The Power of a Mentor – A Tribute to Bill Holm

Filed in Gather Books Essential by on February 28, 2009 0 Comments


On Wednesday evening, I attended a reading for Elissa Elliott’s new book, Eve: A Novel of the First Woman at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. As with many author readings, the discussion questions afterward turned toward writing, and Elissa made a point to credit her mentor Allison McGhee, author of Shadow Baby, who she had worked with both while she had taken a class with her at The Loft, and when she won Loft Mentor Series Creative Non-Fiction award for her memoir in 2003-2004.

The next morning, I learned of the passing of one of my own mentors, Bill Holm. I had the good fortune of taking numerous writing workshops and a couple literature classes with Bill while at Southwest State University (before the name change to Southwest Minnesota State University). I took way more than what I needed for my major, causing Bill to dub me “the workshop junkie.” Even after college, I owned several of his books, attended his readings when I could, and listened to broadcasts on Minnesota Public Radio. I’m incredibly greatful for MPR’s archives, because it’s a great comfort to be able to go back and hear his voice.

To his own credit, Bill Holm was a champion poet and essayist. He was the 2008 winner of The McKnight Foundation’s Distinguished Artist Award, an honor held in past years by his longtime publisher at Milkweed, Emilie Buchwald, and his own mentor, Robert Bly. He wrote several books, including, among many others, The Box Elder Bug Variations, The Music of Failure, Eccentric Islands, The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth, Playing the Black Piano, and most recently, Windows of Brimnes – An American in Iceland.

 But true literature is about more than accomplishments or a list of credits. It absorbs into you and helps define you — not just as a reader or a writer, but as a human being. Over the past few days as I’ve remembered Bill, I’ve begun to realize how much his influence has helped to shape who I am.  

Over and over, in his writing, his teaching, and the way he interacted with those around him Bill absorbed the best of everyone he knew, and longed for humanity to do better because he knew we had it in us. It was almost as pleasurable to watch him as a spectator at someone else’s reading, on the edge of his seat, draining the nectar out of every word. You could be sure that whatever he took would be given back, as part of an essay, a poem, or advice to a student or a friend.

In truth, Bill was a “workshop junkie” himself. But he made the whole world his classroom, traveling and reading extensively, sharing his observations with whoever would listen — and some that didn’t. Bill was the eternal student, a continual work in progress, constantly revising, and getting better with every draft.

Bill Holm may have left this life, but he left so much behind. I believe there is a part of Bill in everyone who knew him. And thank goodness. Because there is so much left to learn.


Gretchen Lee Bourquin’s Blog is syndicated weekly on, WordPress, Associated Content, and her website. Her novel, No Sensible People, is available in paperback on Amazon.comor in print and download from For further updates, please consider following her on Twitter.

About the Author ()

I'm a single mom with two teens with a day job in a cubicle. I prefer to be writing or reading.

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