Writing Minnesota Philip BryantPhoto: Carolina Astrain

Philip Bryant: "Two places at once."

By Annie Baxter, Minnesota Public Radio

For poet Philip Bryant, you can't talk about what it means to be a Minnesota without a trip to Stearns County.

That's where I met up with him a couple months ago, back when the state was knee deep in winter. He was taking me to an unusual place for a poetry reading. We trekked through a snowy woods at St. John's Abbey to get there.

Stearns County has special meaning to Bryant, because it's where his wife's family is from. And it's the place where he came into his own as a poet after struggling with his craft for years.

Bryant grew up on Chicago's South Side in a household filled with jazz music. His dad owned nearly 8,000 jazz albums. Jazz, blues, and the black culture of the South Side gave Bryant a deep well of stories and images to draw from in his writing.

But he could only tap that material once he left Chicago and transplanted himself to rural Minnesota — a place that couldn't be more different from home. He puzzles over the strangeness of that fact.

"Why would a little black boy from the South Side of Chicago — where all his material is — come here, and then all of a sudden all that material is present for him?" Bryant asked.

It turns out the reasons aren't that mysterious. When he moved to Minnesota, Bryant started meeting poets who practiced a narrative style that seemed the perfect vehicle for the poems he wanted to write about Chicago. It was a big change from the experimental poetry he learned to write in a master's program in creative writing at Columbia University. The narrative style fit his work. And the Minnesota writers were really encouraging.

"They were receptive," Bryant said. "That was something that was very hard to come by in Chicago. Everyone was kind of protecting their own territory."

We continue tromping through the snow. The only sounds we hear are our footsteps. Overhead, the sky is a dreamy blue color. Bryant says the serenity and solitude of this landscape also helped bring his poetry forth.

"This space allows me to do creative things, to think creatively and to actually carry them out," he said. "I would think about doing stuff in Chicago all the time, but I didn't have the space to actuate that."

It turns out it doesn't take much physical space. Our destination for the poetry reading is an ice fishing shack.

Photo: Carolina Astrain

Brother Paul Jasmer meets us at the door. He's a monk at St. John's Abbey, and he built this little shack so he could have a quiet place to read. He also likes inviting people by to read poetry. "If people like to read a poem, just open the book and start reading," he instructs.

Brother Paul serves us tea, and Bryant's poetry reading begins. He picks a poem called "Stella by Starlight," named after an old jazz standard. The poem's about his father's love of jazz, which Bryant's mother can't understand.

He also reads a poem set in Minnesota,"Polka Dancing Televised Live from Mankato on Saturday Night." (See reprint below).

After living in Minnesota for more than 20 years, Bryant does write about the state from time to time. Minnesota poems surface in between his Chicago poems. That raises the question: Is he a Minnesota writer now?

Bryant laughs at the question. He says a few years ago, someone did refer to him as a Minnesota writer.

"And on the one hand I was very proud. I thought, 'Oh, finally!' Bryant said. "But then {I was} sad in the other sense, too, because it was like, 'Okay does that mean I'm not a Chicago writer?'"

Bryant says he's always going to go back and forth between the two places, so he now sees himself as something in between a Minnesota and a Chicago writer.

"Polka Dancing Televised Live from Mankato on Saturday Night" is part of Philip Bryant's collection "Sermon on a Perfect Spring Day," published by New Rivers Press. Many thanks to the publisher for permission to reprint the poem here.

Polka Dancing Televised Live from Mankato on Saturday Night

A dairy farmer all the way from Albany, Minnesota
and his very fat wife
danced to the polka,
"She's Too Fat for Me"
laughing and singing along with
the words, holding each other tight.
He twirled her like she was
some willowy dark-eyed Russian ballerina,
singing into her ear
like a teenager in love
for the first time
in his life.
"You can have her,
I don't want her, she's too
fat for me, she's too fat for me,"
as he lifts her off her feet
high into the air
and sets her three-hundred-pound frame down
as lightly as
a newborn babe in her crib at night.
She throws her head back
tango style
and gives out a raucous
rose-between-the-teeth laugh
as he starts in on
another chorus of the 
"She's Too Fat for Me Polka"
before giving her another
of his death-defying twirls.