A Feast of Delicious and Dangerous Poems About Pigs

by Walter Whitman, Hill and Lake Press, October 2010 (Minneapolis)
Birchbark Books/Kenwood Cafe crackled with the energy of an intellectual backyard barbeque the evening of Sept. 8, when neighborhood poet (and lapsed journalist) Jim Lenfestey lead a spirited reading of pig poetry. Pig poetry? Yes, the delighted audience gasped all evening, savoring the smoky flavor, and licked its lips for more, as these porker poems, celebrating a species companion to our own for 10,000 years, paraded by like the Pork Queen at the State Fair.

Turns out neighborhood poet (and lapsed journalist) Lenfestey has created a feast of a new book, LOW DOWN AND COMING ON: A FEAST OF DELICIOUS AND DANGEROUS POEMS ABOUT PIGS (Red Dragonfly Press). This is a poetry anthology readers will insist on for breakfast, lunch, and midnight snacks.

Like most of you I was prepared to be skeptical. The popular poet Billy Collins had edited a soaring collection of poems about birds, BRIGHT WINGS (also available at Birchbark Books). Good for him. And who knows how many poetry collections there are about those docile home invaders, dogs and cats. But pigs? Turns out our neighbor Lenfestey, who lives on Girard, (I, Walter Whitman, live on Emerson), has the wit of a pig farmer as well as poet, and maybe keeps one or two sows in his Girard back yard for food and friendship.

Taking up the editorial mantle left by his friend poet Bill Holm who died unexpectely in 2009, Lenfestey has gathered 133 poems, and one recipe, from 203 poets (and one architect). As Lenfestey writes in his introduction, and we agree: “These are poems you can EAT!”

You’d think only ham-handed farmers and butchers would have written poetry about pigs. But LOW DOWN’S menu inlcudes one Nobel Prize winner, two US Poet Laureates, five state poet laureates, and dozens of other prize winners (i.e. Pulitzer Prizes, national book awards, provincial book awards, Minneota Book Awards, etc), a blue-ribbon lineup, plus several fresh poems written just for this anthology.

To prepare this anthology, Lenfestey rooted through literary history from the dawn of litery time, turning up delicious truffles by William Blake, Shelley, Pablo Neruda the ancient Chinese poets han-shan and Su Dong Po. More comtemporaty poet include a Nobel prize winner (Pablu Neruda), two US Poet Laureates ( Donald Hall, Ted Kooser), fove state poet laureates (Robert Bly, Jane Gentry, William Kloefkorn, Linda Pastan, ) and a whole lot of just plain famous blue ribbon winners, including a poem by Billy Collins himself. In addtion, nearly every Minnesota poet worth his or her bacon is here, plus some fine new poets never before published. The result is a corpulent a poetry anthology, at 232 pages, beautifully designed by Scott King of Red Dragonfly Press, it’s hard-as-pigskin cover is softened by a lovely, hand-printed dust jacket.

Many esteemed contributing poets joined Lenfestey at the Birchbark as enthusiastic readers that night: Sharon Chiemlarz, Margaret Hasse, Thomas R. Smith, Jay White, and Birchbark’s own Heid Erdrich, a grand-daughter of butchers, whose marvelous poetic responses are worth the price of the book. Which is $19.95 cheap (as Mad magazine used to say), and available at Birchbark Books.

100 Poems in the Manner of T'ang Dynasty Poet Han-Shan

Phone message from author Bill Holm, 18 Jan 09,12;42 p.m. He died February 25, 2009.
“This is Rev. Holm of the Church of Minneota, below zero, and one of the things the cold drove me to is reading Chinese poetry again. I started reading Cold Mountain, Burton Watson's old translations, and Gary Snyder's, and David Hinton's, and that drove me back to A CARTLOAD OF SCROLLS, which I had read through cursorily when I got it, a handsome book, and gems in it, but now I read it with great care and attention after immersing myself in Cold Mountain. You got you a keeper there, Mr. Lenfestey. You should be proud of that one. That's a nice piece of work. Any rate, no need to call back. Pat yourself on the back. It is a useful book you have made out of Mr. Cold Mountain...it's not Cold Mountain at all. You've used it very wisely. Carry on.”

Reviewed by Elizabeth McKim from POEISIS, 2008 (Toronto)
"The poems breathe with tiny experienced particulars and long soul-views of a life lived with domestic bravery, wild humor, and warm tenderness, poems moving beyond their initial bounce and unfolding image into sensed silence and thoughtfulness. I also learned about a practice of poetry I hadn't carefully considered: RESPONSE, in this instance, to an ancient poetry friend from 1000 years ago so that each of Lenfestey’s poems draws in and is inspired by the words of Poet Han-shan , his loving friend and co-respondant from the familiar territory and the faraway country. This book is a jewel!"

Reviewed by Lou Roach, Free Verse Issue #96, July 2008
James Lenfestey seems to be living proof of what so many teachers have learned—the most important lessons in their lives are taught to them by students. Because members of the first college-level class he taught urged him to read poems by Han-shan, poet of the T'ang Dynasty (618-907), Lenfestey delved deep into Asian poetry, particularly those works translated by scholar Burton Watson. He then became genuinely devoted to the writing of the solitary poet who wrote of his surroundings, nature, the foibles of being human, and of a thoughtful man’s search for inner peace and growth.

Lenfestey’s newest collection of his own “Hanshanners,” A Cartload of Scrolls, is the result of 30 years of “writing back” in response to Han-shan’s words, as translated by Watson and others. In the book, he details how he came to appreciate Watson’s approach to the work of Han-shan. Watson’s versions of the hermit’s ideas are, Lenfestey explains, ‘colloquial, sometimes deeply thoughtful, at other times ironic or satiric, all with the rhythm of a mini-editorial and occasionally the punch line of a good joke.”

The poet notes that the form used by Han-shan and his cohorts “is a clear rhetorical structure—an opening line or couplet that establishes the scene, followed by images that flesh it out in simple parallel sentences, and a final couplet that ‘takes us out’ with a surprise or even a laugh.” In this series of 100 poems, James Lenfestey presents a treasury of work filled with wry humor, the unexpected, personal expressions of delight at being human, and the pleasures and sadness of close personal relationships.

I suspect this writer would have produced polished, effective poems whether influenced by Han-shan or not. He is adept at giving us a picture, a message, and shared emotions with his carefully chosen words. Yet in each selection, even the more somber ones, he offers energy to be absorbed by the reader—a  sense of spirit filled with enthusiasm for being alive.

I found choosing examples from so many poems very difficult. Lenfestey’s views are insightful and revealing. In each compact set of lines, he offers an abbreviated essay of observation. Every reading discloses more and more content to be mulled over, stretching the reader’s comprehension further each time. He writes with a gentleness, never forcing thoughts upon us, but stirring us to take in what is written, then let the poem reverberate within us. Lenfestey expresses his resistance to living a corporate and material way of life in several poems. He may say it best in “Snatching Syllables:”

My father calls to tell me of my potential with The Company. I clutch the black receiver with my neck, keeping my hands free to write. “Come live here and raise your family!” blandishments any wise man would listen to. But I am a Fool, a Trickster-King, what good can they do with me? Syllables buzz around my ears like flies. I reach out with my pen and snatch them.

In “Certainly He Will Write A Poem Some Day,” he reiterates his sense of himself in relation to the outside world and his chosen work. “Making Poems” reflects his satisfaction and amazement that he lives by doing what he loves to do:

I laugh when I make a poem. I go to bed at night chuckling to myself, reading and writing. I wake up in the morning chuckling to myself, reading and writing. Years later I wonder: Why no prizes, why no money? Now I grieve for the joy I feel every day, the ferns dripping with dew, the basket of sunshine placed every day before us.

Lenfestey describes many facets of Han-shan and the way in which he came to value the ancient poet’s words. One of his best poems concerns his gratitude for some of the discoveries he made—“Han-shan Is the Cure for Warts”:

My job was eating me night and day, my wife threatening to leave, taking even the stroller and the quilt. A family of warts blossomed on my thumb so big I introduced them to tellers and clerks. Ha ha, they’d say, making quick change. Then I bumped into Han-shan in the bookstore, one hundred poems so small I read them all. We moved to a new place. My wife smiles out on sidewalks where children ride. I work in a room so quiet I can hear my heartbeat. My warts are gone, no marks, no scars.

His regard and awareness for his marriage are captured in “Mating for Life.” How the passing of time brings with it outcomes only guessed at is the subject of “One, Two, Three, Four:’

One, two, three, four parents, all dead. One, two, three, four children out of the house. Even the dog died, honorably. Who knew such an interregnum waited in a life? Time in the morning for birdsong. In the evening to linger over sunset and wine. In the dark of night, to wonder how it all happened. In the hour before dawn, to know.

Lenfestey reads those around him well, even strangers. He hears the common chord that thrums silently from person to person. He confirms that with “The Recycler.” Before writing this review I made a list of poems from the book I thought most important for one reason or another—a grand total of 35. Then, sadly, I realized I could not begin to include even one-third of them, certainly a reviewer’s dilemma, when each verse has much to say.    I hope I have tempted readers to experience the joy and sensitivity in this collection. The poems may cure warts, change stagnant skepticism to honest appreciation for being human, and bring smiles to all who immerse themselves in these “Hanshanners.” Reading them is an experience of pure pleasure, one to be pursued again and again.

Reviewed by Perie Longo, Santa Barbara Independent - Poetry Matters, January 31, 2008, “James Lenfestey, featured poet at Santa Barbara Poetry Series”
As the story goes, in 1974 when Lenfestey was running an alternative school in Minneapolis, he discovered a book of Han-Shan's poetry translated by Burton Watson, and “it cured his warts.” He laughed out loud, yet also became enthralled with the meditative tone of this hermit Buddhist monk's poems written in the ancient Chinese poetic form, the lü-shih that reached its peak during the T'ang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) The “regulated verse lyric” is an eight line structure based on an opening line or couplet that establishes the scene, followed by images that elaborate in simple parallel sentences, and a final couplet that “takes us out” with a surprise or humor. He began writing poems back to the author to find his “missing” voice and thirty-two years later, in 2006, traveled to Tokyo to not only meet Watson, whose translations he praises, but to “pay homage to Han-shan at his hermit cave.”

Lenfestey has a wonderful time, following “in the manner of” his hero, yet being completely his whimsical, wise, American self. Many of his poems are about coping with modern life's stressors, such as “Paying Taxes” and “Mortgages,” but also about the joys and wisdom found in nature, writing poetry, and seeing his world of children and grandchildren with fresh eyes cast from an ancient light.


Going out, I lock the door.
What if someone stole my laptop!
Your lap is attached to you,
said the quilter, sewing her smile shut.
My grandchildren agree, fussing on it like a lumpy chair.
I have so far to go to leave my sharp-edged keys behind,
leave the door of my life entirely open,
leave whatever is inside orderly and forgotten.

 What keeps you reading these poems is how Lenfestey captures your own secrets and worries, then sends them off to be one with the natural order of things. When my mourning ends for what I might have been,/I will be someone else. My wings will shine./Nothing will know how to stop me except flowers. He delights in the lü -shih form as a “wonderful rhetorical structure” which gives space to say more than the haiku or tanka. The past eight years he has embraced his “lifelong devotion to the concentrated magic of poems,” having abandoned his careers of academia, advertising, and journalism.

Reviewed by Carol Connolly, Special to the Star Tribune, November 9th, 2007
In his fourth book of poems, Lenfestey, curator of the Literary Witness poetry series at Plymouth Congregational Church, enters into a 33-year correspondence with Han-Shan, a 1,200-year-old Chinese hermit and poet, who, it turns out, "is the cure for warts." These short, elegant poems, written in the manner of Han-Shan, are clear as a crystal bell. They ring with gratitude and take care of things -- unload the dishwasher at dawn, love wife, children and grandchildren. They also cherish the syllables that "buzz around my ears like flies/ I reach out with my pen and snatch them" -- even as dad phones in to remind him of his "potential with The Company." Lenfestey loses his calendar and feels his "... insides rearranged./ When my mourning ends for what I might have been/ I will be someone else. My wings will shine." And in this book, they do indeed shine.
story online

Reviewed in Minnesota Literature, November 2007
Lenfestey's latest book of poetry successfully performs our great national experiement--the process of taking old-world elements and coming up with something wholly American. Han-shan seems to have been a mysterious, possibly mythical poet of whom all that is known, Lenfestey says, is that he "once lived in a city, rode a white horse and had a wife and a son." 300 poems are attributed to Han-shan, who with other poets brought the lu-shi, or eight-line poem, to its zenith. Lenfestey does not try to replicate the style exactly -- he confesses that many of the poems have more or less than eight lines, and might not strictly adhere to the 5 or 7-syllable metere of Han-shan's poetry. He strives instead to get a sense of Han-shan; his mindfulness in the face of seemingly mundane concerns, his elevation of the homely and famliar, and the bang-zoom appeal of his concluding couplets. Wang Ping writes: "Each poem is a river,a mountain with secret paths for the faithful. James Lenfestey knows the true sound of Han-shan: without poetry, what is life?"

Reviewed by Rhena Tantisunthorn, City Pages, A list, 14 Nov, 2007
To set out to write 100 poems in the style of Han-shan, a Chinese poet from the T'ang Dynasty, might seem like an overly arcane, indulgent and boring ambition.  At the tip of James Lenfestey's pen, however, the project is more like a romp.  Humorous and concise in its observations, Lenfestey's poetry is accessible even to the biggest poetry haters, without losing any intensity of language.  He describes grandparents anticipating the arrival of visiting grandchildren as "steadying the web of the world, feeling again its tremble."  The content is fresh and contemporary, in spite of being modeled after a long dead scribe.  Lenfestey even commiserates with naysayers: "I read so many poems eager not to like them/and so many make it easy."  Like those of his role model, Lenfestey's poems are short.  A line from "Often I wonder" can apply to either master or protege: "Now I hand out his poems like aspirin.  Take two, I say, they're small." 

Reviewed by By Diane Kidman, Carp(e) Libris Reviews, 9 March 2008
"...my thanks goes out to James P. Lenfestey, who has put me to poetry rights once again. I was immediately drawn to his collection of 100 poems and knew I had to review it. Maybe it was the premise of the book - Lenfestey’s love for Han-Shan’s 1,200-year-old work, driving him to write over 30 years’ of poems in response. Or maybe it’s the everyday, relatable, and often humorous tone of these short gems, but I relished each one. With titles like “Yelling at Birds” and “To the Gnat Drowned in my Wine at Lunch,” how can I not help picking the book back up just to reread a favorite? Yes, this is friendly, accessible poetry that manages to convey everything from humor to beauty in just a few lines. This is poetry for everyone."

Dave Wood, Dave Wood's Book Report, December 27, 2007.
"These poems are like popcorn: Once you start eating, it's hard to stop." 

Reviewed by Bart Sutter, Poet Laureate of Duluth,

"I love the spirit of this book.  You really seem at home in this form and voice. Congratulations in a good book!"


Jim Lenfestey reads at Birchbark Books May 22, 7PM, All Ages

Reviewed by E. E. Dickinson
Local poet and gadabout James P. Lenfestey thinks he has something to say to prisoners, having taught poetry in the jails once or twice. That is for you to decide, dear reader, by attending his poetry reading and mountebank literary sideshow at Birchbark Books on Friday, May 22 at 7PM. Refreshments are available as always at the Kenwood Deli. In addition, we can presume, given Lenfestey's past history as The Urban Coyote columnist for the Hill and Lake Press and former StarTribune editorialist occasionally evincing bone-dry drollery, that he will continue similar strange antics along with his increasingly condensed and serious poems.

Still, INTO THE GOODHUE COUNTY JAIL: POEMS TO FREE PRISONERS, his latest offering from estimable Red Dragonfly Press, remains problematic. A resident of prestigious Lowry Hill for 35 years, before that a loitering hayseed from the green and golden land of buttery Wisconsin (discounting a few lost years of academic tail-chasing at Dartmouth College in the New Hampshire wilderness), what could Lenfestey possibly know about the problems facing prisoners? UNLESS, and here could be his sleight-of-hand, the whole idea is a METAPHOR, and the prisoner he is addressing is YOU, DEAR READER, and he is offering to you through this book a KEY! Lenfestey cuts his key from studies of literature for several decades and even has decamped to CHINA in search of meditative cave dwellers. With all his FOUR children finally out of the house, he has apparently begun to think of himself as a monk.

There remains much curious about this poetry collection. For example, Lenfestey believes that we all have issues with our fathers, even if they bathed their children in affection and support (can't win, fathers). Still, let us not withhold from James P. Lenfestey the following emotion: EXULTATION, which is the going of an inland soul to see (and hear) our neighbor Jim Lenfestey at the Kenwood Deli, and have a look at Birchbark's books. For if, to make a prairie it take a flower and a bee, one flower and one bee and reverie, who knows what it takes to make poetry? Jim Lenfestey does.

E. E. Dickinson, a quiet resident on the SW corner of Logan and Kenwood Parkway, writes rarely for defunct monthlies. We hope she will appear more often in the Hill and Lake Press, but she says that is unlikely.

Howlings on Family, Community and the Search for Peace and Quiet
Reviewed by Patricia Hampl, author of I Could Tell You Stories, Virgin Time and A Romantic Education.

Jim Lenfestey has found the voice of the neighborhood, which is to say the voice of our times and our place. His immensely appealing alter-ego, the Urban Coyote, joins Garrison Keillor's invented Midwestern characters as a beloved and very real seeker and striver. He surveys and stumbles his way from the comic and mundane to the big-deal and cosmic. There isn't a cynical bone in the body of this casually courageous book. But the sentiment here is hard-won, just as the humor is ever-buoyant.

Best of all, Lenfestey writes wonderfully well. The Urban Coyote may have started as newspaper columns, but taken together, these short chapters form a virtual novel I found impossible to put down as I followed the progress of this captivating voice. The Urban Coyote refuses to think of himself as a hero. But don't be fooled: he is. A magical book.   

Reviewed by Eric Utne, founder, Utne Reader.
Jim Lenfestey makes me hoot with laughter and flush with tears. His wise, tender anecdotes about "the ceremonies of children, the rituals of work and community, the rites of old age" pulse with character, drama and abundance. His book embodies what Zorba the Greek zestfully called "the full catastrophe" of life.     

Reviewed by Nancy Roberts, Professor, School of
Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota.
The "Urban Coyote" is a captivating collection that shows the vigor of the community press. Jim Lenfestey moves effortlessly from the everyday to the ultimate as he gives a thoughtful perspective on everything from raising kids--and cats--to community politics to planning his own funeral. I have used several of these pieces in my literary journalism classes as models of effective storytelling. This is fresh, original writing that tries to be true to fact while aiming at larger truths.     

Reviewed by Suzanne Lummis, founding director of
the Los Angeles Poetry Festival and the author of "In Danger"

I believe it was the estimable Theodore Roethke who said "By long staring I have come to be".Small wonder the phrase kept circling in my memory as I read these spare and lovely poems that hold up before our eyesnature and its creatures in all their shifting particularity (and in the case of the poet's sly footed animal alter-ego, Coyote, both shifting and shifty). Around the woodsy areas of his homesteads in Eastern Michigan and Ojai, California, conversations are taking place -- love poems to the living world.       

Reviewed by Robert Hedin, translator, editor and author of
The Old Liberators: New and Selected Poems and Translations.

James P. Lenfestey's THE TOOTHED AND CLEVER WORLD is an absolute joy. In these finely crafted poems, he takes us to a deeper circuitry and reminds us again that the world is strung with embraces.      

Reviewed by StarTribune, newspaper of the Twin Cities, June 25th, 2006
Skillful nature poems that chart a pleasantly meandering course from Michigan to California  

Reviewed by Thomas R. Smith, author of Keeping the Star,
Horse of Earth, and The Dark Indigo Current.

This is a book with fur, claws, teeth, tail and paws. More importantly, it's a book large with appetite for life and the heart to live it fully.

The four sections of The Toothed and Clever World track a pathway of desire that James P. Lenfestey has followed over the past few years, from upper Michigan's Jim Harrison country, one of the places Lenfestey makes his home, to coyote-rich Ojai, California, his adopted home in the West. Human beings like to have it both ways, and that is just what Lenfestey achieves in this book, setting up the two geographic poles of his longing and letting a whole vibrant creation sing between them.

Lenfestey is a carnal, not a spiritual poet. Which is not to say that his poems lack spirit. To the contrary, they're imbued with an exuberant sympathy for life itself, in all its toothed, furred, and wing'ed intensity. His poems are almost without exception celebrations of life in nature and in the body. He's an unapologetic poet of healthy animal appetite, and he doesn't shy from the more "lowdown" bodily functions, either. In this, he takes a cue from the earthy trickster Coyote stories of Native American myth, of which he has made a passionate lifelong study. He pays lavish honor to his totem in the high-spirited "Coyote Chorus" of section three of this book.

Perhaps it's his animal vitality that gives his poems their remarkably youthful flavor. They are influenced by the Beats (particularly Gary Snyder) and the ancient Chinese poets (particularly Han Shan), but they don't really resemble them. Lenfestey likewise draws inspiration from poets as diverse as Robert Bly, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, yet his poems don't resemble them either. The scruffy humor of his coyote anecdotes and the lyric delicacy of his love poems are unified by an overarching impulse to praise. Jim Lenfestey's material is as ancient as the cliff walls Han Shan scratched his poems on and as current as this spring's elm leaves. He is his own poet absolutely. He is sixty and doing his best work.    

Reviewed by Charles P. Ries:

I never got lost while reading James Lenfestey's recent collection of poems, "Saying Grace." There is a great, clear, calm steady presence in each of the 27 poems that comprise this, his eleventh and most expansive collection. Lenfestey's mastery of word and phase blended well with a Wisconsin landscape that he makes throb with metaphor and meaning... If only all of us could slow down long enough to look and see with the eyes of Jim Lenfestey.      

1833 Girard Ave. So.
Minneapolis, MN 55403
cell: 612-730-7435
e-mail: jimfest@aol.com

James P. Lenfestey — Publications & Writings