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AWP: They came, they read — and they lingered for a big tribute to Robert Bly

Twenty-four poets and friends each chose a poem from “Like the New Moon,” read it aloud, and resisted standing there for hours sharing their own stories about Bly.

With Jim Lenfestey at his side, Robert Bly, at left, took the podium and read several poems from his book.
Photo by John Whiting

Last Friday, Minneapolis was named the most literate city in America. Coincidentally, at that very moment, it was probably the most literate city on the planet.

Nearly 12,000 poets, fiction writers, nonfiction writers, editors, publishers, agents, writing students, faculty from creative writing programs, and hopefuls were here for the 48th annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference, the nation’s largest literary shindig.

By day, they attended more than 550 panels, readings, lectures, tributes and other events and hung out at the Bookfair, whose 700 exhibitors included literary presses and journals, colleges and universities with creative writing programs, arts centers, and arts organizations.

By night, they fanned out over the cities to hundreds of off-site events, from readings at the Loft to a Prince Purple Poetry Party at First Avenue, happy hours, receptions, a Literary Death Match at the Nomad, and a show of paintings based on Tom Robbins’ novels at Gamut Gallery that ends May 7.

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Ever hospitable, especially to out-of-towners, we brought out all of our weather: rain, sleet, snowflakes the size of doilies, brilliant blue skies and warm sun pouring through the windows of the Convention Center, sometimes all on the same day. The skyways leading from the Convention Center to the Hilton and the Hyatt were wildly popular. The Convention Center itself was a star. This was our first time there for an actual conference, and we were impressed.

AWP was held at the end with the auditorium, which was used for large events. Four levels of meeting rooms were linked by escalators. Helpful people were everywhere, answering questions, pointing conferees in the right direction (and sometimes running after them when they headed in the wrong direction, which we learned firsthand). The only problem we noticed was the single, solitary Dunn Bros. coffee outlet, where the line was always endless.

You’d think that after hosting the Alcoholics Anonymous convention here in 2000, which drew 50,000 people, they would have figured out the coffee thing. During the hours people spent waiting for lattes, they could have been writing more poems.

There are many ways to do the AWP. You can follow well-known writers around, and the conference offered many: Karen Russell, Claudia Rankine, Bob Shacochis, Louise Erdrich, Patricia Smith, Greil Marcus, Roxane Gay, Carolyn Forché, T.C. Boyle, Ted Kooser, Vijay Seshadri, Quincy Troupe, Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Blanco and Anthony Marra, to name but a few. You can get down to nitty-gritty and attend panels on writing, teaching writing, podcasting, getting paid for writing, revising your writing, crowdfunding your writing, self-publishing, handling rejection, editing other people’s writing, writing about your mom, writing about your dog, and writing about your own sexual experiences – as nonfiction. You can spend the whole conference on a barstool, talking with friends. Some do, with no regrets.

We went local. At the Page Meets Stage Tenth Anniversary Showdown, a traveling version of a popular NYC reading series, Minneapolis-based Vietnamese American poet Bao Phi shared the spotlight with Blanco, the inaugural poet at Barack Obama’s second swearing-in. We sampled a reading by four new Milkweed poets and went to the Cedar for a presentation by Mizna, an Arab American organization based in Minneapolis that produces a literary journal. We peeked in at a special “Talking Volumes” event where MPR’s Kerri Miller interviewed Louise Erdrich and Charles Baxter.

At a presentation for the University of Minnesota Press’ 90th anniversary, we learned from editor Erik Anderson that it publishes 130 books each year and currently has an astonishing 3,500 books in print. Then we heard terrific readings by authors Karen Babine (“Water and What We Know”), Kate Hopper (“Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood”) and Sarah Stonich (“Vacationland”). “As a University press,” Anderson said modestly, “we love publishing complicated books.”

A Graywolf reading featured poets, fiction writers and nonfiction writers, reading from their latest: Jeffery Renard Allen (“Song of the Shank”), Catherine Barnett (“The Game of Boxes”), Margaret Lazarus Dean (“Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight”), Mark Doten (“The Infernal”), Tony Hoagland (“Twenty Poems That Could Save America and Other Essays”), Ander Monson (“Letter to a Future Lover”). We ran out after and bought two copies of “Leaving Orbit,” Dean’s personal elegy to the end of the space shuttle program.

We found and followed a thread that led from Minnesota’s literary past to our present, out the door of the Convention Center and south to a reading Monday night at Plymouth Congregational Church. The thread was Robert Bly, now 88 years old, whose latest book, “Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life,” has just been published by White Pine Press in Buffalo, New York.

It is not a stretch to say that Minnesota wears its most-literate crown, and boasts more poets per square mile than is wise or legal, in large part because of Robert Bly. A poet, writer, editor, publisher, translator, cultural critic, rabble-rouser, serape-wearer, lute-plucker and declaimer, he has lived here for most of his life.

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Three events at AWP looked closely at Bly and his work. A panel called “Robert Bly and the Minnesota Writers’ Publishing House” considered the revolutionary press Bly launched in the 1970s. Modeled on the Swedish Writers’ Publishing House he had discovered during a trip to Scandinavia, it launched many careers and made Minnesota a national center for poetry.

A panel on poet James Wright, who knew Bly well, credited Wright and Bly with changing the face of American poetry. Wright, who hated Minnesota (he taught at the University of Minnesota from 1957-64 and described that period of his life as “eight years in the 7 Corners of Hell”) had decided to give up writing poetry altogether when he went to his faculty mailbox and discovered a small magazine called “The Fifties,” published by Bly and William Duffy.

Soon after, he paid a visit to Bly and his first wife, writer Carol Bly, at their farm in southern Minnesota, where he found “luminous space and kindness.” He spent many weekends with them, arriving after a three-hour bus ride, writing in a former chicken coop turned writers’ shack.

Bly and Wright and their circle wrote in a radical new way, opening the door to free verse, breaking with the tradition of English poetry, “letting the dogs in.” Of huge significance, they translated world poets unknown in America at the time – Neruda, Machado, Rumi, Rilke, Transtromer, Georg Trakl and others – publishing them in “The Fifties” and later “The Sixties.”

At “Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat: A Tribute to Robert Bly,” which drew a standing-room-only crowd, writers, singers and a magician reflected on Bly’s influence on poetry and American culture. Bly – who was there, sitting quietly in the first row beside his wife, Ruth – was praised for creating a perceptual shift; with helping teachers teach; with inviting non-human life into his poetry; with writing from the realm of the deep image, so his poetry is never purely personal or confessional, but universal.

About his men’s work (in much of the world, Bly is known more for his book “Iron John” than for any of his poetry), poet Marie Howe said, “You brought men together and let them feel their feelings without holding a beer in their hands.” Later, Howe said, “I once went to a conference and found myself Sufi dancing in a barn with Robert Bly.” Then Bly read a few poems from “Like the New Moon,” and we all headed out into the closing hours of AWP.

The conference ended Saturday, but several out-of-towners stuck around for an event Monday night at Plymouth Congregational Church. Presented by Plymouth’s Literary Witnesses series, the Loft and Rain Taxi Review of Books, it celebrated Bly’s new book with readings by 24 poets and Bly himself.

“Like the New Moon” is a sequel, sort of, to “Stealing Sugar from the Castle: Selected and New Poems, 1950-2013,” a 400-page collection published by Norton in 2013. Most people thought that “Stealing Sugar” would be Bly’s final book, but White Pine publisher and longtime Bly friend Dennis Maloney thought there was too much missing from it – poems out of print for years, poems that appeared only once in magazines, poems that deserved to stand in the light again. He drew much of “Like the New Moon” from his own collection of Bly books, chapbooks and magazines.

Twenty-four poets and friends – Maloney, Jim Moore (whose “Underground: New and Selected Poems” was recently published by Graywolf), Minnesota poet laureate Joyce Sutphen, Michael Dennis Browne, videographer Mike Hazard (producer of the documentary “Robert Bly: A Man Writes to a Part of Himself”), Tony Hoagland, Utne Reader founder Eric Utne, Louis Jenkins (whose 2013 play at the Guthrie, “Nice Fish,” was a collaboration with actor Mark Rylance), Ed Bok Lee, James Lenfestey, and others – each chose a poem from “Like the New Moon,” read it aloud, and resisted standing there for hours sharing their own stories about Bly, although you could tell they were itching to.

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After, with Lenfestey at his side, Bly took the podium and read several poems from his book, becoming more energetic as time went on, joking with Lenfestey, thumping his cane on the ground for emphasis. He also read one of his finest poems, “Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat,” about blessings and grief and persistence. “Each of us deserves to be forgiven,” he read, then paused to ask, “Is that true?”

You can hear Bly read “Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat” (and two other poems) in this MN Original segment from 2014. A film by award-winning director Haydn Reiss, “Robert Bly: A Thousand Years of Joy,” is in the final stages of production. Here’s the trailer.