The dents and poems made by Jim Chalgren

When Jim Chalgren left Mankato in 1987, he distributed a self-published book of poetry called “Mankato Poems.” The collection ends appropriately enough with the lines, “Jim Chalgren/having made his dent/he left town.”

Of course by that point in time, Chalgren had in fact made quite the dent on Mankato.

What Chalgren is most commonly known for is founding the Jim Chalgren LGBT Center at Minnesota State, which is the second-oldest campus LGBT center in the United States. In addition to creating the LGBT Center, Chalgren was also involved with creation of the Mankato Area Gay Consciousness Group, a recognized student organization at MSU that preceded the LGBT Center. Chalgren also pushed for a local ordinance to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but this never passed the city council.

In addition to being an activist, Chalgren also displayed an artistic side. He was both a passionate dancer and self-published poet.

In “On the Town,” Chalgren describes experiencing an innocent night out with an unnamed partner dancing in a series of non-gay bars:

“Feels good

ot to have to hide

eels great

o integrate.”

Of course Chalgren wrote about more than just dancing. He also wrote about his struggles dealing with homophobia in Mankato and his efforts to fight back against discrimination.

In “Headline News” Chalgren wrote a blistering attack on the Mankato City Council after their failure to pass a non-discrimination ordinance in 1987. In a lengthy diatribe, Chalgren lobbed insults and criticism at those who voted against the ordinance. 

“Headline News” is the longest poem in the collection, which is probably due to Chalgren’s extraordinary anger with the Mankato City Council at the time:

“A dark day for Mankato

City without a conscience

Town without a soul.” 

A frequent topic that Chalgren returned to was the relationship with the grandmother he shared a birthday with. From his poems it was apparent they were close. Unfortunately, his coming out as gay caused an irreparable rift in their relationship.

The poems Chalgren wrote about his grandmother indicate he was unable to speak to her or visit her during the last 12 years of her life. Even after her death, Chalgren was barred from her funeral.

“I wasn’t good enough

To carry your corpse away

But good enough

For flowers on your grave.”

Another topic he frequently addressed  was HIV and AIDS. Chalgren was diagnosed in the mid-80s and his poetry reflects his complicated feelings toward the disease. In “AIDS Diagnosed” Chalgren wrote: 

“I’ve been infected with some weird new virus,

I’m a person living with AIDS.”

Anger is a common theme throughout Chalgren’s poems. Hope is present, but at times can feel like an endangered species. I get the impression Chalgren used “Mankato Poems” to express thoughts and feelings he generally would have had to suppress as a gay activist in the seventies and eighties. In “Our Town” he wrote:

“And the people

Are killing us

In this god-forsaken town.” .

While Chalgren does not have many nice things to say in “Mankato Poems” about Mankato, he expresses hope most explicitly when he talks about his experiences with the National Gay and Lesbian March on Washington. Chalgren wrote in “National Gay/Lesbian March on Washington”:

“We’re here

Arm in arm 

Our victory is clear

I marched in front 

People with AIDS 

Must have been more than a thousand.” 

There is a lot more I could write about Chalgren and “Mankato poems.” Reading the collection has brought forth more emotions in myself that I could ever capture in a single column.

All I can say in conclusion is that I honestly believe Chalgren would want us to ask ourselves, what’s the biggest kind of positive dent we can we make on this world?

And then we should go and make that dent.

Write to Jeremy Redlien at

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