“It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack of what is found there,” wrote William Carlos Williams.
It’s a claim most newspapers fail to appreciate. The Southwest Journal has been an exception, offering a platform for poetry for most of its 30-year run.
In 2004 the Linden Hills council decided the neighborhood needed a poet laureate and named me to the post. I don’t think they meant it to be permanent, but I haven’t been asked to resign, so I’ve kept the honorific.
It was a good time for poetry. We gathered (remember that?) at area coffee shops and bookstores (remember them?). We met in people’s homes, so we could enjoy rhyme, rhythm and booze. We had special themed readings: Valentine’s Day Love Poetry — with strawberries, chocolate and champagne; political poetry; poetry by and about women; cowboy poetry; narrative poetry; holiday poetry — with a reading of “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
I borrowed money, set up a publishing company (Trolley Car Press) and put out a poetry collection: “Between the Lakes: the Poets of Linden Hills.” The Southwest Journal did a profile on me. Editor Sarah McKenzie, seeking to revive the SWJ’s poetry tradition, asked me to lead the “Southwest Journal Poetry Project.”
I’ve been the paper’s poetry editor for 14 years. Hundreds of poets have submitted thousands of poems and we’ve published about 700 of them.
Southwest Minneapolis has an extraordinary number of good writers: journalists, copywriters, editors, novelists and “others.” I’ve been continually surprised and impressed by how many people write poetry — and how good some of it is.
I’m expansive about residency. Most of the poets live in the area, but over the years some have moved, or died, or been referred by friends. We get poems from Fargo, San Francisco, Oregon, Italy and other distant places … even St. Paul. We’ve published posthumous pieces. In most issues we have “regulars” and new voices. The poets have ranged in age from 8 to 93.
Trolley Car Press published the best of the first three years: “SEASONS: Poems from the Southwest Journal Poetry Project,” with illustrations by SWJ artist WACSO. (Both books are still available. Get in touch!)
For each issue I’ve tried to pick the best dozen or so poems that turned up. It’s always been more about the poetry than about where the poets live or who they are. Thanks to all the poets who have submitted poems and to all the readers who have enjoyed them. It’s been an honor and a delight to do this work.
Below is a poem, one of mine, that seems vaguely appropriate to the season, from the spring 2014 issue.
While we know the world is round
sometimes it isn’t,
like when the world is flat, a piece of plywood
with tacked-down tracks on raised cork berms,
plastic crossing signs, paper pine trees,
a station missing some pieces,
six people, six cows, five trucks,
ten railroad cars in various states of repair.
one engine that works and two that don’t.
Everywhere there are these memory basements
handed down from father to son to son
with partly landscaped flat worlds
unplugged power packs, tunnels without mountains,
trestles to nowhere, a conductor missing his flag.
The worlds that matter are the ones we make up
more biography than geography
more idea than realization
more plan than actualization:
getting there has always been more than half the fun.
Meanwhile, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe
runs the Super Chief through mesas and canyons
as California guys in high-waisted pants
drink in sky-domed observation cars
heading for sun-kissed misses in orange groves
who have whispered “don’t be late.”
The City of New Orleans races into the deep South
on its way to magnolia aromas,
gumbo, history, jazz and the blues.
The Empire Builder glides easily up the Mississippi,
through the high bluffs of immigrant dreams
heading for St. Paul and all points west.
And — in the darkening night — the Twentieth Century Limited
crosses the Hudson in the moonlight,
as people sip martinis in the club car,
silhouettes on the windows
that flash by like heartbeats in our dreams.