Editor's note: Katherine Lanpher is the author of the memoir “Leap Days.” She contributes to Time and More magazines, and is a substitute host on public radio’s The Takeaway
Writer and Broadcaster
I wish now that I had thought to write about Bill Holm when he was still living and my friend, a big man with appetites to match – for poetry and books, for music, for food and drink and smoke and conversation. Like the great big tree of a man he was – six foot eight and then some – he had deep roots and arms that branched to reach the world; his home was tiny Minneota, Minnesota, pop. 1,400, but he had also lived in China and Iceland, residing part of the year in a small fishing village in the latter.
He was the author of more than a dozen books and I would start you out with my favorite, a collection of essays called “The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth,’’ which features an essay many of his fans can recite portions of from memory. In “The Music of Failure,’’ Bill writes about what it is like to live in one of the small, seemingly barren towns of the Upper Midwest.
New York is full of those of us who ran screaming from those towns and when he was young, Bill did the same. But he came back, in part, because this small town gave him a lense through which to see the larger world; he was “only’’ from Minneota the way Flannery O’Connor was only from her farm in Georgia. At the very least, Minneota held the secrets of his Icelandic immigrant ancestors, men and women who didn’t graduate high school but who introduced him to Bach and Schubert, Walt Whitman and 12th Century Chinese poets. “Nothing can be done about living here,’’ he wrote, “Nor should it be. The heart can be filled anywhere on earth.’’
Some 600 of us gathered at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Tuesday night to lift a glass of Icelandic vodka and toast Bill’s memory. Then the stories began. Jim Harrison recalled his annual meet-ups with Bill in Patagonia, Arizona, so the two men could edit each other’s work . Once, Bill burst into the smoking lounge of the local bar to read his latest poem out loud. For many of the cowboys and constructions workers there, it was their first poetry reading. They liked it. Harrison wrote his eulogy for Bill on Good Friday; in it, he imagines Bill’s resurrection.
Former U. S. poet laureate Ted Kooser praised Bill’s clear prose and telling poetry, and then added that “The Music of Failure’’ should be on the Welcome Wagon of every town in the Upper Midwest. Works about Bill were read as well, including Barton Sutter’s poem that describes him as “the polar bear of American literature,’’ an apt description for Bill’s shock of white hair and his long white beard.
Poets and writers who had been with Bill in the ‘70s recalled his poetry-to-the-people readings in which even people detasseling corn in the fields were served with the word. He brought music to everyone he could, playing a nursing home in the country as if it were a gig in Paris, once playing Bach so long his fingers left blood on the keys.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/01/18/obama.sunday/art.lincoln.memorial.grab.cnn.jpg caption="Thousands gather Sunday afternoon on the National Mall in Washington."]
Writer and Broadcaster
Did you see the broadcast of the "We Are One" concert at the Lincoln Memorial today? Did you see the camera shot that stretched all the way back to the Washington Monument where people were just happy to get a glimpse of the Jumbotron?
That would be me.
Even in the back, people were singing along with Bono, leaning out of trees, hoisting kids on their shoulders and holding up every camera device known to this century. You caught on pretty quickly that the point wasn't so much to see the concert as to be part of this grand communal event, a sing-along civics hootenanny.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/US/01/16/hudson.plane.crash/art.tow.gi.jpg caption="Crews prepare to tow the US Airlines Airbus A320 that crash-landed in the Hudson River on Thursday."]
The plane floated past my apartment – I live about two blocks off the Hudson in the West Village – and when I first saw it I didn't realize what i was looking at, the tugs must be pulling it down the river, it's moving so fast, surrounded by a flotilla of ferries, tugs and police boats, the latter still zipping in circles with their blue lights flashing.
At the pier, people pressed three deep against the railing, cell phones held up to take photos, those with good lenses jumping up on planters and benches. I wasn't the only person to just dump my bike and run, although I couldn't help thinking that today would be a good opportunity to steal a bike, but when I glanced back, everyone had eyes for just one thing, the few lines of the plane that still jut out of the water, the big news story that at this point is probably floating by Battery City as I type.
They closed down the southbound lanes of the West Side Highway and unmarked police cars were on the bike paths and buzzing down the pier. People are so happy that crew and passengers survived, and were shouting the good news into their phones – unless, of course, like me, they were trying to hold them up and take pictures. The man next to me commiserated: he wasn't very good at it either.
My first stop had been the roof and when I ran through our lobby to the elevator bank, one of our porters, Edwin, said I was crazy to go up there in the cold. I threw him a look of Minnesota-bred disdain – you call this cold? – and in a minute, he was by my side. From a distance – just like Julie Gold's song, one of my neighbors – the boats and their lights floated on the water around the plane the way a circle of flowers would if you threw them out on the river.
When I was a young reporter, I used to keep a notebook in the glove compartment of my car, just in case a plane crashed as I was driving around. It's hard to fight that impulse, and i'm so happy that this particular story has a happy ending.
For me, this is such a New York story, the way all the little villages here add up to a big city.I was in a little shop in my neighborhood when a delivery boy walked in and said in perfect Brooklynese "Yo, my ma just called, a plane from JFK just went into the water and everyone's dead." I hurried home, just stricken, and when I saw the dogwalker for my building (a true NY story has a dogwalker), I couldn't believe that he was laughing and joking with the doorman. "Oh," I thought, "he must not know" and so I went to tell him.
"Oh, the plane," he said,"isn't it great?"
No, no, I protested, people are dead and that's when he took my hand and said gently "Katherine, whatever someone told you is wrong. It's LaGuardia, everyone lived and it's going to float right by here."
And THAT's when I ran inside and went to the roof. I've written about the view from my apartment before – whenever I look out those windows, no matter my actual economic status, I feel rich. Now I look out at the Hudson and the lights of the Lackawanna Ferry terminal and I feel . . . grateful.
Editor's note: Katherine Lanpher is the author of the memoir "Leap Days." She is a contributing editor for More magazine and a substitute host on public radio's The Takeaway (www.thetakeaway.org). A former host of "The Al Franken Show" on Air America, she moved to New York five years ago after many years in Minnesota.