For the past two years, Connie Wanek has been a detective. The Duluth poet has continued to get up at 5 a.m. to write verse, but she has devoted her evenings and days off from work as a library technician to research the lives and works of female...
For the past two years, Connie Wanek has been a detective.
The Duluth poet has continued to get up at 5 a.m. to write verse, but she has devoted her evenings and days off from work as a library technician to research the lives and works of female poets in Minnesota back to pre-territorial days.
It hasn't been easy. Many women had faded into obscurity so Wanek had to scour the Internet and pore though census information, newspaper clips and historical society records. Her sleuthing tracked down poets' descendants and located poetry books long out of print.
"It was really detective work," Wanek said. "But it was fun and interesting."
The result is the first comprehensive anthology of Minnesota women poets, which Wanek co-edited with Thom Tammaro and Joyce Sutphen. "To Sing Along The Way" should reach bookstores this week and is expected to be used in classrooms and as a library reference as well as read for pleasure.
"The anthology calls attention to a neglected group of writers," Tammaro said. "It allows us to look at these writers in a new light. When we look back at the literary history of Minnesota, these are the writers that we should honor."
The book, arranged chronologically by poet, features writers important in their day such as Margarette Ball Dickson, Minnesota poet laureate in 1934. It includes Harriet Bishop, the state's first public school teacher; Hazel Hall, whose personal poetry in the 1920s was startling for its time; Elaine Goodale Eastman, whose adventurous life included tending to survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre and whose writings inspired the anthology's title; and Carol Ryrie Brink, author of the Caddie Woodlawn books.
"When these women died, the waters of time closed over them," Wanek said. "This anthology will bring them forward. They deserve to be read."
The anthology's 108 poets include about 60 contemporary poets such as Ellie Schoenfeld of Duluth and Wanek herself.
"They sing in many different voices," Tammaro said of the collection of 155 poems. "There wasn't a single song that they were singing. The voices are varied; the voices are diverse."
First to focus on women
Bart Sutter, Duluth's poet laureate, is anxious to see the anthology.
"I'm sure the editors have uncovered good poems that we've missed," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they've discovered good poets that we've missed. And poets that we'll all want to pursue."
Annette Atkins, who has written a book on the history of Minnesota, has already seen the book.
"I love this book," said Atkins, a professor of history at Saint John's University/College of Saint Benedict in Collegeville, Minn. "In the language the poets' use, the subjects they select, the approaches they use, these women tell us a powerful story not just of women, but of the state itself."
Until this anthology, no one had looked back on women's poetry in Minnesota, Wanek and Tammaro said.
"There was no history because it had never been written down," Wanek said. "Now we have an overview of Minnesota history through poetry by women. Women wrote a lot of poetry. Now we will have that within our grasp. Now people have an overview."
The idea for the anthology was Tammaro's. As an English professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead, he has compiled and edited several anthologies of regional works.
"I was thinking what voices don't we have," he said. "I didn't see anything that gathered Minnesota women's voices."
While many anthologies had been done, none were exclusively women's poetry in Minnesota. Tammaro limited the focus to Minnesota and the span from pioneer days to the present.
It's a departure from the traditional focus on poetry coming out of the East, Sutter noted.
"Now in the Midwest, we've finally waking up to the fact that people have been writing here for 100 years," he said. "Let's see what we've got. Let's value our own tradition."
Search uncovered variety
Tammaro recruited Sutphen, a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., and Wanek, both poets whom he knew and respected.
Wanek, 54, has had two books of poetry published, "Bonfire" in 1997 and "Hartley Field" in 2002. Her honors include a Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize, and her books have been finalists for a Minnesota Book Award. She was named a 2006 Witter Bynner Fellow of the Library of Congress by U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, who has twice included her work in his American Life in Poetry newspaper column (including today's column on page 2).
For the anthology, the editors considered hundreds of poets. "Minnesota Verse," a comprehensive 1930s anthology by Maude Schilplin proved an invaluable resource for poets from 1900-38.
One requirement for the new anthology was that a poet had published a book which is considered a milestone. "Otherwise, how else would we know what they write?" Wanek said.
A call went out in January 2004 for submissions from contemporary poets and about 60 were selected from 200 submissions. Some prominent poets who didn't submit work were sought out, such as Patricia Hampl of St. Paul.
"We were looking to represent the whole state, with a variety of subjects and styles," Wanek said, referring to both historic and contemporary poets.
Styles vary, from early formal forms of the early 20th century to contemporary free verse. Subjects include domestic themes, nature and social issues of the day.
"There's a kind of social awareness that emerges from the book, a tension between self and the larger society and some of the large social issues at work in the culture," Tammaro said.
Works dealing with social issues, such as the World Wars and race relations, are among the liveliest, Wanek said.
"Some of the most wonderful poetry has to do with the women's reaction to war," she said. "Women write about their lives and how these world events affect people in their day-to-day lives. They personalize these issues. There's a reason why women are usually against war."
Editors discovered many women poets were productive in their time and got published. Then they seemed to disappear from the literary scene.
"Part of the fun is going back and uncovering their work," Tammaro said. "Some have been out of print for 50, 60, 70 years. Many were quite good and prominent on the state and national scene."
Some faded when poetry shifted from a popular art to a university-centered one where poets are often academics. Others faded when the literary styles shifted from traditional rhyme and meter to free verse in the early 20th century.
"To Sing Along The Way," Minnesota women poets from pre-territorial days to the present, was edited by Joyce Sutphen, Thom Tammaro and Connie Wanek. Published by New Rivers Press, the 241-page paperback costs $17.95.
CANDACE RENALLS is at (218) 723-5329 or e-mail: email@example.com .