Minnesota poet, humorist and essayist Bill Holm recently confided to his editor that he thought he had arrived at perhaps the “best place” in his writing life.
He had been named McKnight’s 2008 Distinguished Artist (putting him in the company of an idol, Robert Bly, and boosting his bank account by $50,000), his work was getting positive attention in the national and local press, and he had retired from Southwest Minnesota State University, freeing him to write even more.
In fact, Holm was writing about a poem a day for a new collection, even while vacationing in Arizona, said Daniel Slager, Holm’s editor and the publisher and CEO of Minneapolis-based Milkweed Editions.
On Wednesday, Holm, 65, died in a South Dakota hospital shortly after returning from Arizona. Update: The cause of death was believed to be complications from pneumonia, though various sources told MinnPost on Thursday it was pneumonia and heart failure. Holm had suffered from heart problems in the past.
The literary community is mourning a larger-than-life figure described alternately as a curmudgeon and the gentlest of souls. Holm once described himself as an “elf at heart in a giant body,” Slager said.
“There are no dry eyes around here today,” said Slager of his colleagues at Milkweed, which published seven of Holm’s books over the years. “It makes me sad for all of us that there won’t be more (writing). … He had more to give us and it would have been interesting, lively and profound. The loss is both personal and literary for me, in that sense, because the world of letters has lost an important voice.”
Holm grew up in rural Minnesota and at one time dismissed the provincialism of farm life and small-mindedness, Slager said. He came back around to seeing the merits and beauty of the prairie in later life. And he went back further to his family’s Icelandic roots — spending his summers in Iceland.
His last book for Milkweed was “The Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland.”
Poet John Minczeski met Holm in the 1970s on the Minnesota Poetry Out Loud circuit. “Bill was such a spirit; so open with everybody. Everywhere we went, people knew him. He was one of those guys. He had a great singing voice. Sometimes we’d visit old Swedish nursing homes, and he just loved those old ladies with their sopranos, and they loved him.”
The same fellow who had a soft spot for the Swedish ladies and everyday folk had no patience with politicians he disliked. Minczeski puts it rather graphically, but Holm, a humorist, likely would have roared at his friend’s description: “He would come over to my house sometimes, and he’d be reading Brecht, and was just full of piss and vinegar, railing against the Republicans. He had such a sense of social justice. … We had been Bush Fellows together, and I remember sitting at dinner listening to him talk about how much he loved being a hair on the ass of capitalism.”
“He had a way of making us laugh while challenging us to behave better as individuals and evaluate our place in the greater society,” said Jocelyn Hale, executive director of the Loft Literary Center. “It’s a sad day, made even sadder thinking about the recent passing of members of a great generation of writers including Bill, Carol Bly and Jon Hassler.”
Vickie Benson, arts program officer at the McKnight Foundation, says a selection committee was unanimous in its decision last year to name Holm a Distinguished Artist.
“He called himself a curmudgeon, and he was, but he was a really brilliant thinker and writer and musician (a pianist),” Benson said. “He focused on Bach, and he was a Walt Whitman scholar. He was a contemporary Mark Twain.”
Benson described McKnight employees as “devastated” by the news of Holm’s death and the loss of such a spirit. She pointed MinnPost to a Holm quotation in a 54-page commemorative book published in honor of his award.
“For it is life we want. We want the world, the whole beautiful world, alive — and we alive in it. That is the actual god we long for and seek, yet we have already found it, if we open our senses, our whole bodies, thus our souls. That is why I have written, and intend to continue, until someone among you takes up the happy work of keeping the chain letter of the soul moving along into whatever future will come.”
Holm is survived by his wife, Marcy Brekken. Services are pending at Rehkamp-Horvath Funeral Home in Marshall, Minn.
Casey Selix, a news editor and writer for MinnPost, can be reached at cselix[at]minnpost[dot]com. Freelance writer Amy Goetzman can be reached at agoetzman[at]minnpost.com.
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