'Talking Stick' speaks volumes

What began as a confab for writers, gathering via a Community Education class in Park Rapids more than a decade ago, has evolved to become a notable literary assemblage, producing a "Minnesota Literary Journal."...

What began as a confab for writers, gathering via a Community Education class in Park Rapids more than a decade ago, has evolved to become a notable literary assemblage, producing a "Minnesota Literary Journal."

"The Talking Stick, Volume 16" arrived from the publishers in October, the release of "Finding The Words" celebrated by the Jackpine Writers' Bloc in November.

An editorial board of five pored through 249 submissions from 118 writers to determine what would head off to the Nebraska publisher this year.

Each board member is directed to arrive with recommendations - "yes, no -maybe," co-editor Sharon Harris explained of the process. "It's a four-hour meeting" - from which a stellar read has emerged.

The authors and poets have "found the words" to draw chuckles, stir memories, raise eyebrows and rouse a tear.


"'How Mother Came to Float Down the St. Croix' had us in stitches," Harris said of the Peter Schwarz' work, earning first place in creative nonfiction.

"And the poetry this year is phenomenal," said Harris, who serves as co-editor with niece Tarah Wolff.

Hiding behind jackpines

The Talking Stick's germination began in 1993, when writer Linda Henry offered a "Getting Published" workshop via Community Education.

"It was my intention to get local writers who enrolled in the class to send out query letters and manuscripts to potential publishers, collect rejection slips by the truckload, and finally, at long last, to help those budding writers achieve the goal of getting published," Henry wrote of the initiative.

"It was a diverse group of teachers, doctors, retirees, renaissance women and small business owners," she said. "My only credential as their instructor was that I'd been working as a freelance writer for several years and had some success getting published in magazines."

But Henry's role as class mentor was abbreviated when she was in a serious car accident with her husband, their 16-month-old child killed.

The group was notified of the accident and offered reimbursement.


"They decided to continue meeting out of respect," Harris said. The "reimbursements" were sent to Henry as a memorial gift.

"As that sad winter progressed," Henry said, "I was cheered by the funny little newsletter sent me every month by Dr. Carson Gardner, a published poet and student in the class who had become defacto leader of the group.

"It was great comfort to me, knowing the writers' group was meeting, and writing and waiting for me to rejoin them," she said.

Her decision to teach the class had been, in part, to gather writers in discussion, feeling a dearth of such conversation after moving from the metro.

"I imagined that such smart artistic people live here somewhere. They wear wire-rimmed glasses and they're really skinny, so they can hide behind jackpines to avoid detection," she'd mused.

The class pulled them from behind the tall timbers.

"The members of the Jackpine Writers' Bloc (the name emerging during her recuperation) are those people," Henry surmised. "My kindred spirits are not all rail thin, nor are they hiding behind jack pines.

"They were simply living their lives, oblivious to big-city prejudices about signs of intelligent life in the northern woods, writing their poetry, stories, reminiscences and confessionals, open to criticism and always supportive of writers.


"We're not isolated up here. On the contrary, we're tightly connected. I hope that this literary journal will be a celebration of life in north-central Minnesota, and of the highly-intelligent decision to live outside so-called civilization," Henry concluded.

Raising the bar

The group's progression has been "amazing," said Cindie Ekren, who joined the writers' assemblage about two years after its formation.

Writer Florence Witkop, from whom the Ekrens purchased their resort, told Cindie Ekren about the group.

"I begged for an invite," Ekren said.

The early group met at the home of Bonnie Louther, renowned for her great desserts. Initially, a "good mix" of men and women convened. But "sharing too many birthing stories" soon weeded out the males. A "Faithful Five" group formed.

The writers, longing to see their works in print, worked with the Park Rapids Enterprise to launch a publication of literary works, published in two editions of the newspaper.

They moved on to books, printing soft-cover volumes, accented with art.


But a few years ago, the membership numbers were dwindling, Ekren said. "For awhile, we were limping."

Five years ago, "everything changed" when Harris and Wolff stepped in to assume the roles of co-editors. "We were re-energized," Ekren said.

The energy was further fueled by an anonymous donation, allowing the Jackpine Writers' Bloc to begin offering $500 prizes in three categories - poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction - with celebrity judges making the call.

"This put us on a whole new level," Ekren said. The caliber of writers rose, as did the number of submissions. "It brought us to a new audience of writers, a new level of credibility.

"But at the same time, we're helping emerging writers publish their works," Ekren said, "giving them something to brag about."

Now bookstores are calling the Jackpine Writers. Good Words, a Garrison Keillor-owned store in the metro, recently ordered copies.

"It's good stuff," Ekren said, with more in the offing.

The Jackpine Writers' Bloc has moved to the "fast track" in 2008, accepting submissions beginning Jan. 1, with a March 1 deadline, Harris said.


The next meeting of the Jackpine Writers' Bloc will be from 12:30 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20 at Bella Café in Park Rapids.

"The Talking Stick" is available at Beagle Books.

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