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Bill Holm papers

Identifier: Mss100

Scope and Content Note

The collection contains material documenting Bill Holm’s work as a writer, teacher and musician. The bulk of the collection dates from 1954 to 2008, and includes correspondence and manuscripts of Holm’s poetry, prose, and music compositions. The correspondence includes letters from many well-known Minnesota writers, such as Carol Bly, Robert Bly, Phebe Hanson, Garrison Keillor, Frederick Manfred, and Mark Vinz. Manuscript material for nearly all of Holm’s published works, and well as some unpublished works, is present in the collection.

In addition to correspondence and manuscripts, the collection also includes personal ephemera; schoolwork; journals; reviews and press about Holm; event programs and posters; curricula from Holm’s teaching; travel brochures from Iceland and other locations; photographs; and periodicals, literary journals, chapbooks, and books by Holm and others.

The collection is strong in documenting not only Holm’s life and work, but also the work of other writers and the relationships between writers in the Minnesota literary scene. Use of this collection is a must for anyone interested in studying rural life, writing about Minnesota, and Midwestern writers.


  • Creation: 1922 - 2009
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1954 - 2008


Language of Materials




Restrictions on Access

The collection is open and available for use by researchers in the Andersen Library Reading Room.

Restrictions on Use

Copyright is retained by the copyright holder.

Biographical Note

Bill Holm (1943-2009) was a poet, musician, essayist, and teacher from Minneota, Minnesota. Holm published fifteen books of poetry and prose between 1985 and 2009, and was the winner of two Minnesota Book Awards. He taught at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota, from 1980 until retiring in 2008. Much of Holm’s writing is autobiographical in nature, depicting Minnesota culture and small-town life.

William Jon Holm was born on August 25, 1943 on a farm near Minneota, Minnesota to parents William “Bill” and Jonina “Jona” (Josephson) Holm. Growing up in Minneota, Holm had an interest in poetry, writing, and music from an early age. By age 10, Holm was reading the work of Walt Whitman, composing poems, and playing the piano. Holm graduated from Minneota High School in 1961, and then attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, where he earned a B.A. in English in 1965. As a young poet from Minnesota, Holm was very much influenced by the work of Robert Bly from Madison, Minnesota. Robert Bly was already a well-known fixture in the national literary scene by the 1960s. Holm forged decades-long relationships with Robert and Carol Bly, who both critiqued and edited his writing.

Holm moved to Lawrence, Kansas in 1965 to attend graduate school at the University of Kansas. Here, Holm met fellow Minnesota poet and lifelong friend, John Rezmerski, also a graduate student in the Department of English at the University of Kansas. Holm graduated from the University of Kansas in 1967 with his M.A. in English. He stayed at the University of Kansas until 1970, teaching and working towards a Ph.D. in English. Holm’s dissertation, on composer Charles Ives, was never completed.

In 1966, Holm married Judith Carey in Willmar, Minnesota. The couple divorced in 1975, shortly before Holm moved back to Minnesota after spending five years as an Assistant Professor in English and Creative Writing at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. Between 1975 and 1980, Holm held several brief teaching posts in Minnesota and overseas, while also writing, publishing, and performing. After moving back to Minnesota from Virginia, Holm got a job as a Writer-in-Residence at Lakewood Community College in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. At the same time, Holm became involved in the COMPAS (Community Programs in the Arts and Sciences) Poets in the Schools program and Minnesota Poetry Outloud, performing music and poetry alongside other Minnesota poets across the state, including John Rezmerski, Margaret Hasse, Phebe Hanson, Joe Paddock, Nancy Paddock, Howard Mohr, Louis Jenkins, and Cary Waterman.

Holm’s parents were first generation Icelandic Americans, and this heritage was an important part of Holm’s interest in literature, history, and genealogy. From 1979-1980, Holm was a Fulbright lecturer in American Literature at the University of Iceland, Reykjavik. While in Iceland, he also taught students through the University of Maryland at the Keflavik NATO base. After spending two years in Iceland, Holm returned to the United States, but Iceland and Icelandic culture would inform much of his writing for the next three decades. In 1980, Holm started teaching as an Assistant Professor of English at Southwest State University, and was later promoted to Professor in 1998. Holm taught at Southwest State University until his retirement in 2008.

By the mid-1980s, Holm was eager to publish a full book of poetry. Up until that point, Holm had only published chapbooks, including Warm Spell (1980) and Minnesota Lutheran Handbook (1981), and individual pieces of prose and poetry in publications such as The Gathering Post, Milkweed Chronicle, The Nation, Minnesota Monthly, and Vinland. In 1985, Minneapolis publisher Milkweed Editions published a book of Holm’s poetry titled Boxelder Bug Variations: A Meditation on an Idea in Language and Music. That same year, Plains Press (Marshall, Minnesota) published a book of Holm’s essays titled The Music of Failure, later published as Prairie Days in 1987. Milkweed Editions published seven more books of poetry and prose by Holm between 1990 and 2009, comprising the majority of his body of work.

In 1986, Holm traveled to Xi’an, China to teach at Xi’an Jiaotong University as part of a year-long faculty exchange program. Much like his travels in Iceland, Holm’s work in China had a profound impact on his writing. His year teaching in China would become the basis for his 1990 book Coming Home Crazy: An Alphabet of China Essays published by Milkweed Editions. The book received a substantial amount of press and won a Minnesota Book Award in 1991. While in China from 1986 to 1987, Holm met his partner Marcella “Marcy” Brekken, also from Minnesota. The couple married in 2006. Holm returned to China in 1992 to teach in the city of Wuhan and later led other study abroad excursions to China with Southwest State University students.

Holm continued to perform, teach, and write through the 2000s. In 2000, Holm and Canadian writer David Arnason founded a writer’s workshop in Hofsos, Iceland, and Holm continued to lead the workshop each summer for the next eight years. In 2008, Holm was awarded the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award for artists who choose to make their lives and careers in Minnesota. Between 1980 and 2008, Holm was the recipient of several other prestigious awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1987), two Bush Arts Fellowships (1982 and 1996), two Minnesota Book Awards (Coming Home Crazy, 1991 and The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere On Earth, 1997), and the John T. Flanagan Award for outstanding achievement in literature in the Midwest (1997). Holm died on February 25, 2009.


48 Linear Feet (35 record cartons, 8 hollinger boxes, 8 flat boxes, 4 book trays)


This collections contains the papers of Minnesota poet, musician, and essayist Bill Holm (1943-2009), including manuscripts, correspondence, published works, journals, publicity, teaching curricula, and materials collected from Holm's travels.


  1. Personal
  2. Correspondence
  3. Manuscripts
  4. Journals
  5. Publicity
  6. Teaching
  7. Travel
  8. Photographs
  9. Subject Files
  10. Publications

Physical Location

HB (R5, D17, S2-7); PS [42 "unwanted" boxes]

Other Finding Aids

A more detailed list of notable correspondents is available from the Upper Midwest Literary Archives upon request.


Collection was purchased in 2012.

Related Material

Related collections at the University of Minnesota Libraries include:

  1. Carol Bly papers (MSS079)
  2. John Rezmerski papers (MSS111)
  3. Milkweed Editions records (MSS080)
  4. Robert Bly papers (MSS081)

Processing Information

The collection was processed and the finding aid written by Carissa Hansen in 2017 with funds provided by the State of Minnesota from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society.

Processing work was done prior to 2017 by Karen Spilman, Susan Hoffman, Neil Polzin, and Carley Ruemmele.

The materials had no meaningful arrangement and little descriptive information upon receipt by the UMLA. Staff in the UMLA arranged the material according to Holm’s activities and ease of research use.

Bill Holm papers
Carissa Hansen
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Collecting Area Details

Contact The Upper Midwest Literary Archives Collecting Area