The Second Annual “Cookie” House Press Holiday Party

by guest contributor Samantha Campbell

As you may recall from last winter, for one delicious day a year, local literary publisher, Coffee House Press, transforms its Northeast Minneapolis headquarters into Cookie House Press, an annual cookie potluck and book sale. This year’s event, held last Thursday, December 5th, offered a myriad of cookies that ranged from classic to experimental.   Continue reading

Year in Review: 2012

What a year for literary events in the Twin Cities. The recent news that TWO resident Twin Citizens received National Book Awards only caps off what has been, all around, a fantastic year for literature. We saw new releases by big-selling fan favorites Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon, and Zadie Smith (all of whom graced our berg at one point or another), new local literary endeavors like Revolver and Thirty Two Magazine launch inaugural issues, new bookstores breaking ground (er… bookshelves?) in SubText and Moon Shadow Books, plus the grand re-opening of Common Good Books in its new and current location, as well as countless local and touring literary artists broadening minds and inspiring pens with readings on any given night this year. Continue reading

Fall Lit Events in the Twin Cities!

Some sweet sweet happenings are going on in just a short couple months!  They’re all exciting, but chime in on the poll and let us know which you’re most highly anticipating…

Ed Bok Lee & Bao Phi

The third season of the Birchbark Reading Series came to a close on Wednesday night, May 9 2012 with impassioned readings by Ed Bok Lee and Bao Phi.  Each poet read from multiple sources: Ed Bok Lee primarily from his Minnesota Book Award-winning new collection Whorled (Coffee House Press), but also from his earlier collection Real Karaoke People (Coffee House Press).  Bao Phi, a slam poetry champion, showed off the literary finesse of his debut collection Song I Sing (also Coffee House Press), but he also gave the audience a peek behind the curtain by performing a piece not included in the book.  Toward the end of the reading, the poets took turns reading each other’s work, with Phi reading one of Lee’s more devastating narrative poems, and Lee, in turn, reading an anthemic rally of Phi’s.

The poets read with a good deal of showmanship, comfortable behind a microphone and in front of audiences, and it gave the reading an intimate, friendly atmosphere despite some rather peculiar circumstances.  The reading took place in the St. Paul Episcopal Church near Birchbark Books—a temporary home since the cafe that used to host the series shut down—in a downstairs community room with windows overlooking Kenwood Park on a beautiful evening.  In what must have been a scheduling conflict, the church’s choir was upstairs rehearsing at the same time as the reading, so that snippets of organ and pretty decent sounding chorus flooded periodically through the hallways and into the room. “I’ll try and time my poems so they crescendo at the right spot,” Ed Bok Lee joked.

Ed Bok Lee reads from Whorled

This wrinkle added to the already peculiar tone of the night established by curator Michael Kiesow Moore‘s odd decision to hijack the reading before it began, reading a few of his own poems to a captive audience, “Because it’s my birthday and I can read if I want.”  Each of Moore’s three poems begged for increased awareness about teen bullying, and as such his determination to share them with an audience both made sense and was received graciously.  (Moore will be a scheduled reader this friday at the Soap Factory as part of “FLO(WE){U}R POWER.”) Still, it was a little strange.

Not as strange, though, as when the choir wrapped up their practice and decided to head home, exiting the church through the room where the reading was taking place.  Rather than waiting for the event to conclude, or even for the poem in progress to come to an end, a few individuals milled around and squeezed past the audience on their way toward the door. One pushed a softly-clicking bicycle down the aisle; another, for inscrutable reasons, felt this would be a good time to transport a two-foot cactus from one side of the room to the other.

All this couldn’t detract from the power of the work, thankfully, as each poet showed why he’s earned so much esteem from the community. Both writers deserve their status as important artists in the larger world of letters, as each gives voice to a new perspective on the multicultural experience. Ed Bok Lee read poems that explored his South Korean heritage, and Phi read several from a series about fictional Vietnamese-American characters.  And though these poems highlighted subtlety and craft, artfully voicing the injustice in racial identifications, while humbly acknowledging the historical complexity of the racial tableau they chided, there were several instances of powerful, intoxicating anger in this poetry. For instance when one of Phi’s fictional characters declared that he would (and I rampantly misquote), “let the rich dine on the delicacy of your eyeballs directly from your skull.”

The distinct racial themes voiced by Lee and Phi didn’t seem to upset anyone in the audience (poetry reading attendees are generally on the open-minded side of the spectrum, no?), but I couldn’t help but notice that this audience, as most audiences in Minnesota, was predominately caucasian. Those skulls that Phi’s character wanted to cook, after all, belonged to the people that buy his books, that attended his reading, belonged to people like me.

Bao Phi reads from Song I Sing

I’ll be clear and state that I do not feel in any way that Bao Phi wants to eat my eyeballs; I did spend my ride home, though, ruminating on my conception of race, and more importantly, on how little race factors into my life. I am a white male, and as such I have the peculiar dilemma of owning a history of privilege and oppression, of violence and prejudice. My heritage unfolded for centuries overtop of other cultures and it spat me out here in Minnesota, pale and quivering and translucent, so that when I look in the mirror I don’t see a color, or a race, or an identity that depends on my skin.  I recalled scholar and rhetorician Krista Ratcliffe‘s thinking on the subject—that “white” is an invisible racial category, a zero race—and wondered just what my “whiteness” means to me, what it means to Minnesota, what it means to literature…

Ed Bok Lee and Bao Phi sparked in me, at least, the beginnings of something I hope they’d be pleased to inspire—consciousness, empathy, accountability… which are things one should feel when leaving a church, I suppose. Even if it wasn’t the choir that got through to me.

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!