Literary Boroughs #6: Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the sixth post on Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota by Patrick Nathan. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Yes, it’s cold, but everything below 10ºF all feels the same, so we don’t worry about it. In all fairness, the brutal, January cold only lasts from mid December to late February. Once you get into March you might as well dig out the shorts and the sandals, as the low-70s of late May aren’t far off.

Of course this all sounds much worse than it is. As you can expect, a city that sees anywhere from four to eight feet of snow each year is prepared for it. In any case, those who visit the Twin Cities in the spring, summer, or autumn months know why we put up with it. Similarly, anyone who attends a launch party, reading series, poetry slam, or all-night arts festival—no matter what time of year—knows why we’d never live anywhere else. With its plentiful art schools, active music and recording scene, strong presence of advertising and design, one of the country’s top five modern art museums, and long history of philanthropy, MSP is the perfect place for any creative professional, but it’s for writers that the city seems almost tailored. We love books, and we love being in love with books.

Quick Info:

City: Minneapolis / Saint Paul

What the city is best known for/what makes it unique:

Extensive city parkland, with twelve lakes within the Minneapolis city limits alone; more live theatre per capita than any other US city outside of New York; widespread availability of organic and sustainable foods; and, independently of each other, consistent appearances at or near the top of CCSU’s list of America’s Most Literate Cities.

Resident writers (an incomplete list):

Charles Baxter, Louise Erdrich, Neil Gaiman, Garrison Keillor, Patricia Hampl, Julie Schumacher, Ray Gonzalez, Marlon James, Leslie Adrienne Miller, Dylan Hicks.

Literary references:

Both Erdrich and former resident David Treuer are fond of using the MSP area in their novels. The Berglunds, protagonists of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, are from Saint Paul.

Where to Learn:

Aside from the increasingly competitive Creative Writing Program at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities—one of the country’s top ten, according to Poets & Writers—MFA hopefuls can study at Hamline in Saint Paul or commute to the nearby Minnesota State University at Mankato.

MSP is also home to the Loft Literary Center, the nation’s largest independent literary organization. The Loft offers dozens of classes throughout the year for a variety of skill levels, commitments, schedules, and genres, and offers a sliding fee scale for lower income students. Each year, the Loft also offers the Mentor Series (in poetry and creative prose), in which twelve emerging Minnesota writers are selected to work with six nationally acclaimed authors for one year. In addition, the Hennepin County Library system hosts workshops on writing, publishing, and reading all throughout the year.

Where to Find Reading Material:

Having merged with the Minneapolis Library system in 2008, the Hennepin County Library, with its 41 locations, contains over five million books, CDs, and DVDs in 40 languages. Almost half these items are located at the Minneapolis Central Library, housed in a stunning new complex designed by Cesar Pelli.

MSP has no shortage of bookstores, and on top of that no shortage of independent bookstores, but the standouts are Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis and Common Good Books in Saint Paul.

Magers & Quinn is the city’s largest independent bookseller, with more than 300,000 new and used books on its shelves or in its subterranean warehouse. The first thing you see when you walk in is a long table of recently-published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—hardcover on the left and paperback on the right. The next table features local authors and presses. The fiction section fills the store’s entire heart, and with forty-two shelves of poetry and several sections of drama it certainly contains the city’s largest offering of literary work. In addition, the Magers & Quinn website receives upward of 200 orders each day, shipping to locations all over the world.

Common Good Books is now enjoying its new location, above ground, right across the street from the very literary Macalester College. Writer and NPR superstar Garrison Keillor opened the store in 2006, below Nina’s Coffee Shop on Cathedral Hill, and relocated just this year. While nowhere near the size of Magers & Quinn, Common Good is an essential resource for any writer, as their selection is superbly curated. It’s impossible to walk through the store without spotting books recently lauded in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, The New York Review of Books, N+1, Boston Review, The New Inquiry, 3 AM Magazine, and other taste-making publications. The store’s new space, complete with parquet floor, paneled ceilings, large windows, and comfortable furniture, while not quite as cozy as a basement, is inviting enough to induce a kind of book-buying euphoria. CGB should also be a writer’s first destination for current issues of quality literary magazines—something Magers & Quinn does not offer at all.

While not a complete list, other noteworthy bookstores include: Boneshaker Books, Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark Books & Native Arts, the Nicollet Bookstore, Booksmart, the Coffman Bookstore at the University of Minnesota, Book House, Once Upon a Crime (mystery), Uncle Hugo’s (sci-fi), James and Mary Laurie Booksellers (out of print, rare, and specialty), and Eye of Horus (metaphysical). In addition, MSP boasts two bookstores specifically for children: Wild Rumpus and Red Balloon.

Where to Get Published:

MSP offers a variety of literary and review publications. The city’s most visible is Paper Darts, founded in 2009 as a 24-page zine “printed, assembled, and bound with a sewing machine” and today a small publishing and design empire. Both the magazine itself and its publishing imprint specialize in the short and the experimental. PD has an aggressive media presence and facilitates a range of local events, but, in keeping with Minnesota culture, the ladies of Paper Darts are extremely approachable and always go out of their way to help fellow writers and designers. Other notable literary magazines include Dislocate, run by the MFA students at the U of M; Water~Stone Review, run by the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline; and Conduit. With a two semester editorial class, Ivory Tower, the U of M’s undergraduate magazine, is a starting point for young professionals on both sides of the publishing process.

One of MSP’s most prized publications is not a literary magazine at all, but a book review. Rain Taxi Review of Books, launched in 1996, is a quarterly print publication reviewing fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and is available free of charge at over 250 locations nationwide or by subscription. They also offer accompanying quarterly online editions of completely different material, as well as two chapbook series, a reading series, and other events, and host the Twin Cities Literary Calendar.

The city is also home to three of the largest and most respected independent presses in the country: Graywolf Press, Coffee House Press, and Milkweed Editions. Together with Paper Darts, Rain Taxi, Magers & Quinn, and the Loft, these organizations are the backbone of MSP literary culture, and make possible most of the city’s events, conferences, festivals, and readings.

Where to Write:

For those who can’t write without access to the Internet, Minneapolis offers a solution: USI Wireless. Minneapolis is one of the few American cities to have complete citywide wi-fi coverage. The cheapest plan is $20/month, based out of your apartment, but that plan comes with a login that works anywhere in the city, making it possible for writers and other Internetists to work in any one of the city’s 182 park properties, whatever restaurant you wish, at any beach, or, if you’re quick on your feet, right in the middle of Hennepin Avenue. For those who prefer a more traditional writing environment, you might have to walk up to a block before you find the nearest coffee shop. Favorites in the Uptown area include Caffetto, Urban Bean, and Spyhouse. Caffetto has an unpredictable playlist, which can sometimes provide a jarring Aphex Twin experience, and the wi-fi at Spyhouse rarely works. That, however, can be a benefit for those prone to Facebook-induced trances. Plus, you couldn’t ask for a better cup of coffee. Downtown, writers will be at home at Open Book’s Coffee Gallery. Just downstairs from the Loft, across the lobby from the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, and decorated with vintage typewriters, Coffee Gallery is no stranger to writers. In Saint Paul, Nina’s Coffee Shop is the undisputed writer’s café, with a new bookstore scheduled to fill Common Good’s old spot within the next few weeks. A quieter environment can be found in the Minneapolis Central Library’s reading lofts.


As mentioned above, we love books, and we love being in love with books. Even in the winter, a book lover will often have to choose between two or more literary events on any given night of the week. The local presses love their public happy hours, usually announced on Twitter and Facebook, and the MN Publishing Tweet Up, founded by Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary and digital publishing consultant Erik Christopher, has enjoyed phenomenal success among local publishers, editors, agents, writers, and hardcore readers. Intermedia Arts, in addition to offering several grant programs for writers and spoken word artists, hosts reading series for both GLBT writers and writers of color. The Mentor Series—a phenomenal program facilitated by the Loft, mentioned earlier—hosts six readings per year, with Tracy K. Smith, Lan Samantha Chang, and Dinty W. Moore among the 2011-2012 mentors. Each year, the Hennepin County Library brings eight to ten writers of national renown to Minneapolis through their Talk of the Stacks program. In October, Rain Taxi assembles an all-day book fair, The Twin Cities Book Festival, featuring “readings by rock star writers and local literary heroes; a day-long book fair featuring publishers, authors, booksellers, and arts organizations; a children’s pavilion with storytelling, crafts, and activities; a used book sale, and much more.”

New to the scene is the Twin Cities Literary Punch Card. It’s a collaboration between Coffee House, Graywolf, The Loft, Milkweed, and Rain Taxi, and participants get their cards punched at sponsored events—12 punches gets you $15 off at one of six participating bookstores (which includes several already mentioned in this post).

Minneapolis just enjoyed its second annual Northern Spark—a dusk-’til-dawn arts festival sponsored and produced by arts organizations and philanthropic donors all over the state. With over a hundred events, happenings, installations, and projects by more than 200 artists, Northern Spark 2012 featured, among other things, the Soap Factory’s Ten Second Film Festival; late night improv at the Brave New Workshop; letterpress artists printing designs on the hour; an acoustic gathering around a campfire behind the Walker Art Center; hide-and-seek, capture the flag, and tag at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; and more spoken word performances than you could possibly attend. One of the night’s most impressive feats was Paper Darts’ production of a magazine, from submission stage to completion, within nine hours. This was part of their Captured Dreams project, which also featured a looped video of residents recounting their dreams, a roomful of chalkboards for dream fragments, and a bed, in case inspiration was required. The magazine, Captured Dreams, will soon be available for sale in print and digital form, or for free viewing at MagCloud. While absent from NSPK 2012, Saint Paul participated in Northern Spark 2011 and is expected to rejoin the event in 2013. Other programs include, but again are not limited to: Reading Room Minneapolis; One Minneapolis, One Read; Minnesota Public Radio’s Talking Volumes; Saint Paul’s Soap-Box Poetry Slam; Books and Bars; and multiple writing conferences each year, sponsored by the Loft.

Next post: July 4 | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania…

BIO: When not writing fiction, Patrick Nathan maintains Mill City Bibliophile, a blog on all things local and literary, and serves as Managing Editor for Xenith, a literary webzine. In 2011 he was awarded a mentorship through the Loft Literary Center. His fiction has been published in Paper Darts and his non-fiction is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books. He thinks he’s nearing the end of his novel, again. Follow him on  Twitter at @patricknathan.

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