The Great Twin Cities Poetry Read

by guest contributor Emily Wick

On Saturday, April 21, the third annual Great Twin Cities Poetry Read took place at Hamline University. About thirty poets, of vastly different writing and reading styles, sat in a line at the front of the room, facing the large audience and filing up one by one to read one poem each in quick succession. The event was sponsored by Coffee House Press, Paper Darts, Pocket Lab, Hamline University Creative Writing Programs, Water~Stone Review, Maeve’s Cafe, and Lowbrow Press.

Thanks to an energetic emcee, Matt Mauch, the pace of the night was ridiculously upbeat. Mauch introduced the poets with randomly chosen Shakespearean descriptions drawn from the “ceremonial beaver-skin hat”—for instance, the “motley-brained” Deborah Keenan and “bear-baiter” Carol Connolly (“How are you spelling that?” she wanted to know).  These seasoned poets were accompanied by the likes of Dylan Hicks, Feng Sun Chen, and John Jodzio. Seeing Carol Connolly pat thse young writers encouragingly on the back when they finished reading was an endearing sight.

Hearing and seeing so many poets one after the other was a little dizzying. A few highlights were Lynette Reini-Grandell’s humorous but stirring poem about Tennessee Williams choking to death on the cap of a pill bottle, John Colburn’s lyrical and lengthy tribute to his personal history, (“In class, we were asked to write about monsters one day, and ancestors the next, and I realized I was writing about the same thing”), and Jeffrey Skemp’s sensual growl of a reading voice. Lee Ann Roripaugh read a poem called “Animony” about the way her mother’s mispronunciation of words gave them new meanings. Some poets explained a little about their piece before they read it, offering disclaimers (“I only like one poem of mine at a time,” Adrienne Mathiowetz said, “and this is that poem”), while others dove right in, like the theatrical Lightsey Darst.

At the end of the night, a deserving poet was randomly chosen to win a ceremonial thrift-store blazer (like the jacket won at the Masters Golf Tournament) with $500 in the breast pocket. Another won the opportunity to have one of their poem published as a broadside. The event, held in a meeting room at Hamline, could have used a more casual setting. The attitude of the host and tone of much of the work called for having a good beer.  We’ll have to hope for a cash bar at next year’s Great Twin Cities Poetry Read.

Emily Wick writes for the blog Second Sun. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and likes to read, write, and explore.

Have a different take on this event?  Chime in on the comments below! Be sure to check the schedule to the right and the Twin Cities Literary Calendar and be at the next LitSeen attended event. See you around!


Ivory Tower 2012 Launch Party

The 2012 Ivory Tower

The 2012 edition of Ivory Tower, a literary magazine of work by undergraduate University of Minnesota writers, artists, and musicians, celebrated its release on Wednesday, April 25 2012 at The Whole, in the basement of the Coffman Memorial Union.  The book is a product of a year-long class in which undergraduate students learn and perform the entire process of creating a publication—delegation of responsibilities, calls for submissions, editorial selections, layout, design, printing, and now, finally, planning and hosting a launch party.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into this event—I didn’t attent the U or have an opportunity to participate in a program like this when I was an undergrad. I spoke briefly with the one perennial constant of the Ivory Tower staff , the class’s graduate advisor and local poet Sarah Fox (Coffee House Press).   Sarah seemed calmly optmistic about the night’s event.  “It’s all undergraduate work,” she made sure I understood, and when that didn’t cause me to run for the door, she explained a bit more about the program. Roughly, her synopsis was, “Every year its an entirely new staff of undergraduates, collecting submissions from other undergrads and putting the whole thing together… It’s a valuable thing.”

Sarah Fox receives flowers from her editorial staff

The reading itself was well attended by Staff, contributors, and their supporting friends (and a couple of nervous looking parents). The event was perfectly suited to the venue: the Whole Music Club is laid out like a tidy dive bar, with dark, low ceilings and chaotic wall art, yet organized and particularly well lit.  The art recalls graffiti but is clearly intentional, commissioned work.  On either side of the stage are large video screens.  It’s a multi-purpose venue and has seen several local and national acts in multiple genres, which is why the Ivory Tower launch party fit so well.  As the magazine incorporated fiction, poetry, and nonfiction into its pages, so too did it expand its submissions to include visual art and audio (the publication’s table of contents includes songs available to stream on the Ivory Tower website).

Alyssa Pintar covers Regina Spektor

The performances were many and diverse, with each reader and performer giving voice to her or his vision.  Joe Kopel played a few selections of his Dylan-influenced rootsy folk songs; Laura Burnes read from her short story “Because of Herman Melville” (including one memorable passage, which I misquote: “I hate the term ‘Sugar Daddy,’ like it’s sugar I suck on.  It isn’t candy, all shriveled up like Grape Nuts…”); Torsten Johnson read a handful of beat-style self-searching love poetry; and Mark Brenden overcame his nerves to share some of the finest work of the evening (prior to reading his poem “Hooray America,” he declared that “If my hands are shaking, it’s just because you’re all looking at me”). Alyssa Pintar welcomed us back form intermission by tearing the house down with her pian0-and-vocal performance; Sarah Moen‘s creaky-voiced reading of her short fiction “The Relentless Sun” gave the subject matter—aging and degeneration—a palpable feel; Tim Schumacher slammed us with his sci-fi masculine verse, the microphone popping the P’s of his closing declaration, “I AM THE PISTON! I AM THE PISTON!”; Sasha Chandavong slowed things down with the poignant and brief nonfiction work, “Vibhadi Road”; and Erin Murphy recited her poem “Erosion” from memory before concluding the night with a smile and a curtsy.

Torsten Johnson reads his poem "Touching"

The selections came mostly from the pages of Ivory Tower’s 2012 edition, though not everyone included in the publication read.  And amazingly, none of the Ivory Tower staff was permitted to submit work, so many more clearly creative members of this community weren’t represented by either the words in these pages or on stage. The book itself is an achievement of layout and design, though:  Shannon Fletcher, Teresa Hayes, and Megan Sharp are certainly a “design triumvirate” (their term) to keep an eye on.  I particularly enjoyed the justification of including blank pages near the end of the magazine: “We learned over the course of this project,” went the pith of a statement made by one of the editors,”that our community extends beyond just the staff and the contributors.  It includes the readers and the audience, and because you’re here tonight, you’re a part of this community too.  So these pages are for you.”  A touching representation of what this literary community means in all of its locations, shapes, and stages.

Much of the work on display seemed to still be searching for its persona, the work of a process more than a coherent expression. Yet for as tentative as the work may be, the performances were brazen and courageous. Ivory Tower captures a proud moment of transition in many young artists’ lives.  The launch party for the 2012 edition of Ivory Tower was not so much a celebration of craft and accomplishment, but one of energy and potential.  And though these attributes rarely appeared simultaneously, each abounded.  A valuable thing, indeed.

-RHM

Were you there? Have a different take on the event?  Chime in on the comments below. Also, check the schedule to the right and be at the next LitSeen attended event! See you around.


Minnesota Book Awards Gala

Hi. Well, I know it’s been a little while since this event, and I know a lot of other places have already covered it, but that’s kind of why we decided to wait a bit. No sense giving the same “here’s who won” recaps that MPRBooksnobTwinCities.com (Pioneer Press) and Linda White over at the Examiner.com have already provided, or the more “here’s what this event was like” recap Courtney Algeo (of Paper Darts and the Loft) offers up at the TC Daily Planet. In fact, there’s not a whole lot to say about the event that these fine reporters haven’t said (Linda White even mentions the cheese, which was, in my opinion, the highlight of the evening).

But LitSeen was there, and as such, we have a few things to say about it.

#1: While I was sitting in that enormous, posh, stuffy room (it got warm as the night wore on, and though the waiters did a great thing by circulating with wine and water, they couldn’t keep up with my thirst), I got to wondering whether it was our specifically tremendous literary community that makes an event like this possible, or whether other states have the same types of galas–by which I mean, do others bring their “book awards” to such faux-Oscars heights of pretense? Because any way you look at it, this is a pretentious affair. No disrespect to the winners or the event’s organizers, but this is a lot of social to-do for an industry that caters to homebodies, but I digress.

Other states’s awards ceremonies, and how they compare:

I’m from Oregon, the only non-New York state I feel compares to Minnesota’s love of the book, so that’s where I looked first. Turns out, their ceremony is this Monday, April 23, 2012. And from the limited information I could find on their website, they have a pretty fancy-pants event too. General admission is $17, and it’s $50 for a primo-seat. Seems pretty comparable to Minnesota. So then I wondered about a less literary state . . . like, say, Kentucky. No offense to any Kentuckians out there, and I only chose your state because I know little about it. But how closely would the Kentucky State Book Awards gala resemble our own?

Well, the first search result for keywords “Kentucky Book Award” was “Kentucky Bluegrass Award,” so maybe my judgment wasn’t too far off (also no offense to Bluegrass–love the genre).  A minor bit of digging later, I discovered the “Kentucky Literary Award,” which seems to take the place of our state’s high literary honors. The way Kentucky’s award works is: “Eligible books include those written by Kentuckians or books with a substantial Kentucky theme. Fiction and non-fiction works will be considered in alternating years. The 2012 Kentucky Literary Award will be given to a work of fiction published in 2010 or 2011 that meets the selection criteria. The winner will be announced at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest’s “Meet the Authors” reception to be held on Friday, April 20, 2012.”  One book, genres alternate years, winners announced at a reception within a larger festival. Not an event specifically devoted to the awarding of the prize, not a to-do about introductions, nominees, etc. A substantially different take on literature’s role in the community, it would seem.

#2: This leads me to another question I had as the ceremony unfolded: what’s the criteria for being a nominee or a finalist? The authors didn’t seem to be exclusively Minnesotan, and the publishers weren’t either. Wikipedia straightened me out: authors have to be Minnesotan. Though, in this highly mobile culture of ours, what does residency mean? You’ve sat in the DMV line and received your driver’s license? Or do you have to have some innate understanding of and appreciation for Minnesota, in which case, why aren’t writers like Jim Harrison nominated?

#3: Jeff Kamin, the returning host of the awards ceremony, did a serviceable job at impersonating an awards show host. Yet, something about his jokes rubbed me the wrong way. He’s a skilled and charming guy, and that’s a tough gig, but look: I’m not into books because I like schticky, smarmy entertainment value. I like the book because it’s one of the few remaining vestiges of our culture where content means something, where artists sacrifice their time, energy, and livelihoods to create a valuable expression of their experience, where we actually sacrifice our temporary selves for something more lasting, more vital, ultimately more important than ourselves. Though Lightsey Darst‘s stark declaration that we’re here “because books matter” was intense and awkward, it was the one moment of the gala that cut straight through the pomp and hit the core of the evening’s intent. I don’t like books for their  fancy clothes and name tags; I like books for their ink and their spines. I’d gladly sacrifice the chandeliers and chocolate-covered strawberries if it meant more writers could commit more wholly to putting words on the page.

-RHM

Were you there? Have a different take on the event?  Chime in on the comments below. Also, check the schedule to the right and be at the next LitSeen attended event! See you around.

D.A. Powell

Can you believe it?  I’ve lived in Minneapolis for nearly a year and this is the first reading I’ve attended at the Loft Literary Center.  How does a litophile like me go nearly an entire year without attending a reading at the Loft?  It’s certainly not for lack of opportunity.  I can only blame myself, I suppose.  But no longer!  I rectified the situation last night, Wednesday, April 18 2012, when poet D.A. Powell read a handful of poems from his newest collection, Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (Graywolf Press).

D.A. Powell reads from Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys

D.A. (or does he use a full first name when only using his first name? I didn’t ask) was introduced by Dobby Gibson, and both of them spoke of Useless Landscape‘s similarities to landscape painting.  Said Powell, “Painters are rarely in the landscape as they paint.  They go there with their sketchbook, and select pieces to include later on,” which is a rough quote but gets the point across.  In his poems, Powell lingers on certain poignant scenes and flitters over others, skims the surface of multiple themes and dives headlong into several.  As the reading progressed, the marked eroticism became increasingly central to these landscapes, culminating in an an aside that unfortunately turned into a bad joke.  “I’m not a big organ fan,” he said of a poem about a church organist.  “Wait, that sounds wrong.  I’m not a fan of organ music.”

The reading was moderately attended–pretty good for a poet on a Wednesday night.  About two-thirds of the Loft’s Target Performance Hall were occupied, and clearly everyone was impressed with the poet and his work.  After his final poem, the applause continued until D.A. stood up and waved, at which point someone requested an encore, and he obliged.  One final short poem later, the audience retired to the lobby for refreshments.

As it was my first reading at the Loft, I should say that the space was perfect: measured lighting, comfortable sight-lines, a room with character and calm.  The sound was superb, without feeding back or going tinny how some amateur systems are wont to do.  I would say in all that this is no amateur system: the Loft is a finely tuned literary vehicle, and I’ll be coming back for sure.

-RHM

Were you there? Have a different take on the event?  Chime in on the comments below. Also, check the schedule to the right and be at the next LitSeen attended event! See you around.

Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson reads from Train Dreams

On Wednesday, April 11 2012, Denis Johnson gave a reading at UMN’s Coffman Memorial Union Theatre.  The reading was well attended, with a few latecomers scrambling to find seats in the 402-person capacity room.  Johnson read from his recently published novella Train Dreams (FSG, 2011).  Much like the text, his reading was a bit scattershot: jumping around in time and setting within the narrative arc.  Between excerpts, Johnson flashed a bit of his veteran charm–he’s done this whole reading thing a few times, it seems.  Little interjections about how he goes about preparing for a reading (“I have a recurring nightmare about getting up here and all these little bookmarks are gone,” he said in one pause) gave the evening an intimate feel despite the size of the crowd.

The Q&A session afterward gave a few fans the chance to compliment the master publicly, as well as to clarify a few nagging mysteries about Johnson’s work.  He often disregarded the question (especially when it warranted disregarding) and responded with a semi-related explication of something that interested him. To sum up: the narrator in Jesus’ Son is the same person in all the stories.  He started writing in second grade as a way to win over his loathing teacher. His favorite books: Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, Saul Bellow’s Sieze the Day, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the first three novels by Robert Stone.

The book signing queue stretched up the aisle and out the door, and was held up by a couple of self-important jerks who brought every book they own so the poor guy could sign them.  Sorry about that.

In the end, Denis Johnson’s charm in person matches the genius of his output, though the two don’t necessarily correspond.  He’s as outwardly accessible as he is inwardly enigmatic; it’s a fitting paradox for a man who writes so stunningly about the joy and thrill of not being able to make sense of it all.

-RHM

Were you there? Have a different take on the event?  Chime in on the comments below. Also, check the schedule to the right and be sure you don’t miss the next amazing literary event going on in the Twin Cities! See you around.

Super Super Tuesday

It's a bar! It's a rock show! It's, it's... a reading?

On Tuesday April 10, 2012, Paper Darts hosted “Super Super Tuesday,” a multi-genre reading with a five-writer lineup featuring Dessa, Amelia Gray, Lindsay Hunter, Dylan Hicks, and John Jodzio. Co-sponsored by 89.3 the Current and Nomad World Pub, which supplied the venue, this event was as strongly attended a reading I’ve ever been to.  A couple things might have contributed to that: 1) it was free, which doesn’t really set it apart from most readings, 2) it was at a bar (which meant a) you could drink and b) it was intentionally more intentionally social than most other readings), and 3) Paper Dart’s isn’t your grandpa’s literary magazine.

Say what you will about Paper Darts (what will you say about Paper Darts? That they’re young, and still gaining experience? They fly by the seat of their pants? That it’s too bad they don’t put out material with any kind of regularity?), they apparently know how to put on a show. From the get-go, this reading had the feel of a rock show. The Nomad was packed when I arrived at 7:00 (billed as the start-time).  Standing-room only, a constant and steady din drowning out the house music. The audience ranged from college-age kids to older middle-aged, but everyone seemed to be wearing stylish glasses and/or sport an extreme haircut. The atmosphere was thick with anticipation, the bar-din increasing as the audience swirled throughout the room, chatting, socializing, meeting and greeting.  Staffers at the Nomad eventually cut the music, the stage lights went up, and the evening’s MC (sorry, I do not know who this individual was) climbed up onto the stage like a troubadour, announcing, at 7:35, that it was time to begin with the first reader of the night.

Lindsay Hunter

Lindsay Hunter is the author of Daddy’s (Featherproof Books, 2010), and hails from Chicago.  She is also the perfect choice to fill a reading’s opening slot: the single poem she read (entitled “Like,” which she claimed to have just written a couple of days before) was powerful, energetic, and fascinating.  Delivered with a slam-like intensity, “Like” traced the inner monologue of a teenage girl coming to terms with her sexuality and the demands of her changing body, as well as the new demands the world put on her as a result of her body changing.

The crowd was attentive through the reading, ceasing all conversation and submitting fully to Hunter’s delivery and craft.  This, I couldn’t help but conclude, would never happen at a rock show.  Audience members actually paying attention to a performer? Rather that chatting with each other at close-range, triple-digit decibel levels? A refreshing kind of hybrid was emerging…

As the MC introduced the next writer, she plugged Paper Darts’s Writing Contest, for which this reading was a promotional affair.   Lest we forget.  The plug was good timing, though, as the next writer she introduced was…

John Jodzio

Jodzio is the author of If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home (Replacement Press 2010) and Get In if You Want to Live (Paper Darts, 2011), the latter of which obviously holds some hometown clout.  As the single representative of Paper Darts’s publishing campaign, Jodzio didn’t disappoint.  The story he read, called “Knockout,” belied Paper Darts’s penchant for the short-short story, ringing in at about 20 minutes of reading.  Given Jodzio’s spirited, uptempo reading, I’d guess this was about a thirteen-pager.  Again, the audience was rapt as Jodzio spun his yarn—a tale of two recovering addicts forging an unlikely friendship, based somewhat on violence and somewhat on mischief—except for one hilarious moment when an audience member, in reaction to Jodzio’s reading of the dialogue line, “When you bring me a live tiger, you get your meth,” exclaimed “Oh my God!”  Two rounds of bemused laughter ensued, a warm, convivial sharing of the moment.  Whoever uttered that reaction perfectly expressed what the entire room was feeling: that we were invested in this story, we had a stake in the outcome, and we wanted it to end well both for the characters and for Jodzio.  The conclusion didn’t let down, either.  I’m not sure if or where “Knockout” is published, but as it’s a story I aim to seek out, I won’t spoil it for you, either.

The reading here took a brief refill intermission, and at just the right time.  The din perked immediately back up to typical bar levels.  People ordered beers and cocktails, people chatted and mingled, people sought out old friends they’d seen from across the room but hadn’t yet greeted.  That the audience waited to do this through two performances, remaining quiet and attentive until permitted to make their own noise, both baffles and reassures me.  So many aspects like a rock show, so many like a reading.  The intermission ended just when it ought to have, fresh pints in most hands, and the MC introduced the next reader, arguably the star attraction.

Dessa

Dessa is best known for her involvement in the Twin-Cities hip-hop collective Doomtree, which also served as the publisher for her 2009 book of poetry, Spiral Bound. As a persona, Dessa has the brightest spotlight of the evening’s readers.  Her musical accomplishments certainly contributed to the reading’s “rock show” feel, as this was a chance to see a performance by a lauded musical performer. Tonight, however, Dessa sidestepped the singer/rapper persona and read a piece of creative nonfiction, detailing a trip she took with her mother to witness a cow being slaughtered.  “I’d never seen something die,” Dessa read, “because death usually isn’t something you can pencil into your schedule.”  The piece was at turns tender and humorous, navigating between a heavy, authorial style (I misquote, “will he submit to the summoner’s bell?”) and a conversational, hip levity (again, a misquote: “I know it’s childish, but I just really don’t like it when people don’t like me”).  But the piece overall was a winner, and it was a great glimpse at a complex artist bringing a lesser-known side of her art to the fore, if only for an evening.

My hypothesis that Dessa was the main draw of the evening gained its first bit of evidence when, as soon as she finished reading, the din increased.  The MC balked while introducing the next reader, surprised that for the first time that evening, she had to speak over people.  There was only a minor exodus after Dessa, though and as soon as the next reader took the stage, people resumed their quiet attention.

Dylan Hicks

With a novel (Boarded Windows (Coffee House Press, 2012)) and an accompanying album coming out in April, Hicks also bridged the rock show/literary reading themes of the night.  You’d think a frontman for a band would fill the stage with pomp and bravado, but Hicks was the least demanding of the performers on the night.  His reading of a chapter from the forthcoming book, entitled “From Now On, the Poetry is In the Streets,” was subdued at best.  The prose was serviceable, and gave a sense that Boarded Windows will be a book to take seriously, which is something the whole book-plus-an-album thing always causes me concern about.  If it needs an accompanying soundtrack, does that mean it won’t stand on its own?  In this, case, the early verdict is no.  I haven’t heard Dylan Hicks’s music, though, so now I’m worried that if I don’t like it, it will bring the book down.

Amelia Gray

Amelia Gray, author of AM/PM (Featherproof Books, 2009), Museum of the Wierd (Fiction Collective, 2010), and Threats (FSG Originals, 2012), is also the guest judge for Paper Darts’s fiction contest.  She read two stories, informing the audience that she’d go with “a narrative story and then something a little weird, if you’re into that.”  The first story she read, called “Loop” had me instantly wondering if this was the weird one. Told from a second-person point of view, I had a hard time tracing the narrative.  All night, the sound man had done a great job of leveling out each reader’s voice, finding that balance between audible and loud.  Gray, though, brought such intensity to her reading that the speakers bristled with her higher register.  Her delivery was frantic, almost anxious, to the point that the unsettling effect outweighed the words.  Part of this might have been the sudden dynamic shift after Dylan Hick’s slow, sonorous prose… Gray’s second piece, I’ll give her credit, was weirder.  Called “Chapter 76,” this prose-poem left me little to cling to.

As I exited the Nomad at around 9:00 (amazing that all five readers plus an intermission only took an hour and a half) I felt pretty confident that, given Paper Darts’s love of the short form and Amelia Gray’s peculiarly intense pieces, the fiction contest all of this promoted would likely produce a winning story that shares some of these traits.  Linguistically inventive, 2500 words or less, situationally absurd.  This is a prediction, though, I want to be clear, and not a set of guidelines.  For that, go check out Paper Darts’s Fiction Contest Submission Manager.

In all, to borrow a term from John Jodzio, the reading was a “knockout.” A fun, lively atmosphere, a devoted an attentive audience, a strong and varied lineup. As an experiment in hybridizing rock shows and readings, I think everyone in attendance learned that there are some serious benefits to this format, as opposed to the sit-down-in-a-hard-plastic-chair-and-don’t-talk-for-an-hour style of reading.  I look forward to the next Paper Darts event.

-RHM

Were you there? Have a different take on any of the readers, or on the reading as a whole?  Or did you miss it and now regret spending your Tuesday evening at home? Chime in on the comments below. Also, check the schedule to the right and be sure you don’t miss the next amazing literary event going on in the Twin Cities! See you around.