Penchant Poets: Bringing Power to Poetry for Decades

Originally called Northfield Women Poets, this group of accomplished poets continue to support each other
Penchant co-founders Karen Herseth Wee and Riki Kölbl Nelson with the City of Northfield Penchant Day Proclamation.

Editor’s note: As part of Women’s History Month, we invited writer and poet Susan Thurston to highlight an organization she is a member of, the Penchant Poets.

Not even a pandemic stopped the Penchant Poets from honing their work and supporting each other as creatives as they have for nearly 60 years.

Karen Herseth Wee and Riki Kölbl Nelson met in 1967, wives of new St. Olaf College faculty in Northfield. Northfield Women Poets was born from their passion for writing poetry and craving for connection. They set a capacity of around a dozen and crafted a manifesto to be signed by members upon acceptance. Poets met weekly in each other’s homes (monthly during summer) to critique poems. Dues defrayed costs of travel to readings or publication. During “planning potlucks,” members set hosting schedules. When they changed their collective’s name to Penchant, they were an established force in poetry.

“We often retreat at my family’s lake cabin,” says Herseth Wee. “From the first cup of coffee to the last sip of a nightcap, we work from dozens of prompts, discuss articles about craft, and gain inspiration by reading aloud poetry by the likes of Carolyn Forche or Jericho Brown.”

“Drafts cover the table, and these amazing women—pens poised—focus on each other’s work. It was—is—critical to my journey as a writer and woman. When my now-adult-children were babies, I’d bring them to meetings, where they’d be passed around the table like our poems,” says Susan Thurston, a member since the 1980s. “With COVID-19, we just kept meeting virtually.”

Their diversity is deeper than what is visible; none were born in Northfield, ages range by decades, and family roles vary. Members have bolstered each other through broken relationships, job changes, financial crises, and the deaths of parents, children, and each other. They give readings, participate in panels and teach. Acclaimed by peers and professional associations, most also create other art.

The Black Hat Press, once managed by Penchant member Beverly Voldseth and now by her granddaughter Samantha McDowell, will issue its fifth anthology, “What Wakes Her in the Night.”

All members are published poets. Florence Chard Dacey has published four poetry collections: “The Swoon,” “The Necklace,” “Maynard Went This Way,” and “Rock Worn by Water.” She has received several Artist Career Grants, a Loft-McKnight Award, and a Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize.

Mary Moore Easter’s collection “The Body of the World” was a finalist for the 2018 Minnesota Book Award in Poetry. A Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and Cave Canem Fellow, she founded and directed the dance program at Carleton College. Her work “Free Papers” was awarded Minnesota State Arts Board support for research and performance preparation.

Toni Easterson regularly wrote op-eds for the Hartford Courant. Having had her poems published in many different books and collections, she has taught, tutored and mentored many students, and as an acclaimed textile artist, she has taught many more to sew and knit. Two of her poems grace Northfield sidewalks.

Andrea Een is a poet, musician, and professor of music emerita at St. Olaf College. The Minnesota State Arts Board named her a Master Folk Artist; she has composed over 20 marches, dances, and tunes for Hardanger fiddle. The Norwegian government awarded her the St. Olaf Medal for supporting Norwegian folk music in the United States.

Marie Vogl Gery’s poetry is included in all of the group’s anthologies: “A Rich Salt Place,” “Absorb the Colors,” “Tremors Vibrations Enough to Rearrange the World,” and “Penchant.” She participated in the The Loft Mentor Series, was awarded a Minnesota Arts Board Grant and an Association of Art Education fellowship.

Sigi Leonhard is the author of “Stimmen.” With poetry published extensively, her play “Truth Serum” received a staged reading at the Minneapolis Playwrights Center in 2018. A professor at Carleton College she has published on Goethe, Christa Wolf, Ingeborg Bachmann, Monika Maron and East German film.

JoAnne Makela has published in the journals Water Stone Review, RagMag, and Poetry Motel, and the juried photography/poetry collaboration “Open to Interpretation: Water’s Edge,” her chapbook “Sidedoor,” and the anthology “Penchant.” A former board member of The Loft, she specializes in writing about the arts and creates content for educational publishing.

Jane Taylor McDonnell is the author of “News From the Border,” which won the Minnesota Nonfiction Book Award and was translated into German, Italian, and Portuguese; “Living to Tell the Tale: A Guide to Writing Memoir,” and “A Bone in the Throat.” She has taught writing classes at Carleton College.

Riki Kölbl Nelson’s credits include “The Fall Heart” and the bilingual collection “Borders/Grenzen.” She co-chaired the Song and Poetry Conference in New York sponsored by Alice Parker. She most recently exhibited her art as one of seven founding artists at the Northfield Arts Guild.

Tracy Rittmueller is executive co-director of Lyricality, which strives to bring transformation to the spaces where she practices by offering beauty and hope through artistic expression. Drawing from her life experiences and the diverse cultures of her communities, she collaborates to create environments that foster connection, healing and empowerment.

Karen Sandberg has studied with Jericho Brown, Joan Kane, Deborah Keenan, and Thomas R. Smith. She has published in Main Street Rag, South Dakota Review, Vita Brevis, Freshwater Journal, and Penchant. Finishing Line Press has published her debut poetry collection, “Dreams of the Floating House.”

Susan Thurston’s credits include the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Los Angeles Review, The Writer’s Almanac, Minnesota Monthly; several anthologies; and the chapbook “Wild Bone Season.” A Pushcart nominee, her novel “Sister of Grendel” (Calumet Editions) was awarded the Catalyst Story Institute Literary Award and a Midwest Book Award for best fantasy novel.

Karen Herseth Wee authored “The Book of Hearts,” a finalist for the 1994 Minnesota Book Award; the chapbook “Before Language”; and “Baksheesh: A Journey,” a memoir about a 5-month international study trip with 30 St. Olaf College students. Some of her poems are in “The Anthology of New American Verse” and “The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home.”

The City of Northfield declared April 20, 2023, Penchant Poet Day. The independent bookstore Content was crammed with Penchant fans for a celebratory reading featuring almost all current Penchant members: (from left) Florence Chard Dacey, JoAnne Makela, Andrea Een, Tracy Rittmueller, Karen Sandberg, Riki Kölbl Nelson, Susan Thurston, Sigi Leonhard, Jane Taylor McDonnell, and Karen Herseth Wee.