Poetic Injustice


AMONG THE EVENTS scheduled for National Poetry Month, the tribute to the late John Engman stands out as a potent reminder of the sorry state of support for contemporary American poetry. Engman, an esteemed local poet and teacher, suffered a massive stroke on Dec. 5 while alone in his Uptown apartment. It took a full day before his landlord found him. He was 47 years old.

At the time of his stroke, Engman was working temp jobs to supplement his meager income as a poetry instructor at the University of Minnesota, St. Olaf, and Hamline. Although he earned an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writer's Workshop and won numerous awards, his two published collections of poems--Keeping Still, Mountain (Galileo Press) and Alcatraz (Burning Deck Press)--are both out of print.

As a teacher, Engman had a loyal following. Christine Sikorski, a poet and MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota, cannot say enough about the man. "He was a curious combination of not taking the business of poetry seriously and devoting himself single-heartedly to it," she says. Engman, who routinely wore blue jeans, a sweatshirt, and tennis shoes, never made marks on his students' poems, which he often read at the Uptown bar Liquor Lyle's, across the street from his apartment. Instead he wrote them letters, usually between one and two-pages long. Reading through a selection of these letters evokes a personality so vital it seems to be in the room--a voice full of tenderness and intolerance for bullshit, a voice of one who keeps faith even as he is losing it. As he once said of himself, he was "a nobody on a white horse."

"I write from the usual list of dreams and grievances... " Engman wrote in last year's Loft-McKnight Award anthology. "Rilke tells us that should be enough. The vague feeling that something is missing, which the poem means to supply, or the even vaguer feeling that something important is in danger of being missed, which the poem means to recover, create the odd psychology that invites much of my writing... I hope these poems... make what Transtromer has called 'a meeting place,' a clearing in the mind where these two vague apprehensions--something is missing, something must not be missed--can come together and do their little dance, while we watch."

A celebration of Engman's life and poetry will be held at Cognac McCarthy's in St. Paul on April 11 from 6-10 p.m. Participants are welcome to prepare five-minutes tributes. The event is open to the public.

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