"David Richard Pichaske, an academic in a backwoods check shirt, was born in Kenmore, New York,” begins Michael Gray’s entry on David Pichaske in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (2006). The adjective, the noun, and Gray’s book identify three of Pichaske’s main interests. He is indeed an academic, with a Ph. D. (Ohio University 1969), an early book on The Canterbury Tales (Norwood 1977), and articles on Spenser, Chaucer, T. S. Eliot, Norbert Blei and Dave Etter in places like Studies in English Literature, The Chaucer Review, Studies in American Fiction, and Journal of Modern Literature.
He lives in an old farm house on a gravel road along the Minnesota River, a region about which he has also published many books and articles. And he has, since the dawn of the sixties, found himself absorbed in rock music, with a particular interest in Bob Dylan, about which he has also published many books and articles. Pichaske is probably the only writer whose name appears in both the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia and the Riverside edition of Chaucer’s works. To these three add Pichaske’s other interests: travel, poetry, photography, and his family—wife, children, grandchildren.
David Pichaske was born near Buffalo, New York, in 1943. In the sixth grade he moved with his family to the other side of the Appalachians, to suburban Philadelphia—the East Coast—a place he mistakenly considered his home until he returned to his senses some decades later. Pichaske received his BA from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, where as sports editor of The Torch he won several awards, including “best collegiate sports columnist” in the state (no mean accomplishment, considering the other schools in Ohio).
During Pichaske’s four years at the school, the Wittenberg football team lost one game, tied another; the basketball team made regular appearances in the NCAA division II tournament; and the baseball team, on which he played, won the Ohio Conference in 1963. Pichaske the Torch sports writer had another unfair advantage: when he needed a quote, more often than not he just asked one of his brothers at Phi Mu Delta fraternity—a fraternity full of athletes and racially integrated, unusual in the early 1960s. At Wittenberg, Pichaske majored in history and English, headed the local chapter of Shifters, and helped hang an unpopular president in effigy. His experiences there, more than his East Coast years, may account for his enormous self-confidence . . . or arrogance.
Pichaske attended Ohio University from 1965-69, receiving an M.A. and a Ph. D. He was not at Woodstock, but he did participate in the campus demonstrations which cancelled the commencement ceremony in 1969. His first job was at Bradley Polytechnic Institute, in Peoria, Illinois, where a dean described him early on as “a prima donna who delivers, something I can live with.” Pichaske’s early books and articles were written in Peoria, and his two children—Stephen and Kristin—were born and graduated from high school there. His first wife still lives there.
In Peoria too was born Pichaske’s career as an editor publisher, first of The Spoon River Quarterly (a literary magazine devoted exclusively to poetry) and then Spoon River Poetry Press—so named to distinguish it from Spoon River Press—and Ellis Press (to allow publication of prose books). Supported by generous grants from the Illinois Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, the presses published a number of significant Midwest writers during the seventies, eighties, and nineties (see ellispress.com). The three-volume edition of Vachel Lindsay’s poems, edited by Dennis Camp, is the standard scholarly edition of Lindsay’s poetry; Jim McGowan’s Spoon River Poetry Press translations of Baudelaire’s poems became the Oxford University Press edition of Baudelaire; Felix Pollak’s Benefits of Doubt was translated into German; books by Etter, Blei, and Holm were reprinted by university presses. Several writers published by Spoon River/Ellis Press—including Norbert Blei, Dave Etter, Bill Holm, Bill Kloefkorn, John Knoepfle, Dennis Camp, Michael Anania, Ralph J. Mills—became lifelong friends and the subjects of some of Pichaske’s articles and books. Citing the relation between Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, Pichaske sees nothing wrong in writing scholarship on friends he has published. The press operations also allowed him to print several of his own books, and to reprint books which New York publishers allowed to drop out of print. Citing William Blake, Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Vachel Lindsay, among others, Pichaske sees nothing wrong with self-publication.
The close of the seventies were tough years in Peoria, as enrollments declined and inflation rose, and in 1979-80, for one reason or another, every member of the Bradley English department who had published a book left the school. Relevant here may be an academic novel by one Andrew Tucker titled Harassment: A Novel of Ideas (Samazdat Press, 2003). In 1981, Pichaske too lost his position at Bradley and moved to Southwest State University, in Marshall, Minnesota. At the time Southwest housed a remarkable literary community, celebrated in Bill Holm’s book Farming Words (2007).
The focus of Pichaske’s publishing operation, and of his writing, shifted gradually west of the Mississippi River, to authors like Minnesota’s Bill Holm, Phil Dacey, Leo Dangel, Don Olson, Mark Vinz, Thom Tammaro; South Dakota’s Linda Hasselstrom, Adrian C Louis, and David Allen Evans; and Nebraska State Poet William Kloefkorn. Despite the distractions of work as a publisher, bi-weekly commutes to visit his children, the process of relocation, and duties as department chair, Pichaske published a revised edition of his popular poetry textbook Beowulf to Beatles, the biography/journal Jubilee Diary, and a significant anthology of contemporary rural American writers, Late Harvest. In the eighties he was also active on the Illinois Arts Council, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the Southwest Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council. Spoon River Poetry Press moved to Minnesota; Spoon River Quarterly moved to Illinois State University and became the Spoon River Review.
Pichaske had spent the summer of 1966 working as a Gastarbeiter in a factory in Neuwied Germany, capping off his summer with a three-week tour of Western Europe, sleeping every night on the train, bouncing like a pool ball from Oslo to Berlin to Paris to Florence to Madrid to Munich to Rome to Salzburg to Amsterdam. In 1975, flush with royalty money from the textbooks Beowulf to Beatles and Writing Sense, he had taken his entire family for a seven-month grand tour of Europe and England, spending three weeks with Italian relatives in Bisuschio. The Movement of the Canterbury Tales is dedicated to his great uncle Ernesto Stella, and parts of A Generation in Motion were in fact written in a hotel room in Munich.
Thus when Pichaske became eligible for a sabbatical leave from Southwest State University in 1988, he applied for and received a Fulbright fellowship to teach American Studies and American Literature at the University of Lodz, in Poland. He and his second wife Michelle had the great good fortune to arrive in Poland in the fall of 1989, as the East Bloc was collapsing, countries like Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia were reconfiguring themselves. The Fulbright was renewed for a second year, 1989-90. This remarkable period is recorded in the stories and photographs of Poland in Transition.
Seven years later, eligible for another sabbatical leave, he received another Fulbright, this time to Riga, Latvia. His photographs appear in the book Tale of the White Crow, written by Iveta Melnika, one of his Latvian students. A third Fulbright in 2003—this to Outer Mongolia—produced the book UB03 (Ulaanbaatar, 2003). In 2002, Pichaske received the Medal for Service to the University and City of Lodz, Poland, and in 2010, he received an honorary Ph. D. from the National University of Mongolia. By putting publishing operations on back burner and avoiding most unproductive faculty meetings and conferences, Pichaske is able to visit friends, colleagues, and former students in Germany, Poland, Latvia, and Mongolia almost annually.And to write. Since the year 2000, Pichaske has returned to writing poems and stories, travel pieces, a series of scholarly articles, and a sequence of books from university and New York publishers. And to exploring Bob Dylan’s Iron Range, and photographing the back roads of Southwestern Minnesota, and harvesting spinach and tomatoes and raspberries beside his house along the Minnesota River.