Listen: Bill Holm Obit for ATC (COMBS)-5185

MPR’s Marianne Combs presents a profile of acclaimed Minnesota poet and essayist Bill Holm, who passed away at the age of 65. Segment includes excerpts of Bill Holm speaking, and remembrances from those who knew him.

Holm, both a writer and musician, was known for his love of Minnesota, as well as his Icelandic heritage. Both were major themes in his books, from "Boxelder Bug Variations" to his most later work "Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland."


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MARIANNE COMBS: Bill Holm was born on a farm just North of Minneota, Minnesota, in 1943. That birthplace came to define him as a writer and a person. Holm traveled the world, including a teaching stint in China and regular visits to Iceland, the land of his forefathers. But he always returned to Minneota, as he explains here in an interview from last year with Minnesota Public Radio.

BILL HOLM: The further away from Minnesota that I got, the more I realized that my material is a writer. Not just material, but the way in which I saw the world and the lens through which I observed America, the world, and my life was somehow had something to do with this funny little town where I was born.

MARIANNE COMBS: Holm frequently appeared on a Prairie Home companion and other stage performances with his big frame snow, white hair, ruddy cheeks, and hearty laugh. He looked like a wry, disheveled Santa Claus.

Fellow writer and farmboy Jim Heinen was a longtime friend of Bill Holm. He says Holm was not only larger than life, he was a champion for the little guy, especially underappreciated authors.

JIM HEINEN: I'm thinking of how he would walk into a bookstore and pick a book off the bookshelf and address everybody in the bookstore about how they should buy that book. I mean, he would just enter a scene and it would be transformed.

MARIANNE COMBS: Heinen says Holm may have died early at 65, but lived more in those years than someone twice his age. He did everything in a grand way, whether he was speaking, eating, or playing the piano. Heinen quotes Holm's two line poem from Boxelder Bug variations, titled How they Die.

JIM HEINEN: And of course, it's speaking of Box Elder Bugs. But I like to think that this would hold true for Bill. They dry up, turn into light. And I think his light is going to go on shining for a long time for people who bother to pick up his books and start reading. And I think it's what's on the page is going to lead them into the significance of his mind and his heart, his very generous heart.

MARIANNE COMBS: Most of Holm's poems and essays were published by Milkweed Editions. Publisher Daniel Slager says he was particularly drawn to Holm's more political essays, which he says in some ways resemble the writings of Mark Twain.

DANIEL SLAGER: Constantly vigilant, defense of little people, powerless people, and a constant suspicion of power and its workings. But never excessively earnest, always infused with humor, with good humor, and with real love and respect for people from all walks of life.

MARIANNE COMBS: Slager says Holm even blogged the Republican National Convention last September. According to Slager, Holm felt it was important for a poet who could write beautiful lyrics to also be actively engaged with contemporary issues. In an appearance on Minnesota Public Radio's Midmorning in 2004, Holm expressed his frustration with the Bush administration.

BILL HOLM: How much we need a sense of regret, not a sense of triumph for a sense of justification or a sense of virtue, but a sense of regret. A sense of having made mistakes, a sense of wrong turnings, a sense of modesty in the face of history and of the face of human beings.

MARIANNE COMBS: Holm won the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award this past year. The award recognizes artists who've made long standing commitments to the arts and to Minnesota. Vicki Benson is the director of the Arts program at the McKnight foundation, which presented the award to Holm. They hosted a dinner in his honor, which he requested to be held at a little Chinese restaurant known for its authentic food.

VICKI BENSON: Bill insisted that we serve Icelandic vodka to the guests. And so he could make wonderful toasts throughout the evening. And we did. And I will always remember it because Bill was in his element. He was so happy.

He was reading from many of his books of poetry to us. And he asked his Icelandic friend to read and he asked a friend from China to read. And it was really an evening that showed who Bill was.

MARIANNE COMBS: Benson says Holm called himself a curmudgeon, but always with a huge belly laugh. She says Holm was passionate about life, and wanted other people to be as passionate about it as he was. Like Heinen, Benson finds it most fitting to remember Holm by quoting him.

VICKI BENSON: For it is life we want. We want the world, the whole beautiful world alive, and we alive in it. That is the actual God we long for and seek. Yet we have already found it if we open our senses, our whole bodies, thus our souls.

That is why I have written and intend to continue until someone among you takes up the happy work of keeping the chain letter of the soul, moving along into whatever future will come.

MARIANNE COMBS: Bill Holm made his final trip home on Wednesday night, flying back from Arizona. He collapsed from heart trouble shortly after getting off the plane. He leaves behind Marcy Brekken, his wife and partner of 30 years. He was 65. Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio News.



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