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The History of the Minnesota Men’s Conference

poet Robert Bly

The Minnesota Men’s Conference was started by Robert Bly in 1984. This was shortly after the interview between Keith Thompson and Robert Bly called “What do Men Really Want” This first conference, as well as all the ones following have included the telling of old stories, the gifts of poetry, making music together and opening our hearts to grief, which sometimes appears when men who trust each other gather together for a few days.

This conference has been blessed with many fine teachers such as Etheridge Knight, James Hillman, Michael Meade, and Terry Dobson in the 1980’s. Aaron Kipnis, John Lee and Robert Moore joined us in the 1990’s. In 1993 with the addition of Malidoma Somé, Miguel Rivera, Haki Madhubuti and Martín Prechtel, the conference moved towards a richer diversity of thought and a deeper connection to our ancestors. In the last few years we have begun to ask that men who have been given the honey of the old stories and soul teaching give some of this sweetness back to younger men. So again we are inviting 30 young men between the ages of 13 and 20 to attend this years conference.   (see list of past conference themes)

We are asking all the men to reach back toward young men—both the fathered and the fatherless—and to work out rituals and ways of communication in order to offer to the younger men what the culture as whole does not.

Learn more about the History of this Conference in an essay by Thomas R. Smith, which is included in a new book called Robert Bly In This World that was just published by the University of Minnesota Libraries, and edited by Thomas R. Smith with James P. Lenfestey

Craig Ungerman on the beginnings of Hidden Wine

I started my journey in Men’s work at the age of 34 when I found out that my third child was going to be a boy. A feeling of anxiety began to build up inside me that was markedly different than before with the birth of my two daughters. I was feeling very inadequate to the task, all alone and scared. It all came gushing out of me one evening with a group of friends who got together occasionally to explore issues of spirituality. As I began to talk about my concerns and fears, I said that I had lost touch with all of my old friends from high school and college and as soon as I said it I began to cry. That really startled me because I had not cried in years. At the end of the group session one of the men who was in the group asked me if I would be interested in starting a Men’s group. I agreed and we each asked a few other friends to join us. The first meeting was at my house and one of the men brought the copies of the now famous New Age magazine interview with poet Robert Bly titled “What do Men Really Want?”

Conor and Craig Ungerman

Conor with his father Craig Ungerman

We continued to meet every third or fourth week, our group grew from five to seven men. About two years after our first meeting  our entire group along with our spouses, went to hear Robert Bly give a talk and read Iron John in a church basement in South Minneapolis – it was packed. I can still remember that evening – the excitement in the room  – as this incredible poet animated and brought to life the story of Iron John.

Of the many things spoken that evening, two things really grabbed me. One, It was impossible for a boy to become a man without the active intervention of older men and that the father was not able to do it.  It was up to the other men of the community to do this. Secondly, that it was time to bring back the authentic rites of passage for young men….and, that it might take a hundred year or so, but why not start now?  He suggested that we start a Men’s Conference in Minnesota to begin this task. That image, of bringing back authentic rites of passage, struck me in a way that no other words spoken that evening did. And the idea that it would take a hundred years or so began to sink into my bones. It reminded me of our ancestors who would begin the task of building a Cathedral knowing that they would die before it was completed. This deep longing inside me was beginning to awaken… I did not know it that evening, but I had already signed up.

I went to work the next day, painting a house with my good friend and small Men’s group member, Doug Padilla. Doug had met Robert in the late 70’s at a poetry reading and, according to Doug, they shared a bottle of wine after the reading. Unbeknownst to me, Doug had stayed after the Iron John reading and offered to organize the names of all who expressed an interest in attending a Men’s conference. Robert agreed and with in a week or so asked Doug to organize the the conference. A short while later, Doug asked me if I would help him as he was feeling a little bit overwhelmed. We formed a partnership and named our new venture “Hidden Wine” and organized the first Men’s Conference in September of 1984. It was held on the edge of the wilderness near Ely, MN. About fifty men attended that first conference with Robert Bly, Michael Meade, Terry Dobson and Richard Close.

For myself, and for many of the men there, it was a transformative experience.  Something awoke inside of us that had been dormant for a long time. This deep longing that was in our bones all along was being activated. It was as if walking on the earth, in the wilderness, taking the time to be with other men, telling our stories and seeing where it fit in to the BIG Story, crying  and laughing together, drumming and singing together…. somehow, these things combined were the right ingredients to spark our Remembering… You could feel the spark coming up from the earth through our feet. It was there. It was palpable.

And now, 27 years later, I hear a similar story over and over again, from men who come to the Conference for the very first time.  For myself and many others of us who have been coming to the Minnesota Men’s Conference over the  years…it renews our faith and commitment to continue to build this  “wilderness cathedral”  of authentic rites of passages for young men for generations to come.

Craig Ungerman – Hidden Wine co-founder