Poet Athena Kildegaard has lived around the world, but she finds inspiration in her own back yard, the Prairie Pothole Region of Minnesota. The urge to write grew from her desire to respond to “urgency and beauty and brutality” of the natural world.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles called "Writing Rural," featuring the work and perspectives of writers who focus on rural places and themes. Enjoy a sample of Athena Kildegaard's poetry: "We drove across the high prairie …"
DY: When did you first start writing poetry?
Athena Kildegaard: "My dad gave me a letter he'd written his mother and included in that letter was a poem I'd written. I was six. I've written poems since then, with varying degrees of attention to it."
DY: Much of your poetry takes place outside in rural settings. Why are you drawn to writing about nature?
All the time I was growing up in St. Peter, if the weather was nice, I'd get home from school, hop on my bicycle, and head to the river. I had all sorts of putting-in spots—some just a few blocks from the house, some further. If I had more time, I'd bike to Ottawa, nearly 10 miles up river, a town of maybe 30 people with some fantastic river scenery. Some places I'd have to hide my bicycle in bushes and then hike through woods or around sloughs to get to the river, but I really knew the river. I had a notebook and a pencil and I'd write about what I was seeing. I liked being alone, putzing around, sauntering, as Thoreau would have it, lifting logs or taking a nap on a big rock or just sitting perfectly still hoping that heron across the way would take off and I'd get to see it. I liked that I could get away from all human noises and I felt like I was an explorer, an adventurer, the first human to step foot just there. I still like that.
Poetry seemed like a way to capture that urgency and beauty and brutality I saw and the astonishment I felt.
AK: Prairies in particular make appearances in several of your poems. Is that a result of living in Minnesota, or does the image of a prairie have special meaning for you?
I have always loved the prairie. And there are some fabulous prairie writers: Paul Gruchow, Bill Holm, Kathleen Norris and others. But it's really since we moved to Morris, which is on the pothole prairie, that I've begun to truly appreciate the prairie. One of the greatest gifts I've been given is to follow a prairie naturalist around and watch her touch the grasses and forbs. It's as good as hanging around a talented potter—that physical witnessing of the earth and its denizens.
Daily Yonder: Tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and what was it like?
AK: I grew up in St. Peter, Minnesota, which is on the Minnesota River, a tributary of the Mississippi. My dad grew up in the Texas Panhandle and my mother in west Texas and eastern New Mexico. So this meant that at least once a year we made a big trip to Texas to visit family; it also meant that for my parents, St. Peter was not home. I grew up simultaneously thinking of St. Peter as my home and myself as an exile.
St. Peter was a small town (and still is) – a town of about 8,000. Today it's really a bedroom community of Minneapolis, but in my childhood it wasn't. A trip to the Twin Cities was a big, big deal. My parents were foragers, so we spent time outdoors looking for elderberries or gooseberries or wild grapes to turn into jelly and syrup; we looked for morels, a real delicacy; and we fished, in the Minnesota River and in the many lakes around. I love a good bullhead, though it's really considered a trash fish. Bullheads are fun to catch—they put up a little fight. Sunday drives were a pleasant thing in those days—before 1973 and the oil embargo—and we'd all get in the car and head out. Thanks to the land being divided up into sections you couldn't get lost. We'd pull over and explore graveyards or look in old churches.
DY: You now live in Morris, Minnesota. What brought you there?
AK: We (my husband and two children and I) were living in Guanajuato, Mexico, and as they do, our parents got older, and then my daughter (our older child) was learning Santa Anna's version of the Alamo, and our son could read Spanish not English. It was time to return to the states, and Morris had a job for my husband, teaching economics at the University of Minnesota, Morris. My in-laws, who are both gone now, lived in a Minneapolis suburb, my brother lived about a four-hour drive away, my sister-in-law about a six-hour drive away, so we were happy to get closer to family.
DY: You’re also an educator. Currently a lecturer at the University of Minnesota, you’ve also taught middle school and high school. Does teaching impede or enhance your writing?
AK: I taught sixth grade in Winnetka, Illinois, at the first middle school in the U.S.–a wonderful school. I wrote almost no poetry during the school year, but come summer I was filled up and bursting with poetry. I love teaching, but it is definitely demanding and uses some creative energies. Fortunately, now I don't teach full-time, and that allows me more time during the school year to write. Young people have a zip and zing that I really love and I think that being around that youthful energy, orbiting that energy, keeps me honest.
DY: Poetry can sometimes idealize rural settings. Do you think about assumptions or stereotypes about rural places when you’re writing a poem in a rural setting?
AK: You bet, and it's so easy to fall captive to those assumptions. I try to keep a writer like Sherwood Anderson in my mind's eye—he told the truth about rural places.
Athena Kildegaard says she frequently visits a wetlands management area near Morris, Minnesota, to write. Here, she discusses the role the natural area played in the poems of her recent book, “Bodies of Light.” The video was produced by Stephen Henning of Lakes Country Living TV.