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!

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

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!

Alyson Hagy

Alyson Hagy read from her latest novel, Boleto, on Thursday, June 14, 2012, at Twin Cities favorite Magers & Quinn Booksellers. I’ve always loved M & Q, and now I love it even more with its revamped back room (new carpet and more books on more shelves!) and new events manager Ethan Rutherford. I’ve noticed some small, but great changes at the store in the past few months. The monthly e-newsletter has been redesigned and looks fabulous (sign up at http://www.magersandquinn.com), and at the past few readings, authors have had the luxury of  a microphone. Acoustics have always been a bit of a problem in the poetry corner of the store, and I was grateful for the speakers and mic at Hagy’s very engaging reading to about thirty people.

Hagy has been traveling on her launch tour for Boleto over the past four to five weeks, but was quick to say how reading in Minneapolis is especially meaningful to her because it means coming home to her publisher, Graywolf Press. As a former Graywolf staffer (only two weeks since I made the move!), I’ve been to my fair share of readings by its authors and poets. I’m always genuinely affected, but never surprised, by each author and/or poet’s words of gratitude and love for the Press and its staff. Hagy’s thanks was a heartfelt reiteration of what I’ve always known about Graywolf, and what I was lucky to have been a part of for the past two years: Graywolf Press is one of the few remaining, independent, nonprofit presses that still values “the story.” Stories are important to Hagy. Stories hold an element of community. In BoletoWill tells stories to the filly, people tell stories to each other. Hagy also thanked her friends in the audience and reminded everyone to support their local independent bookstores, even if it means clicking a button on their websites to purchase an ebook.

Boleto, or “ticket” in Spanish, is the story of young Will Testerman and the filly on which he spends his savings to buy, train, and then eventually sell. The novel follows Will as he moves from Wyoming to Texas to California. In Hagy’s readings of three separate sections of Boleto and her discussion of how she came to write the book, it became evident that Will, his filly, and his Wyoming are not just elements in her book, but things she knows and loves deeply. It was clear that Will has always been his own entity to Hagy–she did not create him, but rather, discovered him and his story. In fact, Hagy shared that she had a “long fight” with herself about whether or not she should tackle Will and his filly for her book. Will Testerman is loosely based on a real person that Hagy met and observed training a filly in 2003. In answer to a question from the audience, Hagy did admit that it was important that Will be a man and the filly a female, that one could say Boleto is a sort of romance. From reading the book myself and listening to Hagy, I heard a romance between a man and his horse, or his ticket to redeem himself, a romance with the American West, and multiple “romances” between men and women who come and go, cohere and fall apart, but always with a sense of kindness for each other. I also heard the importance of a person’s relationship, perhaps not quite a romance, with loss and independence.

Alyson Hagy reads from Boleto

Hagy’s actual readings of three separate sections of Boleto, broken up by short intervals of Hagy sharing her process of writing the story, felt incredibly intimate. In addition to the audience of Graywolf staff and Hagy’s old college friends, it was undeniable that Hagy knew her book and Will just like Will knew his horse. From the minute Hagy started reading a section, she was in the story. It reminded me of the passion a really good teacher or librarian has when reading to students. It was impossible for me not to get involved with Will, his filly, and other situations in Will’s life, past and present. The first section Hagy read gave a strong sense of Will’s initial attraction and ongoing relationship with the filly, the second section showed off Hagy’s wonderful ability to introduce memorable characters and then have them quietly fade into the story, and the last section was a sobering yet uplifting interaction between Will and his mother, who is in remission from cancer and reassuring her son that he must break free from his worry about her to begin a life of his own. All three excerpts, read separately and as a whole reading, have tempted me to read the book again, to feel satisfied by a good telling of a tale.

Hagy grew up in Wyoming, part of a family familiar with horses and training them. Her personal experiences are very much a part of Boleto, whether in the novel’s horse training terminology and ranch culture or when character Dr. Art Slocum cures a horse using reiki, a scene taken from Hagy’s trip to Dubai in 2001. It’s always interesting to hear the “true” stories behind a work of fiction, and I thank Hagy for being so open about her writing process and how her life has influenced her work. I also thank her for being engaging while also being succinct. After a quick last question about the last great book Hagy read (Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, and the less famous works of Willa Cather), I am pretty sure the audience left on a high note, and not at all antsy to leave.

-SS

Have 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!

Sustained Silent Reading

An interesting thing happened on Tuesday night, June 12, 2012: Boneshaker Books invited anyone who cared to join them for an adult-style Sustained Silent Reading session at the Triple Rock Social Club.

Dating back to our recap of the Minnesota Book Awards, I’ve been grappling with the odd dichotomy of a literary scene: people coming together to celebrate an inherently private act.  People socializing about their love for antisocial behavior.  It’s a strange phenomenon, though one in good supply in our cities.  Boneshaker Books took this to a new level, arranging for the tattooed staff of the Triple Rock to tone down the death metal and open their taps to a roomful of slow-drinking litophiles.

Friendly reading strangers at the Triple Rock Social Club

I arrived a bit late–around 8:15 pm–expecting perhaps a smattering of people ignoring the books in their laps.  Instead, the room was packed.  Not an empty seat at the bar, every booth filled, and every single person had a book butterflied in front of them.  The music was soft, something classical-ish–the volume was so low  I couldn’t even identify the genre.  Near the front door, a “circulation desk” greeted me, offering a book to peruse if I hadn’t brought my own (I had) and a free bookmark to remember the occasion.  I tried to catch a glimpse of what people were reading, but I couldn’t make out any spines or covers: all of the books were open. A booth opened up just as I was looking for a place to sit, and I sat, and I opened my book, and I read.

We read in public.  It happens.  On the bus, in a coffee shop, in the library.  Some of us, if we’re lucky, get to read at work.  It’s not a new thing.  What was new about Boneshaker Books’s event at the Triple Rock was that everyone was reading–the whole point was to be reading.  And it did something to the atmosphere, a stillness in the air, a calm, common purpose.  I opened a short story I’d started the night before and started again from the beginning.  The words looked different on the page, as though they were more relaxed, more willing to be read.  Like they had opened up, unfolded, the sentences less guarded.  Clearly, this was all my psychology at work, but it was at work, and I enjoyed the story I was reading in a completely new, and better, way.

This was the first Sustained Silent Reading event that Boneshaker Books has put on, but judging by the turnout, it won’t be the last.  You can bet I’ll be there next time, too (it doesn’t hurt that Triple Rock’s two-for-one special begins at 9:00, just about the time an average attention span starts to wear a little thin).  Though, if you do attend next time, be sure to arrive early (the event officially started at 7:00, but people were filing it at around 6:30, according to reports) because when the drink specials start, so does the death metal.

-RHM

Did you attend this event?  Have a different opinion? We’d love to hear what you were reading… 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!