Free River Press: Giving Voice to the Forgotten

Greta Anderson
From the November/December 1999 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

As with any number of small publishers, Bob Wolf’s publishing house, Free River Press, works out of his home. The similarities, however, stop there. Free River’s “acquisitions” come directly from Wolf’s community writing workshops. And its books are written by people “without literary ambition,” as Wolf puts it, folks with a profound connection to place and an unshakable commitment to their way of life. A natural outgrowth of Wolf’s restless youth experimenting with jobs that brought him face-to-face with a variety of people—he was a ranch hand in New Mexico, a journalist in Chicago, a teacher in inner-city Brooklyn schools and at a penitentiary, as well as a doctoral candidate in philosophy, a dabbler in art, a hitchhiker and hobo—the press has as its mission the preservation and amplification of America’s unheard voices. 

Wolf’s farmhouse is located several miles outside of Lansing, Iowa, a town of 1,000 on the Mississippi River. It’s a good ways off the map, along a road that winds through a wooded creek hollow, then back up a hill and down a long gravel drive. The house is white clapboard outside, a colorful gallery inside, bedecked by wife Bonnie Koloc’s various paintings and constructions. (Koloc is also the house artist for Free River Press, providing wood-block prints for most of the book covers.) 

In the kitchen a group of Wolf’s writers is standing, sipping coffee over introductions and talk of the weather. It is a hazy autumn morning, and some have arrived from farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin, across the border from this northeastern Iowa locale. Few of them were in the practice of writing before they began frequenting this house. All of them started their morning with chores. Now they wait with anticipation for the workshop to begin, sharing some laughs to pass the time.

Free River Press got its start 10 years ago when Wolf and Koloc, a newly married couple, moved from Chicago to Nashville seeking a change of venue for her folksinging career. Wolf turned his part-time job teaching basic literacy at a downtown men’s shelter into a tight-knit workshop to develop the writing and storytelling that many of the homeless did on their own, as a matter of course. The concept gained momentum, with jam-packed public readings covered first by local press and then by National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.

As Wolf describes it, Nashville in 1989 was the right place and the right time for a “do-it-yourself” project of this type to take hold. The shelter was smack in the midst of the old honky-tonks, a vivid if somewhat wistful reminder of what had lured the dreamers and drifters to town. The optimism of the homeless was mirrored by the social services there. Realizing the workshop’s value, the homeless coordinator for the State of Tennessee’s Department of Human Services helped found the press in order to publish the poets who had emerged through it. “Our intention was to give the homeless a voice, put a face to the statistics, to humanize the problem,” says Wolf. The poets even went on a statewide reading tour to promote their new works.

Then, swiftly, the Nashville magic faded for Wolf. The shelter moved out of the downtown region, away from the street culture. Inspired on a visit to Koloc’s family by Iowa’s rural beauty, Wolf persuaded his wife to move back to her homeland.

At the time, Iowa’s vistas of rolling fields, red barns, and grain silos rising into the broad blue sky were the setting for one of America’s tragic stories: the displacement of the farmer. By 1991, the ’80s cycle of the “farm crisis” had taken down many of its victims, as loans drawn on overvalued land collapsed with the markets. One by one, farmers had been forced to abandon their livelihoods and legacies and move into town. With the legendary stoicism ascribed to them, few talked about their troubles, beyond commonplace grumbling in coffee shops. It was in this context that Wolf introduced himself and invited his neighbors to share their lives in writing.

Their acquiescence was gradual, with overtones of disbelief. As Wolf’s neighbor, Barb Leppert, puts it: “We thought, ‘Why would anyone want to read about us?’” The efforts of their two-year workshop made it into print in 1992 in the anthology Voices From the Land, and then in 1995 into the national TV spotlight when CBS Sunday Morning visited the Iowa farmhouse for a seven-minute segment on the workshop, transforming the self-image of the small agricultural community. “People sat up and took notice,” says Leppert. “They said, ‘Why, we know those things; we could have written that.’” 

The farm industry is down again, experiencing Depression-era lows, with no signs of improvement. Corporations and investors capitalize on the farmers’ plight by offering contract arrangements to those who are at the end of their credit line. Some become virtually indentured, owning only the land and the buildings but not the crop or the livestock, and having no way to realize again “the American Dream” of free enterprise. By now, there’s little doubt of “what’s what” in agriculture, only the perennial question: “Whose side are you on?” Wolf’s guests know the answer, and are here to reconstruct how history brought them to such a pass. 

This autumn morning, Wolf begins the workshop by sharing a piece from a Free River Press anthology. It is an organic farmer’s story of his decisive “conversion” from chemicals, a tale of terror, hilarity, woe, and reconciliation. After the story is read aloud, Wolf asks his writers to name its most memorable, effective details. Part of his job is to teach such writing basics as the essential “Show, don’t tell.” The other part is, with only occasional cues, to let the group’s natural storytelling abilities take over. When the discussion slips from form to content, the buzz intensifies, as the writers seated at Wolf’s dining room table piece together individual memories into a vivid patchwork. One participant recalls hearing radio spots after World War II warning farmers that only the fittest would survive in the years ahead. The notion of competition, she says, was utterly new to her community. Wolf stops her: “Hold on to that…. That can be your first story.” 

Another farmer remembers being rejected for a loan because the sum was too modest. “Even in the early sixties, the logic was, ‘bigger is better,’” he says. Then a dairy farmer at the end of the table speaks his first words. “I remember at the feed store, they had a sign posted that said, ‘You can’t do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools.’” After a brief pause, the whole group chimes, “That’s your story!” In such anecdotes, the group instantly recognizes the pattern of exploitation that they all have faced. And they support each other in their efforts to record it. 

It helps them to know that revelations like these will be shared with a national audience. As a result of the radio and television publicity, Free River’s farm anthologies have done well by small press standards, selling about 3,500 copies each, as America phoned in, eager to catch up on the hidden drama of the heartland. 

The drama unfolds in the dining room that morning. A thin, gray-haired dairy farmer, who is later jokingly called “a pearl between swine” because he is seated between two very stout, red-faced fellows in overalls, begins to reveal his part of the patchwork. It starts out as a story about his son, who wanted to buy an implement dealership in the ’70s. “I didn’t feel right putting the farm on that mortgage, but it had to be done.” Interest soared to 22 percent, the dealership failed, and the farm got whisked away. “I bought it back, though,” he assures us, “and been farming ever since, up until…” Then he falters. “Last week I sold it all at auction. I’ll be lucky to pay my taxes.” 

The group is stunned into a nervous silence. But he is not done. “My wife and I, we’ve been through a lot—her polio, my broken neck, heart problems, and a near-broken back. I was broke when I started, bought the farm twice, and when God takes me back, I suppose I’ll be broke then, too.” He is flushed when he finishes. “Write that down,” the others say, tenderly. “That’s your story. You’ve got to tell it.” Shortly thereafter, the paper is distributed and the writing begins. 

Getting the workshop participants to write as eloquently as they speak is the essence of Wolf’s challenge. And it is also his basic pitch: “If you can talk, you can write,” he has told each of his contributors. Workshop participants pay close attention to how each story is told out loud, then remind each other of parts omitted when the written drafts are read. Of course, the details of farming operations are complex, so another of Wolf’s pitches is to “remember that your reader is living in New York or L.A.” The idea of some poor soul stuck in a city somewhere serves to increase the writers’ generosity with words: Imagine not knowing hay from straw, or never having seen the dawn from the perspective of chores already done.

Indeed, two New York City readers from Oxford University Press were deeply moved by the unembellished truth of the stories Wolf had published. Ellen Chodosh, vice president, and Elda Roter, acquisitions editor, worked closely with Wolf on an anthology of Free River writings that Oxford brought out in July. In addition to selections from Free River’s 18 books and chapbooks, American Mosaic includes writing from the Mississippi Delta region of Arkansas, where Wolf has been digging more recently, and new work from Iowa. Roter, a self-confessed “sheltered city person,” says that she connected immediately to the farm writings. “Listening to these voices was beautiful and stirring. The fact that all of these people have had close relationships with Bob as a teacher and editor adds something very sincere to the work.” The Oxford anthology has done well: After just a couple of months, it is already into a second printing. 

Not all of the stories are sad or bittersweet. Many are simple remembrances of the way things used to be. At age 84, Clara Leppert, Barb’s mother-in-law, was encouraged by Wolf and her colleagues to write of threshing days, peddlers, teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, courtship, a fulfilling marriage, a lifestyle and values all but forgotten. As Wolf explains in the preface to the resulting book, Simple Times (1993), “…nowadays we find a split between entertainment and information. There is seldom that split for folk writers, who are concerned with passing on the stuff of their lives…. Clara Leppert’s writing is a reflection of Clara, and exemplifies the best qualities of good folk writing: It is direct, plain, and unpretentious.” 

As a teacher and editor, Wolf has a very light and caring touch. He never criticizes his writers’ work, simply teaching them to look for parts that are repetitious or in need of explanation. In the case of one writer, he printed misspellings, as they phonetically reflected the speaker’s dialect. A sense of community emerges through Wolf’s introductions to the pieces; he writes of an aggregate “us” to whom the writers spoke, or whom they surprised, challenged, or mystified. Still, or perhaps because of that, the integrity of the writer is always preserved. 

Wolf has taken his ability to provoke a thoughtful sense of community, and then to incarnate it in print, to rural towns whose youth are drifting away, or whose way of life is irrevocably changing, for better or worse. Funded by grants, Wolf will travel to towns for three days at a time, holding workshop sessions attended by a diverse cross-section of the populace. One of Wolf’s most distinctive projects in this vein is The Northeast Iowa Book (1997), an 11-by-13-inch newsprint collection of contributions from high school and university students, artists, and professionals, as well as Koloc’s wood-block prints. The type of regional consciousness that these projects develop has been widely seen as the key to economic survival for rural communities across the country. Perhaps some of those students will find their fulfillment locally, after all. 

As for Wolf, whose life has traced a journey across our landscape, he will continue to search for distinctly American utterances in unmapped or unattended corners of the country. In this sense, the latest anthology, American Mosaic, is less retrospective than prospective. Wolf describes it as a work-in-progress, a “miniature version of what I hope to accomplish over the next twenty-five years.” 


Greta Anderson is a freelance writer, vegetable grower, and activist living in Iowa.