Listen: MPR presents "Writing Minnesota", a special program highlighting Minnesota writers and authors

MPR Presents "Writing Minnesota," a special program highlighting Minnesota writers and authors. Program showcases some of the exciting literary work coming out of the state.

"Writing Minnesota" weaves together poetry and author interviews, and includes an innovative adaptation of a short story set in a mysterious compound north of Duluth. What does it mean to be a Minnesota writer? It means obsessing over the sound of the Mississippi River. It means writing about small towns. It means you're a refugee who refused to speak as a child. It means writing about butter. It means New York might find you provincial. It means you're not as stressed out as New York writers about your status. It means you write about Chicago. It means you grew up on a farm and saw your dad kill a cow with a pitchfork. It means your characters have secrets. It means watching a girl flirt with your husband in a St. Paul wine bar and wishing she'd flirt yet more. These are some of the many ways writers define their relationship to Minnesota. Host Annie Baxter invites you to hear these writers' reflections and their creative works on "Writing Minnesota."

[Audio includes news segment]


2012 MNSPJ Page One Award, first place in Radio - Feature-length documentary category


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CHARLES BAXTER: --are from the Midwest, they are nevertheless quite varied and interesting.

KAO KALIA YANG: People started saying, Kao Kalia Yang, the Minnesota author award winning.

PHILIP BRYANT: And I would think about writing stuff in Chicago all the time, but I never had the space to really actuate that. And here in Minnesota, I've had that space.

ANNIE BAXTER: From Minnesota Public Radio news, this is Writing Minnesota. I'm Annie Baxter. Join me for the next hour as we explore the state's literary scene. We'll meet poets and hear their work.

ROBERT HEDIN: Where the Great Northern plunged in, the river boiled with light.

STEVE HEALEY: Then I remembered that the river itself was elsewhere,

Continuing its perfect sound forever.

ANNIE BAXTER: Check out a memoir that looks at the struggles of rural Minnesotans.

NICOLE HELGET: A lot of them are very sad. A lot of them are lost, and I wanted to capture that.

ANNIE BAXTER: Plus, a special radio adaptation of a short story--

[? JERRY KRUMHOLTZ: ?] Is this your hobby, splitting wood?

[? It's ?] not a hobby.

ANNIE BAXTER: All that on Writing Minnesota, right after the news.

LAKSHMI SINGH: From NPR News in Washington, I'm Lakshmi Singh. A dangerous storm system moving across the South today is now blamed in at least nine deaths. The toll went up in Arkansas, where seven people have been killed since the violent storms hit yesterday. The other deaths were reported in the small southeastern Oklahoma town of Tushka, where at least one tornado is confirmed to have touched down. Area resident Charles Almos tells KTEN television that he went to Tushka to make sure his family and friends were safe.

CHARLES ALMOS: Just scared for my friends and family that are living up here, and it's close to home. It can happen at any time.

LAKSHMI SINGH: Tornadoes were reported yesterday from the Midwest through several Southern states. The US House is taking action today on a Republican budget plan for 2012. Meanwhile, the White House is addressing concerns about rising gas prices in the US and pressure to tap the country's strategic stockpile of oil. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, President Obama says, there is a better choice.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The average price of gasoline has jumped nearly a dime a gallon in the last week as a result of sky high oil prices. Some lawmakers have urged President Obama to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but Mr. Obama told ABC, the reserve is intended to deal with supply disruptions, not high prices. He's reluctant to draw on it prematurely.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We are monitoring this situation very closely. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve was designed for when oil actually shuts off. Having said that, I understand how big of a strain this is on family budgets.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says the payroll tax cut he negotiated late last year should help to cushion the blow. Scott Horsley, NPR news, the White House.

LAKSHMI SINGH: Now, the jump in gas and food prices is reflected in the latest Consumer Price Index. The Labor Department reports the cost of living rose at its fastest pace since the recession ended in 2009. Danielle Carson reports, analysts say the whiff of inflation is getting much stronger.

DANIELLE CARSON: Prices rose pretty much across the board, including housing, airfares, transportation and health care. Bernard Baumohl, Chief Global Economist at the Economic Outlook Group, says Americans are getting squeezed by higher prices at the gas pump and grocery aisles.

BERNARD BAUMOHL: Inflation is flashing the yellow lights. We are getting closer to the point where the red lights would be flashing. Every aspect of prices are now climbing, and it is hurting Americans.

DANIELLE CARSON: Prices for commodities such as corn, wheat, and cotton have been climbing, and that's putting pressure on businesses like food producers and retailers to pass along those higher costs to consumers. For NPR news, I'm Danielle Carson in Washington.

LAKSHMI SINGH: US stocks gaining ground today. At last check, The Dow was up 80 points, or more than half a percent, at 12,365 in trading of 2 billion shares, and the NASDAQ was up 8 points at 2,768. This is NPR News.

MODERATOR 1: Support for news comes from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, committed to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need. On the web at

STEPHEN JOHN: For Minnesota Public Radio news, I'm Stephen John. The government is trying again to remove gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes from the Endangered Species list. The Fish and Wildlife Service said today that wolves in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin have recovered and no longer need federal protection. Environmental and animal rights groups have gone to court to stymie previous delisting attempts.

Minneapolis Police are asking the public for information about an early morning hit and run that injured three pedestrians near the U Of M. One person was in critical condition after being hit by a vehicle on a sidewalk in Dinkytown around 2:00 AM. A spring storm system that has dumped 10 inches of snow on parts of the Dakotas is moving into Minnesota. A winter weather advisory is in effect for the far West through this evening. Currently, the Twin city is cloudy and 43 degrees. This is Minnesota Public Radio news.

ANNIE BAXTER: Hey there. It's Annie Baxter, and this is Writing Minnesota.


In the next hour, you're going to hear something out of the ordinary. It's literature that helps us understand the Minnesota we live in today. We've got a radio adaptation of a short story by one of the state's most nationally celebrated authors, poems that take us to the whispering shores of the Mississippi and the grain fields of Red Wing, and lots more. Along the way, we're going to look at what it means to be a Minnesota writer. Is that label good or bad? How does a writer's work relate to the place they call home?

Of course, there are people who've studied such things. And for the most part, they say Minnesota writers have a lot in common with their fellow Midwestern writers. They're focused on small town life and nature, and they don't like snobs.

PHILIP GREASLEY: Midwestern experience tends to be realistic and true to life. It tends to reject pretense, and it tends to root for the common people.

ANNIE BAXTER: Philip Greasley is the editor of a tome called the Dictionary of Midwestern Literature. It catalogs about 400 Midwestern authors who have some common obsessions. They write about the America of unlocked doors and traditional values.

PHILIP GREASLEY: It's not the elite. It's not the cultural hubs. It's a reflection of common experience and simple life.

ANNIE BAXTER: Greasley says it's not too hard to find examples of Minnesota writers who fit this mold. You could probably name at least one on your own.

[? SPEAKER 1: ?] It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my home town out on the edge of the Prairie.

ANNIE BAXTER: But you know, some writers don't want to be branded with this regional label. Some say they're writing just doesn't address the local landscape and culture, and others don't like the suggestion that their work speaks only to small regional truths. They want the universal truths of their work to resonate. Poet Steve Healey once struggled with this problem.

STEVE HEALEY: I think I used to be afraid of being too local, of sounding provincial. I think a lot of writers have this fear, unless you live in New York city, which you never feel local if you're in New York City. But I got over that.

ANNIE BAXTER: Healey's latest poetry book is titled 10 Mississippi. It includes 10 different musings on the great American river whose headwaters are in Minnesota. He read one of the poems on its banks.

STEVE HEALEY: Standing next to the river,

I recorded the sound of the river in an attempt to represent that sound more accurately than my earlier description of it,

Which compared the river sound to someone saying, shh.

I rewound the tape and played it back,

And the recording also sounded like someone saying, shh.

But then I remembered that I was listening to both the recording of the river and the river itself,

And I could not, with absolute certainty, distinguish one from the other.

It sounded like the two sounds synchronized into one, shh.

But at times, they seemed to separate,

As if telling each other to be quiet, like accomplices committing a crime.

Or they may have both been telling me to be quiet despite the fact that I was producing no sound, or so I thought.

Retreating swiftly and quietly to the privacy of my own home,

A safe distance from the river itself,

I listened again to the recording of the river sound.

This time, it sounded like a perfectly preserved memory of the river,

A solitary shh moving inexorably toward the Gulf of Mexico.

And just as I felt liberated from the burden of having to remember the river,

Through my own mental activity,

The recording stopped precisely at that moment when I had turned off the tape recorder.

Then I remembered that the river itself was elsewhere,

Continuing its perfect sound forever and that I would never be able to represent that continuousness accurately.

I remembered, however, that I could take a length of magnetic tape on which that river was recorded and splice the ends together to form a loop that I could then play continuously.

The sound could keep going shh all the way to the Gulf of Mexico,

Telling all the cars and condos to be quiet.

It's worth remembering, however, that a river is not a person,

And that a person saying shh eventually needs to stop making that sound either to inhale or die.

There would be no other choice,

Unless, of course, I recorded myself saying shh and played a loop of that recording continuously,

In which case I'd no longer need to remember myself.

I'd be immortal in the privacy of my own sound.


ANNIE BAXTER: That's poet Steve Healey in Minneapolis. He's the author of two books of poetry. You're listening to Writing Minnesota. I'm Annie Baxter. You know, the face of the state has changed a lot in the past few decades. We've had the decline of the agricultural economy and a big influx of immigrant groups. And a couple of recent memoirs from surprisingly young authors have done a really nice job of documenting those shifts in the culture. My colleague Jackie Fuller and I recently met up at a coffee shop to compare notes on these two books. Jackie's a writer herself, and she told me about Kao Kalia Yang's book, The Latehomecomer-- A Hmong Family Memoir.

JACKIE FULLER: It's partly her story and partly the story of her family. The first half of the book, she's not even born yet. It's the story of how her parents met when they were in Laos, and they were essentially refugees living in the jungle. They escaped from Laos to a Thai refugee camp, and that's where Kao Kalia YANG was born. And then they moved to Minnesota.

ANNIE BAXTER: She was a little kid when--

JACKIE FULLER: She was a little one when she came here.

ANNIE BAXTER: How was her book received in the Hmong community? Do people feel like it was an accurate representation of their story.

JACKIE FULLER: I think from reading the book, she was not only happy to take on that role of being a spokesperson for a generation of people, but it was her intention. She felt that her family had stories, and that she says, I'm their best bet of getting these stories on the page.

KAO KALIA YANG: My mom said, that's the story I would write if I could. And every time I meet somebody who is my mom and dad's age in the community, they come up to me and they say, we're so proud of you, our daughter, for telling our story. What I've grown to understand is that they've carried the misunderstanding for far too long because they didn't have the fluency to tell the stories.

ANNIE BAXTER: So how important is the landscape of Minnesota to her.

JACKIE FULLER: When she writes about Minnesota and about growing up in St Paul, it's very stark. It's flatness and identical brown housing projects and mold growing on a wall in a Section 8 house. It's maybe not the Minnesota that a lot of us are familiar with. It's portrayed in this very stark contrast to her parents stories of Laos, of the Homeland that's lush and beautiful and the mountains. And you get the sense that she had some difficulty making Minnesota home.

ANNIE BAXTER: And was that true from a language perspective, that she grew up in an English speaking household?

JACKIE FULLER: She did not. And at six years old, she became a selective mute.

ANNIE BAXTER: What does that mean?

JACKIE FULLER: Well, it can mean not talking, or it can mean whispering, but you choose to just not speak. Around this same time, she was shopping with her mom in Kmart, and her mother couldn't find the word for light bulbs.

KAO KALIA YANG: She was looking for the thing that made the world shiny. And the clerk walked away, and my mother stood there looking at her feet. And I decided that if the world didn't need to hear my mom and dad, then surely it didn't need to hear me. So I stopped talking the next day. And time passed, and the words got rusty. When I tried to speak, kids laughed, so I stopped completely. But I was a kid and the words had to go somewhere, so they went onto the page.

JACKIE FULLER: She grew on the page, and then she had a teacher that cultivated that in her, and that really became her voice. And she won two Minnesota book awards for The Latehomecomer.

ANNIE BAXTER: That's pretty impressive.

JACKIE FULLER: Yeah. And people treated her a little bit differently after that.

KAO KALIA YANG: People started saying, this is [? Kao Kalia ?] Yang, the Minnesota author award winning. It was an overnight transformation in the way I was received.

JACKIE FULLER: And for someone who has documented so much struggle in making Minnesota home, she considers Minnesota home and she considers herself a Minnesota writer.


JACKIE FULLER: So who did you pick, Annie?

ANNIE BAXTER: I picked a book by Nicole Helget. It's called The Summer of Ordinary Ways, and it's about her life growing up on a farm in Southern Minnesota. She currently lives in Mankato, in the neighborhood of where she grew up. And it's a really beautifully written book, but I also got pulled in because the book was just so different from what I was expecting.


ANNIE BAXTER: Well, I knew that it was about farm life, and I guess I expected this bucolic setting. But it is dark, dark, dark. She's documenting abusive relationships between her parents, alcoholism. And in particular, there's this one really tough scene that happens pretty early in the book, and her father is essentially beating a cow to death. And her writing renders the scene so beautifully and delicately, but it's just this horrible image. She's describing the sound of her dad's pitchfork against the cows nose.

NICOLE HELGET: It was the sound of girls splitting wishbones, of mom dividing chicken breasts, and of shovels crushing black rats breeding in the granary. It was the sound of fieldstones hitting the loader bucket or hay wagon or rock box. It was the sound of a cottonwood tree lifted from the lawn, twisted, and sailed into the drying bin by a tornado. The sound of the collision and explosion of wood and metal, and the rush of millions of soybean grains winding in a golden vein, breaking through the gape and flying off into a gray heaven. It was the sound of Adam's rib breaking to build Eve.

JACKIE FULLER: Wow, that was intense.

ANNIE BAXTER: Yeah, I know. She makes a joke that the Minnesota tourism board is not going to offer a job anytime soon. But on the other hand, how lucky to have her here because she is writing this incredibly gorgeous prose.

JACKIE FULLER: So other than the darkness, wasn't there some other controversy around this book?

ANNIE BAXTER: Yes. In fact, some of her relatives and even neighbors waged this campaign against her when the book was coming out in 2005. They contested some of the facts of the book.


ANNIE BAXTER: Among them, this brutal scene with her father beating the cow to death. And they said, this just didn't actually happen. And so this raises all sorts of questions, and I talked to Nicole Helget about them. First of all, how true is her own account of her life? But then also, how true of a representation of Minnesota life and culture is this?

NICOLE HELGET: I think it accurately represents both. I believe that there are some of those folksy types of households out there, but I also think there are households like the one that I wrote about. I know that there are-- and I've gotten lots of letters from girls who were raised in a similar situation and from even old women who have grown up on the farm and who the story really resonated with. So I know that it's not just me. I think it's a widespread story.

JACKIE FULLER: That just seems like every writer's nightmare. That you write a memoir, and your family comes after you and contests it.

ANNIE BAXTER: Yeah, no, horrible experience probably. Although, she's made amends. She says she's made amends with these family members and they're on better terms now. But she wants people to appreciate the literariness of her writing and not get hung up on those questions of, well, did she actually tell the truth or not? She thinks that it's a work of art.

She's also really interested in people paying attention to her representation of farm life in the 1980s.

NICOLE HELGET: When you used to drive through Southern Minnesota, you would see Holsteins in the fields. You would see farmers out walking their beans, and you would see their wives hanging clothes. To a great extent, those things don't exist anymore because of deregulation in the '80s. These farms are gone. The men who used to tend this land have now gone to work in the factories or have become truck drivers. A lot of them are very sad. A lot of them are lost, and I wanted to capture that.

ANNIE BAXTER: And she's actually quite wistful in remembering that era. She's about 35 now, and she says not many people her age or have a parent who actually used to go and milk a cow by hand. It's all mechanized, and it's a very different way of life. And she wants people to pay attention to that part of her book.

JACKIE FULLER: That seems a little bit young to write a memoir, or some would say. And one of Kao Kalia Yang's peers also said, you're too young to write a memoir.

ANNIE BAXTER: Yeah, it seems like it's a very common criticism to level against a young writer. The idea is, you need to have more experience. But it does seem like both of these writers, they come from families that just have such complicated experiences, tales to tell that why not put it down on the page?

JACKIE FULLER: And they felt the need to tell them.


JACKIE FULLER: So can we swap books, because I really want to read this?

ANNIE BAXTER: All right I'll. Give you my copy if you give me yours.



ANNIE BAXTER: Jackie Fuller is a producer at Minnesota Public Radio and a writer. The book we were just talking about by Nicole Helget juxtaposes a pastoral setting with really tragic events. That's also true of this next poem.


ROBERT HEDIN: My name is Robert Hedin, and the name of the poem is "The Wreck of the Great Northern."

Where the Great Northern plunged in

The river boiled with light. And we all stood

In the tall grass staring at a tangle

Of track, and four orange coaches

And one Pullman lying under the current,

Turning the current clear. We stood staring

As though it had been there all along

And was suddenly thrust up out of the weeds

That night as a blessing, As a long, sleek hallway

Dropping off into fields we'd never seen,

Into the pastures of some great god

Who sent back our steers too heavy to move,

All bloated and with green seaweed strung down

Their horns. And we all looked down

Into the lit cars at businessmen

And wives, already back to breathing water,

And saw in the cold clear tanks of the Pullman

A small child the size of my son, a porter's

White jacket, a nylon floating gracefully

As an eel. What the train and the river

Were saying, no one could understand.

We just stood there, breathing what was left

Of the night. How still the cars were,

How sleek, shimmering through the undertow.

And I saw the trees around us blossomed out,

The wind had come back and was blowing

Through the tall empty grass, through the high

Grain fields, the wind was rattling

The dry husks of corn.


ANNIE BAXTER: That's poet Robert Hedin in Red Wing. He's the author of 23 books of poetry and prose. You're listening to a special program from Minnesota Public Radio news called Writing Minnesota. I'm Annie Baxter. Now, the writers you're hearing in this show are some of my all time favorites in Minnesota or anywhere for that matter. And that includes our next featured writer, Charles Baxter, to whom I am not related.

Baxter is a major player on the National literary stage. He's got five short story collections and four novels, one of which was turned into a movie. Baxter is a Minnesota native, and much of his fiction is set in the Midwest. He says he's sometimes baffled by critics reactions to that. He recalls at least one irksome literary review.

CHARLES BAXTER: The review began, "Although Charles Baxter's characters are from the Midwest, they are nevertheless quite varied and interesting."


CHARLES BAXTER: And I thought, that's the pigeonhole that I'm going to be put into.

ANNIE BAXTER: It sounds like you've resigned yourself to this label to some extent, even though you don't like this idea of being pigeonholed?

CHARLES BAXTER: I have written stories that take place in Venice. I've written several stories that take place in New York City. And my novel, The Soul Thief, takes place in Buffalo and Los Angeles. Every time any one of these pieces come out, I'm described as a Midwestern writer all over again. It's just what happens. But I think any writer is finally influenced by the places where he or she grew up, the kind of people that the writer has known and lived with.

And when you close your eyes and you think of your imagination's home, it has to look like something. And for me, it looks like Minnesota. My grandparents lived here. My parents lived here. The ghosts of my family are all here. I grew up here, and I became familiar with this landscape and grew to love it.

ANNIE BAXTER: So would you put yourself in any kind of continuum of other Minnesota writers? Do you think there is something like a regional voice, in other words, in which you would play a part.

CHARLES BAXTER: Minnesota writers, I'm not so sure. Midwestern writers, probably Sherwood Anderson and others who have written about lives in small to medium sized towns, lives that are isolated in one way or another. And in my stories, there's a range of characters, many of whom are living semi-secret lives, which is what I think Midwesterners often do. They don't give up their autobiographies all that easily. You have to pry it out of them. We're not like Southerners that way.

ANNIE BAXTER: So they have these darker secrets lurking that aren't going to come out as forcefully at first.



CHARLES BAXTER: Right. And it's interesting because we're in the age of the internet, of the web. Everybody says that region doesn't matter anymore. But it's not true. It's not true. It's one of the first things that anybody thinks about. You don't say, oh, he's from anywhere and everywhere. People don't say that. Well, I guess they do, but it's not very helpful. I believe that location is destiny. Once I didn't think so, and now I do.


ANNIE BAXTER: Author Charles Baxter. Coming up, we'll hear a radio adaptation of his short story, The Winner. It takes us to the North shore of Lake Superior where the old Midwestern disdain for snobbery takes a peculiar turn. That's in a minute on Writing Minnesota.

MODERATOR 2: Quick reminder, if you have to leave us, we'll be rebroadcasting this program at 6:00 Sunday night. You can learn more about the project at

ANNIE BAXTER: From Minnesota Public Radio News, I'm Annie Baxter, and this is Writing Minnesota. In this program, we're talking to some of the great writers living in the state and hearing their work. It's time now for our main attraction. It's a short story by author Charles Baxter. Again, no relation. Charlie, could you set this up.

CHARLES BAXTER: The story concerns a freelance journalist named Jerry Krumholtz, who has been assigned by success magazine to interview Success Magazine's monthly winner, who this particular month is James Mallard. And unfortunately, it's not a good match because Jerry Krumholtz has a low-level distrust, even dislike, of the very rich. And the story concerns what happens to him when he arrives at Mallard's house and meets the various people who live there.

ANNIE BAXTER: Now here's a radio adaptation of Charles Baxter's The Winner. It's from his new collection, Gryphon-- New and Selected Stories.



- In the hills bordering Lake Superior's northern shore, Krumholtz was lost. Behind the wheel, searching for a landmark, he hadn't seen a road sign or any other indication of a human presence for miles. Ahead of him, the road began another series of indecisive twists and turns heading into a forest so dense that a desolate canopy of branches blocked the sky and shielded the road from the sun. He felt as if he were drifting into a tunnel of agitation where the usual norms had been reversed.

Here, the trees were permanent, but the route was temporary and subject to disappearance. At almost exactly the moment when Krumholtz thought he should turn the car around and head back, he came upon a long expanse of Hurricane fencing with razor wire at its top. He saw a driveway on the right-hand side and a high gated barrier with the word "MALLARDHOF" carved in wood at the top. An intercom with a white button stood in front of the gate. Krumholtz drove up in front of it and pressed the button.

- Yes.

- It's Jerry Krumholtz.

- He waited. The silence continued for five seconds, ten seconds, almost half a minute.

- From success magazine. I have an appointment with James Mallard.

- From the forest came an Inn sucking breath of wind.

- This interview was set up a long time ago.

- You don't have to plead. Do you believe in angels?

- Excuse me?

- It's a simple question.

- Well, it may be simple, but I don't know.

- You don't know if you believe in angels?

- Just then, the gate lifted as if on invisible wires and Krumholtz drove in.

- He had the impression that video surveillance cameras were trained on him as his car made its way up a switchback dirt road around the bowl of a Valley to the crest of the bluff. Krumholtz didn't feel like getting out of his rental car. But when he saw a woman emerging from the front door, he thought he'd better get to work.

- Hello, hello, hello.

- She smiled with what must have been forced cheer, but the smile was so dazzling, Krumholtz thought for a moment she might actually be happy to see him.

- She wore beige Capri pants and a simple gray blouse, and she looked, as the wives of the rich often did, like a professional beauty.

- Mr. Krumholtz, I'm Ellie Millard.

- Jerry, please call me Jerry.

- I shall call you Mr. Krumholtz, for the sake of your dignity.

- Her skin, which at first he'd assumed to be deeply tanned, he now saw had a permanent, attractive darkness to it.

- Please come in. You must be tired out.

- Well, I got lost.

- Everyone does. But anyway, here you are now. And welcome to Mallardhof.

- Very impressive.

- He was looking down the front hallway into the depths of the house. The corridor disappeared in the distance as if replicating the geometry of infinity.

- My goodness.

- Goodness had nothing to do with it--

- She was quoting Mae West.

- --but it is rather stupendous, I'll grant you that.

- The diamond on her finger was the size of a grape.

- So how many square feet is this house anyway?

- He felt her hand on his back as she guided him down the front hallway toward a living room, which he imagined to be the first of many.

- No idea. Quite a few, but we've never counted them up. Would you like a drink, something to eat?

- No, Thank you. I'm quite all right.


- From invisible speakers came the sound of music, Bach or Handel, Baroque something, performed on the original instruments. Court music. Yes, the water music. That was it. On the wall, two side by side, flat paneled video screens showed a man's face contorting in agony, relaxing, smiling, then contorting in agony again. Hung next to it was another screen showing a woman who appeared to be shouting soundlessly for help.

- What's that.

- Oh, that diptych? That's an installation by Herb [? Furcht, ?] the video artist. He's a wonderful guy. Do you know him? He's become such a good friend. It's called Agony Number Six. It's a poor title. I begged Herb to change it, but I do love his work. And after all, Herb's a thoughtful guy, even with his irony, and he has the right to name his pieces because he's the artist. But you know, there never was an agony number five. Isn't that odd? Or maybe it was the wrong kind of agony. [LAUGHS]

- I should really start my interview with Mr. Mallard.

- Well, I could be mistaken, but I think Jimmy's in the tub. Earlier today, he was outside making furniture, and I think he probably worked up quite a sweat.

- Had she really just touched him on the cheek with the tips of her fingers? Why would she do such a thing?

- Why don't I show you around the house first.

- The interior walls consisted of poured concrete. And now when she touched part of the wall, a section of it gave way under her hand. It was actually a door, invisibly hinged.

- Why did you ask me about angels?

- Excuse me?

- When I was in the car at the gate before you buzzed me in, you asked me whether I believe in angels?

- I did? No, I don't think so. Why would I do that. I didn't buzz you in. It might have been Lorraine. Lorraine is the other woman.

- She turned and gazed at him again.

- Do you believe in angels?

- No.

- Well, neither do I, but I used to.

- They proceeded down the hallway toward an open doorway. When he turned the corner, he found himself in what appeared to be a master bathroom placed in the middle of the hallway with a large Whirlpool bath built into the floor. Leaning back in the bathtub with his eyes fixed on Krumholtz, was the February winner, James Mallard.

- Ah, So at last you're here. We thought you must have been a little lost being late, as you were. What happened to you?

- Yes, I'm sorry. I got lost. I was misdirected.

- Mallard stood up and stepped out of the Whirlpool bath. He was quite magnificent, still in possession of a sculpted athlete's body, classically muscled and proportioned.

- We wondered what had gone wrong with you.

- Without a trace of shyness and still wet, Mallard stepped toward Krumholtz and shook his hand hard. He had a strong wet grip with large, thick fingers. Having finished the handshake, Mallard stepped backward toward a grooved section of wall where he pressed a recessed button. Hot air came blowing out on him from louvers in the wall, drying his body as he pivoted his arms slightly up. Krumholtz glanced over at mallard's wife, who was gazing appreciatively at her husband. Like the gods, these people had no timidity or shame.

- Well, how should we conduct this interview, this little interview?

- Perhaps in your den. I have a digital recorder.

- Wouldn't you rather be doing something, something physical? Do you hunt? It's deer season. We could go hunting. Actually, no. Unfortunately for us, the light's going. It's too late in the day. We could go out tomorrow, if you wish.

- Well, no, I don't hunt.

- Here I am, Krumholtz thought, talking to this naked man while his wife looks on.

- We could chop some wood. There's time. We could do that.

- But you've just washed, and I have to take notes.

- You mean there's a rule? [LAUGHS] I didn't know there was a rule.

- He walked into the bedroom on the other side of the bathroom and put on the worn clothes he had apparently just taken off.

- There's never a rule. That's the First thing you have to learn. Come on.


- Is this your hobby, splitting wood?

- It's not a hobby, no. Hobbies are for others. It's an activity, a physical exertion that we like. Few minutes, and then you can take over.

- Wherever Millard turned, he gave off an air of command. The Velvet glove over the iron fist had grown very thin with him. He split logs with efficiency, Krumholtz thought, but also as if he were in a permanent rage.

- So you have questions? Ask questions. Ask me questions.

- Why did you move out here? It's a bit remote.

- We didn't want to see any neighbors, so we bought up the entire valley. You can look in any direction, you won't see anybody. It gives you a freedom, you know?

- Yes. Well, something else I meant to ask you right away-- this can be on or off the record, but your wife mentioned something about the other woman, and I think she said her name was Lorraine. When I came to the gate--

- Do you want a gossip sheet. I thought this was for Success Magazine. Well, this isn't for publication. Lorraine's my girlfriend, my mistress, if you will.

- She's here?

- Of course, she's here.

- He set up another log and then took off his jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt.

- Your wife doesn't mind you having a live in girlfriend?

- Off the record or on it? Well, write what you please. We don't care. No, she doesn't mind. She knows that a man like me needs more than one woman. That's how it happens to be, always has been from the start. We simply choose not to lie about it, not to indulge in the usual middling hypocrisies. I could tell you about men who have a different mistress every month. You can afford it, you can do it. Everyone knows and nobody cares. So have you met Lorraine?

- No.

- Well, why don't you go back into the house and go back toward the other wing, introduce yourself to her and get her version of things, and then come back and split some logs. Obviously, you need to get this girlfriend thing out of the way. Then we'll have a drink.

- Millard pointed at the door.


Walking down the hallways in a kind of trance, Krumholtz thought of his wife, Kathy. She'd be sitting the girls down about now for dinner. They'd be gathered under the kitchen light, maybe eating spaghetti together. Kathy made a great sauce. Her spaghetti sauce was one of her little glories. Krumholtz went through a brief shudder of longing for his wife and daughters at home. He'd never felt anything but love for Kathy from the moment he'd met her. He thought of asking someone in this infernal Olympian household for a telephone so he could call to check up on her, see how she was doing. Krumholtz turned another corner near an open door and saw a woman, the one who must certainly be the girlfriend, Lorraine, lying back on a fainting couch. She was reading a glossy magazine and glanced up when Krumholtz entered.

- You must be that guy.

- I'm that guy.

- He examined her. Unlike the wife, she was not particularly beautiful. On her left cheek was a birthmark in the shape of a candle flame.

- I'm the guy you asked about angels. You were at the intercom.

- The guy from the magazine? You didn't answer my question.

- No, I suppose not.

- He pointed at her.

- You're wearing pajamas. It's mid-afternoon. Been napping?

- What did you say your name was?

- Krumholtz, Jerry Krumholtz.

- Jerry, do you think Jimmy looked OK? I'm worried about him. He hasn't been himself lately, and no one knows why.

- He looked all right. What do you think could be bothering him.

- Krumholtz got out his notebook.

- Me, what do I think? It could be anything. He's restless. I think he's run out of worlds to conquer, and that makes him sick.

- She tossed the glossy magazine onto the floor.

- He's got everything. What would you do if you had everything?

- What a preposterous question. Krumholtz took out his pen.

- Doesn't Ellie-- doesn't the wife mind that you're here?

- Here in this room or here in this house? Well, no. You mean my existence here on Earth taking up the sexual slack. Why would she mind? Maybe you don't understand the situation, or maybe you don't understand about men like Jimmy. He's just bigger than other men. Everything about him is bigger and stronger than they are, those heard men, a little schmooze. So unimportant. He's just richer and smarter and more beautiful than they are. He's at the top of the pyramid. The rules for the little dufuses don't apply to him. Do you understand that? If you don't understand that, Krumholtz, you don't understand anything.

- So this is the harem.

- Because otherwise, there's no point in you being here or doing this story. He loves both Ellie and me. He has more than enough love for both of us and the children, and the previous wife, and the previous children. He flies out to see them. He has a private jet. He's not like ordinary men, is what I'm saying. I satisfy some of his needs, and Ellie satisfies other needs. And that's how it is. And if it isn't Bourgeois enough for you, that's too bad.

- What needs do you satisfy?

- What sort of question is that? Is this going into the article.

- It might. We'll see.

- She stood up and walked over toward him.

- You don't get it, do you?

- She leaned into him, reaching around his back, and in what Krumholtz could tell instantly was a cruel, practical joke, brought her face close to his and planted a long kiss on his lips with the slightest suggestion of tongue. The kiss constituted sheer mockery of his unimportance. She might as well have been kissing a lampshade.

- If you only believed in angels, Mr. Krumholtz, you might be lifted up now and then out of your pathetic little life.

- Lorraine had touched him gently on the cheek.

- But sadly, no.

- From outside came the sound of a rifle shot.

- No one knows how we live, and no one's going to.


- Krumholtz found the door out to the back terrace where Millard had been chopping firewood. When he saw Millard now in the distance, Krumholtz could make out that the man was covered with blood. He was bent over something with a knife in his hand, and was cutting it lengthwise.

- Dear. Damn it. Somehow, it got in the property. You know, they eat everything. There must be a hole in the fencing. They can be very aggressive and destructive.

- Millard had in his hand a 4 inch field knife and another tool Krumholtz didn't recognize.

- Have you ever done this? Some hunters bleed the deer, they cut its throat. But that's ridiculous because, after all, the heart isn't pumping. So you have to hang the damn thing with its head down so the blood drains out. Anyway, we don't do that. So what you do is, you get the deer on its back. Maybe you know. You look like you might be a hunter.

- Yes, I can see what you're doing.

- Would this scene provide him with the opening of his article, a winner not afraid of blood?

- After you've cut the diaphragm away, you get the knife up to cut the esophagus out. Once that's cut-- maybe you could get us a flashlight, you pull the lungs and the heart out. But that's tricky because they're attached with peritoneum.

- Krumholtz couldn't be sure that he was hearing James Millard properly.

- --blood. Yes, blood.

- The man's words weren't making any sense.

- --flashlight, slipcase, the meat sauce, blood stopped the tenderloin--

- The winner seemed to be slipping into a verbal salad, a garble of ejaculations and non sequiturs as he worked.

- --sealing intestines, sausage, blood, wedding, drool--

- Feeling lightheaded, Krumholtz backed away from Millard and let himself into the house.


In what appeared to be a sitting room close to the central hallway, he deposited himself onto a cold, black sofa. He felt tired and hungry. For a moment, he closed his eyes.


When he opened them, both James and Ellie Millard were standing in front of him. Wearing a crisply ironed pair of black slacks and a thick wool sweater, James Millard was bending toward Krumholtz, a drink in his hand.

- Scotch?

- No, thanks, not just yet.

- His mind rejects it, but his hand accepts it.


- Will you have dinner with us?

- I really should get back into town. It's time to go. I'll come back tomorrow.

- You'll get lost.

- He noticed that she was very exclamatory.

- You'll never get back. Weeks later, searchers will find you.


- Oh, stay with us. Never go away.

- Yes. Ask us the questions you want to have the answers to. And maybe, just maybe, we'll answer them.

- Krumholtz took a slug of the Scotch.

- All right. Here's my question.

- He took out his digital recorder and pretended to turn it on.

- Why do you get to be happy?

- Why do we get to be happy? [LAUGHS] What an absurd question. But I'll tell you, we all worked for it, and there were some rewards. The saying, guilt mocked fry? We worked for it. We worked very hard long days and long nights. And then, of course, we're lucky.

- Yes. And it's the luck I'm interested in, about that luck. The reason I asked is that other people, little people, work long days and long nights, very long days, days that go on for longer than 24 hours, days that go for weeks at a time.

- He felt a sudden lift off.

- That kind of day, you know, a working day that lasts for weeks.

- Is there a question in there somewhere?

- You take me, for example--

- Krumholtz felt some crucial disconnection.

- --we, that is, my wife and I, have neighbors, and the two of us, we-- well, I was once a musician, and she wanted to be a social worker. And she was a social worker for a while before they cut the state and federal funding, which they never restored. And then, well, this thing happened to us. And this-- what I'm about to tell you-- this was about 18 months after we were married, and she became pregnant. And immediately, she had complications.

- He took another swig of the scotch, emptying the glass.

- For the last four months of the pregnancy, she was spotting. So they kept her in bed. But she got through it. The baby, it was a breech, so they had to perform a cesarean. And they didn't give my wife, Kathy, enough anesthetic, so the whole procedure took a bad toll on her. And she was in terrible pain there for a while, but our son was born, Michael. And it seemed as if everything would be all right, and we would recover.

- Both Millard and his wife were staring at Krumholtz, their attention fixed on him. Millard rose and took Krumholtz his glass, refilling it, and then returned it to him. Krumholtz couldn't stop himself. Where had this story come from? It wasn't untrue exactly, even though it hadn't happened.

- And Michael seemed to be all right for a while he thrived, and by the time he reached his fifth birthday, we thought we were out of the woods. But then-- and I wouldn't be telling you this if we weren't at the end of the day and I weren't tired out.

- Oh, go right ahead. Please unburden yourself.

- Thank you. He became sick. It began with coughing, and he lost his appetite, and he was pale, and he never had any energy. Well, we couldn't get a diagnosis from the pediatrician. And, of course, it was understandable. Who knows how to look or where. We did one blood test after another. I mean, they did one blood test after another beyond what our insurance could pay for, those ghouls, though, I suppose I shouldn't say that. They mean well, those medical professionals.

And each time-- each time we went in, my son would start crying before they had even taken the blood, which tore at my heart. How can you get used to the suffering of a child? I mean, you cant. You can't get used to it or you shouldn't. There's nothing there in that situation you should ever accept. And Michael was bleeding from the nose all the time and sometimes from his mouth for no reason that we knew. And then finally, we got a diagnosis.

- What was it?

- Chronic thrombocytopenic purpura.

- Krumholtz had once written an article about the disease and knew something about it.

- That's the medical name for it. And there's no cure and no treatment. And invariably, it's fatal. So, Well, we had a certain amount of time. There was this question we were facing, what should we do? What should we do with the time we had left with our little boy? Of course, we asked Michael what he wanted to do. We had to ask him, what he wanted to do more than anything else in the world. He didn't want to go to any of those destination places. He said he wanted to sit by the window.

- Krumholtz took another swig of the Scotch.

- Michael sat by the window, and he would narrate what he saw. There was one particular bird, a sparrow, that came by for the bread crumbs that Michael put out on his windowsill. And then when Michael died, the sparrow came by waiting for him for the food he had put out there. The bird would hop on the sill and chirp. Then one night, we heard a terrible thump against Michael's window. The next morning, we found the sparrow on the lawn. It seemed to have flung itself against his window. When I bent down to pick it up, I discovered that its heart had stopped.

- Well, he had his triumph. The winner's wife was in tears, and the winner was contemplating Krumholtz with a kind of baffled annoyance while he attempted to comfort his wife. The damn tears. Against the riches of the world, they changed almost nothing. Nevertheless, Krumholtz felt a power surging through him. No one would dare move him from his comfortable position on the sofa. He took another swig.

"Oh, stop"--


--Ellie Millard said, touching a hankie to her face. But he wasn't finished. Krumholtz could go on all night. They would have to shoot him to get rid of him. He didn't intend to budge. He would sit there with his audience in front of him, elaborating this story of suffering and pity and terror for as long as he pleased. He had just gotten started.



ANNIE BAXTER: The Winner appears in Minnesota writer Charles Baxter's latest book, Gryphon-- New and Selected Stories. We had to shorten the piece and adapting it for the radio, but you can read the full version on our website, Thanks to actors Michael Booth, Charles Fraser, Leigha Horton, Tena May Gallivan, and Patrick Coyle.


I'm Annie Baxter, and this is Writing Minnesota. A special program featuring writers from around the state. If you were listening earlier, you heard Charles Baxter say he often writes characters who keep secrets. Well, poet Matt Rasmussen brings us to his secret world inside his refrigerator in Robbinsdale.

MATT RASMUSSEN: This poem is titled "Land O Lakes."

A tinfoil lake rattles the sun

As a canoe crosses it

Approaching my shore.

The Native American girl

Walks toward me, kneels,

Offers a golden box of butter,

And then she's on the box

I am holding.

Apparently, I've accepted.

Come, she says, we will

Burn beauty into something

Even more beautiful.


It is evening inside

The refrigerator.

I lie down shivering

Near the lake.

The giant red ring

Hovers behind her,

Generating warmth.

You must fall asleep

In your dream to wake up

In your life, she says.

I can hear the vegetables

Dying in the crisper

And through the door,

The television weeping

Openly, unashamed.


ANNIE BAXTER: Poet Matt Rasmussen in Robbinsdale. His poem, "Land O Lakes" appears in his chapbook Finger Gun. We've been hearing poems and stories this hour that reflect what life is like in Minnesota, and we're also hearing about what it means to be a writer here. For poet Philip Bryant, you can't broach that topic without a trip to Stearns County. That's where I met up with him a couple of months ago, back when the state was knee deep in winter. We were going to a poetry reading in an unusual place, and Bryant led me on a trek through a snowy woods to get there.

PHILIP BRYANT: This is kind of packed down.

ANNIE BAXTER: Whoa, it's getting deep now.


ANNIE BAXTER: This area has special meaning for Bryant. It's where his wife's family is from, and it's the place where he came into his own as a poet after struggling with his craft for years. Bryant grew up on Chicago's South Side in a household filled with jazz music. His dad owned as many as 8,000 jazz albums. Jazz, blues, and the black culture of the South Side gave Bryant a deep well of stories and images to draw from in his writing. But he could only tap that material once he transplanted himself to rural Minnesota, a place that couldn't be more different from home.

PHILIP BRYANT: It's a weird thing. I mean, it's hard to really say, well, why that is? And why would a little Black boy from the South Side of Chicago, all of his material is there come here, and all of a sudden, that material will be suddenly present for him?

ANNIE BAXTER: We walk on through the woods. Overhead, the sky is a dreamy kind of blue. Bryant says the serenity of this landscape helped bring his poetry forth.

PHILIP BRYANT: I mean, I would think about writing stuff in Chicago all the time, but never had the space to really actuate that. And here in Minnesota, I've had that space.

ANNIE BAXTER: Turns out it doesn't take much physical space. Our destination for the poetry reading is a little shack out on the ice.


The ice house belongs to Brother Paul Jasmer. He's a monk at Saint John's Abbey. Brother Paul likes having people by to drink tea and read poetry.

PAUL JASMER: --him up on the wall there.

PHILIP BRYANT: Oh, my god.

ANNIE BAXTER: Do you have any kind of protocol for how this happens?

PAUL JASMER: No. No incantations. Just open the book and start reading. And--

ANNIE BAXTER: For years, Philip Bryant has been stopping by to read his poems to brother Paul. The one he reads today shares its name with an old jazz standard. It's called "Stella by Starlight."


PHILIP BRYANT: My mother couldn't understand how my father, a man stuffed so full of promise and potential, could wither it all away on a stack of bebop records and a bottle of beer. And his close friend Preston was worse, undereducated and couldn't speak the King's English if he held a gun to his head, gave him the book, and asked him to quote any passage out of Shakespeare. Why my father associated with him when my mother's opinion was far beneath him, was an open mystery, something beyond her.


Jazz, jazz, jazz, that's all she heard, morning, noon, and night. When he could have easily risen to be a great surgeon, lawyer or civil rights leader. But one day, I walked in on them by accident. And there they were, Preston in my dad, a little drunk, crouched over the turntable. I understood why, when they turned around. Taken completely by surprise for an instant, I saw that both their dark faces reflected the light and were shining.

ANNIE BAXTER: Most of Bryant's poems are about his life growing up in Chicago, but he's lived here now for more than 20 years. So Minnesota shows up from time to time too. He says a few years ago, someone even called him a Minnesota writer.

PHILIP BRYANT: And on the one hand, I was very proud, but then sad in the other sense too because it's like, does that mean I'm not a Chicago writer? [LAUGHS] I'm going to be in two places at once most of the time.

ANNIE BAXTER: Phillip Bryant teaches at Gustavus Adolphus College and is author of three books of poetry. You can hear him read one of his poems set in Minnesota, a very funny one, on our website,


So shall we head to Saint Paul for dessert? I know a place that makes a mean cake. It comes with our final poem.

KATRINA VANDENBERG: I'm Katrina Vandenberg, and this poem is called "Consuming Desire."

I'm not making this up. In Cafe Latte's wine bar,

One of the lovely coeds at the next table

Touched John on the arm as if I wasn't there

And said--

Excuse me, sir--

--Excuse me, sir--

--but what is that naughty little dessert?

--but that naughty little dessert?

And I knew from the way he glanced

At the frothy neckline of her blouse,

Then immediately cast his eyes on his plate

Before giving a fatherly answer,

He would have given up dessert three months

For the chance to feed this one to her.

I was stunned, John was hopeful,

But the girl was hitting on his cake.

Though she told her friend until they left

She did not want any.


I wish she wanted something-- my husband, his cake, both at once.

I wish she left insisting

Upon the beauty of his hands, his curls,

The sublimeness of strawberries

And angel food. But she was precocious,

And I fear adulthood is the discipline

Of being above desire, cultivated

After years of learning what you want

And where and how, after insisting

That you will one day have it. I don't

Ever want to stop noticing a man like the one

At the bar in his loosened tie, reading

The Star Tribune. I don't want to eat my cake

With a baby spoon to force small bites,

As women's magazines suggest. And you

Don't want to either, do you? You want a big piece

Of this world. You would love to have the whole thing.


ANNIE BAXTER: That's poet Katrina Vandenberg in Saint Paul. She's the author of two books of poetry. That's it for our special program, Writing Minnesota. I hope our show has given you a taste of some of the many talents living right in our backyard and maybe a new perspective on what it's like to live in our state. But you know, I think all the writing we featured in the show tells us something bigger about ourselves too, something that's not bound by narrow geographies.

The Southern writer Eudora Welty phrased it best. She said, "One place understood helps us understand all places better." Our show was produced by Curtis Gilbert and me with help from Chris Roberts, Johnny Vince Evans and Editor Mike Edgerly. Many thanks to the Loft Literary Center, our partner in the production. Writing Minnesota is supported in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendments Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. You can download the show and read many of the literary works featured here today, as well as some special web only extras at our website, I'm Annie Baxter. Thanks for listening, and happy reading.

GARY EICHTEN: Well, that does it for our Midday program today. Gary Eichten here. Thanks so much for tuning in. And quick reminder, we'll be rebroadcasting this program 6 o'clock Sunday night. Talk of the nation Science Friday coming along next here on the station. Hope you have a great weekend. And on Monday, hope you can join us. Among other things, we'll be talking with legislative leaders Amy Koch and Tom Bock.

TOM CRANN: Later on All Things Considered, newsmakers and their views on the news they're making.

SPEAKER 2: The greatest threat to Medicare is the status quo.

TOM CRANN: I'm Tom Crann. For in-depth interviews, analysis, and all the day's news, join me here on Minnesota Public Radio news starting at 3:00.

SPEAKER 3: Programming supported by Gunflint Green Up May 6 and 7. Food, music, and family activities on the Gunflint Trail. Volunteers will plant seedlings to restore the fire damaged forests. Registration by Earth Day, April 22nd at

SPEAKER 4: Your calls and letters to our leaders in Washington have kept funding from Public Radio in the federal budget for 2011. But more challenges lie ahead in the coming months. No matter what happens, this news service, thanks to you, will remain safe and strong. That's because you've made Minnesota Public Radio your Public Radio by being a member. If you're not a member yet, become one today by making a contribution in any amount online at


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