Michael Chabon

I showed up early to the 63rd edition of the Friends of the Hennepin County Library‘s Talk of the Stacks reading series featuring Michael Chabon, figuring the free event might draw an enthusiastic crowd. Turns out fifteen minutes wasn’t early enough: I was greeted at the door to the 235-capacity Pohland Hall by apologetic ushers explaining, “There’s no room. The overflow room is full, there’s no room. We’re projecting audio out here, you can still listen and get your books signed after. There’s no room.”

The overfull overflow room, looking on at a projected image of where Michael Chabon would soon be standing…

According to reports, people started lining up around 5pm for the 7pm event. The doors opened at 6:15 and the theater was full by 6:30. When I arrived at 6:45, library staff were wheeling chairs around the atrium balcony, encouraging those who wished to remain for the duration–despite not being able to actually enter the venue–to get comfortable. I had no chance of getting inside, yet I couldn’t suppress the grin on my face. Everyone seemed similarly impressed: I overheard local heavyweight author Charles Baxter casually admit, “This doesn’t happen for me.”

To be fair, this event had a few crucial factors going for it: a friday night, free and open to the public, widely advertised, and, in my personal, humble, and apparently widely-shared opinion, a first-rate talent who simply deserves the kind of excitement and turnout he got. But for one of our primary institution’s largest devoted event spaces to scramble under the number of attendees is nothing short of a phenomenon–”The kind of problem we like to have,” as one library employee put it. Michael Chabon, when he took the stage, commented on the situation himself: “There are people standing outside, listening. This never happens. I’m never going anywhere ever again except for Minneapolis.”

A couple pat compliments about our fine metropolis later, Chabon (pronounced (in case, like me, you’ve never been sure) “Shay-bawn,” stress on the “shay”) embarked upon his reading. Here to promote his recently published and universally critically acclaimed new novel Telegraph Avenue, he read a first-person narrative that existed somewhere between an introductory essay and the type of detailed exposition that often sprouts up in his work: exhaustive lists, urbane vocabulary, astute and sweeping observations. Being one of the thirty or forty individuals listening to him without the benefit of seeing whether he was reading from a book or not, and having not yet begun the book myself, it wasn’t entirely clear whether the piece came from Telegraph Avenue or if it had been penned for this specific occasion. It traced a young child’s experience with race, and a young adult’s experience with racism; the piece was elegant, writerly–even pulitzerial. I was so swept up by the imagery and delivery that I’d resigned myself to thinking this was an excerpt just about the time Chabon concluded the piece, saying, “Just as in Kavalier and Clay, just as in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, I found myself chasing something that I’d never lost, yet that I’d always longed for.” I was not alone in being stunned, pulled from what I thought was fiction back into reality: he’d been talking about himself the whole time. Those events he’d described for the last twenty minutes actually happened. It was as clear a closing sentence as any ever written, yet the audience both inside the theater and those of us in the atrium sat in fazed silence, still revising our interpretations of what we’d heard. “. . . And that’s the end of that,” the author confirmed, urging us out of our momentary lapse and into our rightful applause.

That his introductory essay might be confused for a major literary work seemed to fit the theme of the evening: too successful for it’s own good. An overflow of attendees for an overflow of skill seemed fitting. And I must say: any community so committed to hearing an author read that they’d stick around for an hour without even seeing the event is one I’m proud to belong to. Or maybe we all just wanted our books signed–either way, good for us, Twin Cities.

Chabon went on to read a passage from the novel, and there was no confusion this time: even without visual aides, a master storyteller was at work with the sharpest tools in his kit: words and language. For me, hearing his voice was as fulfilling as watching him, and surprisingly little was lost. The audio quality was excellent, thanks to the speakers library staff had wired out to us. Other than a stray facial expression, what does looking at a reader contribute to a literary event? Of course, there are a wide and wonderful variety of literary performances where visibility is crucial, but for a reading, in this purest sense, don’t we attend to hear an author’s cadence? To learn the emphasis and rhythm, the pace and tone as the writer designed it–to see how well it matches the voice as it plays in our heads, or how different the renditions might be? We attend for the proximity, that miraculous transformation when something as abstract as an admired author becomes concrete, a human with stiff ankles and jetlag, who worries about dentist appointments and stops at red lights like the rest of us. We attend readings not to look at a person but to straighten a stray tangent in our lives–an epiphany we gained from someone else’s insights, a new vision of the world that someone else’s vision helped bring into focus–we attend because our individual narratives seek a parallel against which we can strengthen our own resolve.

Or maybe we just want to get our books signed.

–RHM

Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event? Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! 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!

Revolver Launch Party

The newest arts and cultural magazine to hit the Twin Cities lived up to its reputation for “rowdy reading” on Saturday, September 8, 2012. Revolver held its launch party at an unorthodox venue, Uppercut Boxing Gym in Northeast Minneapolis, with an equally unorthodox main event: boxing matches between four hip litsters.

Unorthodox, unschmorthodox. Uppercut was the right call for the evening. It would have been easy for a crowd of 300 people to seem small given the gym’s high ceilings and open space, but rumor has it the place reached capacity at 600 party-goers. From when I arrived around 10PM until I left at midnight, the party did seem perfectly plump with readers ready for a good time and a good fight. I slipped past the Polaroid booth, but caught glimpses of a bunch of the exposures and coordinating stories strung across the tables scattered throughout the space. Sadly, I only heard the tail end of the first match between the Architect of Destruction aka Chris Baker and The Polish Hammer aka Tony D’Aloia, but I was definitely there for the fight between The Killswitch aka Courtney Algeo and Bo Bo The Mutilator aka Sarah Moeding.

Now this wasn’t fake fighting or dance fighting, but train-for-it-at-Uppercut fighting. At one point, I said, “This is so weird,” and then continued to smile and cheer for @IceCrmSocialite aka The Killswitch, who did indeed kill it (without hurting anyone). It was probably the signs and shouts of the Paper Darts ladies that pushed her to glory. The reigning champ of the second half of the literary boxing match joined us later on the dance floor to bust a move to beats spun by DJ Shannon Blowtorch. It was like a middle school, high school, and college dance party all rolled into one, and there was definitely some sweating by the time the lights came up.

Bin Wine Bar kept the spirits flowing all night–we might be art hounds, but we can also be booze hounds, and Chef Shack provided the grub. I didn’t get the chance to snack at all, but people seemed pretty satisfied all around. There were also mirrors to dance in front of and ladies painted with words from the magazine’s first issue, but the best part of the evening was that more than the “usual suspects” came out to celebrate. Multiple attendees, many of whom are regulars on the TC literary circuit commented that they didn’t know most of the people there. This party accomplished what many launches, readings, panels, discussions, and shows fall just short of: literally bringing arts communities together.

Remember, Revolver is the online only (as of right now) baby of founding editors Alexander Helmke, Ben Barnhart, Esther Porter, Luke Finsaas, Marcus Anthony Downs, Ross Nervig, and Thorwal Esbensen. Read up–there’s great stuff from Alex Lemon and Laird Hunt among many others, and then check out photos from the launch on its Facebook page.

–SS

Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event?  Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! 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!

Karen Thompson Walker

Karen Thomson Walker charms the audience with a reading of The Age of Miracles

A large crowd squeezed into the poetry corner of Magers & Quinn Booksellers to hear Karen Thompson Walker read from critically acclaimed The Age of Miracles on Thursday, July 26, 2012. A former book editor at Simon & Schuster,Walker was extremely forthcoming with the entire writing process of her debut novel. Even though she was sure to emphasize how she had braced herself for rejection letters and how lucky she felt to finally be standing in front of a group of readers of her book, I am sure an entire crop of Twin Cities’s editorial interns and editorial assistants found new hope in getting that manuscript they are writing with every free minute published to praise and positive reviews.

It was evident that Walker is classy, sophisticated, and well-spoken, but she is also humble and friendly. It was like she wanted us to like her, and I appreciated that. Walker read the first chapter and a half from the book, which gave a clear portrait of life before “the slowing,” but with the unsettling voice of someone who has already experienced its effects. “The slowing” refers to the earth’s rotation gradually slowing, thus making the days longer. Gravity becomes slightly stronger—birds begin to fall from the sky, baseballs travel shorter distances, airplanes are no longer the same. Another effect of “the slowing” is its influence on the migration of whales: the whales begin to beach themselves.

It is on a beach spotted with dying whales that the audience was introduced to the true story of The Age of Miracles, that of an eleven-year-old girl trying to grow up in a world turned on its head. In the second section Walker read, narrator Julia accompanies the boy she’s been adoring from afar to the beach. While the scene gives us snippets of the trauma the rest of the world is experiencing, we also see into the mind of a girl on the verge of adolescence. Julia lets us in on thoughts such as, “I was the girl walking with him,” and “I was a little bit in love. I had spent an entire afternoon with Seth Moreno.” For me, this was the best part, the juxtaposition of the concerns of an average eleven-year-old girl in love and the shocking effects of “the slowing.” But there’s also some science in a book of such feeling. Walker consulted an astrophysicist doing his graduate work to keep her story realistic, even if it took her a while to muster up the courage to fact-check the conceit she had conceived while writing for fun every day before work.

As much as I love attending all kinds of readings at all kinds of venues, I have to admit I especially loved this reading. It’s no surprise I feel comfortable at Magers & Quinn—I worked there for almost a year, and I try to drop in every few weeks or so, but this reading was co-sponsored by the lovely duo of Hazel & Wren (Amanda Wray and Melissa Wray respectively)—literary bloggers, writers, graphic designers, letter press printers, and anything-else-creative extraordinaires. (Check out their stellar interview with Walker here.) While introducing the author, the

Amanda (left (Hazel)) and Melissa (right (Wren)) Wray revel in real people, real books

duo summed up their excitement in partnering with Magers & Quinn to host Walker in a few sweet words: “Real people and an actual bookstore.” I loved hearing these words from two fierce forces in the literary virtual world. I also swooped up an original Hazel & Wren letter press bookmark specially printed for the reading. Smartly, it reads, “We were here,” a quote from Walker’s novel.

I have yet to read The Age of Miracles in its entirety, but I am definitely looking forward to it.

–SS

Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event?  Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! 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!

Best of Summer Stories

Every summer for the last four years, Vita.Mn has prompted local writers to submit a work of short fiction on a theme.  The top submissions are then invited to compete in a live performance for two coveted prizes: the audience choice award, consisting of $400 and admission to the Loft’s three-day Nature and Environmental Writing Conference in Sandstone, Minnesota, and the grand prize (chosen by a private panel of judges), which amounts to $750 and publication in bot Vita.Mn’s print and online editions.

So it was that the Loft Literary Center, Vita.mn, and Hell’s Kitchen teamed up to present the fourth annual “Best of Summer Stories” competition on Wednesday, July 25 2012.  Hell’s Kitchen—a multifaceted subterranean downtown Minneapolis venue—was a spacious, unconventional, and ultimately perfect setting for this year’s theme: the Seven Deadly Sins. With dungeon-esque candlelight and low wattage fixtures, and the looming presence of a fallen angel providing the stage’s backdrop, the classy yet macabre environment lent just the right tone for an evening of lust, greed, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.

Ben Barnhart reads “Breaking Down Silos” before a rapt audience and a fallen angel.

A powder-blue-suited John Jodzio emceed the event, delivering the audience through nineteen impressive writers reading nineteen exceptional stories—seriously, whoever did the vetting either had a really easy job or did really good work with a difficult one.  Twenty writers were invited, but Betsy Rathburn couldn’t attend to read her story “Fireworks.” Too bad—she missed out on a supportive, enthusiastic audience at the ready to hoot, laugh, and squeal for their favorite short-short stories.

Ben Barnhart started things off with “Breaking Down Silos,” and the night never looked back.  Brian Beatty’s eleven-year-old narrator ranted against an unidentified antagonist in “My Wrath” (in order to help the audience imagine him as an eleven-year-old, Beatty instructed us to imagine him “shorter, fatter, and with less grey in my beard”). I would point out the highlights, but the writing on display was of such consistent quality that there simply weren’t any low points to distinguish them. What did stand out, though, was how each of these readers performed their original works with boldness and confidence, adding sass and character to each voice we heard. Jocelyn Hale of the Loft presented the audience choice award to the much deserving Brian Judd, whose epistolary historical

Audience Choice Award-winner Brian Judd reading his story, “Fox and Foxibility”

fiction yarn “Fox and Foxibility” was rendered with an actor’s commitment to craft—Judd read the whole piece in what I understood as a mock-historical affect, though this theory weakened when he graciously accepted his prize in what seemed to be a continuation of the persona…  For what it’s worth, Judd gave a stellar performance and wrote a stellar piece, but I voted for Erin Boe, who’s authentic rendering of her story “The Painter” won me over with the line, “I’ll give you some clam chowder… but it’s not vegan.”  (Maybe you had to be there.)

The fourth annual Best of Summer Stories was a thorough success on every front—entertaining, rewarding, novel, and inspiring—from start to finish. I’ll make a point to attend next year, and every year after that.  My only question is, why stop at “Best of Summer”? There are four seasons to a year, and clearly there’s more than enough talent to go around.

–RHM

Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event?  Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! 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!

Convectional Magic: an Interview with OUR FLOW IS HARD

The first time I came across a listing for the new Twin Cities-based reading series “Our Flow Is Hard” my reaction wasn’t too complicated: “I have to check that out.” Partly because of the witty and bold entendre in the collective’s name, but primarily because I knew it was a chance to witness a group of young poets developing into something new, something organic and public and interactive.  I attended the first OFIH event (and wrote about it here), and my curiosity was only piqued: they do things a bit differently in OFIH, and the difference seems deliberate. Continue reading

Field of Reads

What happens when a few cultural institutions get together and encourage people to come sit around and read for a while? People come sit around and read for a while. On Saturday, July 14 2012, Coffee House Press publisher Chris Fischbach and the Walker Art Center teamed up for Field of Reads, a day-long campaign to turn the Walker’s Open Field into a site for reading, book-swapping, story-timing, and literary mingling.

The day’s attractions featured a  lending library (accessible every day at Open Field) which also included starter kits, Bananagrams, Jenga, and bundles of other activities; a tent set up for a children’s storytime;  lawn chairs and mats to spread out on the lawn; and an spread of impressive books available to swap.  These were not old, ratty editions, either–the swappable books appeared to be in like-new shape, and quality titles, from classics to local independent gems, abounded.

Books for free! Books for swap! Bring us your books! Take our books with you!

I brought my own book (I forgot to bring one to swap) and I got down to business pretty quickly.  After chatting with a few of the other attendees and the friendly Walker Art Center staff, I cracked open a novel and buried my nose.  Similar to my reaction to Boneshaker Books’s Sustained Silent Reading a few weeks ago, I found something about reading in public inspiring, something calming and reassuring that ultimately increased my attention span, allowed me to more fully give myself over to the words on the page.  I’m still tinkering with my thinking about this, but a nascent theory is that reading in public, for me at least, demands that I block out distractions and therefore increases my ability to focus–as opposed to the stillness of privacy, which in turn causes me to seek out distractions and encourages my mind to wander…

But there is something additionally peculiar to an “event” that focuses not on being entertained, but on engaging a private entertainment while in public.  It moves away from performance, from the ritual aspects of an author appearance or “reading.”  The shared experience aspect of communal reading is far more tenuous than if everyone is hearing the same words at the same time.  But there is something shared, something affirmed, in simultaneously giving yourself over–even if the objects to which you give yourself over are drastically different for each person. And this affirmation, it seems to me, is only possible when the opportunity is publicized, as in Field of Reads and Sustained Silent Reading.  Opening your book and reading in public is a great thing to do, but it doesn’t offer the same sense of shared experience that one receives from participating in an organized event.

A reader of Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles. Don’t miss KTW’s reading on Thursday, July 26!

Reading Room, the overarching program responsible for Field of Reads (check out MPR’s excellent piece here), is an ongoing opportunity for local lit lovers to utilize a multifaceted and readily available resource.  Now equipped with the most comfortable lawn chairs on the market (“we tested them all, and these are the best” says Graywolf Press associate publisher Katie Dublinski) and picnic tables and umbrellas for when that hot sun bears down, Open Field hopes to extend this communal literary affirmation on a more spontaneous basis.  The Walker might not be the most convenient place to get to, tucked in its nest of boulevards and freeways, but next time you have an afternoon and you feel like having a read, take your book on a stroll through Loring Park, cross the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, and turn a few pages with a few like-minded Twin Citizens.

-RHM

Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event?  Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! 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!

Our Flow Is Hard

I saw the listing for a new reading series called “OUR FLOW IS HARD” last week, and was so captivated by the description that I had to check it out.  From thier tumblr:

OUR FLOW IS HARD is a collective of girlpoets bent on flooding the place, a small dam of sticks that like to make and hear sounds. would you like to come make and hear sounds too? we have picked out some great and glittery noisemakers for our first inbogural reading. we have made party hats out of the feathery mosses of their teeth. There will be punch!

The “inbogural Pink Swamp Poetry Reading” took place on Thursday, June 21 2012, and featured readings by UM MFA candidates Aaron Apps and Lucas de Lima, as well as visiting poet Natasha Kessler (from Omaha, NE).  And it took place in de Lima’s apartment… About thirty people (most of them fellow MFA candidates at the U) crammed into de Lima’s living room and swilled punch (there was indeed punch! And it was delicious), mingling and chit-chatting for about an hour prior to the reading.  As such, the event had the feel of a house-party more than a poetry reading: everybody knew each other, it seemed, and was ready to have a good time.

These are the people who were rapt by Natasha Kessler’s rad poems…

The OUR FLOW crew had donned de Silva’s walls with dozens of plastic dinosaurs, giving the room a prehistoric edge. Contributing to the bog/swamp theme was the fact that de Lima’s living room turned almost instantly to a sweat lodge.  Thursday was one of the first not-disgustingly-humid days of the week, but you wouldn’t know it inside the room. I was fortunate, for the first two readers, to have been sitting beside the fan.  And speaking of readers…

Natasha Kessler

Natasha Kessler earned her MFA from the University of Nebraska, and now works for a small press and lit journal in Omaha.  She read a series of poems from a manuscript titles “Tricks with Creative,” names of some of the characters in the work. (I’m not sure if that’s “Trix” or “Tricks” or something else…)  As the first reader, Kessler was the first to try out the grandmotherly rocking chair set up for readers–equipped, of course, with a stuffed dinosaur cushion.  Her poems nicely kicked off the OUR FLOW tradition (as I’m sure this will not be their last event) by pushing boundaries of both content and form: her initial poem repeated and reshaped the word “hole/whole” over the course of its lines, driving home some of the central themes to OUR FLOW’s mission.  To give a sense of Kessler’s style, she read from one section entitled, “I’d Like to Shave My Head, Pretend I’m a Vulture, and Bury My Head in Your Chest.”

Aaron Apps

Aaron Apps is a local poet attending the U.  His manuscript A Carnal Shitstorm of Affections will be coming out soon on Blazevox, one of our favorite presses around here, so this was an exciting chance to see him read.  His immediate and stark poetry captivated the sweltering audience, often leading them to nervous laughter (as when he paused amid a description of the ebola virus to inflate a red balloon to a near-popping degree, then tied it off and let it bounce around the room).  His manuscript also included images, which he held up for the crowd as though in show-and-tell:  “Somatic Self-Portrait of the Ear,” and “Somatic Self-Portrait of the Penis Tip,” etc. One highlight was his manifesto of a poem, “On Silence,” which read, in full: “Fuck silence.”

Lucas de Lima

The event’s gracious host took up the rocking chair after a ten minute break, allowing everyone to step outside and cool down temporarily.  de Lima, a recent graduate of the UM MFA program, read from a manuscript that “orbits around an event” that the poet

Lucas de Lima assures us that gator attacks can be uplifting, too

went through several years ago: his good friend fell victim to an alligator attack.  If there is any proper way to come to terms with a trauma such as this, orbiting around it in poetry seems ideal.  As such, de Lima’s work was intense and haunting, violent and yet deeply affecting.  Relating to and conflating the experience with natural forms (the speaker taking the shape of a bird, a discussion with an alligator/human hybrid), his poetry approached and acknowledged the event without ever fully confronting it, without ever forgiving it for having happened.

The reading portion of the evening concluded with the Mystery Swampbeast–billed as an additional reader, which it was, of sorts…  the founding members of OUR FLOW IS HARD (Carrie, Kristin, Mary, Chrissie, and Amelia) had handed out index cards to attendees as they arrived. Each card bore a madlib-esque prompt.  When the time came for the Swampbeast, these five women took the stage and performed, with the audience’s help, an interactive manifesto for the series–calling out a number corresponding to a card, and it was the audience member’s job to contribute to and complete that item of the manifesto.  A nice, practical metaphor for the intent behind this new reading series: to generate a community united by poetry, rather than merely a market for poetry.

I slipped out before the dance party started, but it seemed inevitable.  The “inbogural” event in OUR FLOW IS HARD’s catalog may have orbited a little closely to the MFA program (this was, more or less, an MFA party with a reading thrown in), but it didn’t keep this outsider from feeling welcome, from having a good time, and from hearing some excellent and exciting poetry.  As the series grows, I expect it to keep pushing boundaries–including the scope and breadth of its audience.

-RHM

Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event?  Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! 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!