The same day in October that I played my horn at the funeral of my mother’s best friend, I attended the book launch for the latest publication of my best friend, Mark Gustafson. It was a day filled with sadness, happiness, gratitude, a bit of anxiety, and a cascade of memories.
Mark and I met on freshmen move-in day (sorry, that’s what it was called back in the day; maybe we should have settled on “Frosh”!) at St. Olaf College in September of 1970. We were randomly placed in the same corridor of rooms in the legendary Ytterboe Hall, but not as roommates. Eventually, we roomed together for one semester of our junior year and then both semesters of our senior year.
We discovered that our family backgrounds had several commonalities. My mother was raised in Madison, Minnesota on the far western edge of the state. Mark’s father lived near Boyd, Minnesota for several years as a child. Boyd is on the same railroad line as Madison and the two communities are both in Lac Qui Parle County, just 25 miles apart.
Our fathers were both clergy. My dad grew up in Chicago and Mark spent the first 15 years of his life in Chicago less than 5 miles from where my dad lived.
It seems we were destined to find each other at some point in time!
Mark has taught classical Greek and Latin languages, history and culture to college and university students since our St. Olaf days. He’s also had a second career during much of that time researching and writing about the work of one of America’s most colorful and norm-busting poets, Robert Bly, Minnesota’s first Poet Laureate.
Bly was also born in Madison (small world!) and lived there until he graduated from high school in 1944. My mother was a year behind him in school. He began his college career at St. Olaf, but only stayed a year so he and my mother didn’t cross paths during college. However, Bly did a poetry reading at St. Olaf when Mark and I were there and that’s when Mark got interested in the man and his writing.
Mark’s new book is titled Born Under the Sign of Odin: The Life & Times of Robert Bly’s Little Magazine & Small Press (Nodin Press, Minneapolis). It’s the second published work of several Bly projects that Mark has planned and it’s been in progress for many years. I’m thrilled for him that it’s finished and out there in the world. The amount of time that he has spent interviewing Bly’s friends and Bly himself, reading vast troves of correspondence and everything the poet has ever written or that others have written about him, is incalculable. Bly trusted him so completely with the story of his life and work that he gave Mark a key to his writing studio so he could come and go as needed.
The book launch was at Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis. There was not only the usual nervous anxiety for the author about a public event, but it was taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic which has been on fire in Minnesota most of the fall. Would the venue’s protocols be sufficient to prevent further viral transmission and protect the more vulnerable members of the audience? It was hard to know in advance.
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Mark’s presentation and his reading were superb. It’s easy to see what an enjoyable professor he has been in the classroom and the evening made me a little envious of the legions of students that he has taught. His ease at the podium was all the more impressive knowing that Bill Duffy, the co-founder and Robert Bly’s co-editor of The Fifties (the “little magazine” in the subtitle) was in the audience!
Born Under the Sign of Odin received a wonderful review by Kathleen Rooney in the StarTribune newspaper a couple weeks before the reading at Magers & Quinn. The book is not only a history of the magazine and Bly’s evolution as an editor, translator, and poet, but it’s filled with anecdotes and discoveries about dozens of contemporaries in the 20th century literary community, both in the United States and internationally. There were eleven issues of The Fifties between 1958-1972 and Mark devotes a chapter to each one. Robert Bly was an ardent and loud voice against the Vietnam War and the book explores his influence on that period in American History as well.
As we now know, Robert Bly died in November of this year, little more than a month after Mark’s book was released. His health had been declining for years and so his passing at the age of 94 wasn’t unexpected. However, I like to think that he was waiting for a good time to take his leave and that he felt comfortable doing so once Mark’s book was successfully launched and in the hands of eager readers.
I highly recommend Born Under the Sign of Odin to poetry lovers, history buffs, novice editors, correspondence aficionados and anyone else in search of a satisfying narrative about a giant in American letters. And since this is the season of gift giving, I believe the book would make an excellent contribution to your best friend’s library!