The Beat: ‘In Minnesota, poetry matters’

WHY DID IT TAKE ME until recently to determine that poetry is meant to be read aloud, preferably by the poet, and not just silently to one’s self?

I came to that realization in April after reading my poem, “Her Treasure,” to an audience gathered in an historic Zumbrota theater for Crossings at Carnegie’s “Poet-Artist Collaboration XI.”

the beat logo

That poetry-inspired art celebration proved pivotal for me, prompting a personal recognition that poetry is as much performance art as it is an intimate experience.

And now the independent, nonprofit Northern Community Radio, with studios in Grand Rapids and Bemidji, Minnesota, recognizing the importance of poetry read aloud, is bringing poetry to the public via The Beat, broadcasting a poem a day by a poet with a Minnesota connection.

The Beat, according to NCR’s website is “Northern Community Radio’s daily reminder that, in Minnesota, poetry matters, and Minnesota poets are proving that every day.”

I proved that on September 17 with the reading of my poem, “Her Treasure.” Because traveling hundreds of miles up north from southern Minnesota was neither practical nor cost effective for me, The Beat producer Steve Downing, himself a published poet, read my poem. You can listen to Downing’s fine rendition of “Her Treasure” by clicking here.

Minnesota’s 2011 Poet Laureate, Joyce Sutphen of Chaska.
Courtesy of Northern Community Radio
Minnesota’s 2011 Poet Laureate, Joyce Sutphen of Chaska.

Since early July, an assortment of about three dozen poets—from the well-known John Berryman, James Wright, Joyce Sutphen, Louis Jenkins, Will Weaver and Sean Hill—to the complete unknowns have been featured on The Beat.

The show airs weekdays between 7:30 – 8 a.m. and then again between 3:30 – 4 p.m. on 91.7 FM in north-central and northeastern Minnesota, 90.5 FM in north-central and northwestern Minnesota and on 89.9 FM in the Brainerd area. With 150,000 listeners under the NCR signal, coverage extends from Grygla on the north to Pierz on the south to Fertile on the west and Hermantown on the east.

And for those outside the coverage area, like me, The Beat can be heard via audio streaming from kaxe.org or via the KAXE online archives.

“Reaction from poets and listeners, including folks who thought they hated poetry, has been unconditionally affirmative, making us think this was a success story waiting to happen,” says producer/poet Downing, also a former high school English teacher, published essayist, arts administrator and lifelong musician.

He and two others—NCR’s program director, who interviews writers for her long-standing RealGoodWords show, and a design-artist NCR staffer who is also a poet and has taught English at the college level—have been evaluating the hundreds of poetry submissions coming in from across the state.

“We didn’t know what to expect, but no one thought we’d be swamped, which we are,” Downing says. “It’s a nice problem to have but a problem nevertheless.”

The three-person jury meets every Friday to look at/listen to submissions. “The jury looks for creative work that, first, sparks a positive ‘gut’ response; that demonstrates originality; that makes smart word choices; and that’s provocative, in the best sense of the word,” Downing explains.

He advises submitting poets to avoid the topics of partisan politics, religion and lost love and to remember that the Federal Communications Commission is listening.

The range of topics is “all over the place,” Downing says, although some poems are somewhat “Minnesota-centric,” covering subjects like family farms, old barns, and the state’s flora, fauna and weather.

Broadcasting these poems on its community-based public radio stations helps fulfill NCR’s overall mission “to build community in northern Minnesota by way of radio programming, cultural events and interactive media.”

The Beat is currently funded by a one-year $30,000 allocation from the Minnesota Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.

The history of The Beat, however, stretches back several years to The Beat Cafe, a live-on-air pledge drive program which, among other Beat content, featured Downing reading his poems, with live bass and percussion accompaniment. The success of that first show prompted discussion on how to make this happen again. So come spring 2013, The Beat Cafe fundraiser will be back with live-on-air poetry and music.

Says Downing: “Think berets, dark glasses, shawls, candles in wine bottles…”

Between now and then, though, Downing will continue to air selected poetry by Minnesota poets, known and unknown, and will apply again for state funding to continue the popular poetry program, The Beat.

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FYI: If you’re a Minnesota poet and would like your writing considered for The Beat, email text or, preferably, audio versions (e.g. MP3) of your poetry to Downing at this address: sdowning@kaxe.org

A poem should take three minutes or less to read.

Once accepted for The Beat, poets have recorded their poems at KAXE in Grand Rapids, KBXE in Bemidji and at KFAI in Minneapolis or on their own devices. NCR also offers the option of Downing or others reading a selected poem if the poet cannot record his/her work.

I contacted Downing about writing this post after my poem was selected by the jury for airing on The Beat.

This post was written by  Audrey Kletscher Helbling and originally published on  Minnesota Prairie Roots.

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