The difference between publishing an anthology of responses to Walt Whitman's writings in 1981 versus the third edition in 2019 - about 718 emails.

"So much about publishing and editing has changed in the 40 years I've been a publisher," said Jim Perlman of the local Holy Cow! Press, which is publishing its third edition of "Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song." Back then: "I'd bring a copy of a poem I found to my professor's office and share it with him."

The first time he and co-editors Ed Folsom and Dan Campion solicited and gathered works inspired by the late writer, they were all centrally located at the University of Iowa. For this third edition, which is now available at local bookstores, did they even talk on the phone once, Perlman wondered.

The latest take on one of Holy Cow! Press's mightiest collections - which coincides with Whitman's 200th birthday - has about 10 percent new material. The bibliography has been updated and expanded, in addition to contributor notes. There are new images of Whitman, a new cover design and a focus on new voices.

"We were fairly deliberate in wanting to include more women writers and minority writers and women minority writers," Perlman said.

The publisher will have copies of the book available at a local event celebrating Walt Whitman's birthday from 7-9 p.m. Friday at Hartley Nature Center. Local poets will read favorite Whitman works, there will be a panel discussion and cake.

Collecting pieces

When they were building the first book, Perlman, along with support from the other editors, researched poets and writers who had responded to Whitman, a list that includes Muriel Rukeyser, Henry Miller, Pablo Neruda, Willa Cather.

Perlman said he also solicited works from poets he knew or knew about.

"It was just a simple letter, but the response was overwhelming," he said.

Among them: an original essay from Patricia Hampl ("The Mayflower Moment: Reading Whitman During the Vietnam War"), and pieces by Meridel Le Seuer and Robert Bly. Then, out of the blue, a transcript on a talk Allen Ginsberg gave on Walt Whitman.

The publication of the anthology was tied to the anniversary of the 1881 printing of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." It earned dozens of positive reviews, Perlman recalled.

The Christian Science Monitor reviewed the collection in 1982 and described it as a "fascinating anthology" - and one of the most vital of recent times.

The anthology got an update in 1998 in addition to the latest one.

This go-round, Perlman said, the collection - in addition to updates - it has newly acquired pieces by Marie Howe, Meena Alexander, Julia Alverez, Rosanna Warren.

Why Whitman

Mara Hart taught a course about Walt Whitman during this past winter semester at the University of Minnesota Duluth's University for Seniors. The topic: Whitman and a fan-turned-lifelong-friend, the writer Anne Gilchrist.

The class proved to be popular. Not only did it fill with 35 students, but there was a waiting list. Hart described him as "the poet of the body and the soul," one of the first to write in free verse.

"Really unstructured verse," she said. "More operatic and more using the speech rhythm. He really broke the wood. Walt Whitman, himself, he is the American poet," Hart said. "The poet of democracy, the poet of openness and optimism. I think he's a fabulous poet."

She will talk about Whitman and the women who loved him during today's event at Hartley. Other readers and presenters include John D. Schwetman, Chris Johnson, Bart Sutter, Deborah Cooper, Sheila Packa, Ellie Schoenfeld and Gary Boelhower, Duluth's poet laureate.

As for Perlman, he found Whitman as a sophomore in high school by way of the beat poets who considered him an influence. As he gets older, he said, he becomes even more profoundly the writer speaks about the American experience.

"How much he has to say about an idealized democracy," Perlman said. "How much he has to say about a celebration of the body and equality between the sexes. He's such an enigma. I don't always know why he has this power. He speaks to me in a most personal and intimate voice and it just seems to deepen the more I grow in age and the more I read him."

IF YOU GO

What: Walt Whitman's 200th Birthday: poems, cake, panel discussion

When: 7-9 p.m. Friday

Where: Hartley Nature Center, 3001 Woodland Ave.

Tickets: Free, open to the public

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Title: "Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song" third edition

Editors: Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, Dan Campion

Publisher: Holy Cow! Press

Pages: 560

Price: $27.95