Jessica Stölen-Jacobson Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Athena Kildegaard, of Morris, will be traveling to Montevideo for a special event on Saturday, April 23rd. In honor of National Poetry Month, Kildegaard, along with a former student of hers, Brendan Stermer, will be hosting a poetry reading in the Java River courtyard (or indoors, depending on the weather). Stermer will open the event, reading his most recent original poetry by him, as well as some favorites of his by him from poets around the area. Kildegaard will be reading from her new book, Prairie Midden, published at the end of March.
The title of the book, Prairie Midden, is a homage to sites archaeologists appreciate uncovering, as “midden” is a term for a site where a community of people lived, where they discarded items they no longer wanted or had use for. “It might be broken pots and stuff like that, but it turns out to be a place where you really get a sense of what people’s everyday lives were like, as opposed to a burial mound or a fancy temple that doesn’t necessarily tell you that much about soft of their everyday lives,” explains Kildegaard.
Kildegaard acknowledges that while she makes her home on the eastern edge of the tall grass prairie, a swath that goes from as far north as Canada to as far south as Northern Texas, most of that landscape has been lost to agriculture. “We busted the sod and we planted it all and today it’s mostly corn and soybeans, but it was a remarkable biome, very rich in incredible grasses and flowers, and all sorts of creatures who lived in that space, including at the top of the food chain, wolves and bison. A lot of creatures and plants and mosses, and things have disappeared or are endangered because of the loss of the prairie,” she says. It was her reverence for that lost landscape that inspired Kildegaard to go in search of writings by settler women about the prairie, starting her research in the archives at the Minnesota Historical Society Museum in St. Paul. “It turned out, that it just doesn’t exist, or at least I wasn’t able to find it. I looked at a lot of writings by women and about women going back to the 1830s. What you find is women would keep diaries but what they would say is that they did laundry or baked oatmeal cookies. It was very much about indoor spaces, and if they wrote anything about what was going on outdoors, it was the weather,” Kildegaard says.
Because of this, her focus took a turn, and the idea to create a book of poetry about the prairie, and what it has been and has become formed. Kildegaard, who teaches a course at the University of Minnesota Morris titled Environmental Imagination, uses readings of environmental writers in her coursework. “Until the 20th century, it was mostly men writing about the natural world. We think of Thoreau or Emerson, or we think about British writers. Before them, we don’t really see women writing very much about the natural world until we get to Rachel Carson. There are some women in the past, but not very many. And the truth is, there weren’t a lot of men writing about the prairie either. So that’s pretty interesting,” she says.
Kildegaard decided that she wanted to write a book that contemplated the loss of the prairie, she says, without being angry. “I mean, I am angry that it’s gone,” she says. “When I’m in a remnant prairie or a restored prairie, I think it’s just amazing and beautiful.” Utilizing that interest, she explored the idea of prairie daughters – the oldest child of a settler family who she says were the people responsible for destroying the prairie, turning it into farmland. “So there’s a lot of poems in the book, there’s a series of poems. The first one is Prairie Daughter 1836 and the last one is Prairie Daughter 2036. So I’m sort of imagining the oldest daughter of this family over time, and they speak through the book. And then I have poems that are found poems, stuff that I found in the archives that I just transcribed and broke into lines, so they look like poetry. And then I have poems that are really my voice addressing the prairie daughters. There are a few other strands that are sort of chanty poems that are just thinking about what we did to destroy the land, and how we think about it now,” she says.
The first poem in the book, Prairie Daughter, was written in the Spring of 2016. After that, Kildegaard applied for a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board that allowed her to spend several weeks in the archives at the Gale Library of the Minnesota History Center. “And then I got a lot written and I realized I needed to go back there,” she says. She applied for and received another grant from the Lakes Region Arts Council that allowed her to continue her research. She additionally used grant funds to pair up with a singer from Battle Lake to work on a project where songs about the prairie and women’s lives were put together with the poetry into a program that was performed around the lakes region.
Prairie Midden is Kildegaard’s sixth book. She’s been drawn to writing, particularly poetry since a very young age. “I was really lucky to grow up in a household with two parents who love to read, and they both really love poetry. I grew up in St. Peter, Minnesota and my dad taught Gustavus. In fact, one of his first students there was Bill Holm (a Minnesota author). Our neighbor across the street was a poet, so I was pretty well surrounded by poetry and started writing it when I was really little,” she says.
Her first book, Rare Momentum, was published in 2006. “I feel like every book is different in different sorts of ways. My first book was all poems that are called Fibonacci’s – it’s a particular kind of form based on a mathematical sequence. The book I wrote before this one was published was called Course, which is about my mother’s death de ella and about grieving her, and the Minnesota River. That was a place we spent a lot of time when I was a kid and we put her ashes in the river. So a lot of my poems are set in the natural world, in one way or another. I love writing poems and sequences. The book before Course was a book called Ventriloquy. That’s three different poem sequences, so they are poems that look like squares and they’re all called Landscape with something. They’re just imagining paintings that don’t actually exist. I would say every book has different stuff going on it, but I hope you can tell it’s still me,” she says.
Her current book and previous two were published by a press based on Redwing called Tinderbox Editions. The books are available through Small Press Distributors on the website, spd.org. For the poetry reading in Montevideo, Kildegaard thinks that her poems de ella may resonate with local community members as one of her muses for the writing was a writer named Paul Greco who grew up on a farm outside of Montevideo, and authored a book titled Journal of a Prairie Year. Kildegaard is excited about the poetry reading in Montevideo, as she is fond of the local community. “I love Montevideo and I’ve read in Java River before and I’ve got a lot of friends who live in and near Montevideo,” she says.
The event came up after Kildegaard had a conversation with her former student, Brendan Sterner. “He and I got to be quite close and he’s a wonderful poet, so I just wrote to him and asked him if there’s any chance he would be interested in doing a reading together,” she says. “And Java River is so supportive of events like this.” The poetry reading begins on April 23rd at 5 pm More information about Athena Kildegaard’s published Works can be found on her authors website www.athenakildegaard. com.