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A poet hooked on rhyme, reason and recycling

Poet Larry Schug poses next to piles of sorted recycling -- the labor of his days -- at the College of St. Benedict.
MinnPost photo by Brian Voerding
Poet Larry Schug poses next to piles of sorted recycling -- the labor of his days -- at the College of St. Benedict.

Avon, Minn. — Larry Schug wakes early each day in his A-frame cabin outside St. Joseph, sometimes before dawn. He finds a pen and his latest weather-beaten notebook. He sits at the kitchen table, or on the porch, anywhere.

And in the inky predawn or under an early morning sun, without hesitation, he begins to write.

Sometimes the words come so fast his pen hardly keeps up. Most days, though, it's assembly-line labor, slow and methodical: His mind conceives and sorts, word by word, phrase by phrase, poem by poem. Think. Write. Repeat.

Ten minutes, two hours, more, it varies, though typically it skews toward hours. Then he's out the door, off to sort some more, this time not with his mind but with his hands; not words but bottles and cans.

Schug is the recycling coordinator, mail delivery guy and general handyman at the College of St. Benedict, where he's worked as a maintenance man in one capacity or another for half his life — 31 years and counting.

He's also the resident poet.

In all the attention this year on Schug since winning one of the McKnight Foundation's prestigious writer fellowships after two decades of trying, this laborer connection has been well emphasized.

The $25,000 award, given out by Minneapolis' Loft Literary Center, is one of the top individual writing accolades in the state and is held in high esteem across the country. Four are given to state poets every other year.

Schug loves his job at the college, but he would prefer that people don't focus too much on this detail, don't brand him as a blue-collar poet or with any similar moniker.

He acknowledges his unusual place in a trade where fellow practitioners seek gainful employment in ivory towers, use work as a means to an end, or simply avoid it at all costs.

And the 61-year-old is the first to admit that there's a certain amount of physical evidence that suggests his chosen day trade, his cragged face and calloused hands, his patchwork gray-to-white beard and work shirts monogrammed with his first name.

Still, his responsibilities as a maintenance man don't inform his work as a poet, and vice versa. He writes about nature, about baseball, about life's common struggles and questions, about mortality. And then he goes to work.

Is Schug a poet who coordinates recycling, or a recycling coordinator who writes poetry? To Schug, that's not a fair question. Or even a question at all. He is, well, who he is.

"I've always had the idea that I'm just me and this is my life," Schug said. "Looking at it from the outside, I can see these divisions, these boxes, poetry, work. I don't play into them, and maybe intentionally I don't. I don't want my life like that."

Or to borrow an analogy from nature, one of Schug's primary influences and strongest images in his work, his life is not a series of isolated lakes but an uninterrupted river.

A single word, poet, entered that river long before Schug recognized its existence.

Becoming a poet
For much of his life, Larry was a poet and didn't know it.

Here's the tale his aunt tells him:

One day in 1949, when Schug was 2 and his brother Mike was 1, they both sat astride their mother's lap, and she turned to them, one by one. "This is going to be my businessman," she said, looking at Mike. She turned to Larry, and said: 'This is going to be my poet."

It's a well-worn story, one Schug has happily related to friends and occasional interviewers over the years. He knows only his mother's words, nothing about their context or intent, and Schug isn't a strong believer in destiny.

Still.

Mike, after all, became a businessman.

It took Schug a long time to comfortably call himself a poet, a decade longer than it took for him to realize that he was one. He didn't describe himself that way when he began writing, as early as third grade while growing up in St. Cloud.

And not when he was drafted in the late 1960s and sent to Turkey (luckily, instead of Vietnam, he said) and wrote countless poems exploring his issues with the war, along with other themes that came to him. When he finished the poems, he tossed them, lost them, left them behind.

"That stage of my life was pretty carefree, not a lot of baggage," Schug said. "At the time I never thought of being a poet."

While he hadn't kept a single poem, he had he clung to this notion: Poetry had been there for him, readily, each time he had needed it.

When Schug returned to St. Cloud he worked a series of jobs, on farms, in a junkyard, in a meatpacking plant, fighting fires and cutting trees with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He drifted in and out of St. Cloud State University for a decade, finally graduating in 1976 with a degree in geography and environmental studies. The following year, unsure of where to turn next, he took the job at the College of St. Benedict.

In the 1980s, he moved with his wife, Juli Rule, into the A-frame cabin, where they live quietly with a rotating cast of adopted animals.

In 1981 his mother died, and his father followed five years later. Schug, searching for a way to manage his grief and come to terms with his own mortality, turned again to poetry.

When he emerged from the grief he continued writing, poem after poem.

This time, he kept them.

Schug began to submit his work to small literary journals, and when he was published for the first time in a small, now-defunct publication in New York City, the success allowed him to forget his myriad rejections. And it reminded him of what had motivated his new career.

"That is really the regret of my life, that my mother died before this happened. And my father." He thought for a moment. "But maybe it wouldn't have happened unless she died."

He published his first collection of poetry in 1990, and followed it with three other collections over the next 11 years. He has two finished manuscripts he's now shopping to potential publishers. His poems have been published in dozens of literary journals in Minnesota and across the country.

Mike Opitz, the chair of St. Ben's and St. John's English department, regularly includes Schug's work into his curriculum. He said Schug's direct language and simple lyricism stands up to other modern poets, both regional and national.

More importantly, Opitz said, the humbleness and honesty in the poems speak to students in ways other works cannot.

"If the students start with Larry, he opens other doors for them. They see something they can hang on to and find in other poetry they read," Opitz said. "Students think you find (poetry) in a book or a university, and when they hear it can be anywhere, if you're alert and aware and have facility with language, they respond to that."

Opitz said that somebody once called Schug a "proletarian poet," and the moniker stuck.

Not that Schug puts much stock in labels.

Still.

A blue-collar mentality
Throughout Schug's career as a poet, intentional or not, a blue-collar mentality influences his writing process.

He can't stop writing; he's always busy, like a good fix-it man who can't stop tinkering with things. He generally works on only one poem at a time and keeps at it until it's finished. And then he moves on, to another task, to another poem.

He has no dry spells and is somewhat skeptical of them.

"I know there is such a thing as writer's block, apparently, but I've never had it." He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "I don't know why people get stuck, but I'm sure there are all kinds of reasons."

He can't stray long from the pen and notebook. He gets addict jitters, can't sleep at night, his mind the bluesman's foot that won't quit tapping long after the guitar's been cased for the night.

And when he's not sure what to write about, he writes about, of all things, nails. That's one of his unpublished manuscripts — 107 poems about nails. A whole collection of nail poems. Not all are literally about nails, of course. "I found I could use a nail as a metaphor for a lot of things," Schug said — but the metaphor does, after all, carry a certain context.

While Schug will never be interested in the professor life, he still ventures occasionally into the academic world, speaking to Opitz's and other English classes when students read his works.

Schug is never sure what he's going to say, but usually he'll talk and then a student will ask a question disguised as a statement, like, "I don't know what to write about," and Schug — forgive him if he sounds blunt, but he can be a blunt guy when discussing something he's passionate about — will invariably answer something like this:

"Did you wake up this morning breathing? Are you alive; can you see; can you hear? Do you have feelings? Then you have something to write about.

"And I think everybody does. They just don't see the things in their lives as important enough or worthy of writing, or I don't know what. Everybody, good grief, everybody's got a story."

His advice is transcendent of whatever-color-collar work, available to writers and non-writers and to those like him who try to avoid such labels, and suggests that there are really only two prerequisites to becoming a poet.

One: Wake up in the morning.

Two: Write.

Brian Voerding is a Minneapolis freelance writer.

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