Dameun Strange is a musician, composer, songwriter, non-profit leader, dapper man, and all-around cool person well known to many of us in the Twin Cities community, and I was happy he was willing to spend some of his time with me talking about the cosmos, his youth in Washington, D.C., songwriting, and other starry conversational offshoots. He fit in our chat between an already long, full day of work as the executive director of NEMAA (Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association) and an evening board meeting.
Bronx-born poet Lara Mimosa Montes’ debut book, The Somnambulist, out from Horse Less Press in late 2016, was the main topic of conversation when she and I sat down to talk about poetry. Montes’ work has appeared in Fence, BOMB, The Third Rail, and elsewhere. She is a recently defended PhD candidate in English at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She also teaches poetry at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and works as an editor for Triple Canopy and Poor Claudia magazines.
With the book itself between us like a beautiful meal (or a small Ouija board), we meandered through a discussion about influences and aesthetics.
I’ve always admired Kathryn Haddad for her founding the Arab American literary journal Mizna but only recently had to chance to pick her brain about her own literary work. I asked her about her journey coming into her own as a playwright, “I always loved theater. My earliest and best memories were of making up plays in the basement of my parents’ house and inviting neighbors to watch. I started performing in plays in elementary school and all through high school, but did not begin to write plays until I was in my late 20s when I discovered that I had a story to tell, too.” I am so grateful that she has been part of telling Arab American stories in Minnesota and beyond.
The first time I met poet Roy Guzmán it was at a Great Twin Cities Poetry Reading held at Augsburg College a few years ago—I was riveted by the lyric intensity of his language and his incantatory delivery. Since then, he has continued to press into the inner and outer world and make more vivid, haunting, elegiac, passionate poetry. He is an MFA candidate in the University of Minnesota’s Creative Writing Program and is hard at work on this thesis.
I asked Roy to tell us about his dreams for himself as a poet and this question seemed to have connected with his current concerns, “I think about dreams a lot and how they are often constructs of a white supremacist imagination. I don’t know if how I attempt to respond to them falls in line with a process of decolonization, but I do know—or at least I’m aware—that writing is one method through which I choose to dream again, to re-dream, to realize that I can veer away from these kinds of questions and manage to produce work that, above all, speaks to me in a broad level."
I love that writer D. Allen has a period after “D”. Punctuation is important, dare I say a form of deep magic, a set of practical and mystical symbols that the writer D. Allen has clearly embraced! I was fortunate to catch D. in between writing, editing, art-making, and guitar-playing-and-song-singing for a conversation about their work. D. is an MFA Candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota and is busy conducting the beautiful (and challenging) odyssey into what is known as the “thesis,” or final, culminating manuscript in the MFA program.
By the time we met for coffee at 10 a.m., Shannon Gibney had already had a busy day. A friend’s job was on the chopping block for what amounts to a civic duty, and Shannon wasn’t going to let her get fired over it. Crystal Spring, a Washburn teacher, was arrested in May essentially for monitoring the arrest of a black man (not illegal, btw). Minneapolis Public Schools got wind of the arrest and marked her for termination, pending a vote from the board of education, for her “unbecoming” behavior, though she hadn’t been convicted of a crime (and all charges were later dropped). The school board vote was scheduled for the following Tuesday, and Shannon had been working to mobilize the community in protest of Crystal’s firing. (P.S., the community support was significant, the school board voted the right way, and Crystal was reinstated as an MPS employee.)
I thought this story was a great way to introduce you to Shannon because it gets at the root of her work: for her, activism and writing are inextricably linked. Writing is a vehicle she uses to illuminate issues that need a place in the public sphere, and one of my favorite things about Shannon is the multitude of formats and genres she does this in; from her journalism to her creative writing, activism is the basis of her writing life.
I had an eye on this year’s Best Translated Book Award announcement for three reasons: One, a book I love, and worked very hard on, was among the finalists; two, Coffee House Press, Graywolf Press, Holy Cow! Press, and Milkweed Editions all had titles on the longlist (yes, Minnesota dominated this year’s BTBA); and three, I’d recently listened to an episode of Radiolab on translations, which began with a discussion of how to translate poems beyond just words—things like rhythm, rhyme, meter—which has been on my mind since. This series of events lead me to Aoife Roberts for three reasons: one, she did a magical fact-check on the aforementioned loved book, which we were so tickled with we decided to include it with the publicity materials; two, she currently works as the publishing assistant at Milkweed Editions; and three, she has an MA in literary translation.
One of my very first days as publishing assistant at Coffee House Press, I filled a book order for Sun Yung Shin. She wanted copies of both of her poetry books—Skirt Full of Black and Rough, and Savage—was very sweet and gracious, and signed her email as SYS. Hardly a noteworthy interaction, not like my first time engaging with her poetry or listening to her read her work, for example, but I remember being struck by the artistry and movement in her initials, like the S’s were going to protest their fixed state and begin climbing the Y. There was some kind of unseen muscle contracting and relaxing that would eventually break the confines of the static shape. I didn’t know where that thought came from exactly, nor did I know how oddly fitting this thought was in relation to her work. What I do know after our recent conversation is that she is undoubtedly as tempted as I am right now to stop writing/reading and instead research the history of the letters S and Y, not so much to see if there’s some underlying answer for my thought, but just to see where it might take us.
One of my favorite topics of conversation is grammar pet peeves, and as such, I usually find my kindred spirits in fellow copy editors. We bond over things that go unnoticed by 98 percent of people and 99 percent don’t care about. We have long conversations about whether to use “into” or “in to,” will defend our stance on the Oxford comma to our grave, and cringe when we hear “because” used as a standalone preposition (because grammar!). I’ve had these very conversations with Alison Dotson.
Welcome Caroline Nitz (back) to Minnesota! After a three-year stint in New York where she established herself as a book publicity force, this Northfield native has returned to our fair state and joined the wolves as publicist (by which I of course mean Graywolf Press, the renowned nonprofit literary publisher, for anyone who requires disambiguation from the decidedly less successful basketball team). Having moved home this summer and landed her dream job just a few months later, Caroline seems to have hit the lottery. But as many of us know, securing a job in publishing is all about a lot of hard work and a lot good timing. After her last job search, it’s about time these two conveniently intersected for her.