Seminar Dates and Locations      Articles      Joseph Campbell      Site Map      Search

Jonathan Young in Minnesota

Minnesota Postcard - Spring, 2008

Jonathan Young and Anne Bach visit the Great North

The alleged reason for going to Minnesota was to attend a conference. Anne is active in the National Association for Poetry Therapy. In truth, I had never been to Minneapolis and wanted to see the city of lakes. The closest I had ever been was to take the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory in grad school.

On the first day, our conference friends took us out to a poetry garden on the banks of the Mississippi in St. Paul. An epic poem about the pioneers is carved into sculpture and on walkways. The place is a labyrinth experience that reflects on the courage and sacrifices made by early settlers. We were there just after a major storm, so there were snow drifts around, but the garden was clear enough to walk through the sequence of stories. The traces of how harsh the weather can get in these parts added realism to the narrative.

On our way back up river to Minneapolis, we looked over the wreckage of the Interstate 35W bridge disaster and the energetic work on building a new span. Our destination was to see the only falls on the Mississippi. Historically, the potential to harness water power to run factories is why a great city grew up at this spot.

We all wandered through the ruins of an 1880 flour mill that was the origins of General Mills. The shell left after a fire has been transformed into the Mill City Museum. The intact sections let us go from floor to floor to see how the workers toiled inside the eight-story machine of the milling process.

In some areas, oral histories disclosed the ordeals of the rugged working conditions. Long straps connected each level to spinning rods driven by the river. High water was channeled by a system of canals and chutes to finally drop through the turbines that got the whole place working. The ingenious use of available energy to animate an enormous mill was striking.

The entire old riverfront has been carefully reclaimed. A majestic stone arch viaduct that once carried grain trains across the Mississippi in the 1800s is now a footbridge with sweeping views of waterways and city. We climbed around the remaining ruins of the channel system and imagined what it was like when the rushing water set the behemoth whirling.

Amidst the remains of the industrial revolution is a gleaming new monument to the arts, the Guthrie Theater. The foremost regional stage in the country is an engine of dramatic innovation. The Guthrie generates inspired productions that reach Broadway and the rest of the country. We took a behind the scenes tour of the big blue complex. I have been backstage in many theaters, but this is a truly sophisticated setup. Seeing how much goes into creating what the audience experiences only adds to the magic. Even the lobbies are dramatic, with mirror box views of the stone arch bridge and river.

Last stop on the outing was the Center for Book Arts to use their old time hand printing presses. Members of our group took turns pulling the massive lever lowering the platen to make sample impressions. It took me back to boyhood work at my father's printing shop. One of his presses was almost as antique. My main task as a "printer's devil" was to clean the ink out after each job.

The next day we went out to Minnehaha Falls. There is a statue of the couple from Longfellow's epic poem. It depicts the noble Hiawatha carrying his beloved. Her name actually means waterfall. This is many miles from the shores of Gitche Gumme, better known as Lake Superior, and even further from the annual pageant that still retells the romantic tale. Still, here they are, in all their timeless sorrow. As we hiked around, the air was so cold the falls were surrounded by dramatic curtains of ice from the frozen mist. Below the drop, Minnehaha Creek meanders through a narrow gorge carved out of limestone and sandstone on its way to find the big river.

The conference itself was rich with poets stirring the imagination. We connected with favorite colleagues from past gatherings. Of all the professional meetings we attend, this is the kindliest. There is very little posturing or competition. Something about the emphasis on creativity seems to bring out the humanity in participants. The material is important to Anne's work in therapeutic writing, but the event is also good for our souls. A poem she wrote during the conference described her adoptive mother's Minnesota childhood of too many cold winters. The leaders chose to use the piece in the closing ceremony.

After the festivities were over, we stayed in town a couple of days for further adventures. That evening we went to a carnival gala at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune. This noted experimental company has a fabulous performance space carved out of several structures in the old warehouse district. The largest part is a gothic revival edifice, built around 1900. At the party, we ran into one of my former students, who now works for the theatre. It was one of those surreal long-way-from-home encounters.

In the morning, we stopped by the Walker Art Center to visit Picasso, Warhol and friends, but our main adventure was the Swedish Museum to reflect on immigrant stories. Apparently, an early visitor to the area was a journalist from Sweden who wrote about what she called the healthy, invigorating climate. Her accounts sparked waves of settlers. I guess the Swedes have their own ideas about what constitutes healthy weather.

We connected with local friends for dinner near Calhoun Square, made famous in a song by a native son, the artist once again known as Prince. This is a town with a rich musical heritage. Near the university campus, the clubs where Bob Dylan invented himself still have open mike nights to encourage new talent. After dinner, we cruised around some close-by lakes. The abundance of water everywhere certainly brings an awareness of nature into city life.

The project for our last day was to track down author's homes and haunts near St. Paul Cathedral. We stopped by the big yellow house where Sinclair Lewis once lived, and sat on the porch of F. Scott Fitzgerald's childhood apartment. Then we roamed the hotel where Scott and Zelda lived later. They were finally thrown out for too many drunken parties. Of course, now photos of the jazz age couple are on proud display throughout the lobby - as well as the bar where they spent many lively evenings. Later on, we checked out the Fitzgerald displays in the grand public library downtown.

For all our explorations, we saw no signs of the mythic luminary of these parts, the giant lumberman Paul Bunyan -- or his pal Babe, the Blue Ox. Apparently, there are statues of them throughout the state, but none we could find in the vicinity. We did meet people who reminded us of Marge Gunderson from Fargo, surely the most memorable Minnesota film character ever. Throughout the trip, we enjoyed hearing the regional dialect with its echoes of Scandinavia and Canada.

The reputation of Minnesotans as being nice to strangers is completely true. The heart of the country knows how to welcome. The America away from the coasts is a different place. Not exotic perhaps, but unique and fertile. So, was our expedition into the interior edifying? Ya, you betcha!