wrote passionately about the lives of working people. The book of his poetry appears more than thirty years after his death.


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STEPHANIE HEMPHILL: Joseph Kalar was born on the Iron Range in 1906. His parents were Slovenian immigrants, and his father worked in the iron mines and then at a paper mill in International Falls. Kalar went to Bemidji Teachers College, and taught in a one-room school. Then he bummed around the country for a while.

When he was 23, his father died, and Joseph had to come home and support his younger brothers and sisters. He worked at the paper mill 10 hours a day, six days a week. He wrote poetry when he could, and it was published in magazines with names like New Masses, The Rebel Poet, and The Anvil. Here's part of a poem he wrote when the paper mill closed. It's called Papermill.

TED GENOWAYS: Not to be believed, this blunt, savage, wind blowing and chill empty rooms.

This tornado surging and bellying across the oily floor, pushing men out in streams before it.

Not to be believed, this dry fall of unseen fog, drying the oil and emptying the jiggling grease cups.

Not to be believed, this unseen hand, weaving a filmy rust of spiderwebs over these turbines and grinding gears.

These snarling chippers and pounding Jordans.

These fingers placed to lips saying shush, keep silent! Keep silent! Keep silent!

STEPHANIE HEMPHILL: Reading the poem is Ted Genoways. He's a poet who's just put together a collection of Kalar's work. Genoways came across Papermill in an anthology, and he wanted to find out more about the man who wrote it. He learned that Joseph Kalar's son had kept the magazines where his dad's poems had appeared, and had gathered together his dad's many letters to publishers and other writers.

It gave Genoways enough material to publish a collection of Kalar's poems, with an introduction that describes his life and how his poetry fits into the larger world. Genoways says what he likes about Kalar is his defiance in the face of a very difficult life.

TED GENOWAYS: He's foul-mouthed. He's occasionally rude. And to me, all of this seems appropriate to his circumstances. This is his anger coming through. And in some ways, I think it wouldn't capture the period if the poems were merely elegiac poems, if they were sad poems of defeat.

STEPHANIE HEMPHILL: That angry energy also speaks to Duluth's poet, Laureate Bart Sutter. Sutter says he feels like he's discovered a long lost grandfather. For one thing, Kalar experimented with prose poems. He called them sketches.

BART SUTTER: They had been invented in France in the previous century, but they hadn't really appeared in the United States. And as far as I can tell, he was making them up for himself.

STEPHANIE HEMPHILL: And Kalar was also a pioneer in free verse, which was brand new at the time. He wanted his poems to speak to a wide audience and to make a difference. In fact, he wanted to change the world. Quite an expectation for a poet. Sutter says, it wasn't so strange in those days.

BART SUTTER: Well, I think there was a long tradition of people putting on plays in small towns, of people coming through and reciting of Lyceums and Chautauquas, politician speeches. I think that his work comes out of that tradition. And he had high hopes for it, as I think many leftists did in that period.

STEPHANIE HEMPHILL: But Kalar eventually became disillusioned and quit writing poetry. He also quit trying to organize unions. He became a labor relations expert and tried to make better conditions for workers from the management side. The last poem in the collection was written when Kalar was still young, but it's about his death. Bart Sutter says it's proof that in spite of a tough life, Kalar had no self-pity.

BART SUTTER: "Resignation.

Let there be no weeping, friends, when I return to the ground.

Just the sound of church bells calling and the thud of hard clods falling on my wooden box, scented and sound.

Let there be no weeping, friends."

STEPHANIE HEMPHILL: The book is called Papermill Poems by Joseph Kalar, 1927 to 1935, Edited by Ted Genoways, published by University of Illinois Press. I'm Stephanie Hemphill.


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

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