Minnesota women brewing change

Team Nevertheless brewed its collective beer for International Women’s Day 2023 at BlackStack Brewing. (James Figy)

Less than one in four. That’s how many brewery owners identify as female, according to the Brewer’s Association. Considering the first brewers in history were women, today’s gender gap in the industry is glaring. 

“Being a woman in brewing means being one of a few,” said Jordan Nordby, lead brewer at Utepils Brewing.

Jordan Nordby and Ariel Keeton, brewers and founders of Team Nevertheless
Team Nevertheless was founded by Jordan Nordby (left) of Utepils and Ariel Keeton of Pryes. (James Figy)

“I see it as a position to lead and light the way for more women in the future. It means making things more accessible and better for future women brewers, for authentic equality.”

As a way to celebrate and support other women working in brewing, Nordby and Ariel Keeton, brewer at Pryes Brewing Co., formed Team Nevertheless. 

The group started when Keeton and Nordby, while talking at a Christmas party at Fulton Brewing, counted how many women they knew who worked in brewing in Minnesota. At that time, they could name just eight. That number stuck with Keeton.

“One day, while sitting on the brewdeck, waiting for my mash to finish up, I had an idea: find all the women in our state who brew beer and continually make beer together. I ran the wild idea in my head past Jordan and our friend Shannon (Stroh), a brewer at Surly, and both thought it was a great idea,” Keeton said. 

“I spent months contacting every brewery in the state I did not personally know anyone at. At that point, there were 16 of us scattered throughout the state, 12 of which made it to the very first brew: Nevertheless.”

Team Nevertheless collectively brews two beers each year. One is released on International Women’s Day, March 8, and the other sometime in the fall at the host brewery’s convenience.

“We chose to do two brews per year as a means of not only staying relevant, but also to show we are not just limited to one day per year of being important within this industry,” Keeton said. 

Ariel Keeton measures out hops for the “We’re Not Waiting” Keller Pilsner. (James Figy)

“Two beers per year means that two women every year get the opportunity to create and name her own beer. This is a task not frequently given to women in the industry. Brewing is a combination of science and art, and the Nevertheless series of beer is a means of celebrating each woman’s beer creation.”

The group made the first beer at Badger Hill Brewing in Shakopee where Keeton brewed for four years before recently joining Pryes in Minneapolis. She started in the industry as taproom manager at the now-shuttered Harriet Brewing.

“The two brewers that were working at Harriet at the time noticed my interest in learning the production side of the industry, thus filling my free time with information and hands-on learning experiences,” she said. “… I went on to become the assistant brewer and assistant taproom manager for Tanzenwald Brewing Co. in Northfield.”

Nordby’s path to joining Utepils five years ago was very different. “I wanted to do something interesting with my chemical engineering degree that did not involve sitting at a desk all day.”

Brewers from Utepils, Pryes and BlackStack join to make a beer for International Women's Day 2023
Jordan Nordby and Ariel Keeton stand on the brewdeck with this year’s host brewer, Bella Ludwig, production manager at BlackStack. (James Figy)

Being part of Team Nevertheless has had a huge positive influence on Nordby’s experience as a brewer. She can turn to the group for support or advice, and it’s there for others, too, whether seasoned pros or relative newcomers.

“For any women who are interested in joining the beer industry, it is important to know that it will not always be easy, but once you find the company culture that you thrive in, it is worth it,” she said. “Team Nevertheless will be here to support you in any way we can.”

Keeton offered similar advice. There’s always room to learn and grow, but don’t doubt yourself. Trusting your knowledge and abilities is critical as a woman in brewing. 

“When I started in this industry, there were five women in the state of Minnesota that brewed beer,” Keeton said. “There are now 25 of us, and we aren’t going anywhere.”

What’s the beer for International Women’s Day 2023?

This year, Team Nevertheless brewed We’re Not Waiting in January at BlackStack Brewing.

The Keller Pilsner, an unfiltered Pils that requires less lagering time, will be on tap March 8 at BlackStack’s St. Paul taproom.

James Figy is a writer and beer enthusiast based in St. Paul. In Mankato, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University and a World Beer Cruise captain’s jacket from Pub 500. Twitter and Instagram: @JamesBeered

This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Mankato Magazine.


Don’t mess with the Fest

Typically when a plan seems foolproof, you haven’t factored yourself into the equation. That was the case in writing this article.

I wanted to find the Minnesota brewery reinventing Oktoberfest. Who was adding mango puree to Märzen, serving schnitzel egg rolls or hiring a DJ to remix polka standards? 

The headline would be: “Not your Opa’s Oktoberfest.”

I contacted the usual suspects in the Minnesota River Valley. I reached out to other contacts around the state. Finally I emailed Brian Kaufenberg, creative director at Beer Dabbler. No one fit the bill.

“Since it’s such a tradition, most folks are sticking with tried-and-true recipes and approaches,” Kaufenberg replied.

The brewing team at Giesenbrau in their biergaten
In the New Prague biergarten: Erin Hutton (left) and Tom Giesen.

I was the fool. But the answer wasn’t completely satisfying. To understand, I needed to talk to a brewery that fully embraces the traditions. This led me to Erin Hutton and Tom Giesen of Giesenbräu Bier Co.

“Of all the parties in the world, Oktoberfest has the biggest reputation as the best party,” Hutton said, sitting in his New Prague biergarten one July afternoon, pint glasses sweating on the table. 

“Anybody who’s been there has had a great time, and if it’s the best party in the world, why would you want to stray from that?”

During a Giesenbräu Oktoberfest, staff and patrons dress in German tracht, lederhosen and dirndl. 

The brewery charges admission to its festival tent, either basic entry or a slightly higher price that includes a souvenir liter stein and pour. Polka music plays, and an area food truck serves pork dumplings, sauerkraut, etc.

The first Oktoberfest occured in 1810 as part of a wedding celebration for Bavarian royalty, replete with feasts, parades and horse races. The locals enjoyed the festivities so much that they decided to reprise them the next year and the one after that.

“Anybody going to an Oktoberfest in the U.S. — they don’t want to show up and see a rock band and a taco truck,” said Giesen, who’s Hutton’s brother-in-law. “They want that tradition.”

And for their family, German beer culture is personal.

While studying in Munich, Hutton met Anna Giesen. She also had studied in Bavaria and had returned to live there after college. They bonded over their love of beer halls and would wonder, “Wouldn’t it be great to open a German beer hall back in the States?”

After returning from Germany, Hutton worked at a microbrewery in the Denver area that made beer flavored to resemble, say, Hawaiian pizza or Lucky Charms. He decided that when it was time to open his own brewery, it would resemble a beer hall.

After marrying and starting a family, the Huttons moved to Anna’s hometown of New Prague. Recruiting Giesen and his wife, Becka, they opened Giesenbräu in 2017 to make “bier-flavored beer.”

Giesenbräu Bier Co. opened in 2017 to make “bier-flavored beer” in a setting inspired by German beer halls.

Hutton, owner-operator and brewer, and Giesen, brewer, took home two second-place medals in the 2021 MN Brewers Cup by sticking with European styles and using imported Weyermann malts. Their Festbier is no different.

Only “the Big Six” are allowed to call their beers Oktoberfestbier: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschor, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, Spaten and Hofbräuhaus. But many, including Giesenbräu, follow their lead when making Festbier.

Spaten debuted the first Märzenbier at the 1841 Oktoberfest, and the amber lager became the festival’s official beverage in 1872. In the 1970s, however, these Bavarian breweries shifted from the caramel-colored concoction toward lighter, crisper flavors. Today’s Festbier leans much less on Munich malt but offers the same ABV punch.

“A lot of people confuse Märzen and Festbier,” Hutton said.

Of course, Märzenbier (“March beer”) was around long before the 1800s. The term applied to beers brewed before the cutoff imposed by a 1553 Bavarian ducal decree. Brewing had to cease from April 23 to Sept. 29 due to increased risks from bacteria and wild yeast. Until Spaten’s amber lager debuted in 1841, Märzen referred to any beer cranked out as the end of spring approached — almost always dark beers!

A pint of Helles Lager sits on the bar at Giesenbrau in New Prague, Minnesota
Hildy’s Helles, Giesenbräu’s version of the classic pale lager found throughout Munich, took second place in the 2021 MN Brewers Cup.

So, to recap: Oktoberfest no longer involves a wedding or horse races. Festbier is no longer Märzen. Märzen isn’t even Märzen anymore.

Maybe my premise wasn’t too off base. What we celebrate may be your Opa’s Oktoberfest, but it isn’t his Opa’s. It’s unrealistic to think cherished traditions will never change.

But with traditions, especially those involving beer, thinking takes a back seat. That’s where I’d gone awry. And it’s what the Giesenbräu crew had been trying to explain about Oktoberfest.

“It’s a day where everybody just enjoys themselves,” Hutton said. “They’re all drinking a liter of beer, like, ‘It’s Oktoberfest today. I can drink a whole liter of beer or maybe two, why not? Let’s have a good time.’”

Oktoberfest at Giesenbräu 

Sept. 30-Oct. 2, 2022

$20 basic entry

$25 entry plus stein and first fill

More information: giesenbraubierco.com

Image of Oktoberfest article in Mankato Magazine

James Figy is a writer and beer enthusiast based in St. Paul. In Mankato, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University and a World Beer Cruise captain’s jacket from Pub 500. Twitter and Instagram: @JamesBeered

This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Mankato Magazine.

Engineered to Refreshment

Believe it or not, drinking and writing about beer is not my full-time gig. But beer still finds me, even in my day job at a global automation technology vendor. (It doesn’t hurt that it’s a German company.)

One of our top engineers, Matt, is also an avid homebrewer. As a resident beer buff, I often get to try his test batches and offer feedback. One day we discussed how many brewers start out in engineering, listing several examples. The conversation was brief, but the idea lingered.

Engineers, of course, are details people. But there must be more to it, right? And do many folks involved in beer making actually come from engineering? I tracked down some Minnesota brewers with engineering backgrounds to find out.

How many engineers are in brewing?

A non-exhaustive list of Minnesota breweries with engineering professionals includes August Schell Brewing Co., BlackStack Brewing, Lost Sanity Brewing, Tin Whiskers Brewing Co., Uncommon Loon Brewing Co., Urban Growler Brewing Co. and Utepils Brewing Co. This excludes folks from broader STEM fields and those who received brewing engineering degrees but don’t identify as engineers.

Deb Loch, head brewer at Urban Growler, in the brewhouse
Deb Loch worked in biomedical engineering for 20 years, including eight years at Medtronic, before becoming master brewer at Urban Growler. (Urban Growler Brewing Co.)

The list highlights people like Deb Loch, master brewer at Urban Growler in St. Paul. She put in 20 years as a biomedical engineer and product manager, then received a degree in brewing and went to work at Northern Brewer, the homebrew supply store. 

She noticed engineers made up a good share of customers and often focused on gear more than others. That made sense to Loch.

“When I transitioned to brewing, I never transitioned out of engineering,” she said, adding she’s an analytical, problem solver by nature. 

“It wasn’t like I stopped doing any of those things. I just applied it to a different situation.”

Why do engineers make good brewers?

Two key themes were process and measurement. These are critical for recipe development, reliable production and fixing issues with ingredients or equipment, said Schell’s brewmaster Dave Berg, a former aerospace engineer.

Tin Whiskers beer glass
The exclusive dimple glass was reserved for members of Tin Whiskers’ Robot Collective group.

“In the brewhouse, we measure temperatures, volumes, pH, specific gravity, to name a few. In fermentation, we measure temperature, pH drop, specific gravity drop, the time it takes to reach attenuation,” he said. “Knowing what your targets are and what to do for something out of specification is critical for consistency.”

Brad Klatt, co-owner and head brewer at Uncommon Loon in Chisago City, sees the craft’s multidisciplinary nature as another key reason. “Brewing contains a number of mechanical, chemical, electrical, controls/automation and microbiology sciences,” said Klatt, who retired after 36 years in engineering to open the brewery.

Collecting data at each step and using that to enhance the brew is also critical, said Jeff Moriarty, founder and president of Tin Whiskers. The downtown St. Paul brewery also draws on Moriarty’s electrical engineering career in its branding, with a pint-wielding robot mascot and beers titled Short Circuit Stout, Reverse Breakdown Maibock and the Bot IPA series.

“Brewing beer is also very science-based,” Moriarty said. “I like to think of it as engineering, but with beer instead of electronics.”

How to enjoy beer like an engineer

Are there any lessons non-engineers can apply when tasting beer or homebrewing? Pretty much all of the engineers-turned-brewers responded something like: Sure, but why?

Jordan Nordby, lead brewer at Utepils in Minneapolis, emphasized her chemical engineering knowledge wasn’t her most important tool. “It is having the mindset to know that things can always be improved and being able to see those opportunities when they present themselves,” she said.

Still, Nordby suggested homebrewers add a light lager or blonde ale to their rotation. These seem simple but don’t hide mistakes well. Stick to the recipe, don’t dump in extra hops, taste carefully and make intentional changes, she said.

“Do you want to know how different yeasts change the flavor of beer? Split your wort in half and ferment each half with a different yeast,” she said. “There are a lot of ways to experiment with recipes. But it is important to make sure you have the basics down first before going crazy with styles.”

The engineers’ main advice was to calibrate your palate. Don’t limit yourself to specific styles. Try to describe what you’re tasting. And always remember to enjoy each new drink and brewery — don’t turn it into a science fair.

As Klatt put it, brewing is highly technical, but beer itself remains more ethereal.

“While engineering is an important skill set, equally important is appreciating the art and beauty in crafting beer,” he said. “I’m continually in awe of the miracle that combining four simple ingredients – grain, hops, yeast and water – can produce such a magical beverage.”

Mankato Magazine April 2022 issue

James Figy is a writer and beer enthusiast based in St. Paul. In Mankato, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University and a World Beer Cruise captain’s jacket from Pub 500.

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Mankato Magazine.

Update: Tin Whiskers unfortunately closed in May 2022.

The basics aren’t basic: Pilsner

Josef Groll had a big head. Arrogance was one of the brewer’s defining characteristics. His own father dubbed him “the rudest man in Bavaria.” But even Groll couldn’t have imagined — when he brewed the first Pilsner on October 5, 1842, in a small Bohemian city — his new pale lager would become a global mainstay.

The people of Pilsen, in what’s now Czechia, recruited Groll to create an alternative to the terrible ales they regularly dumped. They built a state-of-the-art brewery, now called Pilsner Urquell. Czech Pilsners retain much of the sweetness, hefty Bavarian malt mouthfeel, spicy bitterness from Saaz hops and golden color of the original.

Fair State Pils can with a full pilsner glass next to it
Fair State Pils draws on aspects of the north German and original Czech Pilsner. (Fair State)

In the late 1800s, advances in refrigeration and yeast accelerated the style’s popularity. Pilsner spread, adjusting to local tastes, agriculture and water. First it moved south into Austria and Bavaria where it spawned the Helles lager. Then it went north, creating the crispier northern German Pilsner and another spinoff: Dortmund export.

What about now? Unfortunately, Pilsner is no longer seen as Groll’s revolution, but too often as a macro style that breweries carry as a gateway to more exciting styles.

In this column, I want to occasionally revisit the basics, highlighting a Minnesota offering that’s a standard bearer of the style. For Pilsner, I spoke with Niko Tonks, founding brewer at Fair State Brewing Cooperative. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, runs the gamut between what the beer was and what it might become again.

James Figy: Are Pilsners nowadays just something for the not-a-beer-drinker to sip?

Niko Tonks: Pilsners, in particular, are gaining ground. We always have Pils in the taproom, and when we have a second Pilsner, it often moves faster than IPAs at that time. But Pilsner is just one kind of pale lager. The lager in general has further to go. 

JF: You once said brewers, rather than being beer snobs, prefer pale lager. Why?

NT: Taste among brewers is a diverse thing. But it’s a truism that the longer you’re in the industry, the more likely you drink pale lager at the end of the day, oftentimes not even craft beer. 

At a base level, it tastes good, and you can have two or three. If you’re working in the “kettle sour mines” all day, cutting bags of fruit puree into a fermenter, you’ll probably crave a “regular beer.” On a technical level, Pilsners require consistency and are difficult to do well. That’s another truism.

JF: What makes Pilsners so difficult?

NT: The old story is there are fewer things to hide behind. That’s true to an extent. Material selection is important, but that applies to any style. Really, reaching the pinnacle of IPA is as hard as getting to the pinnacle of Pilsner. 

Fair State Brewing Cooperative's taproom in Minneapolis
Fair State Brewing Cooperative is a Union brewery with a Northeast Minneapolis taproom and St. Paul brewhouse. (Fair State)

But the opportunity cost is huge: In our peak season, we could put two or three batches of IPA through a tank in the time it takes to do one of Pils.

We use some old school, continental techniques, too. Much American brewing equipment isn’t set up for them, though many new breweries are building in these capabilities. You need to do a temperature program mash or decoction if you want to get to the next level. 

And we keep Pils simple, which is the nature of the beast. As a brewer, you have to resist complicating recipes for beers like this.

JF: Which pale lager ancestor does it most closely resemble?

NT: Fair State Pils is a mashup of the Czech and northern German versions. It’s maltier and less dry than the latter because we use Bohemian Pilsner malt. But we pair it with a lot of classic German aroma hops from the Hallertau region of Bavaria, so it’s more bitter and hop aromatic than the former. We aimed for an authentic continental style.

JF: Why have you focused so much on craft lagers, like Pils, Crankin’ Foamers, Union Lager and Vienna Lager?

Exterior of Fair State Brewing Cooperative in Minneapolis
While Fair State received early attention for its sour program, including the ubiquitous, hibiscus-infused Roselle, the brewery’s focus remains on low-ABV lagers and other easy-drinking styles. (Fair State)

NT: Our concept when we opened in 2014 was to make low-alcohol beers. Early on, our sour beers got more attention, so we leaned into that. And we’ve definitely chased a trend or two. 

But during the pandemic, we had some downtime to think. We realized we’re technically proficient enough to make almost any style, but people can really tell when you’re excited and care about the beer. 

We’ll keep brewing as many lagers as possible, and if that’s our niche, we’ll still sleep well.

JF: Will the industry overall trend in that direction?

NT: Everything’s possible on small scales. To stay alive in Minnesota’s beer scene, most breweries must cater to everybody. I hope we see greater differentiation, with go-to places for English pub ales or brown ales or Belgians.

But I take it with a grain of salt. My first brewing job was at Live Oak Brewing in Austin, Texas, which makes Pilz — a very Czech Pilsner. Every year since, articles have said, “This is the year of the craft lager!” The only difference now is I sort of believe it.

James Figy is a writer and beer enthusiast based in St. Paul. In Mankato, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University and a World Beer Cruise captain’s jacket from Pub 500.

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Mankato Magazine.

How to read poetry

Today is the 190th birthday of Emily Dickinson, an incredibly important and well known American poet. She’s also one of a handful of poets that many folks know of at all. Generally speaking, people are not huge fans of poetry. Nearly 90% of Americans do not read poetry in a given year, according to a 2018 survey, and that was even an improvement from two years earlier.

Dog with Emily Dickinson book

Just ask anyone who was assigned to read Emily in high school (or Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, etc.) There are usually several reasons why: Poems are difficult to understand because of ye olde language and references. The deeper, profound meaning of poems is too hard to uncover. They’re just plain stupid and have no point. Now, that’s a little harsh. And more importantly, reading poetry doesn’t have to feel any of these ways.

Often English teachers and even poets don’t do themselves any favors. Take our friend Em, for example, who said: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.” (You okay there? Maybe try a Snuggie.)

Don’t get me wrong — I love Emily Dickinson. (I took a tour of her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, and even had a T-shirt, much to my family’s chagrin.) But it might be more helpful for today’s readers who are open to trying poetry again to get some advice from contemporary voices. With that in mind, I reached out to some poets and writers who are working today to get some suggestions on how to read poetry for enjoyment, not for a book report.

1. Enjoy the music of the poem

People seem to think that poetry is like a logic puzzle or something when really it’s layered like music. You can like the lyrics or the beat or the sick guitar riff, but the bottom line is how the poem makes you feel. Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón is the book I recommend for people who want get into poetry.

—Kate MacLam, poet (read “My Mailman” and “Dermatitis“)

I remember reading poetry in junior high and high school, and loving and connecting with the sounds and images enough that that gave me pleasure. What was frustrating then, when I got to college, was in literature classes being asked to ignore those things that gave me pleasure to analyze it to death. Poetry has this reputation: ‘Oh, this is difficult. There’s a deep meaning that you have to have be really intelligent or have read zillions of poems to understand.’ And I disagree with that. When you read a poem, you should ask, ‘What gives me pleasure in this poem? Is it a single word or an image?’

—Candace Black, poet, author of Whereabouts: Poems, professor in the creative writing program at Minnesota State University, Mankato

The way we usually learn poetry in high school turns so many people off before they even get started. You don’t have to understand the poem logically! It’s like music — you just have to feel it. Start with contemporary, accessible poets like Ada Limón and Ross Gay or an accessible genre of poetry like spoken word.

—Lorna Pecard, poet

Enjoy the language, structure, and tone even if you don’t understand the poem on the first read. Mark poems that mirror scars in your memories to help you become closer to your obsessions. Talk about the book cover and how it may connect to the poetry collection as a whole. Be honest if you don’t understand the poem; it helps you become a stronger reader (and writer). If you don’t like a poetry collection, you can always learn from it. Find your taste, your obsessions, let that voice hidden in the dark find its light. Poetry is about the process of understanding, never the results of understanding.

—Sengarone Vetsmany, poet (read “Lady of the Woods” and “Traveling home with cherries”)

2. Keep things simple

When people say they have difficulty with poetry, it’s usually because somebody else has raised the bar for enjoying it. And, really, there is no bar. A poem either engages you or it doesn’t, and you just move on. It doesn’t need to be understood — it just needs to be felt or heard. When you read a novel, for example, you engage with the character and the story, and at the end of it, you feel like you’ve been on a journey. Poets are the same way. They’re trying to capture a moment or feeling. They’re stopping time and inviting you into that moment. At the end of it, the poets are not saying, ‘Did you understand me?’ The question poets ask more often is: ‘Did you feel it?’

—Richard Robbins, poet, author of Body Turn to Rain: New & Collected Poems, professor in the creative writing program at MSU Mankato

Stop everything and read “Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think.” Poetry seems like a mystery to a lot of people, something that is hard to crack, hard to write, hard to understand. But it doesn’t have to be. The first step is to simplify the poem by reading it aloud. Yes, out loud — not in your head! You can whisper it if you want, but poetry is better when experienced by the ears as well as the eyes.

Then you must identify what is literally happening in the poem. Don’t read too deeply. If you’re familiar with the concept “read between the lines,” this is the opposite. Go line by line, stanza by stanza, or sentence by sentence — whatever is easiest — and really break down the poem.  If you encounter words or concepts that you think should be common knowledge, or you think you knew what it meant once, go ahead and look it up. Once the poem is understood on the surface, you can get into it on a deeper level.

—Emily Johnson, nonfiction writer, associate lecturer at University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Think about each line in a poem as a tiny mini-poem. If you don’t get or like an entire poem, you can still hone in on units of the poem (individual lines or maybe stanzas) that you do like or get. These moments can be a sort of starting place for getting meaning and significance out of the poem. But not knowing is also kind of the point of poetry. John Keats called this idea ‘Negative Capability’ and described it as people’s capability for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” That’s important. Lastly, I think “Project” by Rae Armantrout is perfect for poetry beginners. It’s not an easy poem, but it’s very accessible. And it’s becoming one of my favorite poems.

—Tyler Barton, fiction writer and poet, author of The Quiet Part Loud: Stories (read three DJ Poems)

3. Read current poets

I like to show those people a poem that is in free verse and has a pop culture reference (musician, technology like a computer or text message, UGG boots, etc.). People need confirmation that poems don’t have to rhyme and don’t have to be about nature or love.

—Erin Dorney, poet, author of I Am Not Famous Anymore: Poems After Shia LaBeouf (read three Adriene poems)

Start with poetry written sometime in the last fifty or sixty years. You might try to find an anthology, something either in print or online that offers work from a variety of people. Read the poems not as puzzles or morality lessons, but as somebody simply talking to you. Find some voices that you’d like to hear more from, and then look for books by those writers.

—Richard Terrill, poet and nonfiction writer, author of What Falls Away Is Always: Poems & Conversations, professor emeritus at MSU Mankato

Only read poetry you like. Even if you don’t know why you like it, keep reading it until you figure out why. And if you don’t like it, or feel like you don’t get it, don’t keep reading it. There is a lot of poetry out there, and even the stuff deemed good by some isn’t worth your time if you don’t like to read it.

—Angela Voras-Hills, poet, author of Louder Birds (read “Chateaubriand” and “Nothing to Undo That Can’t Be Done Again”)

You might not have many poets you like or even know. But even if you have one name (Yesika Salgado or José Olivarez, for example), you can Google search them and more than likely, there’ll also be a “People also search for” list on that page. That’s a good place to start expanding who and what you read.

—Michael Torres, poet and nonfiction writer, author of An Incomplete List of Names, professor in the creative writing program at MSU Mankato (read “Doing Donuts in an ’87 Mustang 5.0, After My Homie Chris Gets Broken Up With” and “All-American Mexican”)

Of course, there’s no wrong way to read poetry. No one can tell you what to like. And Emily Dickinson’s writing might speak to you today in ways that it didn’t before. (If you want to grab a dictionary, reference book of Greek mythology, and the complete sonnets of John Donne, then by all means, go for it.) But the point is not to try so hard. No one’s giving you a grade. By focusing on the parts that are enjoyable and the voices that get you, rather than working to dissect the text, anyone can read poetry.

Not sure where to grab your next poetry collection? Check out this list of independent Twin Cities bookstores, all of which would be happy to help with recommendations!

At the State Theatre, Hozier reminds us to have fun because we’re all about to die

Originally published on City Pages: June 3, 2019

Hozier at the State Theatre in Minneapolis, June 2019

The end is nigh and Hozier doesn’t want anyone to forget it.

At last night’s sold-out State Theatre show, the Irish singer-songwriter led the audience through a packed set list, spanning sounds from heavy blues-rock to folky acoustic tracks. He spoke between songs only to remind everyone to enjoy themselves — because we don’t have much longer to do so.

But Andrew Hozier Byrne didn’t really need to find the words to express this: The ideas were already present in the music. Although there are undercurrents of love and optimism, his sophomore album, Wasteland, Baby!, addresses ever-looming climate crises, political upheaval, and collapse on a cosmological scale.

This grim realism was present, though not as obviously, from the start of the set. The first song, “Would That I,” uses images of forests being felled and set alight. The simple yet steady percussion from drums and boots stomping the stage resembled the strike of an axehead, as Hozier sang, “The sound of the saw must be known by the tree.” 

Each band member contributed backing vocals, on this track and nearly every other, creating rich and layered orchestrations throughout the show. Although Hozier was the star, he made sure the musicians’ talents were given their due. The musicians — some of which were singer-songwriters in their own right, he mentioned — took ownership with multiple drum, bass, and organ solos sprinkled throughout the set.

Paying respect to musicians who came before them, the band performed “Nina Cried Power,” which honors and namechecks African-American artists such as Nina Simone, Curtis Mayfield, Billie Holiday, and James Brown, as well as John Lennon, Woody Guthrie and Joni Mitchell. These musicians, Hozier has said, were not afraid to put politics into their music, to speak truth to power.

What this performance missed were the powerful vocals of Mavis Staples, who sings on the chorus and bridge of the record version. However, Hozier added an additional stanza in the first verse, clarifying the protest-song-inspired track’s call to action with lines like: “It’s not the talking, it’s the doing.”

When the song ended, he invited the audience to the front of the theater, saying if he had his way, everyone would be up on the stage with him anyway. He encouraged the audience to enjoy themselves by standing—and doing other things—in front of the stage as they saw fit. “If you wanted to do something illicit or maybe illegal, that’d be fine, too,” he said.“I guarantee I wouldn’t be the one to call the fucking cops.”

While Hozier was working on Wasteland, Baby! in 2016, a long-awaited follow-up to his self-titled 2014 debut, the Doomsday Clock was moved up to two minutes to midnight, the furthest it has ever gone. He realized then that he “was writing a few love songs for the end of the world,” he said, and these include the title track. “And the stance of the sea and the absence of green / are the death of all things that I’ve seen and unseen,” he sang on “Wasteland, Baby!”

Hozier briefly mentioned the Doomsday Clock in his introduction to “No Plan,” just to say, “This one is about something far better.” Rather than stop with the apocalypse, this track takes listeners to the end of the universe, referencing research by astrophysicist Katie Mack whose forthcoming book, The End of Everything, explains about how the universe will go dark. 

Again, this needed little explanation, since the chorus laid it all out: “Sit here and watch the sunlight fade/Honey, enjoy, it’s getting late/There’s no plan, here’s no hand on the reins/As Mack explained, there will be darkness again.” The cutting blues riff seemed to grow fuzzier with each repetition due to Hozier’s guitar, which was made from a gasoline can. That fit well here, though it would’ve been too on the nose in the tracks about ecological disaster.

Sure, the show was a little grim. But for anyone who follows the news (or even glances at a TV while waiting for coffee, or just sees those articles that your cousin, you know, the one who’s all political, shares on Facebook) it felt accurate. Maybe that’s why Wasteland, Baby! debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in March and why multiple tracks have enjoyed so much radio play.

Despite the constant reality check, Hozier remained upbeat, imploring people to have a good time. And we did. The audience sang along throughout and took it up a few decibels for songs off the first album, including “To Be Alone,” “Jackie and Wilson” and, of course, “Take Me to Church.” Hozier changed up his well-known songs, including a slower, funkier version of “Someone New” and a stripped down rendition of “From Eden.”

Throughout the night, Hozier came across as a nice, sincere guy. After a three-song encore, which ended with the slow, brooding track “Work Song,” he thanked pretty much everyone involved with the concert, from the musicians in his band and the opening act, Bailen, to the guitar tech, merch guy and lighting crew.

The concert could be summed up in Hozier’s explanation of “Almost (Sweet Music),” a song that references many jazz artists and standards that made an impact on him. When it comes to both the universe and the music, we’re all just “trying to escape the inescapable”—the fact that eventually the everything must end.

Random notebook dump: How to describe the excellent opening act, Bailen? It’s like the instrumentation of Jeff Buckley with the vocals of Nickel Creek, and maybe a dose of Fleetwood Mac with contemporary indie rock? However you would describe the group of three siblings from New York City, their music featured great guitar work, interesting chord progressions, and incredible harmonies, all of which were present on “I Was Wrong.”

Overheard in the crowd: Called out afterguitarist/vocalist Julia Bailen of the opening act, Bailen, said it would be “on brand” for the band to get a MySpace account: “Does anyone under 22 even know what that is?”


Would That I
Dinner & Diatribes
Nina Cried Power
Someone New
Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene
From Eden
Wasteland, Baby!
No Plan
To Be Alone
Almost (Sweet Music)
Jackie and Wilson
Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)
Take Me to Church


Cherry Wine
To Noise Making (Sing)
Work Song

Note: This concert review originally appeared on the City Pages website on June 3, 2019, and as that Minnesota alt-weekly is, sadly, now defunct and beginning to randomly remove articles, I wanted to preserve it online here.

Ever wonder what a band from Mankato sounds like? Meet Good Night Gold Dust.

Originally published on City Pages: Thursday, October 4, 2018

Good Night Gold Dust. Photo by Dan Dinsmore

Good Night Gold Dust couldn’t see where they were going.

Barely outside of Mankato, they were driving through a snowstorm on the way to a January 2016 show at Icehouse.

Colin Scharf (guitar and vocals) had grown excitable about a defective wiper blade that left a thick slurry of ice across their van’s windshield. Calmly, Michelle Roche (drums) told him to stop in St. Peter to buy a new one. Laura Schultz (guitar and vocals) had tuned out the chaos, and Zack Arney (synth) was already in the Cities, though he’s heard the story so many times that it feels like he was there.

While Scharf was inside an auto parts store and Roche was watching a how-to video about wiper blades on YouTube, Schultz listened to the radio.

“It was Mark Wheat on the Current, and he said, ‘This next band is coming to Minneapolis to play one of their first big shows in town,’” according to Schultz. “And I was like, ‘I wonder who that is?’ Then he said, ‘They’re from Mankato, Minnesota.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re from Mankato, Minnesota’—not making the connection.

“Then he said, ‘This is a band called Good Night Gold Dust, with their song ‘Broken Wing.’ And I was just like, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.’”

She rolled down the windows and cranked the stereo. Roche stopped messing with the wipers, Scharf left the checkout line, and the three held an impromptu dance party in the parking lot.

That, Scharf says, was the moment they felt like they’d made it.

The band is sitting on the patio at Mankato’s Pub 500 this summer after an all-day practice. Scharf points to another bar patio along a street littered with them. That, he says, is where he met Laura Schultz, not knowing that they would form Good Night Gold Dust and later get married.

This is pretty much where you’d expect such an important moment in the band’s history to happen. This block and a half of South Front St., which some refer to as “the Barmuda Triangle,” is the center of Mankato. Its closeness and familiarity can feel comforting, but also stifling.

Any Minnesota band based outside the Twin Cities metro faces obvious challenges. But with a recently released EP and a show this Friday at Icehouse, Good Night Gold Dust is focusing on the benefits.

For Scharf, this is familiar territory. Growing up in Buffalo, he rooted for the Bills and Sabers, teams that were always expected to lose—and rarely disappointed.

“The whole rustbelt is an underdog, and you carry that around with you,” he says. “It gives you a boost of confidence, in a way, to not be from the big city and still be kicking ass—making really cool music and playing awesome shows.”

It Could Have Been You is the band’s third EP, but the second with this lineup after Roche and Arney joined the band four years ago. On the new six-song album, the band displays traditional rock chops but also experiments confidently with synthesizers, samples, Auto-Tuned vocals, and drum machines. It also showcases the difference between how Schultz and Scharf approach songwriting.

Schultz relies on her singer-songwriter background, despite the emphasis on electronic instrumentation. “Second Moon,” for example, fades in with synth and light guitar, building as Schultz sings, with that mournful sweetness only a folk-singer can manage: “The night’s a cruel companion, one that keeps repeating, ‘It could’ve been you. It could’ve been you.’”

On the other hand, Scharf channels Joe Strummer on tracks heavy with rhythm, guitar riffs, and attitude, such as “Thieves.” Snarling through the song’s backbeat, he sings, “Yeah, we pulled a fast one, clean in the spring air/ No security cameras, ain’t nobody gonna catch us.”

Experimentation, both in practices and in the studio, makes these disparate styles work together. The band had worked with Brett Bullion, who has produced albums for Fog and Bad Bad Hats, on their 2015 self-titled EP, and they booked studio time again with him for It Could Have Been You. But this time, recording was a much different experience.

“The last album, we came in with skeletons of songs, and what we came in with was very different from what we came out with. A lot of it got shaped in the studio,” Arney says. “With this record, we were prepared and knew the sound we wanted.”

It’s a bit tricky for a Mankato-based band to find a venue for its Minneapolis album release and to promote it. Fortunately, Scharf and Schultz can turn to Twin Cities musicians they know, including members of Communist Daughter, Fathom Lane and Field Report.

In 2016, Scharf and Schultz started hosting living room concerts featuring these and other acts. Sometimes they were passing through town, and other times Good Night Gold Dust invited them. In a place where you have to make your own fun, Scharf says, these things just happen.

This is the paradox of being based in Mankato, according to Schultz. “The thing about the living room shows is we were able to establish relationships with artists. Chastity Brown came and played, so we had access to those artists like mentors,” she says. “We would never have had that experience with them if we’d just played a show together at Icehouse.”

Being accepted into the Twin Cities music scene offers validation, even with the novelty that comes from being from Mankato, Scharf says. If Twin Cities recognition is so validating, Good Night Gold Dust should just relocate, right? After all, none of the band members are from Mankato. They all moved to the area from different cities or states for school or work.

But Good Night Gold Dust is staying put for a simple reason: Despite smaller audiences and larger distances to major venues, they love Mankato. Like many others in the area, they want to prove there’s more than the Barmuda Triangle.

“There really is a great network of artists and creators in this city,” Scharf says, mentioning the 410 Project art gallery, the revival of the Old Town district, and musical acts such as folk rock group Bee Balm Field and hip hop artist !ntell!gent Des!gn. “The city just feels like it’s got this creative energy bubbling and bursting.”

Good Night Gold Dust 
With: Har-di-Har 
Where: Icehouse 
When: 10:30 p.m. Fri. Oct. 5 
Tickets: 21+; $8/$10; more info here

Note: This concert review originally appeared on the City Pages website on Oct. 4, 2018, and as that Minnesota alt-weekly is, sadly, now defunct and beginning to randomly remove articles, I wanted to preserve it online here.

Elvis Costello is a rock star whether he likes it or not

Originally published on City Pages: Friday, November 16, 2018

Elvis Costello and the Imposters at the University of Minnesota, 2018

What would happen if we called BS on Elvis Costello?

No one who attended his three-hour, double-encore performance with the Imposters at the Northrop last night could do this about his music. And they likely wouldn’t find fault with Costello’s stage presence—a timeworn distance, command, and abrasiveness peppered with dry humor and sincerity.

But what if we call out just a single comment, hardly the most inflammatory of his career but one that nonetheless rings false? The 64-year-old stated in a recent interview that he’s not a rock star. “It doesn’t say on my business card, ‘Rock star,’” he said. “I’m just a musician.”

Respectfully, sir: bullshit.

Costello’s rock stardom shone clearly last night from his opening song, “This Year’s Girl,” through his final encore of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?” It was there in the swift, pounding rhythms of Costello’s earlier work and in the ’60s pop-infused tracks off his new album, Look Now. It was there in his searing solos, guitar lifted high in the air to hold out a single cutting note, and in the sunglasses he wore at night. “Rock star” is encoded in Costello’s DNA.

But maybe this is ignoring the point Costello wanted to make: He’s not solely a rock star. And the pieces that make up Costello are difficult to categorize, varying widely over his career and from song to song in the live show. If there’s one thing Elvis Costello & the Imposters want to highlight in the Look Now and Then Tour, it’s multiplicity.

This was clear from the setlist. The band performed tracks from throughout Costello’s career, experimenting with the arrangements on many. Some performances remained true to the original recordings, including “Watching the Detectives” and “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” written with Carole King. But “Alison” began with just guitar, then Costello and his two phenomenal backup singers followed along. Even when the full band kicked in around the second verse, the tempo was slower, the instrumentation more subdued than expected.

Costello’s punctuated many of his quick, radio-ready hits with a protracted guitar solo, while some newer songs, such as “Stripping Paper,” received keyboard prefaces from Steve Nieve. As Costello was describing that one as the first song he’d written about interior decorating, someone in the balcony shouted out their admiration. Costello said the female protagonist in his song was about five gimlets in as she carelessly removed wallpaper. “And you’re at six,” he told the fan. “I know that sound. I’m a six or seven gimlet man, myself—well, I was.”

It was clear in the band’s instrumentation. Although Nieve played at least half a dozen pianos, organs, and synthesizers on “Clubland” alone, Costello, bassist Davey Faragher, and drummer Pete Thomas covered a slew of styles—including rock, tango, gospel, and the “uptown pop” of Look Now—with relatively few instrument changes. Costello also displayed his broad vocal range, at times emphasizing that characteristic snarl, at others highlighting vibrato or falsetto, the belted notes of a big band singer, or the passionate testifying of a gospel singer.

It was clear in the way Costello, ever the enigma, carried himself. He stood out as the frontman, the ringleader and main attraction, in black suit and blue-tinted sunglasses. He did share the spotlight with those joining him on stage, calling out each one’s name and at points imploring them to display piano chops or vocal virtuosity. But he also wanted command of the audience, standing stock still and demanding applause at the end of songs with a stone facade, guitar held high, speaking nary a word.

And yet, he also wanted to endear himself, telling stories and making jokes. Early in the night, he commented, “It’s the first night of the tour here.” After a pause, he added: “In Minnesota.” The audience laughed, and that snarl disappeared, momentarily, replaced by a small smile. “We heard you’ve got 10,000 lakes here and wanted to play on the edge of every one of them,” he continued. “And the booking agent said, ‘What the hell are you thinking? At this time of year?’”

So maybe Costello is a nice guy, maybe not. This is what we love about him, and why fans were so concerned when rumors that he was battling an intense form of cancer began to spread earlier this year. Luckily, the rumors, which he didn’t mention at all last night, turned out to be inaccurate. The three-hour Northrop performance proved that Costello is still as tough as ever, and even more complicated than we previously thought. He’s a soul singer, a pianist, a composer, a guitar virtuoso, a true entertainer.

And he’s a rock star, too, goddammit. Not that he doesn’t deserve the right to define himself. But because of everything he is, it’s impossible for anyone, the artist included, to put a single label on Elvis Costello.


This Year’s Girl
Honey Are You Straight or Are You Blind
Don’t Look Now
Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter
Green Shirt
Photographs Can Lie
Hand in Hand
Moods for Moderns
Tears Before Bedtime
Why Won’t Heaven Help Me?
Jimmie Standing in the Rain
Under Lime
Watching the Detectives
He’s Given Me Things
High Fidelity
Unwanted Number
It Takes Time
Everyday I Write the Book

First Encore

Accidents Will Happen
Shot with His Own Gun
Stripping Paper
(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea
Suspect My Tears
Mr. & Mrs. Hush
Pump It Up

Second Encore

A Face in the Crowd
American Gangster Time
(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?

Critic’s bias: Not long before moving to Minnesota, I encountered a large chalkboard paint mural that said, Before I die, I want to . . . My answer: See Elvis Costello live. I don’t remember how I first heard of Elvis Costello, but I remember the first album of his I, as a high schooler, borrowed from a public library in suburban Indianapolis. When I Was Cruel hooked me, but I had no idea what was in store as I worked through his catalog.

More than that, Costello was a misfit, something I think a lot of fans identify with. When I was reading the biography Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello, a friend of my parents who loved Bruce Springsteen said, “Elvis Costello? He’s a really weird dude. Really weird.”

But what I remember most about the book was a story recounting how the young Declan MacManus saw Bruce Springsteen perform at the lauded Hammersmith Odeon in 1975. The now legendary show began with a stripped down, piano-and-vocals-only rendition of “Thunder Road,” after which, Costello turned to his friend and shouted, “He’s done it. He’s done it!” Every track during last night’s concert elicited the same response in me: He’s done it. He’s done it!

Overheard in the crowd: Grumbled, when the auditorium staff announced again the concert would begin shortly yet the bar line wasn’t moving: “What, does Elvis have a bedtime? I mean, fuck.” The man then commented, “The last time I saw Elvis was here in 1976.” A friend, or stranger, he was haranguing in line commented that it’s been quite a while. “Yeah,” he said, “and they still expect me to sit down without a cocktail?”

Note: This concert review originally appeared on the City Pages website on Nov. 16, 2018, and as that Minnesota alt-weekly is, sadly, now defunct and beginning to randomly remove articles, I wanted to preserve it online here.

Twin Cities bookstores that can help you get lit even during quarantine

So many of us are staying at home to help limit the spread of COVID-19, and a lot of our to-read book piles are slowly shrinking. Quarantine is very important for flattening the curve, but it’s definitely rough on local bookshops, which must remain closed to the public in Minnesota for now. Since libraries are closed, too, we no longer have to feel guilty about buying so many books we could have borrowed. (Just me?)

Right now, Twin Cities booksellers are adapting to the constantly changing situation, working to stay afloat and serve loyal customers while ensuring the health and safety of everyone. Which is no small task. After browsing through their websites, here are a few tips for supporting them:

  • Buy books from their websites: maybe you have been looking forward to it, or maybe you just miss browsing bookstore shelves for the title you didn’t know you had to have, or maybe you’re a tsundoku devotee. Either way, you can feel good about the purchase. The indie shops need the orders; Jeff B., not so much.
  • If you can’t find a book on their websites or want a recommendation, call or email them — after all, who doesn’t need a little more human interaction right now? Even millennials might pick up the phone! Especially for used books, it’s likely not everything will be listed online.
  • Buy gift cards — whether for future use once we can return to “normal” life or as presents to make sure your friends and family are buying from indie book stores.
  • Engage from afar: Watch their social media accounts for live readings and book discussions that are now online.
  • For audiobooks, use Libro.fm, an independent platform gives proceeds to the local bookstore(s) of your choosing. Right now, the website is donating all proceeds for every one-month gift membership to your chosen bookstore(s).
  • If buying over phone or email makes you anxious, you are having trouble finding a title, or there’s some other reason, buy books from Bookshop.org. This new independent platform gives about 75% of profits to local bookshops across the U.S. and keeps a running tally on its homepage of how much it has raised. (Some of the shops below now use Bookshop.org, which is still in its beta version, as their e-comm platform.)

Below is a non-definitive list of bookstores in the Twin Cities that are still filling web, email, and phone orders right now. Please remember this can change, and I’m sure I missed some that should be included. My intent is to help people spread the love around and also see which locations you didn’t know about or haven’t visited. Maybe when this all ends — and it will end, rest assured — we’ll see each other at one of the locations for a reading, book club, or just to browse.

Birchbark Books

birchbarkbooks.com | 612-374-4023 | email via form | Note: specializing in books by or about indigenous peoples — every Louise Erdrich title is signed!

Book House in Dinkytown

bookhouseindinkytown.com | 612-331-1430 | email via form

Daybreak Press Global Bookstore

daybreak-international-bookstore.myshopify.com | 612-584-3359 | daybreak@rabata.org | Note: specializing in global books that focus on faith, social justice, and women’s empowerment

DreamHaven Books

dreamhavenbooks.com | 612-823-6161 | dream@dreamhavenbooks.com | Note: specializing in science fiction, fantasy, horror, film and media books, comics, and graphic novels

Eat My Words Bookstore

eatmywordsbooks.com | 651-243-1756 | eatmywordsbooks@gmail.com 

The Irreverent Bookworm

irrevbooks.com | 612-500-4339 | inquiries@irrevbooks.com | Note: free shipping on all Minnesota orders

James and Mary Laurie Booksellers

lauriebooks.com| 612-338-1114 | orders@lauriebooks.com | Note: specializing in used and rare books and records

Magers & Quinn Booksellers

magersandquinn.com | 612-822-4611 | email via form | Note: free shipping on orders over $25

Midway Used & Rare Books

midwaybook.com | 651-644-7605 | orders@midwaybook.com | Note: free shipping on orders over $20

Milkweed Books

milkweed.org/bookstore | 612-215-2540 | orders@milkweed.org

Moon Palace Books

moonpalacebooks.com | 612-454-0455 | info@moonpalacebooks.com

Next Chapter Book Sellers

nextchapterbooksellers.com | 651-225-8989 | info@nextchapterbooksellers.com

Once Upon a Crime: Mystery Books

onceuponacrimebooks.indielite.org | 612-870-3785 | onceuponacrimebooks@gmail.com

Paperback Exchange

cargocollective.com/paperbackexchange | 612-929-8801 | info@paperbackexchange.com

Red Balloon Bookshop

redballoonbookshop.com | 651-224-8320 |info@redballoonbookshop.com | Note: specializing in children’s lit, free shipping on orders over $20

Subtext Books

subtextbooks.com | 651-493-2791 | subtextinfo@gmail.com | Note: $2 shipping in Minnesota, $4 across the U.S.

Wild Rumpus Books

wildrumpusbooks.com | 612-920-5005 | info@wildrumpusbooks.com | Note: specializing in children’s lit

10 things to know about Henry

This week, we lost Henry. He was a rabbit. He was our friend. There has been so much sadness in our little zoo of a house, but also a lot of remembrance.

Henry the rabbit

Anyone who’s ever loved a “pet” (a term I dislike) for some time knows that they have a unique personality and tendency to do particular, oftentimes funny, things. In spite of his small size of 2.5 lbs for most of his life, Henry had one of the biggest spirits I’ve encountered in an animal. And he regularly left a mark on people who met him.

So in celebration, rather than sadness, I with Stephanie’s help put together a brief list of facts about Hen Hen. (Oh, and like most companion animals, he ended up with many nicknames over the years.)

That said, Henry was . . .

1. In double digits

We first brought Henry home in January 2011, but he’d had another home before that for about a year. So we estimate he was born sometime in 2009, and had likely turned 10 years old in recent days. We were always commenting about what a spry little guy he remained, even in his later days, running around and jumping and nudging us to pay attention.

One memory that came to mind last night: Every week after we’d clean the bunny cage, he’d hop in and do an inspection, looking under the platform in particular to make sure everything was just right and sometimes kicking bedding out into the main area.

Henry on the day we brought him home. Note also the wicker furniture indoors.

2. Originally called Frodo

Yeah — that had to change. At his first house, he had the unfortunate experience of being named after a hobbit, and even though he ate like one, it didn’t fit him. At that time, I’d been misguidedly reading a lot of Thoreau in search of enlightenment. The one lasting effect was that I had the perfect name for our little buddy.

3. In a relationship

None of us animals are meant to be alone, right? So, half a year after we brought home Henry, Harper followed in July 2011. The two took to each other immediately. Which isn’t always the case with rabbits, and some pairs bond only after exceptionally difficulty and effort from their humans. And that remained unchanged even as Harpie (again, the nicknames) grew from being half his size to twice his size. I don’t care if it’s anthropomorphizing: These two loved each other. Insert quote about love and how it relates to hating the absence of someone. And his loss has been just as hard on her.

Henry and Harper the rabbits
Harper visiting Henry at the hospital one of the last times.

4. A true pal

When I was sick, Henry hopped on the bed to make sure I was all right. When a friend needed a wingman, Henry posed for a Tinder profile pic (you know who you are!). When you were down, he’d come up an nudge you with his nose, then rub his chin on you to mark you as part of his crew. Indeed he was a true pal.

5. A movie star

His debut performance was in “Animaux à Paris” — a grade-A film written, directed, and produced by yours truly for French 201. He starred as Monsieur Lapin, with Harper performing as sa femme, Mademoiselle Lapin. From these humble beginnings, he rose to play the role of Rabbit Friend in a short called “Jamie Snodgrass: Class-C Mulberry Scout” from the Indianapolis-based artist collective Know No Stranger.

Henry the rabbit in a movie

6. And a model

Henry and Harper worked the angles for an article about rabbit care. And yeah, maybe I took the photos, and wrote the article, so there might’ve been some nepotism, but look at the top-tier smizing. If you meet bunny people, you know that they could talk forever about rabbits and their unique dietary and health concerns. This piece allowed me to sum it up in a way that was hopefully helpful to others (with serious SEO value, right fellow AL newsies?). One of the vets interviewed commented: “The rabbit patients I have share a very strong human-animal bond.” An understatement.

Henry and Harper the rabbits

7. An adventurous eater

Although rabbit diets consist largely of timothy hay and pellets — not carrots and iceberg lettuce as sometimes thought — they can enjoy a number of other foods. And enjoy Hen did. A non-exhaustive list of things he tried and liked includes apple, watermelon, blueberries, strawberries, various lettuces and spinach, celery, parsley, carrot and radish greens, dill, basil, spinach, collard greens, rose petals, grapes, and so on. His favorites were cilantro and banana (as evidenced in this video). Some mornings, I would make him a plate of greens so that we could eat breakfast together. The only things he didn’t seem to care for were mango and mint, go figure.

Rabbit eats spinach from plate

(The House Rabbit Society offers a list of fruits and veggies approved that are good for bunnies.)

8. A too-adventurous eater

Listen, no shame here — bunnies have to chew on things to keep their teeth from growing too long. Which leads to serious health issues and costly remedies. But Henny Hen would on occasion eat some unapproved snacks too, including homework and a senior portfolio, shoes in the closet and pants even while they were being worn (leaving a hole in the butt), a chunk of Nutrigrain bar right from Stephanie’s hand.

9. A bun of the world

Counting the place where he was born and his first house where we picked him up from in 2011, Henry lived in 10 homes during his life, as Stephanie and I moved during college in Indy and then during and after grad school in Minnesota. He was a trooper, though, typically taking to new digs quicker than Harp or any of his cat sibs.

The entire crew (at the time two buns and two cats) even stayed in a hotel for a week as we waited for our first Mankato apartment to be finished. We convinced the company to give us two rooms, considering the size of our group. One day, however, the bunnies whom I’d let out a little earlier to exercise in the second room, were nowhere to be found. I thought housekeeping might have come in and taken them away, but then I looked under the bed and saw something moving around in the box spring. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” I reported to Stephanie, “but the bunnies are inside the bed.”

Henry the rabbit with Herman the kitten
Henry munching some paper the first time he met little Herman.

10. A little guy with a big personality

Henry was never afraid of new people. He played with dogs and cats during his life, and oftentimes pushed them around. He was a boss, but the kind you like to have. Henry was so involved in our daily life — the fun, silly chaos of living with five wild dingi — that we have been experiencing many first times doing this or that without him.

In true Libra fashion, I rang in my birthday last night with tears. “Animals break your heart,” a friend recently told me. It’s true, but only if they take up significant space in it to begin with. So although this post is supposed to contain facts about Hen, here are a few about us: 1. We miss Henry very much. 2. We hope we gave him the best life a bun could have. 3. We are very sad for his loss. 4. We don’t see that changing anytime soon. 5. We know it’s because we so enormously loved and were loved by that little guy.

Henry the rabbit