Bill Holm Through The Windows of Brimnes

Uploaded by PrairiePublicBcast on 03.01.2011

(Wayne Gudmundson) In his last book
The Windows of Brimnes, Minnesota born author
Bill Holm asked, Where does poetry live?
For Bill, iconoclast poet, curmudgeon, author, musician,
teacher, traveler, friend,
poetry lived in spare and open spaces we both loved,
where big ideas had room to grow.
[piano plays softly]
(woman) Funding for this program
is provided in part
by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund,
the North Dakota Council on the Arts,
and by the members of Prairie Public.
I'm Wayne Gudmundson, a photographer,
a North Dakota native, and someone who traveled many miles
across North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba
with my friend Bill Holm.
Bill was many things,
but at the core I think he was
the conscience of every man
and the spokesman for civility and decency.
I am Bill Holm, I am in my little sitting room at Brimnes,
my house in Hofsos, Iceland.
This is such a heavenly fjord.
It opens to the north.
The ones that open to the east or to the west or to the south
are frequently deprived of light.
The mountains stay back a mile or two from the sea,
so they're quite grand and quite impressive and quite beautiful,
but they're not right on your ass.
Most of the year, Bill lived and taught in the same small town
in southwestern Minnesota where he grew up.
But every year as summer rolled around,
he packed his many, many notebooks
and his pens and he winged his way to his adopted home
in the country his immigrant grandparents left behind.
(Bill) I had come years ago
as a Fullbright to teach
at the university, and I had
gotten to know lots of people
when I was here for damn near 2 years
at the end of the '70s until the middle of 1980.
Then I was here long enough
so that I had to make a sort of existential choice.
You know, I thought even then very much
of not going back to the United States.
Most of my colleagues at the university were young Englishmen
who had come to Iceland, learned Icelandic,
were busy fathering children and having a good time,
and translating, and they were clever fellows.
None of them would ever go back to England, they loved it here.
Well, I was here a year and a half, and I loved it.
I'd begun to make friends, and settled in, and I spoke
better Icelandic than I now do, but still terrible.
And I thought maybe I should just not go home.
But I am after all, a writer, I knew that,
but I hadn't really written any of my books yet.
I thought if I stay in Iceland,
I'll never really be an Icelander.
I can never really say anything directly to this culture.
I will always be a tourist.
And I still am, you know,
somebody who just happens to live here and likes it.
But the people that I can talk to,
that I can crab at, as it were, and make some proposals
or just deal with the experience that we share
is in the United States, in America, in Minnesota,
in the Midwest. So I had to go home to get my books written.
I had some unconscious sense of that.
So I went back,
and I took a job in Marshall,
15 miles from Minneota.
Even before that, I had taught on the East coast,
and I had dreams of going
to Boston or somewhere, or going abroad.
But I go back and I take a job in the most boring branch
of the University of Minnesota in the most boring town,
12 boring miles away from my boring hometown,
where I'm related to everybody.
And that was oddly enough exactly the right thing to do.
Sometimes just by being idiots
we stumble into some...wisdom.
I suppose that would be the right word for it.
So there I was in Marshall.
So I know where all the bodies
are buried in American life in the Midwest.
And I have credentials.
I've lived there for a long time. I am now old.
And when I make some complaints and proposals
about what I see that's gone haywire in American life,
I expect my fellow citizens to buck up, pay attention,
and improve, because that's also my function as a writer.
I'm not somebody who intends simply to amuse people.
I mean, it's fine to be funny, and I like humor.
But I mean to improve them, by God!
I mean to make them saner and kinder and more decent
and more intelligent. I mean to make them think hard,
and not always comfortable thoughts.
Paranoia. After 20 years of this, the hell with you all!
111 01:05:13;24 I'm the American! Not you!
112 01:05:16;20 Maybe I only seem to lose all the elections myself.
113 01:05:22;11 I walk into a church, membership declines.
114 01:05:26;04 I apply for a job, computer-- learned it yesterday.
115 01:05:31;15 I state a firm belief.
116 01:05:34;03 They think it's irony.
117 01:05:36;05 Overhead, geese still migrate on time.
118 01:05:40;05 Don't bother with passports.
119 01:05:43;14 Honking for anybody to listen,
120 01:05:46;24 singing I'm the American, not you.
121 01:05:50;24 Oh, sing it again goose!
122 01:05:54;10 You're the American, not them.
123 01:05:57;09 Not them... not them.
I mean, my simple grief at the state of the United States,
it's a little like Walt Whitman's grief
in democratic vistas at what he saw around him.
I mean he had such enormous idealism
that Americans really could be a decent place,
a civilized place, that they could be
some kind of a model for humanity,
yet kindness, civility, decency,
intelligence, love of beauty, love of each other.
Well, we haven't done very well,
and we do worse every year.
So I suppose I'm a little protective about that.
You know, the Bush administration would've said
that I was, you know, [chuckles] unpatriotic.
I love those little stupid arguments in America.
You're not wearing your lapel pin.
God, what morons we are!
We don't deserve a decent country-- we don't!
We must think harder and work harder, we shouldn't waste it.
Despite our shared Icelandic heritage,
I didn't meet Bill and his wife Marcy Brekken
until later in life when both he and I
were at a stage in our careers to take on this young project.
I stayed out of Iceland for a long time
after I went back to the States.
I went other places, I spent a year in China, then I spent
another half a year in China,
another quarter of a year in China,
and that was occupied in my consciousness for a while.
I spent some time in Madagascar.
I went to England a couple of times
and sat for long periods of time.
I wandered around on a couple of grants in the United States
getting my first couple of books done.
And finally, of course I'd made so many friends,
and they would stop and see me in America now and again,
and I realized they were all getting to be middle aged.
They were no longer these young gossamer blonds
and these fleet-of-foot young fellows.
They had pot guts and receding hair lines and fallen breasts
and sometimes even teenage children.
God forbid, what life will do to you.
So I thought, I remember Iceland so fondly,
and I'm so fond of all these people,
I should go back and see them.
So an opportunity presented itself to do that.
Marcy had never been here, so she came along,
and we sort of toured the country.
As a 6-year-old,
I loved family gatherings in Mountain, North Dakota,
with my Icelandic grandparents.
The grown-ups would stand, men on one side, women on the other.
Kids like me would find a welcome place in either camp.
But I was drawn to the men,
who after dealing with the required weather and car issues
would begin a regular ritual,
taking turns reciting poems in Icelandic.
I remember thinking then that it would be okay to be a man,
laughing with friends, speaking a mysterious language,
reciting and enjoying poetry together.
Years later I was telling a friend about this,
and he said I should contact Bill Holm from Minneota.
So I called Bill out of the blue and said,
My name is Wayne Gudmundson.
Another God damn Icelander, he said.
I continued back into why I had called,
telling him about family trips to Mountain.
Then I mentioned Kow en.
Bill interrupted again, this time with a poem
about the time Kow en visited Minneota.
[Bill recites a poem in Icelandic]
From Minneota, Minnesota, many were ugly.
They still are, of course!
I immediately knew we were off on a new adventure together.
We were investigating the Icelander immigrant poet Kow en,
who lived in North Dakota, among other places,
that's where he died,
and he was the first light verse poet in Icelandic.
The old Icelanders, when I first came to Iceland, loved him.
Every house had a copy of Kow en.
And old people knew reams of his poetry by heart.
Much of it was satire
on the very bad Icelandic spoken by immigrants,
and it would be sort of mixed in with English and with language
from their neighbors-- he had great fun with that.
The problem was your audience is a little small,
that to really get the jokes in the thing
you have to be equally fluent in Icelandic and English,
and that sort of cuts your audience down just slightly.
But that's all right, you know, poetry is where the money is,
so you can always count on 5 or 6 million people
who can-- want to read that stuff.
When we went to Mountain
and various little towns around there and interviewed,
at that time people who had known Kow en,
Arnie and Rosa Johnsson(ph)
I remember, both over 90, fascinating people.
Rosa just wanted to feed you continually,
and Arnie knew Kow en, and he recited for us
some of Kow en's secret poems,
the ones that were a little spicy!
You know, you didn't say those in front of ladies.
So we collected material,
and we got to stay in Mountain, North Dakota,
and go to Byron's Bar in the evening to have a few bumps.
And, of course, Byron's was full of old Icelanders
who also knew Kow en and had things to say,
wonderful kind of stories.
So we have wonderful tapes with a kind of
portrait frozen in time.
I later had them transcribed by somebody in Canada.
So they're waiting for a book.
And Wayne of course took his pictures like a good boy,
and I had the tapes transcribed like a good boy,
but one thing I couldn't do.
I wanted to include 30 maybe of Kow en's poems
and to find some brilliant translator
who could bring those poems into English,
so that some ordinary American or Canadian reader
would have some sense of what it was he did as a poet,
and of his skill and of his talent and of his wit.
But to find somebody who's that good
and also has a sense of humor is difficult.
So, you know any good translators who has
a sense of humor at equal doses of Icelandic and English?
(Wayne) Sadly, Bill himself passed away
soon after this interview,
and the project must for now remain unfinished.
(narrator) If you turn your back
to the ocean,
257 01:13:08;08 do you think the tide will not find you
258 01:13:11;01 if it decides to rise a little higher than usual?
259 01:13:14;03 To swallow an extra helping of gravel,
260 01:13:16;29 to suck on your bones to clean its palate,
261 01:13:20;21 the sea eats what it pleases
262 01:13:23;06 whether you face it or give it your back.
263 01:13:26;27 No use having opinions about this.
264 01:13:30;27 But the sea does not hate you
265 01:13:33;10 or imagine that you have wounded it with your avarice.
266 01:13:37;06 You cannot blaspheme the honor of water
267 01:13:41;00 or insult the tide for tasting of salt.
268 01:13:45;10 Only humans so newly risen from fish
269 01:13:50;13 imagine drowning each other for reasons.
Bill's love affair with Iceland continued throughout his life.
Bill established a respected series of writer's workshops
introducing a new generation of
American writers to the lovely,
windswept lands of Iceland and
the people he had come to love.
My oldest friend from my time here
is a woman named Wincie Johannsdottir.
Wincie said well, you've never been to Hofsos.
I said no, I haven't.
And she said well, my choirmate Diessa(ph) is working there
and they've just started an emigrant museum.
So we took a trip north,
and we had wonderful adventures on the way and finally got here,
met Valgeir, who invented this town, marvelous man.
So we of course stayed here, and Valgeir put us up
in one of his guesthouses.
Well, the night we rented it,
I think Marcy and I
were the only people here.
So we opened the window and we crawled into bed,
and I think we've never had such a wonderful and romantic night.
It was one of the pink nights.
I mean, it was glowing, the sky was glowing all night long.
And the river burbled, and the sea sloshed in,
and the birds were crying.
For a Minneota guy, we both fell madly in love
with this little house.
So we stayed here the next year,
and Valgeir and I by this point had become pretty good friends,
and so we're sitting here having a drink late at night,
and I complained that because I had gone
into the very lucrative profession of poetry,
I probably couldn't afford a house in Hofsos.
But some idiot son of a bitch
who had done a film with an Icelandic film director
had made enough money on his film
to buy a house up on top of the hill.
And I thought that jackass-- he's in the film business,
(whining) I'm in poetry, I'll never have...
And Valgeir listens to my whining for a while and he says
well maybe there is something you can afford.
I said what's for sale? And he mentioned a couple of things.
I said no, he said You know,
I think I should sell you Brimnes.
I knew this was close to his heart
because this is the first place he did.
He loved this place too.
I said, You wouldn't Valgeir. He said, I think so,
I think you are the right person to have Brimnes.
I said Well, I couldn't afford it anyway.
Then I would charge you 3-1/2 million.
I said, I rest my case, you know, for millionaires.
He said (in Icelandic) No, No not dollars, krona.
At that time the dollar was strong, and the krona was weak.
It was about 85 or 90 to the dollar.
So I went click, click, click, click, click,
and it was about 37 or $38,000.
I thought I could manage that.
So I said let's pour another Brennivin
Valgeir, I think you have sold a house.
Start with the square heavy loaf
334 01:17:20;27 steamed a whole day in a hot spring
335 01:17:24;04 until the coarse rye, sugar, yeast
336 01:17:26;19 grow dense as a black hole of bread.
337 01:17:30;01 Let it age and dry a little, then soak the old loaf for a day
338 01:17:35;20 in warm water flavored with raisins and lemon slices.
339 01:17:39;01 Boil till it is thick as molasses.
340 01:17:42;27 Pour into a flat white bowl.
341 01:17:46;00 Ladle a dollop of whipped cream
342 01:17:48;06 to melt into its brown belly.
343 01:17:51;11 This soup is alive as any animal,
344 01:17:54;14 and the yeast and cream and rye
345 01:17:57;10 will sing inside you after eating for a long time.
I got a whole book about Iceland.
At the moment, that's what I'm working on.
I must have 200 poems. I don't know what the keepers are,
poems that would be of interest to other people
and that are worth reading more than once.
But you never know.
When you do this, you work on them for a while
and then you leave them sit and you sort of--
sort of like fermenting corn mash.
You wait and see what happens.
I'm always amazed at looking at something a year later.
Sometimes they're much better than you remembered them.
You think it was complete idiocy,
and you've actually been smarter then you thought!
And sometimes you are a hopeless idiot.
Is it easy to write? There's 2 answers to that question.
There's nothing I would rather do in the world.
It's the only thing I know how to do.
And I probably don't work
hard enough to write better.
But it's a great joy to be here in privacy and silence
to think and to listen to the tunes in your head
and to try to write them down, yes.
The house is very modest.
You know, a good windstorm could knock it right down.
It's frail, it's old, it's kind of a little shack.
But it's got windows that you would pay millions for.
So my theory is that the house is just a few simple boards
to hold up a roof to keep you dry
when you're staring out the windows.
My joke was, I come in with the terns,
and I leave with the terns.
Icelanders measure the seasons by their birds,
and among their favorites are the Arctic Terns,
which they call Kria because of the noise that they make.
[terns calling kria]
The terns come back, first to the lake in Reykjavik,
and then all over the country.
About the middle of May,
you surely have been attacked
by a tern at some point.
Oh God, they go right for your eyeballs and your head.
They're fierce little devils.
So they're quite a beautiful bird,
and they're aerodynamically designed.
But they're also very aggressive.
So people walk through, they're called Kria [speaks Icelandic]
waving an umbrella to keep the Kria off.
And children who were raised next to Kria [speaks Icelandic]
when they go out to play in the summer,
they have to wear helmets.
But the Icelanders adore these birds. Why?
Well, it's the most amazing story in the animal kingdom.
This bird, which is about this big, comes to Iceland,
north Iceland, north Greenland, Spitzbergen, north Norway,
in other words the high Arctic, clear up to the polar ice,
to lay their eggs and to fish.
And they're here always for the season of light.
They come to places when it's 24 hours of light.
And the moment the dark starts, they pack up their bags
and they go to the Antarctic Peninsula
and Tierra del Fuego from here.
They've marked them-- 12,000 miles!
That means that this little bird,
every year goes 24,000 or 25,000 miles
to lay its eggs to stay alive.
So they're amazing! And when they get here,
they're the true bringers of spring,
and they brought it from Antarctica.
They're also a bird
that spends almost its entire life in the light.
So insofar, I'm not a Christian,
or much of a Christian, if at all, but the old thing
that you heard in Lutheran Sunday school is God is light.
Well, then the Kria is God!
I'll read something about why I come here.
I recommend this book to everyone,
and I'd like about 200,000 of you to buy copies of it
so I get some royalties, so I'm not entirely broke!
Taxes went up in Iceland-- we've got to do something--
I either have to hold up a bank or write more exciting poetry!
So I come here to this spare place in the summer,
433 01:22:53;18 and sometimes in the winter
434 01:22:56;00 when its spareness is magnified by snow and darkness.
435 01:23:00;17 After a while, the United States is simply too much--
436 01:23:05;11 too much religion and not enough Gods;
437 01:23:09;10 too much news and not enough wisdom;
438 01:23:12;28 too many weapons of mass destruction;
439 01:23:15;27 or for that matter, of private destruction.
440 01:23:19;10 Why search so far away when they live right under our noses?
441 01:23:24;20 Too much entertainment and not enough beauty;
442 01:23:28;25 too much electricity and not enough light;
443 01:23:32;27 too much lumber and not enough forests;
444 01:23:36;23 too much real estate and not enough earth;
445 01:23:41;02 too many books and not enough readers;
446 01:23:45;11 too many runners and not enough strollers;
447 01:23:49;17 too many freeways, too many cars, too many malls,
448 01:23:53;02 too many prisons, too much security,
449 01:23:56;15 but not enough civility;
450 01:23:59;17 too many humans, but not enough eagles;
451 01:24:02;26 and the worst excess of all, too many wars,
452 01:24:07;15 too much misery and brutality
453 01:24:10;09 reflected as much in our own eyes
454 01:24:13;09 as in those of our enemies.
455 01:24:16;07 So I come here to this spare place.
456 01:24:20;02 A little thinning and pruning is a good anodyne for the soul.
457 01:24:26;10 We see more clearly when the noise is less,
458 01:24:30;19 the objects fewer.
459 01:24:33;13 When Americans ask me
460 01:24:35;03 to describe my little house in Iceland,
461 01:24:37;23 I tell them, not entirely disingenuously,
462 01:24:41;22 that it is a series of magical windows
463 01:24:45;06 with a few simple boards to hold them up
464 01:24:48;05 to protect your head from rain
while you stare out to sea.
In many ways, Bill Holm was a contradiction,
a self-described curmudgeon who loved life,
a big bear of a man with the delicate touch of a musician,
a footloose traveler who was rooted deep in the prairie
in which he was born.
In the course of his career, Bill gave readings
at scores of college campuses, retreats, and bookstores,
where his poems and essays came to life.
I'm reminded that he was always full of advice for others
and ended his readings with this poem
that said so much about the way he lived his life.
Someone dancing inside us
knows only a few steps:
the do your work in 4/4 time
and the what do you expect waltz.
He hasn't noticed yet the woman
standing behind from the lamp.
the one with black eyes who knows the rumba.
and strange steps in jumpy rhythms
from the mountains of Bulgaria.
If they dance together,
something unexpected will happen;
if they don't, the next world will be a lot like this one.
(woman) Funding for this program
is provided in part by
the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund,
the North Dakota Council on the Arts,
and by the members of Prairie Public.