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Jenkins thinks about getting older in new books

One prose poem describes a grandfather, in the voice of a bassoon, telling his long, boring story to his grandkids -- flutes and piccolos. Another describes decay as the form of freedom a rundown lawn mower can aspire to. In "Sense of Direction,"...

One prose poem describes a grandfather, in the voice of a bassoon, telling his long, boring story to his grandkids -- flutes and piccolos. Another describes decay as the form of freedom a rundown lawn mower can aspire to. In "Sense of Direction," Louis Jenkins' narrator describes himself as someone who looks a hundred years old and notes the short duration of life.

In "Retirement," Jenkins ponders "selling the poetry business" with its assets "well in excess of $300."

Aging is one of the themes on his mind.

Another local poet with a national reputation once described Jenkins as Duluth's poet laureate. There's a pretty good case to be made, as he releases his sixth book, "Sea Smoke," from Holy Cow! Press this month. His seventh, a special edition from the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts, will serve as a retrospective of his 30-year poetry career.

Jenkins, who will give a poetry reading in the Spirit Lake Poetry Series Saturday, Oct. 23, has been published in numerous journals and anthologies, notably the 1999 edition of "The Best American Poetry" and "Great American Prose Poems." He recently won the George Morrison Award for lifetime achievement as a writer. He has earned praise from the likes of Robert Bly, Garrison Keillor and Michael Van Walleghen.

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Jenkins' bearded visage and sharp wit have been popular features at readings and even a Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra concert two summers ago.

Jenkins is frequently cited as a master of the prose poem form.

The form

"Maybe I write prose poems because I couldn't really write poetry," Jenkins said in an interview last week.

That's his humor poking through -- one of his distinguishing and beloved traits. ("I have better jokes than most ministers," he says. Later, when it comes up again, he says: "Humor, I think, is finally the only defense we have against this world, to be able to laugh at it.")

Jenkins, who came from Oklahoma to Duluth, his wife Ann's hometown, in 1970, has been writing since he was in high school. He tried his hand at short stories and at traditional poetry and begin writing prose poems in the early 1970s.

Prose poems have elements of both short story and poetry, he said.

They have elements of poetry like metaphor but are not broken up into lines and stanza, sitting on the page just like paragraphs in a news story. In Jenkins' hands, the flexible form often tells a miniature story.

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Asked about this form in an era, dominated by free verse that sometimes reads as merely prose with line breaks, Jenkins responds with more jokes.

Why not just break it up into lines? "You could. Why, though?"

He notes that he doesn't have to hit return as often.

"It's a rectangular form," he says later.

But underneath the jokes, no doubt honed over three decades of being asked about it, is a point. He said he listened to poets who read free verse and they didn't pause after lines. He acknowledged that poets can use lines in free verse for legitimate purposes -- setting pace with line length and enjambment or giving lines purposeful half-meanings for a reader -- but says it's not worth it.

"I guess that wasn't my primary interest in what I was going to do in a prose poem," he said. He's more interested in the story or image.

And it's not his sound.

"Prose poem is a sound that imitates ordinary conversation or narrative more than the formal declaration that a poem makes," he said.

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'A way of thinking'

Among the assets of that prose poem business are a shack in "a nice little spot" on the Jenkins property, where he does his writing on a laptop. Contrary to the typical advice given to new writers, he doesn't write every day, and in cases like this, when he's finished a book, he will take a break.

Much of the writing is done away from the computer, though. Like many poets and writers through the ages, Jenkins gets inspirations and works through ideas while walking and taking notes. (There's a poem in the book about an encounter along his walk that demythologizes that experience, too.)

Jenkins says he'll pick up a thread and work it through until he has a good idea what he'll write by the time he actually sits down at the computer.

"Writing poetry gets to be a way of thinking," he said.

Sometimes he will write several versions of a poem, and the amount of tinkering and rewriting varies. "It's a little puzzle, a little game, some sort of mental whittling," he said.

Looking over his past work for the Minnesota Center for Book Arts project has given him some insight into how things have changed. He said he doesn't make the same mistakes he used to, but the "passionate intensity" is lost, making the whole thing something of a wash.

Jim Perlman, the book's publisher, said he's published four of Jenkins' books. "There's not been a drop in quality," he said. He also noted the success Jenkins has had collaborating with artists and composers.

And it's still a process of writing about the things that occupy his mind.

The book

For "Sea Smoke," that includes aging, not having enough money, reminiscing about childhood and the quirks of relationships. In "Canary," he relates a story in which everyone in the family has a different memory of what kind of bird, if any, was the family pet.

In its 60 poems, "Sea Smoke" covers a range of subjects. Some are heavily metaphorical, others are mini stories.

Several relate to the practice of poetry itself. One of Jenkins' favorites, "Imaginary Reader," opens the book, describing that person every writer supposedly writes for. "Where Go the Boats" basically suggests beginning poets would be just as well off to send their poems down a river as trying to get them published if they wish to be read.

Some of the poems -- "Knife Island," for instance, which compares life to an island covered in gull droppings and birds locked in territorial combat -- may sound a little down, but Jenkins says he doesn't mean it that way.

He says there's no point in just complaining, but it's no use lying about it, either.

He sums up his mission this way: "What you try to do is take it as it is, as ugly and painful as it may be, and make it into a pleasure."

"When somebody reads my books, I want them to feel good," he said.

"Sea Smoke" will be available in local bookstores and from online sites, including the Holy Cow! Press Web site. It will also be available at the Spirit Lake reading Saturday. That event starts at 7:30 p.m. at the College of St. Scholastica's Sommers Lounge. The reading is free and includes music and refreshments.

The other project, primarily for collectors, is set for release in December and will be released in three editions, including a leather-bound one, all made using letterpress and handmade paper. It will feature one new poem, in addition to work from Jenkins' first 30 years of prose poems.

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