Milkweed Editions: Over 35 years supporting local poets

By Carissa Hansen
Project Archivist, Upper Midwest Literary Archives

April is National Poetry Month, and the Upper Midwest Literary Archives is doing some extra celebrating this year as it has kicked off its year-long grant project dedicated to exploring the archives of Minnesota poets. Our project, aptly titled Prairie Poets and Press: Literary Lives of the Upper Midwest, will organize, describe, and reveal the contents of four important literary collections.

In February, I started organizing and working with the papers of poets Bill Holm, Robert Bly, Margaret Hasse, and local press Milkweed Editions. Aside from writing and living in Minnesota, one thread that ties Holm, Bly, and Hasse together is their work with Milkweed Editions. The press was established by Randy Scholes and Emilie Buchwald in Minneapolis in 1979. In its early years, they published a tri-annual literary journal called Milkweed Chronicle. By 1986, they had stopped publishing Milkweed Chronicle completely, and focused solely on publishing books. Holm, Bly, and Hasse all published poetry with Milkweed Editions during the press’s infancy as a full-time book press.

Bill Holm’s author questionnaire from Milkweed Editions for his book Boxelder Bug Variations. Milkweed wanted to know what other books might compete with his book, what kind of experience he had with public appearances and publicity, and to whom they might send advance copies. Holm included Robert and Carol Bly on the list.
Bill Holm’s author questionnaire from Milkweed Editions for his book Boxelder Bug Variations. Milkweed wanted to know what other books might compete with his book, what kind of experience he had with public appearances and publicity, and to whom they might send advance copies. Holm included Robert and Carol Bly on the list.

Bill Holm

In 1985, Bill Holm published one of his first compilations of poetry, prose, and music with Milkweed Editions. Boxelder Bug Variations would become one of Holm’s most iconic works because of its unusual subject matter — bugs! The boxelder bug was a recurring symbol in Holm’s life and work, representing not only the mundanity of rural life in Minnesota, but also the hardiness and culture of the people of Southwestern Minnesota.

Holm was not shy about acknowledging that the subject matter of Boxelder was unusual. When asked in Milkweed’s author questionnaire what other books might compete with his book, he wrote, “On bugs? Mine’s the best! Leaves of Grass — only competition.” The book spurred a 20-plus year relationship between Holm and Milkweed Editions that would result in the publication of six more books of poetry and essays.

Robert Bly

By the time Milkweed Editions was established, Robert Bly was already an established writer and publisher in the local and national literary scenes, but the press called on him to support the work of other Minnesota poets.

In 1985, Emilie Buchwald asked Bly to review the manuscript for Boxelder Bug Variations. In the same request, she mentions a manuscript for a book of poetry that Bly was translating from Norwegian, writing, “It is a deep pleasure to know that we will be publishing a book of your work, which has provided me with spiritual vitamins for many years.”

Bly’s translation of Olav Hauge’s Trusting Your Life to Water and Eternity would be published by Milkweed just two years later in 1987.

Left: July 3, 1985 letter from Milkweed Editor Emilie Buchwald to Robert Bly asking him to review Bill Holm’s Boxelder Bug Variations and make a few comments to appear on the book upon publication. In the same letter, Buchwald also mentions Bly’s forthcoming Milkweed publication, a translation of Norwegian poetry. Right: Robert Bly’s handwritten response to Milkweed’s request for comment on Bill Holm’s Boxelder Bug Variations. Bly ends his comments with, “This is a small treasure of Minnesota literature.”
Left: July 3, 1985 letter from Milkweed Editor Emilie Buchwald to Robert Bly asking him to review Bill Holm’s Boxelder Bug Variations and make a few comments to appear on the book upon publication. In the same letter, Buchwald also mentions Bly’s forthcoming Milkweed publication, a translation of Norwegian poetry.
Right: Robert Bly’s handwritten response to Milkweed’s request for comment on Bill Holm’s Boxelder Bug Variations. Bly ends his comments with, “This is a small treasure of Minnesota literature.”

Margaret Hasse

In 1988, Margaret Hasse published her second book of poetry, In a Sheep’s Eye, Darling, with Milkweed Editions. Milkweed’s author questionnaire for Hasse is particularly revealing about her personal life and writing habits. She wrote, “I stayed in the Twin Cities these past 15 years writing, teaching, working in various art programs. I was happy, mostly, and unhappy at times about things such as I write about in In a Sheep’s Eye, Darling.”

The book is personal and grapples with issues of men, love, and relationships. Of her writing habits, Hasse wrote, “I write frequently, for a time, in a routine, at least an hour a day. Then, I go for months within a great silence. I almost forget about poetry. Then I am back in the routine.”

Feature article from the October 1988 edition of Grand Gazette (St. Paul, MN) about Margaret Hasse and her book In a Sheep’s Eye, Darling, published earlier that year.
Feature article from the October 1988 edition of Grand Gazette (St. Paul, MN) about Margaret Hasse and her book In a Sheep’s Eye, Darling, published earlier that year.

Milkweed Editions: records show depth of relationships between authors, editors

The Milkweed Editions records reveal not only the work and thought processes of the authors, but also the way in which Milkweed was interested in presenting the full personae of the writers they published. I’m continuously struck by the depth of the relationships between authors and editors that the collection showcases. Buchwald, Bly, and Holm were not just partners in the publishing business — they were friends. The work Milkweed helped cultivate proved that publishers need not always look far for their next author and that the work happening right here was worth cultivating too.

Happy National Poetry Month and stay tuned in the coming months for more glimpses into the collections of the Upper Midwest Literary Archives!

Funding for Prairie Poets and Press

Prairie Poets and Press has been financed in part with funds provided by the State of Minnesota from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society. The Minnesota Historical and Cultural Grants Program has been made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. The Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund raises millions of dollars each year to support the artists and cultural heritage institutions (such as historical societies, libraries, and museums) that keep our state great, our citizens thoughtful, and our community thriving.

—Carissa Hansen is a project archivist for the Upper Midwest Literary Archives. To learn more about the Upper Midwest Literary Archives, please visit www.lib.umn.edu/mss.

The materials featured in this article are from the Milkweed Editions records in the Upper Midwest Literary Archives at the University of Minnesota.

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