Milkweed’s Literary Legacy: Notes from the Archivist

Carissa Hansen — 08/03/2017

Editor’s Note: Eighty feet underground, in a storehouse carved from the side of the Mississippi riverbank, lie the Upper Midwest Literary Archives (UMLA) at the University of Minnesota. The UMLA houses Milkweed Editions’ archives, which span the full history of the press. As part of the University of Minnesota Libraries’ grant project, Prairie Poets and Press: Literary Lives of the Upper Midwest, the UMLA not only hopes to bring public attention to Milkweed’s literary history but also to the vast legacy of Minnesota writers, including Bill Holm, Margaret Hasse, and Robert Bly. As part of Prairie Poets and Press, Project Archivist Carissa Hansen has spent many hours sifting through the years of history contained in Milkweed’s archives. Carissa has found some wonderful pieces of literary history in these files, and over the course of the next ten months she will share these stories on Milkweed’s Instagram and Twitter as well as here on our blog. We are thrilled to partner with Carissa as well as all of the archivists at the UMLA who work tirelessly to preserve Milkweed’s story.

Carissa Hansen and Kate Hujda

Just down the road from Open Book lives a little piece of Milkweed Editions. Actually, “little” is quite the understatement. The Upper Midwest Literary Archives (UMLA) at the University of Minnesota is home to more than 300 boxes containing the archives of Milkweed Editions. This is no small collection. The UMLA stores these and thousands of other boxes eighty feet underground in a cavern carved from the side of the Mississippi riverbank. It is here that the stuff of Midwestern literary legends lives and is made available to any interested artist, scholar, student, or bibliophile.

In February, I joined the UMLA as the archivist for a grant project titled Prairie Poets and Press: Literary Lives of the Upper Midwest. The grant will allow the UMLA to provide greater access to the collections of Bill Holm, Margaret Hasse, Robert Bly, and, of course, Milkweed Editions. With the grant, I’ll organize these collections for research use, increasing public awareness on the depth of resources contained in the Upper Midwest Literary Archives.

So, what does “organizing” an archival collection mean exactly? A big part of my job is doing what archivists call “processing.” In archival speak, processing includes carrying out preservation activities, determining how a collection should be organized so that it makes sense to researchers, and creating an online description of the materials. This is a time-consuming process (no pun intended!), but one that is absolutely crucial to the long-term preservation of Minnesota’s literary history.

The process also leads to some amazing discoveries. Some of my favorite documents in Milkweed’s archive include the author questionnaires used by the press to gain feedback from writers about how to best promote their books. From this document alone, a researcher can glean information about a writer’s habits, thoughts about their own writing, and their personal history. The questionnaires can be quite revealing and sometimes downright hilarious. When asked what other works might compete with his 1985 book of poetry, Boxelder Bug Variations, Bill Holm wrote, “On bugs? Mine’s the best! Leaves of Grass—only competition.” It’s fascinating to read Holm’s author questionnaire and then look at early drafts of Boxelder Bug Variations in his papers.

Milkweed’s archive spans the entirety of the organization’s existence, from 1979 to the present. It includes correspondence between Milkweed editors and authors, production material for every Milkweed book published to date, board minutes, books, author questionnaires and press, issues of Milkweed Chronicle, and so much more. For researchers and for the Prairie Poets project, the beauty of the Milkweed Editions archive is that it contains the materials of so many writers of the prairie and beyond. With such an expansive scope, you get a sense for Milkweed’s impact on local and national literary scenes. You start to see how their writers influenced each other and interacted.

As we continue to work on Milkweed’s archive, the UMLA would like to share some of Milkweed’s history with you. Starting in August, keep an eye on Milkweed’s Instagram and Twitter on Thursdays for #throwbackthursday posts about our progress on the Prairie Poets project and interesting findings. Follow the #PrairiePoetsUMN hashtag to see all the posts related to the project. Stay tuned!

If you’re curious to learn more about UMLA and Prairie Poets in the meantime, visit www.lib.umn.edu/mss, email ckhansen@umn.edu, or stop in and visit us in Andersen Library on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota.

Carissa Hansen

Carissa Hansen is the Project Archivist in the Upper Midwest Literary Archives for the University of Minnesota Libraries’ Prairie Poets and Press: Literary Lives of the Upper Midwest grant, financed in part with funds provided by the State of Minnesota from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society.