from South Dakota

from South Dakota by Kathleen Norris


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  • Chapbook
    from South Dakota

    Featuring artwork by master printmaker Ed Colker and poems by award-winning poet Kathleen Norris, from South Dakota is “a series of portfolios” created by Colker under his imprint Editions du Grenier (now Haybarn Press). Released in 1978 in a run of 25, the edition includes letterpress-printed text and beautiful hand-colored lithographs on unbound heavy-weight pages that are gathered into a paper cover and packaged in a custom box with the title printed on the exterior. This work represents an alternate pathway for poetry during the era of the Mimeo Revolution: the handmade book that is equal parts art object and poetry collection. It also reveals Norris at a critical juncture in her career—as a young poet who had just left a bustling literary life in New York City for small-town South Dakota, a move that would shape all her writing to come, including seven poetry collections and numerous bestselling memoirs, such as Dakota: A Spiritual Geography.

    Colker and Norris first met through Elizabeth “Betty” Kray, then the Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets (and later the co-founder of Poets House). Norris started working at the Academy as Kray’s assistant during the winter term of her senior year at Bennington College and then returned for full-time employment after she graduated in 1969. Two years into her job, she published her first book, Falling Off. Kray mentored her protegee, not just as an employee, but as a poet in her own right: reading her poems, encouraging her to focus on her path as a writer, and introducing her to established writers and artists like Colker. While Norris enjoyed assisting Kray in her creative vision for literary programs, including readings in parks and symposia with international writers, she decided to leave New York City when her maternal grandmother passed away in 1973, leaving her home in Lemmon, South Dakota, vacant. “I sensed that my writing would benefit from the quiet of an isolated rural town, one in which I would be surrounded by family ghosts and childhood memories,” she recalls. With this intention, she moved with the poet David Dwyer, who later became her husband, to Lemmon, and they lived there for over 25 years. Meanwhile, Colker and Norris stayed in communication, and a collaboration was born.

    Norris describes the nexus of friendship, affirmation, and creative productivity that Betty Kray had instigated through Ed Colker and the importance of from South Dakota at that particular period:

    …I think of Betty whenever I look at the books of my poetry that Ed Colker has lovingly made over the years, accompanied by his prints. He was a regular at Academy readings in the 1960s, attending so often that Betty grew curious. Upon approaching him, she found an artist who devoted much of his time to printing and illustrating the work of contemporary poets, notably Michael Anania. I was fortunate that Betty invited me to have lunch one day with her and Colker, as he expressed an interest in my poetry that I was not accustomed to at the time, and our own friendship took hold. In the ten years between my first and second books of poetry, Ed provided me with a much-needed affirmation by printing a limited letterpress edition of the work I was writing in South Dakota.

    While Norris had largely evoked the urban surroundings of New York City in her first collection (though the light of North Dakota makes appearances), from South Dakota is firmly rooted in the environs of its title. The four poems of this edition sketch out a landscape of stark beauty and startling expansiveness. The protagonist of the poems struggles to define herself both in this realm and in the tensions and connections of a marriage. The natural world of the plains competes with human presence, and emotions are intertwined with this backdrop and the physical labor of working the land: “The thin path of a jet, / A hawk above a field. / There is no record / In all that air / Of what they said to each other / Season upon season / Of breeding and sorting cattle…” In the poem “Calentures,” a Chagall-like dream is evoked in which landscape and figures merge: “The smiling bride and groom are gone, / Into the moon’s arms.” At the end of the sequence of poems, the appearance of a ghostly grandmother and the living body of the husband seem to draw the protagonist in opposite directions, and the series concludes on a note of indecision, as she contemplates the end of night and the beginning of day. 

    An established artist and professor of art—Colker was the Director of the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois when from South Dakota was released—Colker had been responding to poetry for some fifteen years when he turned his eye to Kathleen Norris’s poems. He created from South Dakota so that the viewer would first encounter a poem, then turn the page and view a page of artwork. Because the pages are not fixed to the binding, it is also possible to place them side by side, as the layout appears in this digital format. Colker’s artwork for this project resonates with the almost metallic palette of the poetic language and its “silver fields of wind” and “copper-colored” river. The spare pages of letterpress type are juxtaposed with the iridescent shimmer of the lithographs—silvery grays and browns dominate the pages with glancing streaks of bright red and green. The abstract compositions provisionally propose vistas of sky, shards of dream, and tectonic layers of feeling or thought.

    The beauty and simplicity of life on the plains continued to be a subject for Norris; though she now divides her time between Hawaii and South Dakota, she resided full-time in Lemmon for over 25 years. And she and Colker have collaborated on several other projects over the decades. For All Souls: poems from the Dakotas, a larger-scale edition of bound poems and hand-colored lithographs, Colker traveled to North Dakota in 1992, covering seven hundred miles to create sketches for the project. Other Haybarn Press editions that respond to Norris’s work include the volumes Three Poems and The Astronomy of Love. Colker has also included her in various portfolio anthologies, including Opposed to Indifference: poems of memory and conscience, and, most recently, the 2018 title Daughters of Emily: Eleven Women Poets / Fifteen Poems. Norris writes, “Ed Colker’s work with my poems, which began in the 1970s, long before I had received much recognition as a writer—has taught me much about the spaces and the silences that words contain.” In this way, from South Dakota can be seen as a kind of primer on the poetics of spaces and silences.

    —Suzanne Wise



    Kathleen Norris

    A prolific essayist, bestselling memoirist, award-winning poet, and occasional preacher, Kathleen Norris writes between worlds. In over a dozen books of poetry and prose, she meditates on love, loss, faith, community, and solitude. Her work travels across the landscapes of her life, including New York City of the late 60s and early 70s; the South Dakota plains, where she lived for over a quarter of a century; and a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota, where she lived as an oblate. Norris’s lyrical yet plainspoken philosophical inquiries continue to attract a wide readership and critical acclaim.

    Born in Washington, D.C., on July 27, 1947, Norris moved around the U.S. throughout her childhood, spending most summers in Lemmon, South Dakota, on her grandparents’ farm. By adolescence, her family had settled in Hawaii, and she attended high school in Honolulu. She grew up surrounded by books and music; her mother was a schoolteacher, and her father played the cello in the Honolulu Symphony. Raised Protestant, Norris’s family had deep roots in religious tradition—her paternal grandfather was a Methodist pastor—but Norris’s connection to the church ebbed as she grew older. When she started at Bennington College in Vermont, she turned to poetry. “I read and wrote poems as if my life depended on it,” she recalls.

    In her senior year of college, Norris’s path took a consequential turn: she interviewed for a job as an assistant to Academy of American Poets Director Elizabeth Kray, a formidable force in New York’s literary scene who went on to co-found Poets House. Kray hired Norris, who began work during the winter term of her senior year and returned after graduating in the fall of 1969. She showed her the ropes of the literary world and supported her early efforts as a poet. “I think of Betty as my first reader, of both my life and my art,” says Norris. While at the Academy, Norris met established writers such as James Wright, Galway Kinnell, and Jean Valentine. She also befriended young countercultural figures, including Jim Carroll, then working on The Basketball Diaries, and Gerard Malanga, part of Andy Warhol’s circle.

    Just two years out of college, Norris won the Big Table Younger Poets Award in 1971 and published her first collection of poetry, Falling Off, which features poems that move through various landscapes, particularly New York City: “There is nothing now in sight / Except the city, vertical / And bottomless, / where the worst things happen / And everything stays the same,” she writes in the title poem. The prestige of the Big Table award, a publication prize that had previously gone to Andrei Codrescu and Bill Knott, made her the envy of other young poets—a status she did not relish. While Norris learned to navigate the “charged and seductive environment” of writers and artists seeking stardom in 1970s New York, she decided to try a quieter life upon the inheritance of her grandmother’s house and farmland in Lemmon, South Dakota—a small town of fewer than 2,000 people. She moved to Lemmon in 1974 with the poet David Dwyer, whom she married, and they remained there together for over 25 years.

    In Lemmon, Norris became involved in the small-town life of her neighbors—“ranchers, truck drivers, tavern owners, contractors, and merchants.” She worked at the town’s public library and in an artists-in-the-schools programs. She also began to attend the Presbyterian church that her grandmother had been a member of for 60 years, going on to preach occasionally at the church and eventually becoming a Benedictine oblate at a monastery in North Dakota.  Her life on the Great Plains informed her poetry—her next full-length poetry collection was The Middle of the World (1981)—and the break-out memoir, Dakota: A Spiritual Biography (1993). Dakota was named a New York Times Notable Book and praised by reviewer Robert Coles for its “meditative intensity and originality worthy of James Agee's response over a half-century ago to Hale County, Alabama, or William Carlos Williams's extended examination in verse of Paterson, New Jersey.”

    This “meditative intensity and originality” also characterizes her subsequent books. Her memoir The Cloister Walk (1997) explores Norris’s experience in residence with Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota and meditates on the sacredness of poetry, biblical texts, and monastic life. The language of the church and theology become lenses for contemporary experience in her subsequent memoirs Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (1999) and Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (2008), the latter being a meditation, in part, on caring for her husband during the last years of his life. Norris’s poetry also intertwines the humble particularities of life and the profundities of worship in such collections as Little Girls in Church (1995) and Journey: New and Selected Poems (2001). The Virgin of Bennington (2002) stands apart as a kind of prequel to Dakota; it details her time in college, her early years as a poet in New York City, her devotion to Elizabeth Kray, and her decision to move to Lemmon.

    Norris now divides her time between Lemmon and Honolulu and travels around the country to give talks and teach at churches, colleges, and hospitals. Her books, which weave together reflections on literature, history, religion, and daily life, continue to make her “one of the most eloquent yet earthbound spiritual writers of our time” (San Francisco Chronicle).

    —Co-written by Suzanne Wise & Valentine Conaty

    Editions du Grenier / Haybarn Press

    Over the past 60 years, Ed Colker has created numerous fine-press limited-edition books, portfolios, broadsides, and other works on paper that feature poetry, typically alongside his own celebrated drawings and prints—luminous abstractions that gesture toward landscape, figure, or calligraphic propulsion. “Ed Colker has done more than anyone I know to make poetry visible,” writes poet Kathleen Norris of the renowned artist behind Editions du Grenier and its successor Haybarn Press. Colker’s work showcases international writing by contemporary poets, as well as earlier figures from Marianne Moore and René Char to Baudelaire and Whitman. A particular emphasis of the press has been the work of Jewish poets, such as Edmond Jabès, Paul Celan, and the great Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever. Collected by the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian, and other prestigious institutions, Colker’s collaborations with poets display his sensitivity to language as a writer and an avid reader who has maintained longtime friendships with poets. 

    Born in 1927 to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Colker was raised in a Yiddish- and English-speaking household in Philadelphia. His boyhood was shaped by involvement in the arts, an appreciation for books, and participation in a vibrant Jewish community. He sang in choirs under conductor and renowned composer of Yiddish songs Lazar Weiner, worked on his high school’s Yiddish-language newspaper as an illustrator, and developed a keen sense of social justice as modeled in his community through trade union organizing and activism. After high school, he was awarded a scholarship to study art at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art (later the University of the Arts). During World War II, his studies were interrupted for two years by service in the 88th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, where he fought in the disputed Yugoslav-Italian border area of Venezia Giulia.

    Colker’s path toward becoming a master printmaker quickly took shape after his graduation from art school. Starting in the early 1950s, he garnered solo exhibitions at galleries in New York and Philadelphia, and his work was included in the 1953 exhibition Young American Printmakers at the Museum of Modern Art. His prints from these early years have been praised for their hybrid qualities of surrealism and abstract expressionism. A Guggenheim fellowship enabled him to study and work in Europe in the early 1960s, and he visited the printers of artwork by Picasso, Léger, and Villon. In France, he also met with Pierre A. Benoit, editor and hand printer of small editions by Picasso, Bracque, and Dubuffet: an encounter that planted the seed for future collaborations with poets. Regarding this meeting, Colker says, “I saw the notion of total direction of creative possibility. You’re independent of the publishing industry…You’re free of the art gallery world, separate from the marketing networks. You’re engaged in a labor of love for a small but appreciative audience.”

    In the early 1960s, Colker began to create prints in response to poetry, and in 1966, he moved with his wife, the artist Elaine Galen, and their children to rural Hampton, New Jersey, where Editions du Grenier (later Haybarn Press) was founded in a former barn. His printmaking techniques came to include lithographs, etchings, woodcuts, and pochoir, a technique of hand-colored stencil-based printing. Exquisite use of quality papers, cloth-covered wrappers, and boxes that create an environment for the reading experience are among the elements that came to distinguish Colker’s work. In the latter part of this decade, Colker also held academic positions, including as Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania.

    In the mid-1970s, the press’s operations were moved to Chicago, after Colker became Research Professor and Director of the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois. During this time, he started to create artwork in response to the poetry of Michael Anania and Kathleen Norris. In the coming decades, he produced a number of editions with both poets under the Haybarn Press imprint, resulting from conversations and exchange of work.

    Colker re-established the press’s headquarters in Mount Kisco, New York, in 1983, and in the next few decades he created works in response to writings by Emerson, Whitman, and the German-speaking Jewish poet Rose Ausländer, among others. His career as an educator continued to blossom: he was Professor of Art and Dean of the School of Visual Arts at SUNY Purchase, where he developed the Center for Edition Works, and Professor and Chair of the Art Department at Cornell University. He also held Provost positions at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Cooper Union in Manhattan, and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

    In the new millennium, Haybarn Press emerged to feature themes of justice, resistance, and inclusivity. Single-author editions and portfolios feature artwork by Colker in response to text by Abraham Sutzkever, a partisan fighter in World War II who wrote poetry about the Holocaust. Another such offering is Open the Gates, a portfolio inspired by jazz great Dave Brubeck’s cantata The Gates of Justice, includes song text, as well as texts from the Hebrew Bible, the Union Prayer book, the writings of Hillel, and the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.  During this time, Colker also produced anthologies: some gather emerging and under-recognized authors alongside acclaimed voices. Continuing his career-long interest in international poetry, Voices to Share includes poetry translated from the French, Spanish, German, Italian, Korean, Yiddish, and Wintu. Haybarn Press also printed a series featuring drawings by Elaine Galen relating to women of antiquity and mythology.

    As New York Times art critic D. Dominick Lombardi observes, “The works Mr. Colker produced in collaboration with poets were no mere illustrations. Instead, he produced pure expressions, stirring symbols of inner truths or imaginings that can sometimes be inspired by or incite poetry.” Still active as an artist, Ed Colker continues to induce both inspiration and incitement. In 2018, he released Daughters of Emily, featuring his artwork and poems from eleven women poets. In addition to the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian, his work can be found in the collections of a number of institutions, including the Getty Research Institute; Worcester Art Museum; Library of Congress; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford Universities; and the New York Public Library. Vassar College holds in its library’s special collections a complete archive of his editions with poetry, from 1960 to 2019.

    —Suzanne Wise

    Images above, from top to bottom: November 1955 (linocut, 1955); To Frost, Williams, Cummings and Stevens (lithograph, 1968); three poems about the sounds of Jazz and the snow in Buffalo by Michael Anania (with drawings by Ed Colker, 2002); from Daughters of Emily (2018); Open the Gates (2006); from Voices to Share (2011); assorted portfolios.  

    Kathleen Norris interviewed about Elizabeth "Betty" Kray, co-founder of Poets House, in 2010

    Kathleen Norris discusses Elizabeth Kray, who co-founded Poets House with Stanley Kunitz in 1985. In the 1970s, Norris worked for Kray, then Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets; they remained friends throughout Kray’s life. In this video, Norris describes her mentor’s vision for a space for poetry with a library and innovative public programs, as well as Poets House's beginnings in a public high school classroom. The video is part of an oral history project supported by the Leon Levy Foundation.