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James Lenfestey learned to set type at Red Dragonfly Press at Tower View, where fine press volumes of his poems have been printed. -- R-E photo by Ruth Nerhaugen

Poems seek to 'free the prisoner within'

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arts and entertainment Red Wing,Minnesota 55066
Poems seek to 'free the prisoner within'
Red Wing Minnesota 2760 North Service Drive / P.O. Box 15 55066

Writer James Lenfestey didn't know quite what to expect when the Anderson Center sent him to the Goodhue County Jail as his community service assignment.


He certainly didn't anticipate it would lead to a book, "Into the Goodhue County Jail: Poems to Free Prisoners."

"It set off a creative fire in me," the Minneapolis writer said.

And Scott King of Red Dragonfly Press --the press-in-residence at Tower View --saw potential in the resulting poems, which he printed in one of his limited edition, fine press volumes.

"Into the Goodhue County Jail" has become the basis for a writing exercise for prisoners here.

"The sequence of poems is about the techniques to free that prisoner within," Lenfestey said. "We are all prisoners inside."

Lenfestey explained the link between the project he was working on while in Red Wing -- T'Ang Dynasty poet Han-Shan -- and the jail population.

"Here I was coming to the Anderson Center, living like a monk in my cell here, writing about a hermit who lived in a cave in China, and whose only friends were the monks," Lenfestey said.

"There was this tremendous synergy," and ideas about the monks and people living in cells that led to a group of poems.

He described them as "me addressing the mythical prisoner," like a monk in his cell who comes out free.

When he makes his third visit to the jail during his October residency -- his third at Tower View -- Lenfestey said he will tell the prisoners who choose to attend his presentation what he told the others:

"I don't have the keys to the door in the stone wall, but I have the keys to free the prisoner inside you that got you in here -- and all it requires is a pencil and a piece of paper."

Using them, he will explain, "is a way to let your emotions come right up and reveal themselves."

Lenfestey will make two visits. During the first he'll explain the process. A week later he'll come back to listen to their stories.

He has been "practicing" poetry since high school, but his career focused on other forms of writing.

From 1991-97 Lenfestey was an award-winning editorial writer for the Star Tribune, covering topics including climate change and K-12 education -- topics he continues to address as a free-lance writer.

He resigned from the paper in order to pursue his first love, to be "just a writer," he said. "I wanted to get more emotion into my writing."

Lenfestey sent one of his manuscripts to Red Dragonfly Press. King liked it and printed "Affection for Spiders." The edition sold out.

"He got wind of my love for the Chinese poet Han-Shan" and offered to publish a collection of poems in that form, so Lenfestey applied for -- and received -- a residency at the Anderson Center to work on it.

Lenfestey's arrival in 2006 coincided with King's move into a historic granary at Tower View. He helped King move his presses, and in exchange learned how to set type.

That book, "Han-Shan is the Cure for Warts," also sold out. Lenfestey was so pleased with King's work that he took the book to China and left it at the cave of Han-Shan.

Then came "A Cartload of Scrolls," 100 poems in the Chinese style, which he worked on at the Anderson Center in 2008.

"This time I'm here to work on a prose and poetry book of the trip to China," Lenfestey said. "I'm telling the story of why I went and what I discovered there among the ancient poets."

He also will work on his "magnum opus": a manuscript containing poems inspired by his wife, Susan.

"I've been married to the same remarkable woman for 45 years, known her for 47 years, and been writing poems about her and us -- true tales of married life, warts and all -- for all those 47 years," he said.

"It's time to assemble those into some sort of mountain that can be climbed by others as well as by me."

Red Wing is the place to do it, Lenfestey said, adding that the 2006 and 2008 residencies here were "the most productive of my creative writing life."

The Anderson Center is recognized worldwide, he added, as "one of the best residential arts programs to allow artists of any kind to achieve their dreams."