Literature 10-29-2009

Chain Letter of the Soul

Britt Aamodt talks to friends and colleagues of poet Bill Holm, who died in February at the age of 65. A tribute in honor of Holm and his posthumously published collection of poems, will occur November 2 at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis.


Poet Bill Holm died in February, but not before completing the poems that comprise the first part of his new book, The Chain Letter of the Soul: New and Selected Poems, published this month by Milkweed Editions. Holms’ colleagues and friends will be reading the new and old poems at a tribute 7 pm, November 2, at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis.

EVERYONE HAS A BILL HOLM STORY. Take, for example, Duane Barnhart, an editorial cartoonist in Aitkin, Minnesota, who met the long-boned, white-bearded raconteur at the home of a friend. “Bill collected hotel stories, so I showed him a photograph I’d taken of a light switch in a hotel shower. An actual hotel room in Minnesota,” says Barnhart. “But Bill one-upped me. He pulled out his own photograph. It showed a hotel sink with a sign above that read: ‘No cleaning fish in the sink.’ Guess that shows you the kind of places we stayed as traveling artists.”

Essayist, poet, musician, professor, world traveler, spirited bon vivant, Bill Holm died in February at the age of sixty-five, but he packed more into those years than your average bespectacled, bookish boy from northwestern Minnesota. Holm was born in 1943, in Swede Prairie Township to William “Big Bill” and Jona Holm, and came and went from his small corner of the world to gain the experiences that later informed books like Coming Home Crazy, essays about Holm’s year teaching English in China, and The Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland.

This month, Milkweed Editions, Holm’s longtime publisher, releases a new collection of his poetry. The Chain Letter of the Soul: New and Selected Poems spans Holm’s entire career, from the pithy, long-titled poems drawn from his first published volume, 1985’s Box Elder Bug Variations, to meditations and lyrical polemics written in the months and days before his death. He never stopped writing, and never stopped getting better at his chosen craft or caring deeply about the intimate interrelationship of his life and art. Holm wrote about himself and the people he knew, honoring, unraveling, and mythologizing his homespun observations.

Rose, her face pinched toward God,

used to disappear during church picnics.

The men spread out in the field until

they found her preaching in Icelandic

to the cornstalks with a loud voice.

They always brought her back before

she converted the corn

which stood unrepentant

waiting for the picker or the hailstorm.

“Rose Bardal”, The Dead Get By With Everything

Here’s another Holm story. Angie Barnhart, wife of Duane, never met Holm, but she knew someone who did. “Her name was Donna, and she had just gone through a traumatic divorce,” says Angie. “So, she was telling Bill her sad tale of woe, and he said, ‘Well, Donna, you just come on over to my house and we’ll eat beans and fart.’ That brought a smile to her face.”


One story about Holm leads to another, like a chain letter in which each participant exponentially adds to the stockpile of tales and storytellers.

One story about Holm leads to another, like a chain letter in which each participant exponentially adds to the stockpile of tales and storytellers. Daniel Slager, publisher and editor at Milkweed, says the title for the new book came from Holm’s artist statement, penned in honor of his 2008 receipt of the McKnight Foundation’s Distinguished Artist award:

For it is life we want. We want the world, the whole beautiful world, alive-and we alive in it…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.

In 2005, Slager transitioned to Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis from a New York publishing house. “I was telling someone how really terrified I was to work with Bill when I first arrived. He was a Minnesota icon, and had an old and fruitful relationship with Emilie [Buchwald, Milkweed founder],” he says. “We spent hours talking about literature, because I enjoy literature and so did he. That built trust.”

The days following Holm’s death Slager was inundated with calls. “The outpouring was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. When I drove to his funeral the following Sunday, I kept wondering what we could do as his publisher. How could we best introduce his work to new readers?”

Holm had been collecting the new poems included in The Chain Letter of the Soul for a couple years. In fact, he told Slager that he’d never felt so productive. He was writing new poems every day. “We’d just begun to talk about the notion of a ‘best and selected’ book. What’s so striking about his work is that there’s so much continuity beginning to end,” says Slager. “We decided to go ahead and publish the new and selected book after he died, because that’s where the material was leading us. And now, if you’re interested in his poetry, you have a book that collects what we thought were his strongest poems, the most representative of his work.”

Another story: poet John Rezmerski first laid eyes on Holm in Kansas, where both men were attending graduate school. “I’d just arrived in Lawrence, Kansas, on an early train,” says Rezmerski. “As I walked past a hotel, Bill came out. Eight in the morning and here’s a tall, red-haired guy wearing a purple plaid, Madras sport coat with a bottle of Jack Daniels under his arm. I thought, hmmm, what interesting characters they have here.”

The next day, Rezmerski attended an information session for graduate assistants and in walked Holm. The two remained friends for the next forty-three years.

“Bill had the knack for having a personal, warm relationship with just about everyone,” says Milkweed founder Emilie Buchwald, who edited Holm’s work for twenty years. She was there in the early ’80s when Holm plopped a 300-page longhand manuscript in her arms and asked, “Is there anything in this?” Buchwald enlisted Rezmerski. The two “walked around the table with the manuscript, winnowing, until we got down to what we thought were the most successful, fun, and stirring pieces,” she says. That book became Holm’s first, Box Elder Bug Variations. Including Chain Letter, Holm went on to publish twelve books with Milkweed.

“As an editor, I’m always looking for someone who’s not derivative, not coming out of a package or a particular school of creative writing,” says Buchwald. “I knew from the first time I met Bill that he was an unusual writer and gifted in an unusual way. He always had something to say.”


Related event details:

Bill Holm Tribute: Literary Witnesses at Plymouth Congregational Church is hosting an event in memory of beloved Minnesota poet, essayist and raconteur Bill Holm to celebrate the posthumous publication of Holm’s The Chain Letter of the Soul: New and Selected Poems.  Cosponsored by Milkweed Editions and Birchbark Books, the tribute will take place on Monday, November 2, 2009, at 7 PM, at Plymouth Congregational Church, 1900 Nicollet Ave. (at Franklin).

Readers for the evening include Minnesota Poet Laureate Robert Bly, Holm’s wife Marcella Brekken, publishers Emily Buchwald and Daniel Slager, and poets Phil Bryant, Jim Heynen, Phebe Hanson, Jim Lenfestey, Joe and Nancy Paddock, and John Rezmerski. Sonja Thompson will play classical and ragtime piano music and accompany Holm’s poem “Playing Hayden for the Angel of Death.”


About the author: Britt Aamodt‘s book on Minnesota’s contemporary cartoonists (Off Color) is coming out fall 2010 from the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Aamodt reports on the arts for KFAI radio in Minneapolis, and is the founder of the radio play group Deadbeats On The Air.