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

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!

Ultimate Master of Words

I attended the Loft’s “Ultimate Master of Words” competition with a dual sense of obligation: first of all, how does a person running a site devoted to literary happenings not attend an event so “literary” and so “happening”?  Second, the $10 cost of the ticket to this event doubled as a Loft membership fee–and how does a writer and editor living in the Twin Cities not have a membership to the Loft until now!?!  Of course I value what the Loft brings to the Twin Cities, and of course I benefit from their programming and community-building.  I feel legit shame that it’s taken this long, counterbalanced by the relief/pride that I now, finally, belong. But as for the actual event, The Ultimate Master of Words turned out to be, well, really fun.  I wasn’t blown away, per se, by the literary prowess. I wasn’t inspired to go home and write–I wasn’t inspired to go home and read.  But I smiled a lot, and laughed a lot, and I didn’t want to be anywhere else the entire time.

Much of this had to do with emcee Jeff Kamin (of Books & Bars, and also the emcee of past few Minnesota Book Awards Galas) and his high-octane schtick.  He’s a gifted performer and improvisor, and he was cast perfectly for this event–keeping the momentum moving even when the event itself stuttered (built into the structure of the contest were minutes-long pauses in which the contestants conjured their material…) and suffered a few technical difficulties that might have train-wrecked other events.  These minor obstacles only allowed Kamin to weave his lackadaisical charm more thoroughly into the fabric of the show.

Jeff Kamin and contestants. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Hale’s Facebook Page.

In his introduction, Kamin declared that “no one has ever seen a game like this before. Unless you’ve played Balderdash.”  Not the most original conceit (writers make up fake definitions to real words), the ingenuity of the event came in structuring the competition as a bracket, a-las March Madness.  The first round consisted of four pools of three writers, from each of which one winner was chosen.  Of those four winners, two competed for one spot in the finals, the other two for the other.  Words like “mulligrubs,” “swallet,” “pogonotomy,” and “farctate” were ascribed variously charming, long-winded, or venereal definitions, and the contestants were whittled away until only Sally Franson and Emily Weiss remained.

Weiss earned her spot in the finals by defining a word as, “losing this round to Sarah Stonich because I’m a little more drunk than I was in the last round,” which, ironically, won Weiss a trip to the finals.  But it did note the tangible decline in sobriety as the night wore on… the Loft was courteous in its libations, and most of the audience seemed to have partaken liberally.  This made for a lively, rather raucous atmosphere (for a room full of book nerds), but did also tamper the momentum of the contest just a bit:  wit slipped toward pandering, creativity toward heart-on-sleeve goofiness.  In the final round, the three judges (who were, along with Kamin, largely responsible for the evening’s light-hearted atmosphere: Marianne Combs, Lorna Landvik, and Anatoly Liberman each stole the spotlight at all the right times and in peculiar, eyebrow raising ways…) had to deliberate for quite a while before deeming Emily Weiss the winner–her prize: the title of Ultimate Master of Words and a limited edition print from Hazel and Wren reading “A Smithy of Words Am I.”  Her winning definition: “Lethologica: the brand of shampoo and conditioner that claims it will wash away your white guilt.”

In a charming twist to conclude the evening, anyone who had accurately filled out a bracket printout, which the Loft had circulated at the outset, was eligible to win a gift bag of mystery prizes.  Only one person guessed all of the outcomes correctly, and it turned out to be Emily Weiss’s mother Shelly, who was on hand to support her daughter.  What a haul. (FTR- I had Sierra DeMulder, who was ousted in the first round.)

This peculiar and niche-focused event likely resulted in a lot of new members to the Loft (such as myself, with aforementioned shame), which was certainly one of its aims.  But it also reminded us what a fixture the Loft is in the local literary tableau.  This was not a celebration of literature, nor even a celebration of words.  It was a celebration of that special thing we have here in the Twin Cities, that community we comprise, which I might define as “composed of individuals who love ideas, and who love the ideas of others, and the idea of others who love others’ ideas, and the idea of loving others’ love of ideas. Also, books.”

–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!

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!