James P. Lenfestey - COYOTE POET

Milkweed Speech

October 11, 2008  BOOK LOVER'S BALL

The 2008 Milkweed Editions Award for Distinguished Contribution to Literary Culture.

Thank you, Daniel.

I did not expect your kind words about my latest book of poems, which is humbling and much appreciated.  But I know this honor for me  is mostly about raising money -- putting me up here, helping pull you out there - and good for Milkweed, because raising money is a part of what the arts are about in America, personal and public patronage that makes our communities crackle and hum... and play, and sing, and dance, and act... and read --- to capture that illumination that only reading fine literature offers.  No one understands that better than Emily Buchwald and her successors at Milkweed Editions.

When we moved to this community 33 years ago, we knew no one but a college friend of my mothers, wife of a prominent aging attorney, and when they dutifully invited us to their house in Edina for dinner, the husband followed my wife around drooling on his shoes (undiagnosed Alzheimer's, it turned out).  We didn't pursue that relationship.  But what we did find here is a community of astonishing dynamism in the arts - the Guthrie already a national icon (and a major reason we moved here), as well as the Walker and MIA and the orchestra and soon the St. Paul Chamber and MN Opera.

But my true love was literature -- books.  A place called The Loft had just opened, and I sent them small checks almost from the beginning, because it felt right and natural to do so, to support literature the same the way we expect to support the theater or the orchestra or museums.  When Minnesota Center for Book Arts was created, I eagerly joined the board, as I did later of The Loft.

A course I once organized at The Loft was called “Il Postino.”  Remember that movie?  The story of an ordinary rural postal carrier on a rickety bicycle whose life was transformed by his chance encounter with the exiled poet Pablo Neruda.  The first class of the course - writers talking about writers who influenced them -- was a lecture by Robert Bly on Pablo Neurda - Bly was first to translate Neurda into English.   The class took place at the old Loft -- an abandoned elementary school -- where we sat in the children's  gymnasium under glaring lights on undersized school chairs, -- to listen to Bly lecture on Neruda!  I vowed that day that such a travesty must never happen again -- we must treat our literature as well as we treat our music and other fine arts. Hence my participation in the creation of Open Book.

Of course I was always happy to support the astonishing Emily Buchwald along the way - had helped in a VERY minor way her smart marketing committee - and watched as she blossomed her exquisite periodical Milkweed Chronicle into the powerhouse non-profit publisher we celebrate here tonight under Daniel's leadership.

But in the end - WHY did I feel this way, about literature?  Why do you?

The experience of reading good literature --  fiction and poetry and memoir -is a paradox: at once utterly personal and private, yet unlimited in its expansiveness, from the tiniest recollection of a specific  childhood incident to life in the farthest imagined constellation.

I am currently editing an anthology of poetry about... pigs.  Yes, pigs, real pigs: Yorkshires, Berkshires, Durocs -  and the sides of bacon and ham and and knuckles and wisdom they give us.

Scott King submitted a poem that begins with his memories of the sweet piglets he raised on his farm as a boy.  And how they grew into wild, independent, razor-toothed  beings - but what makes the poem astonish is when he makes the connection to Dostoyevsky's THE POSSESSED that reminded him of all US possessed beings, capable, in our unconstrained wildness, if running a mile through the oats with an assassins bullet in the brain.

Films, which many of us love, rarely reach such multiple levels.  Plays much more often.  But novels and stories and poems, and any memoir by Patricia Hampl - ALL THE TIME!!!

So in the end, it the love of books - and what they, uniquely, can do -  that brings me, and all of us, here.  As long as I have the mental and financial capacity, and am not drooling on my shoes, I will continue to support the necessary work that is Milkweed Editions - and as well the other fine non-profit presses in MN and elsewhere, and MCBA and The Loft and SASE at Intermedia Arts, and OPEN BOOK, the physical manifestation of all that love we find between the covers of something this small, and this boundless.   (HOLD UP A BOOK).

But we are in a strange financial climate, unprecedented in the lifetimes of anyone in this room.  Where can we turn for advice?  To the poets, of course...

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give - yes, no, or maybe -
should be clear:  the darkness around us is deep.  — WILLIAM STAFFORD

What does the pig think of the dawn?
They do not sing but hold it up    
with their huge rosy bodies,
with their hard little hooves.  — PABLO NERUDA

I'll end with a poem by Bill Holm, whose work I discovered in many years ago in his first book for Milkweed Editions, BOXELDER BUG VARIATIONS, and have followed through COMING HOME CRAZY and his latest, WINDOW AT BRIMNES, also Milkweed Editions.


by Bill Holm

Someone dancing inside us
has learned only a few steps:
The ”Do-your-work” in 4/4/ time,
the “What-Do-You-Expect” Waltz.
He hasn't noticed yet the woman
standing away from the lamp,
the one with black eyes
who knows the rumba,
and strange steps in jumpy rhythms
from the mountains of Bulgaria.
If they dance together,
something unexpected will happen;
If they don't, the next world
will be a lot like this one.

James P. Lenfestey

1833 Girard Ave. So.
Minneapolis, MN 55403
cell: 612-730-7435


James P. Lenfestey — Publications & Writings