Rebecca Weaver on the Twin Cities Scene Report Flashback
Fire up your flux capacitor and get ready as Rebecca Weaver takes us back to the Twin Cities’ poetry world in the 1970s.
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Note from author: In honor of AWP taking place in Minnesota this year, this scene report is a “way back” scene report with glimpses of the scene in the 1970s. I’m working on a book about poetry communities in the 1970s, and so this report is poetry-heavy. I see myself as a visitor to the ‘70s scene in the cities and my knowledge is incomplete; I’d love to see comments from folks who know more about the prose happenings then or who were at some of these events.
While some famous literary personages such as Robert Penn Warren, Robert Bly, Allen Tate, John Berryman, and James Wright were from Minnesota or had taught at the University of Minnesota and other area colleges, there wasn’t much of a literary scene in the Twin Cities like there is today before the poetry scene suddenly boomed in the 1970s. In the 60s, folk concerts, anti-war demonstrations, and food co-ops abounded. The protests, activism, and counterculture helped create an incredibly fertile and fecund atmosphere into which poets moved and started workshops, reading series, organizations, book fairs, journals, and small presses.
Michael Dennis Browne moved to the Twin Cities in 1971 to teach contemporary poetry at the University of Minnesota. Many writers, including Mary Logue and John Minczeski, credit Browne’s classes, where many of them met, with inspiring them to write poetry and to form community and reading series in Minnesota. Also that year, 1971, Marly Rusoff and her business partner William Savran founded Savran’s Books a few blocks West of the University of Minnesota and down the street from Bob Dylan’s old apartment. Savran’s (which became Rusoff & Co. Books in 1974) twinned Hungry Mind Books, which opened in St. Paul in 1970. Many poets, such as recent arrivals Jim Moore and Trish Hampl, frequented Savran’s; it had an uncommonly large poetry section.
Caroline Marshall, a poet from St. Paul, joined with other women poets frustrated by the lack of venues and opportunities for women to read and share poetry to found the Women Poets of the Twin Cities in St. Paul in November of 1971. In its brief but active life, WPTC hosted some big readings, including a benefit for the Minneapolis Rape Crisis center. Some of the WPTC would go on to work with other poetry communities later in the decade; Phebe Hanson, Caroline Marshall, and Trish Hampl all served on the board of the Loft.
Marshall and Jenné Andrews developed the Smith Park Reading Series, which hosted popular readings in the old Park Square Theater in downtown Saint Paul. They included nationally famous poets such as Meridel Le Sueur and locally famous poets such as John Rezmerski, Freya Manfred, Jim Moore, and Wendy Knox. Andrews and Marshall exported the Smith Park idea out-state with their “Minnesota Poetry Out Loud” project, where poets including Hanson, Marshall, and Bill Holm (alternating poetry with ragtime piano), read to wildly diverse audiences at potlucks, bars, and even a swimming pool.
Readings and poetry gatherings sprung up all over the cities. The World Famous Poets reading series in the late ‘70s featured James L. White, Mary Karr, Margret Hasse, and Alvaro Cordona-Hine. The Pillsbury Waite Cultural Arts Center hosted gatherings and readings by Roy McBride and Etheridge Knight, who also hosted poetry workshops at his Minneapolis apartment. Marly Rusoff hosted a number of readings in her store in the early 70s, and she and Michael Dennis Browne hatched the idea of having a writer’s club.
Around the same time, Jim Moore sought a place to hold a poetry workshop. In 1974, Rusoff rented out the empty apartment above the store and founded the Loft, which quickly became a keystone literary organization in the cities. Their fundraising events drew a lot of support; one featured Garrison Keillor singing a song for Rusoff, while another reading, held on Buddha’s birthday in 1975, in what’s now the Mixed Blood Theater, was filmed by Mike Hazard.
The Loft’s faculty and board alumnae from the 70s and early 80s, including David Wojahn, Natalie Goldberg, Jill Haldeman, Peter Mladnic, Sue Ann Martinson, Mary Rockcastle, Jim Dochniak, Cary Waterman, and Jim Perlman went on to found presses, publish widely, teach, and spearhead other organizations in the region and elsewhere.
New magazines included The Lamp in the Spine (1971-1974) a feminist-inspired journal begun by Trish Hampl and Jim Moore in Saint Paul, and Dacotah Territory, begun by Mark Vinz in 1971 to counter what he saw as a tendency on the part of Midwestern readers to ignore the local and regional flowering of literature. Moons and Lion Tailes (1973-1977), edited by H. Schjotz-Christensen and Jim Perlman, had similar evangelistic projects. It was the precursor effort to Holy Cow! Press, which Perlman began in 1977. COMPAS took over the local Poetry-in-the-Schools program and published the anthology 25 Minnesota Poets in 1974 and a second anthology in 1977. A number of poets previously mentioned here were part of that anthology, as were other poets such as Alvin Greenberg, John Minczeski, Tom McGrath (who moved to Minneapolis in the 80s), and Kate Green. In 1977, the cities hosted its first book fair. Coffee House Press founder Allan Kornblum attended the fair and was so impressed by the literary scene that he moved Coffee House to Minneapolis in 1981. Sue Ann Martinson helped organize the fair and founded Sing Heavenly Muse! that same year. New Rivers Press moved from Massachusetts to St. Paul in 1978 and began its Many Voices Project in 1981, publishing early works by much-loved poets Deborah Keenan and Sharon Chmielarz. Loft alums Emilie Buchwald and R.W. Scholes founded Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis 1979. Graywolf Press moved to the Twin Cities in 1985.
Presses and journals and organizations and poets have continued to move to the Twin Cities, drawn largely because of the foundation laid by those in the 1970s. Those of you visiting the Twin Cities for AWP this year will be treated to a scene populated by amazing and committed people who run journals, presses, organizations, reading series, strong independent bookstores, and two MFA programs (Hamline U and UMN). The incredibly vibrant literary scene in the cities provides many opportunities for any writer who wants to join literary communities. All you have to do is show up.