Monday, July 5, 2021

A new book of memoirs, "Three Years on the Nowhere Road," to be released by summer's end, 2022.


A new book of memoirs, Three Years on the Nowhere Road: The Awakening of a Poetic Sensibility, by BJ Omanson, is projected to be released by summer's end, 2022

Contact BJ Omanson at for a PDF of the opening chapters.

New book of poems, "Victorian Dusk" released


 A new book of poems by BJ Omanson has recently been released, Victorian Dusk: Nine Invocations to a Decayed Aesthetic.

Nine illustrated poems, in the form and manner of British and French 19th century poets, explore the continuities and connections between that earlier era and the present.  A number of the poems are distinctly dark.

Published by Monongahela Books.  Seventeen evocative illustrations in color.  Printed on heavy glossy paper.  A small bound booklet, approximately 7x4.


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

News: "Nowhere to Nowhere," from Stark County Poems, appears on Ted Kooser's "American Life in Poetry"

Poem as it appeared in a newspaper in Portland, Indiana

 One of my Stark County Poems, "Nowhere to Nowhere," has been selected by the former US Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser (regionalist poet from Nebraska), for publication in his weekly column, "American Life in Poetry," which appears in hundreds of newspapers across the country and around the world.  It will also be archived in the Library of Congress.  The poem & Kooser's comments about it can be seen here:

A few of the newspapers where "Nowhere to Nowhere" has appeared are:

~~~Journal Star (Lincoln, Nebraska),

~~~Omaha World-Herald  (Omaha, Nebraska),

~~~Commercial Review (Portland, Indiana),

~~~Transcript Bulletin (Tooele, Utah),

~~~Ames Tribune (Ames, Iowa),

~~~Shawangunk Journal (Shawangunk, New York),

~~~Bell Times Courier (O'Brien County, Iowa).

~~~Story City Herald (Story City, Iowa).

~~~Lake County News (Clear Lake, California)

Some thoughts on poetry in newspapers

Mr. Kooser's accomplishment of reintroducing poetry to local newspapers across the country, and around the world, cannot be praised enough.  Before his  "American Life in Poetry" project, poetry in newspapers had almost entirely died out.  But it used to be very different.  Nearly every newspaper in the country printed poetry in nearly every issue.  

My grandfather, who had only an 8th grade education, clipped poems from newspapers all his life.  He sent them to my grandmother when they were courting in 1916-17, and he could recite many of them from memory.  Poetry was very much a part of daily life all across America.  

Mr. Kooser's quest to return poetry to newspapers may seem a quixotic one to us today, but it has had a surprising degree of success so far, with his column appearing in 72 different countries around the globe, and reaching  over four million readers.

But that is only the first step.  Now it is up to the editors of regional newspapers to take the next step: soliciting and printing worthy works of their own local poets.  It is time for ordinary people to reclaim poetry from the ivory towers, poetry that is theirs by right.  They should not settle for always being spoon-fed their poetry by professors.   

When Spoon River Anthology was published in 1915, readers did not feel they had to rely on professors or critics to tell them what the poems meant, or if they were worthy of being read.  Readers purchased the book (it was a national best-seller), took it home and read it in their own parlors and on their own porches.  They didn't consult with specialists; they made up their own minds about the poems.  They cut out the middle-men.  They thought for themselves.

I would like to mention one instance where a contemporary editor stubbornly revived the old tradition of publishing poetry in a local paper.  Jim Nowlan, the recent editor of the Stark County News in the Spoon River country of Stark County, Illinois, inherited his position from his father, who in turn had inherited it from his father, who was editor of the Stark County News in the late 19th Century.  The two elder Nowlans, following the practice of their time, consistently published poetry in their papers, and it was from these same newspapers that my grandfather clipped so many of the poems that he sent to my grandmother, and pasted in his scrapbook.  

The practice of printing poems in the News slowly died out after WWII, but several decades later when Jim Nowlan (third in the line of Nowlan editors-in-chief), oversaw the Stark County News into the 21st century, he printed several selections from my Stark County Poems.  Those few early appearances in my hometown newspaper meant more to me than all the later ones in literary reviews and journals combined.

The possibility of publishing one's poems in a local paper used to be available to poets everywhere in this country, and it should be again.  Homegrown poets should have local outlets for their poems: local papers that are read by  family, friends, neighbors, and the surrounding community.  

Poets outside the university system, who have not followed the prescribed route of graduating from a writing program---  but who may possess intrinsic talents worthy of encouragement---  cannot hope to compete with all the well-credentialed and well-connected university poets who dominate literary reviews and journals today.  Such publications may claim complete impartiality when assessing their heaps of submissions, but 99% of the time the poets they publish are just more students and professors.  Moreover, these journals and reviews have minimal ties to their communities, and no regional loyalties to speak of.  The literature they tend to foster-- products of claustrophobic workshops-- are more like root-bound houseplants, insular and internalized, than hardy native trees wrought by the elements into gnarled idiosyncratic forms. A nation's literature should grow up naturally from its soil, or its urban neighborhoods; it should slowly emerge from the local terrain like native hickory or oak.  

Literature should not be imposed upon us from the top down by specialists, by critics and professors.  Such specialists have a necessary and valued place, to be sure, but their appropriate function is to analyze and assess, not to prescribe and shape.  Nearly all of America's very greatest writers and poets prior to WWII were self-taught.  Today, by comparison, it seems, you cannot hang out your shingle as a poet without an officially approved license and union card.

Newspapers once provided a platform in this country for up-and-coming, self-taught poets.  William Cullen Bryant, Edgar Allan Poe, John Greenleaf Whittier, Walt Whitman, Phillis Wheatley, Ambrose Bierce, Emily Dickinson, E.A. Robinson, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, Gwendolyn Brooks (and who knows how many other self-taught American poets), all began their poetic careers by publishing in local newspapers.

Newspapers could provide such a platform again. It's not too late.  It's simply a matter of individual editors setting aside a few column inches in their back pages where a poem could be tucked in every so often.  It would be a small but significant way for them to foster the culture of their communities and their country.

News: Another two poems from "Stark County Poems" appear in "Illinois Heritage"

 Another two poems from Stark County Poems have appeared in Illinois Heritage: the Magazine of the Illinois State Historical Society:  "The Aging Widow in the Third Pew" and "Populism."  The latter poem is closely based on the lives of my great-grandparents, who lost a farm in Pike County, Illinois to hog cholera, lost another farm outside of Leoti, Kansas to drought and the '93 Panic, and finally ended up back in Illinois, in Stark County, where they started over again in the mid-1890s, not far from Spoon River.  

Both poems are printed below.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

The Aging Widow in the Third Pew


Her faith had little to do with church
and even less with the long succession
of ministers who had come and gone
since she was a child. It had to do
with the wind from which there was no relief,
that carried the rain and gave teeth to drought
and tore the roof from the barn and haunted
her nights with wailing. It had to do
with the cooling summer breezes that turned
the pages of scripture without a touch
and caressed away the sweat of her brow.
That the seen is shaped by an unseen force
was something she never thought to doubt.
In church, when she was told in the Psalm
to lift up thine eyes, and she turned to see
through the open window a falling leaf
suspended a moment, then lifted away
on the wind, the tears welled up in her eyes
and she picked up her purse and slipped away
through the basement door and out on the grass
and lifted her face to the cloudless sky.




In the autumn of 1893,

   Alpheus Wheeler Appenheimer

and his wife Olive arrived in Stark County,

   Illinois, after having traveled

from their earlier Illinois home in Pike County

   by way of Leoti, Kansas.


They arrived in a covered wagon drawn

    by a pair of worn-out mules conveying

a girl and two boys, a kerosene lamp,

   a plow and scythe and a chest of clothes,

tinware pots, some kerosene lamps

   and a Mason jar of seeds interred


in early May and exhumed in August,

   still unsprouted— it’d been that dry.    

They almost starved on their journey back.

   In Missouri they stopped at a lonely farm

and asked at the house if they might pick a few

   ears of corn to boil for supper.

Go ahead, help yourselves, the woman barked.

   No one else even bothers to ask.

It was hog cholera that had wiped them out

   and sent them westward to make a new start,

and it was drought and the ’93 Panic

   that wiped them out for the second time


and sent them back east to begin again.

   They’d gotten their fill of living in sod—

dirt in your soup and dirt in your bed. 

   Their youngest son was born on a night

in January that covered the state

   in three feet of snow as the mercury plunged


to twenty below.  He was kept from freezing

   by his mother’s warmth and a crackling stove

that was fed from a pile of unshucked corn. 

   At three cents a bushel it made more sense

to burn it than sell it and, anyhow, 

   the buffalo chips were long since gone.


In later years, when anyone asked,

   old Alpheus never had much to tell

about losing two farms in two different states.

   In an unguarded moment he said aloud,

You can pray to God.  You can vote for Bryan.

   In the end it don’t matter a hill of beans.




"The Aging Widow in the Third Pew" and "Populism" from Stark County Poems (Monongahela Books, new enlarged edition, 2020).

Sunday, April 5, 2020

News: Two poems from new edition of "Stark County Poems" appear in Illinois Heritage

Two poems from the new enlarged edition of Stark County Poems have appeared in the latest issue of Illinois Heritage, which is the magazine of the Illinois State Historical Society.  The poems are "The Proverb of the Three Hotels" and "The Boy Who Climbed a Tree," both of which concern the visit of Abraham Lincoln to Toulon, Illinois in October of 1858

Both poems are based on true minor details of Lincoln's visit.

~ ~ ~ ~ 

The Proverb of the Three Hotels               

There was a time in Toulon, long ago,
when the number of wayfarers passing through
was so large it required three hotels
to accommodate them. Jeffrey Cooley,
a loyal Republican through and through,
was the owner of The Virginia House
which, on a chilly October day
in 1858, was favored
by a country lawyer named Abe Lincoln
and his entourage. Across the street,
the hotel of Democrat, B.G. Hall,
found favor with Senator Douglas and
his entourage. The remaining hotel,
Elias Stockner’s The Toulon House,
with no party loyalties either way
but a first-rate saloon in the basement,
found favor with both political camps
and prospered for many a year, long after
each of its rivals had bitten the dust.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

The Boy Who Climbed a Tree

When eight-year-old Thomas Shallenberger
was introduced by his old grandmother
to a big homely man on the courthouse square
in Toulon on a cold October day
in 1858, the big man
invited the boy to sit on his knee
and helped him up and, in a grave voice
(playing to his audience), asked the lad
if, come November, he could count on his vote.
“I’m a Douglas man,” retorted the boy.
Abe Lincoln guffawed and put the boy down
and said if his own supporters all knew
their own minds as well as this youngster did,
he’d be sure to win. Then, leaning way down
until he was eye to eye with the boy,
he said in a kindly whisper that he
should be a good lad and run along home.




"The Proverb of the Three Hotels" and "The Boy Who Climbed a Tree" from Stark County Poems (Monongahela Books, new enlarged edition, 2020).

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

News: New enlarged edition of Stark County Poems released

Consisting of over fifty poems, from short lyrics in a variety of forms to lengthy blank verse and free verse narratives, "Stark County Poems" portrays the history of a small rural county in central Illinois, along the upper Spoon River valley. 

Chronologically arranged, and incorporating letters, newspaper articles, obituaries, family stories, early county histories and diaries, the poems cover a century of the county's history, from the 1830s through the 1930s. 

Map, illustrations. 59 poems. 225 pages. 

BJ Omanson was raised in the Spoon River valley of Stark County, Illinois, where both sides of his family have lived and farmed since the mid-19th century. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

News: A new book by BJ Omanson on the American WWI poet, John Allan Wyeth

The first full-length study of the recently rediscovered American poet of the First World War: John Allan Wyeth. Contains a wealth of new biographical information, plus several extensive essays on Wyeth's technique and his relationship to the major British war poets.


“More than any other English-language poet of the war, Wyeth’s language is stripped clean of 19th-century tonalities and devices. A contributing factor to Wyeth’s modernist style might have been that, during the years immediately prior to the publication of This Man’s Army, when he was almost certainly composing his sonnets, Wyeth resided in the American colony in Rapallo, Italy, where he was known to be friends with Ezra Pound (see “Notes on Wyeth’s Years in Rapallo,” p. 99).\

While it is impossible to know the nature, or extent, of Pound’s influence on Wyeth, there is no denying that Wyeth’s stringently honed descriptions—where every word contributes to the presentation and every image is distilled to its essentials—accord closely to the Imagist principles which Pound espoused in the years before the war. Even the Imagist stricture that the rhythm of a poem should possess the fluidity of a musical phrase rather than the beat of a metronome, is not violated by Wyeth’s sonnets, which display an unprecedented metrical freedom within the general constraint of the form.

Whether Wyeth developed his acute descriptive powers under the influence of Pound, or from earlier influences, is a matter of conjecture. It is at least as plausible that the minutely observed and needle-sharp descriptions of Henry James provided the primary influence on Wyeth’s technique. According to Edmund Wilson, only he and Wyeth—of their literary circle at Princeton—read James seriously while they were there, and it was Wyeth who led Wilson to a full appreciation of James’ technique.

Wyeth’s reliance on chance, on working with whatever objects circumstance might provide, even when they serve no apparent thematic or metaphoric purpose, has a basic affinity with a precept of another major theorist of Imagism, T.E. Hulme, who was a direct influence on Pound. Hulme’s contention was that it is not the object itself that matters, but only its description. Any object will do as well as any other, including random objects served up by chance.

The idea of employing randomness as a compositional principle may have been unusual in literary theory in those years, but in the visual arts the notion of the objet trouvé (“found object”) had been in the air since well before the war, from Picasso’s Still-life with Chair Caning, to Duchamp’s “ready-mades,” to Dada’s reliance on whatever the artist happened to pick up in the street.  It is certainly no stretch to assume that Wyeth, with his years spent in New York, London and Paris, and his lifelong interest in contemporary movements in art, would have keep well abreast of such developments.

Wyeth’s reliance on circumstantial subject matter might tempt a less well-informed critic to dismiss Wyeth’s sonnets as mere documentary reportage, but if that were all his sonnets amounted to, they would lie flat and lifeless on the page.  What we find instead is a body of work where the unsettled randomness of actual events infuses each sonnet with an élan vital, a vital spark. Far from being the equivalent of old newspapers fit only for wrapping fish, Wyeth’s sonnets are living vignettes, rich in chaos, chlorine, and all the random particularity of war.”

Friday, November 9, 2018

News: Two new books of poems by BJ Omanson

Old Locksley among the Ruins

A long meditative poem describing an old man’s final days living in solitude in a decrepit stone manor as cold as a crypt. He divides his time between library and garden where he "considers and contemplates the melancholy decline of the year,” watching the falling of leaves, and succumbing to reverie as the ivy winds slowly around ankle and knee, and autumn gives way to the darkness of winter.

Illustrated in color throughout, on heavy high-gloss paper.

Two Nocturnes on Arnold's "Scholar Gipsy"

Two complimentary poems ("On Port Meadow near Oxford" and "Embers of a Gypsy Fire") inspired by Matthew Arnold's pastoral elegy, "The Scholar Gipsy"— written in the same stanza, and describing the countryside outside of Oxford along the upper Thames at the close of day. A meditation on mortality.

Illustrated in color throughout, on heavy high-gloss paper.

Each book can be ordered from Lulu by clicking on its title.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Reminiscence: Bohemia on the Mississippi

         Sometime in late 1979, we moved from the foothills outside Colorado Springs to Minneapolis, where Virginia found work in a law library and was admitted to the graduate journalism school at the University of Minnesota. I worked for a time as a night waterman on a golf course, and as a custodian in a synagogue, and then went to work at a used bookstore in Dinkytown, next to the university, about a block from where Bob Dylan had lived in an apartment over Gray's Drugstore some twenty years before.   

          I look back on that time with some ambivalence, because while the pay was far from sufficient and the hours very long (six or seven days a week, 11 am to 11 pm), the afternoons and evenings passed in that bookstore were one long panoply of shadowy figures leading marginal lives whom I never tired of talking with: street musicians, poor unaffiliated scholars, struggling novelists and writers of every sort--- though it is the poets who most clearly stand out. 


John Macoubrie

       One of the most memorable was a small, slight, hunched man named John Macoubrie, who appeared to be in his sixties, though his circumstances were so hard that he may well have been younger than he looked.  He was decidedly of the genteel, high-culture school of Wilbur and Hecht, and his knowledge of prosody was so much more extensive than my own that I never mentioned to him that I was a poet at all.  He was known to all the older established poets in Minneapolis and was well respected.  He would come into the bookstore most nights after he got off his shift as a  dishwasher.  He rode an old-fashioned 1950s-vintage bicycle, even in winter, and was always under-dressed for the weather, always the same thread-bare courduroy sports coat, like some poor, down-at-the-heels professor.  He seemed frail, had a perennial cough, and was always cold.  I had heard that he had been living in a tiny rented room for as long as anyone could remember.  On every visit to the bookstore he would invariably purchase a book, but never more than one, and never for more than a quarter or fifty cents.  This restricted him pretty much to used copies of the old paperback Laurel series of pocketbook poets.  Most of the time he would conclude each such purchase with some lines from that particular poet which he had by memory.  On one occasion, as he paid a quarter for the Laurel Edition of Longfellow, I commented that it was heartening to see that there were still one or two readers of Longfellow left in the world.  He responded that Longfellow was unjustly underrated, and to prove his point recited on the spot, from memory, several stanzas from “The Jewish Cemetery.”  The extent of poetry he could recite at will was something wonderful and, in Dinkytown in those days, it was an ability that was widely admired.

          Many years later I would correspond briefly with the accomplished haiku and tanka poet, Marjorie Buettner, who in the early ‘80s was one of the literary habitues of Dinkytown and worked as a waitress in the Valli restaurant across the street from the Bookhouse.  The Valli was was a great spacious establishment with a shadowy bar in the basement, dark wood and low lighting throughout, roomy booths on the ground floor and ranging along a balcony loft upstairs.  It was open every day and evening  until very late, and you could order breakfast at any time.  As the food was palatable, filling and relatively cheap, it was frequented by all the Dinkytown regulars.  According to Buettner, Macoubrie was often to be found sitting quietly by himself in one of the booths.  From time to time he would write a sonnet to her, and recite it as she stood there with pad and pencil, listening patiently in midst of her busy waitressing.

           Unlike most poets then or now, Macoubrie seemed to do nothing to promote himself.  Nevertheless, at some point, the North Stone Review  featured a small bouquet of his poems, together with a brief biographical sketch.  At other times his poems appeared in the Lake Street Review (also published in Minneapolis). One of his poems, "Boethius at Cavalzero" appeared posthumously in the anthology Contemporary Religious Poetry, edited by Paul Ramsey (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), on page 63.

           The critic and literary historian Ted Wright (author of Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, Univ of California Press, 1991), offered the following reminiscence of John Macoubrie:


            I can’t say just when I began to know John Macoubrie. It must have been sometime in the 1970s that he began to drop into my office and chat about poetry mostly and about the awful life he led, without money, without a decent job, despite his being a highly literate, well-spoken, articulate man.


          One thing I never understood about John, and never questioned him about (he had such a formal manner that one didn’t want to intrude on his personal life) was how he had drifted into what appeared to be his permanent condition of poverty. What had he worked at earlier? Did he have degrees in English or Comparative Literature? (see note below) Had he had good jobs in the past? He seemed not to have any academic credentials that would help him acquire a decent-paying job now. His manner—quiet, literate, but never really confident, except about his literary judgments—would never have impressed a potential employer, to whom he would have seemed very much a loner, probably not likely to work easily with other employees, with so formal a manner as to make others question whether he could ever relax and laugh a little. Yet my impression is that he did work well with other people and that those who got to know him liked him very much. But more than anyone else I can remember, he hadn’t the gift of informality. It was a serious, even a tragic, failing.


         He certainly read a lot and was in many ways quite erudite. As one might expect, he preferred traditional metrical poetry to free verse, which made it difficult for him to place his poems in contemporary periodicals. His diction, too, tended to be a little archaic. One poem of his that Jim Naiden printed in the 1972 North Stone Review  was typical:


       If cold must then resume,

       And snow, amid the dark of Capricorn,

       And occupy our world the while,

       The April intimations which are born

       Untimely now sustain

       Our blood’s sustaining through perduring gloom.


All graceful, certainly, but it sounds like a poem written in the first thirty years of the twentieth century, not around 1972. Still, that archaic quality, stubbornly adhered to, becomes a strength in some of his best poems, notably “Boethius at Cavalzero."

(Note:  according to several of his friends, Macoubrie had obtained a B.A. in English literature from Reed College, completing a thesis on Wordsworth’s “The Borderers.”  He never sought a higher degree).

James C. White

          Sometimes Macoubrie would be in the company of a friend of his, also a poet, a tall, fine, patrician-looking gentleman with a splendid shock of white hair, whose learning and kindly manners matched his friend's.  He looked for all the world--- in his manner, dress and speech--- like a retired professor of literature, but I seem to remember that he was in fact a railroad man. I had many conversations with him about writers, especially Yeats and Auden, but I never learned his name--- nor he mine, for that matter. I remember him standing in profile, a little distance down the aisle, reaching up, pulling down a book, turning a few pages at leisure and offering a comment on its author--- not to me, necessarily, but to anyone who might be within earshot, or to no one in particular.  He frequently purchased a book, or several, and he usually came in with a book or two under his arm--- dog-eared, stuffed with papers--- and once, when I saw him thumb through one of his books in search of something, I saw that it was heavily annotated on every page, above and below the text block, and in the margins, with no white space left at all.  He clearly used his books hard, and made them his own.

          Years later I learned from James Naiden that his name was James C. White and that my memory of his being a railroad man was correct: he worked as a switchman for the Great Northern Railroad.


The itinerant playwright 

          Another poet who came regularly to the bookstore was in his late twenties or early thirties, I would guess.  He was in most ways the complete opposite of Macoubrie or White, being full of nervous, aggressive energy and he was brash and outspoken.  When I was in a certain mood I found him intolerable, but usually he was worth enduring, simply for his originality.  Like the older poet, he rode a bicycle, but it was an expensive racing machine.  He worked as a janitor by night, and read and wrote for most of each day.  I have no idea if he had any formal education.  All he wrote were blank-verse plays, in a dense but vigorous Elizabethan style, and what he showed me seemed remarkably strong.  He claimed to write every day, a hundred lines or more, but what I saw of his work was always highly crafted.  He would hang around the bookstore at odd hours, and when a literary-minded customer would come in, especially if he happened to be a professor from the university, my friend would thrust some pages under his nose and demand his opinion.  He was never quite so obnoxious that I had to eject him from the premises, and even at first glance his writing was impressive, so I just sat back at such times and watched the encounter with interest and amusement.  It was surprising how many of his academic victims actually took five or ten minutes to read a half-page or so, rather than sending him to the devil.  His nervy, off-the-cuff spiels disarmed and bemused them, and sparked their curiosity.

          As he was my own age, more or less, and we were both in similar economic straits with no professional prospects, I showed him some of my poems.  He was only mildly impressed, and criticized my lack of prosodic rigor, but he approved my adherence to antiquated forms and since, like me, he had received nothing from editors and other poets over the years but admonitions to write in free verse, he accepted me as a fellow-sufferer.  He was a vagabond, just travelling through, as he said.  I don’t remember where he had come from prior to stopping for several months in Minneapolis, but the time came when he no longer dropped in at the bookstore and I never heard from him again.  Somewhere in the cavernous recesses of my old house, among hundreds of boxes, I have a typed copy of one of his plays, but I haven’t seen it in years.  I cannot for the life of me remember his name.  The poet and critic James Naiden took an interest in him, and took him to lunch from time to time.  James enjoyed his conversation, which he described as erratic and learned, with flashes of brilliance, but James said that as soon as they were joined by any of the many women James knew, the playwright’s behavior and language  become oddly infantile, and embarrasing.


James Naiden

    James was a stout, hardy-looking gentleman in corduroy coat, who was never without his rugged leather satchel.  He regularly stopped by the bookstore to sell a handful of literary titles.  They were always very good titles from the store’s point of view, and always in new condition, and he never quibbled about what we paid him (about 1/3 of the cover price).  When I asked about them once, he said they were review copies.  I learned later that he reviewed books for the Minneapolis Star and for his own literary journal, The North Stone Review.  As it chanced we both favored a tiny cafe at the end of a covered alley about a block and a half from the bookstore.  It was situated between Gray’s Drug (below the rooms where Dylan once lived), and the longstanding Varsity Theatre, which had shown many a worthy ‘art film’ over the years.  The cafe was owned by two young sisters, Kris and Gretchen, who were tolerant toward writers and never pressured them to move along if they wished to sit and write for an hour or three, taking up space and spending little.  Naiden always sat in his preferred corner, back to the wall, his satchel, books and papers spread out around him.  Now and then I joined him at his table, but usually sat off by myself, or with Virginia.  In the midafternoon the cafe was always fairly empty and as it was so small, we could converse easily back and forth without raising our voices. 

           Eventually I showed James some of my poems.  He gave them serious consideration, thought most of them too “pleasantly bucolic” and said they “needed to chafe more.”  Nevertheless he published one of them in the North Stone, a sonnet about driving through the emptiness of eastern Colorado in a pickup truck, listening to a Gregorian chant on the radio.  He said he appreciated the fact that I had waited several months before showing him my work, instead of thrusting poems under his nose at our first meeting.

           James and Virginia hit it off at once, though at first glance they seemed a study in contrasts:  James very bullish and blunt and rough around the edges, Virginia small, delicate, and formal in an almost 19th century way, always made up, always in a dress.  What they shared was a fairly jaundiced view of the world, a refusal to be pushed by anyone for any reason, and a sharpish wit.  For a period of time she worked for him as an editor, on an issue of the North Stone.

          James was brusque, did not suffer fools at all and was merciless in dealing with writers’ inflated and easily-bruised egos, for which he had small patience.  His reviews, though generous at times, were unsparing.  I would guess he was heartily disliked in many quarters.  Of his past I could glean only that he had been a smoke-jumper for a time in the Canadian wilderness, and also that he had been a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy.  James was the first true man-of-letters I had met, by which I mean one who supported himself solely by his pen, by writing and editing, without resorting either to teaching or hackwork.  He appeared to live modestly, drove a beat-up old station wagon, and seemed always to wear the same worn coat.

         As he had been in the Minneapolis literary scene for many years,  James had a large store of anecdotes about Minnesota writers, minor & major, living & dead.  He was skeptical of celebrity and with an incisive phrase or two could cut an inflated reputation down to size.  I recall acerbic comments about Robert Bly on several occasions, though Bly was a poet he had published.

         I remember very well a story he told me about John Berryman:  once, many years before, Berryman stopped by Naiden’s apartment when James happened to be in the shower.  As the door was unlocked, Berryman let himself in, which he had done on numerous previous occasions.  As he was waiting on the couch, thumbing through a book, the front door flew open and in stomped the landlord, shouting loudly for Naiden and demanding two months back rent.  Berryman rose up from the couch and blustered back,  

How much does he owe? 

— A hundred bucks!   

Berryman pulled out two fifty-dollar bills, shoved the landlord out the door and threw the bills after him.  It all took place while James was in the shower.  By the time he emerged the landlord was gone and the rent paid up.  James insisted he would pay Berryman back as soon as he could, but Berryman would never accept  his money.  

          Naiden could be a tough character.  Once he returned to his parked car to find a tow-truck driver with his arm though a partially rolled-down window.  The tower was from a local universally-hated towing company with predatory methods, and he had failed to notice James’ German Shepherd in the back seat, which now had his jaws locked on the tower’s forearm. James responded as though he were a thief trying to break into his car, and refused to order the dog to release the scoundrel until the police got there, though he was bleeding and clearly in pain.  When the police arrived, James called off his dog.  The tower threatened to sue, but James never heard from him or his company again.  The police took no action.

         Another side of James’s character is revealed by the following story.  During one especially bitter winter, he chanced to form a friendship with a homeless Vietnam vet, an Indian, Henry Walking Bear.  James was concerned about his sleeping in the open on nights when the thermometer was falling well below zero, and tried to arrange for shelter for him.  When such efforts failed, James would invite him up to his apartment for a game of chess and a sandwich, just to get him out of the cold for a spell.  This happened on more than one occasion.  One afternoon I found James in the cafe drinking coffee.  As I sat down across from him, he told me Henry Walking Bear had been found frozen to death in an alley, a kitten in his arms.   In his pocket was a piece of paper with James’ name and address.  James knew of Walking Bear’s death because the police had contacted him and asked him to come down to the morgue to identify the homeless man found frozen with a kitten on the street. 

The jazz afficionado

          Working in a used-bookstore wasn't everyone's cup of tea. The work itself was congenial enough, but the hours were long and the pay was scant. To anyone with larger ambitions, it was a job that promised nothing but more of the same, and was a stepping-stone to absolutely nowhere. If that sounds like a complaint, it's not. To the great majority of ordinary salary-earners, a position on the bottom rung of the used-book trade must seem the deadest of dead ends. But to a particular sort of solitary, self-sustaining introvert, who wishes for nothing more than to maintain the quiet tenor of his days and nights, the prospect of a life spent puttering contentedly among the dusty stacks is the fairest of visions.

          There were two such independent souls who earned their keep in the bookstore besides Virginia and myself, and they were both men of considerable mystery.  The first, whose name I cannot for the life of me remember, was a mail-order bookman specializing in the history of jazz.  Whether he had a full-time day job, or was retired, or simply supported himself by means of an austere frugality, I was never certain.  We saw each other only in passing, as he was always going out just as I was coming in.  He was older, nondescript, wore glasses, and seemed a remnant from an earlier era.  Knowing so little about him naturally added to the intrigue.  I imagined him in a perpetually nocturnal world, in a small, wainscotted apartment of curtained-off rooms, laden with bookcases, deep leather chairs, and long, lovingly-tended shelves of sleeved LPs and 78s-- with perhaps a lingering haze of cigarette smoke and the fumes of old scotch.  


          And then there was Bert.  A great shambling inscrutable bear of a man, loaded down with books, papers and who-knows-what-all overflowing from the over-sized satchel which was a permanent part of his attire. Yet for all his bear-like attributes, Bert was a master of invisibility.  He could somehow slip by you on the street, or in a crowded hall, as inconspicuously as a cat.  Settled into his chair behind the counter in the corner of the bookstore, he was as quietly magisterial  as a mountain in a landscape, yet, like a mountain on a Chinese scroll, he seemed to exist at an indeterminate distance, shrouded in silence and mist to the point of disappearance.  I could never decide what Bert thought about anything.  He was never vague or evasive-- not in the least-- but invariably what he said was never what I was anticipating.  Now and then I would attempt to comprehend his taste in literature.  I would ask him about Dickens, for instance, and he would bring up the long description of London fog at the opening of Bleak House.  He liked that, very much-- but that would be the end of Dickens.  Mention Houseman, and he would immediately quote ...the cherry now / is hung with bloom along the bow. He liked that very much as well, but the rest of Housman was of relatively little interest.  I decided (without any real evidence), that Bert didn't read books like the rest of us,  but consulted them like oracles, landing on obscure random passages by a mysterious process known only to himself.  I came to believe that, for Bert, a turned page was like an overturned tarot card, a glimpse into the workings of the cosmos. I had no idea, really.  (Many years later, when our paths chanced to cross again, I would discover that we shared a devotion to Gray’s Elegy and Tennyson’s In Memoriam, but he never let on about it at the time).

          The more one knew Bert, the less one could say about him with any certainty.  No one seemed to know where he lived, or anything about his past.  He  offered no opinion on others, only brief observations-- but they were acute, and telling-- and  after a time I came to realize that Bert's salient characteristic was his compassion.  He missed very little, and much of what he saw in others moved him to laughter, but it was the benevolent laughter of a buddha. Virginia, who had suffered greatly at the hands of certain individuals in her past, and who was profoundly disenchanted with the human race in general, genuinely loved him-- and there were very few of whom that could be said.



          One of the great old characters of Dinkytown, the bookseller McCosh, was no longer there by the time I arrived, but I heard about him so often that his presence was still palpable.  And he was still alive.  The owner of the Bookhouse where I worked, Jim Cummings, had known McCosh for many years and still had dealings with him.  Not infrequently Cummings drove out to call on McCosh, and on several of those visits I rode along.  Some years before, McCosh had closed his Dinkytown shop and purchased a great old decomissioned sanitarium of some sort, a number of miles outside of Minneapolis.  There were two or three stories, each with dozens of rooms ranged along a central hallway that seemed to go on forever, and all of which McCosh had filled with books.  It was a bibliophile’s paradise, or nightmare, depending on your point of view.  McCosh himself was a full-blown crank and character with a reputation for lechery and looking like something  straight out of the  19th century, with a long white beard, shabby clothes and crazed rheumy eyes.  I remember rambling conversations with him, sitting  at one of the long stainless-steel tables in his great high-ceilinged institutional kitchen, about the size of small gymnasium.  The talk was always of books, though on one occasion I asked him about Dylan, who had lived in Dinkytown during the time that McCosh had his bookstore there.  As I recollect, McCosh was dismissive of Dylan, whom he seemed to remember mostly as a minor nuisance, often hanging about and taking up space, but never spending much money--- not someone he would have remembered at all, but that so many people had asked about him over the years.


Late hours, nocturnal poets

          The graveyard shift in the book store was a perfect place for meeting characters as weird as they were literate.  One dashing young gent, Emmett Smith, in sweptback hair and aviator sunglasses, used to drive up in his 50s-vintage pickup from somewhere miles to the south where he raised goats on his farm.  I never inquired about his education, but he spoke in elaborate, perfectly-formed sentences worthy of Dickens or Trollope, though his figures of speech were closer to Donne in their reliance on startling juxtapositions.  He just spun this language out off the top of his head in a kind of nonstop drunken reel:  long oratorial periods declaimed in a loud barroom voice with irreproachable grammar, the whole effect being rendered all the more surreal by his subject-matter, which was primarily goat husbandry and long meditations on the Bedouin and TE Lawrence, punctuated by Persian proverbs in melodious Arabic, for he had sometime earlier in his life spent years in the Middle East with the Peace Corps and the experience had crazed him in some deep essential way.

          There were many other literate characters around Dinkytown and they all seemed to pass through the bookstore and to pause for conversation.  The owner of the store, James Cummings, had over 100,000 titles, but there was scarcely a “popular” title among them.  The store’s descriptor was “used and rare scholarly books” and that is all he carried.  It wasn’t the sort of bookstore you ducked into for five minutes on your way to the airport, looking for the latest John Grisham.  The usual patron of the bookstore spent a half hour or more, just browsing, and frequently commenting — to whomever might be in earshot — about whatever author happened to come to hand.  I had studied literature and philosophy intensively for three years in college, and for many years on my own, but I got a wholly different humanistic education by working nights in that bookstore and listening at all hours to the rambling near-soliloquies of patrons (most of whom were not professors), on the books they were reading.  In some cases they had known the authors personally and had stories about them, or had read them so thoroughly that they might as well have known them.

          The nights I spent in that bookstore soon numbered in the hundreds, and by  the end had exceeded a thousand.  Literary  conversations begun in the store might be continued on the street, in the cafes or in bars, and I grew to believe that such a high level of literacy on the street was a common state of affairs.  I had lost track of what a relatively rare and fragile a thing it was.

Remnants of Bohemia

          A few years later the critic and poet Dana Gioia would write a worthwhile little essay entitled  “Towards a New Bohemia” in which, amid many other ideas, he suggests that the “old urban bohemia” had died out after the sixties due, among other reasons, to a rise in real estate prices.  This was certainly an accurate description of Minneapolis in the mid-1980s, though I would argue that the old bohemia around the university had not yet breathed its last.  Virginia and I were only just barely subsisting, and after the first year made the questionable decision to move well out into the country where we could rent a place for a fraction of what it cost in the city and heat with firewood.  We continued to work in Dinkytown for several more years.  Many of the writers and artists we knew around Dinkytown were struggling through those years, and some, such as ourselves, eventually vanished.

         At the time of his essay, which was some years ago, Dana Gioia could still find hope in the proliferation of small independent bookstores across the country which were hosting poetry readings and forming literary communities around themselves, but in the intervening years, with the rise of online commerce, most such small bookstores have gone under.   In any case, single bookstores can’t sustain a community by themselves.  In Dinkytown in the early 80s, there were still a good many poor literate individuals to be found, living their marginal lives: poets, painters and street musicians, working as janitors, laborers and dishwashers.  Rather than a circle of individuals centered around a bookstore, it was a community living in a neighborhood.   It is the gradual disappearance of such communities that Gioia laments in his essay.

          As a final note, it is worth mentioning that Dana Gioia and John Macoubrie, by sheer happenstance, crossed paths in Dinkytown in the summer of 1976, when Gioia was in his mid-twenties, working in business, and had yet to launch himself as a full-time man-of-letters.  When I showed him my reminiscence of Dinkytown and the photograph of Macoubrie, Gioia responded:


I never knew Macoubrie's name, but I recognize him from his photo. I spent the summer of 1976 in Minneapolis. I went to Dinkytown after work 2 or 3 times a week to browse the bookstores--an antidote to my day job in business. I remember Macoubrie as one of the night time regulars in the poetry and literature sections of the bookstore. We even spoke a few times. How amazing to see his photo after all these years. He would also turn up at the strange poetry readings in local lofts around this time. I didn't know anyone in town, so I would just stand or sit in the corner and watch the crowd. Literary bohemians were a rare breed in the Twin Cities that bicentennial summer.


Well, not so rare, actually, just inconspicuous.  Having known each of them-- Macoubrie in the '80s and, later, a friendship by correspondence with Gioia in the '90s, I am struck first of all by what the two men possessed in common: an extraordinary range and depth of literary erudition, not paraded for its own sake, but welling up irrepressibly from within.  And then I am struck by what separated them: the disparate trajectories of their respective fates-- Macoubrie to an ever-deepening poverty and obscurity, and Gioia to the laureateship of the state of California.   

The best of times, the worst of times

          It is easy to romanticise bohemia, though less so if you have known it at first hand.  It can be a terrible life.   It wears you down, erodes your health and personality, and is absolute hell on relationships, but it does leave you free to read and write exactly what you wish, without obligation to anyone or anything, and that is no small matter.

         The poets I knew in Dinkytown in the 1980s were not to be found in the Norton Anthology, and will never be discussed in graduate seminars.  But they existed all the same, and led richly literate lives of study and struggle, filling their notebooks with work that may or may not have seen the light of publication.  They were closer to what the 19th-century Parsians knew as “garret poets”---  threadbare literati with none or the respectability or security of the bourgeoise, distinguished chiefly by obscurity, doggedness, and rasping coughs.


          After about a year, we moved a few miles north of Stillwater where, for the next five years, we lived in a little cabin on 18 wooded acres on West Boot Lake.  For a couple or years we continued to work in Minneapolis, but then ceased commuting into the city much at all.  I found work on a neighboring farm, and Virginia took to spending periods of time staying with friends near the campus, when she was not at the cabin.  Our poverty was severe at this time.