Tag Archive | Saint Paul

Danez Smith@Grinnell

One of the perks of being at Grinnell is getting to experience Writers@Grinnell, the English department’s visiting author series. The first visitor this year was the Minnesotan poet Danez Smith. I’m often not much of a poetry person (whatever that means), though occasionally I’ll stumble upon a poem that really resonates with me (see Gina Myers’ “Memorial”), but I was interested in Smith’s visit because 1) they’re from Minnesota and 2) their next poetry collection, coming out next spring from Graywolf Press, is about friendship.

Another new professor told me she was going to the afternoon roundtable, so I decided to go too, though I wasn’t sure what to expect (I was hardly going to participate in a craft discussion about poetry!). It turned out to be a Q & A with mostly students (as it should be). Now, going in, I thought I’d never heard of Danez Smith before, but as they opened the roundtable by reading one of their poems, I was suddenly certain that they had written a poem I’d discovered a few years ago and loved. It was about being in California and missing the Minnesota cold (and something deeper). Later I checked, and I was right (but I’d been certain); the poem is “I’m Going Back to Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense.”

Smith kept reading, and the poem mentioned Hague St., and I started because when I lived in St. Paul I lived on Hague Ave., and Smith was from St. Paul. Was it…?

After reading one more poem (with audience participation), Smith fielded questions from students. The following are some bits of answers I liked best or found most intriguing (filtered through my memory):

  • Joy is hard to make special. So maybe this is why there’s less writing about happiness?
  • You should write about the things you think you’re avoiding because good writing is dangerous.
  • At the same time, while you find your voice in the place that scares you, you also find it in the spaces where you feel safety, love, and intimacy.
  • Your best work should surprise you.
  • Poetry is about being immortal, not inaccessible. (That is, poetry shouldn’t be abstruse work produced by members of a small elite for one another.)
  • They said they were excited for their next book, Homie, because it was going to force people to ask them about their friends (among other things).

In the evening, I went to Smith’s reading in the auditorium at Hotel Grinnell. It was very well attended, and this being a small town and a small college, I recognized all sorts of people I’d met in the less-than-a-month I’ve been here. They came from all manner of departments too. (I think this reading encapsulated exactly what I meant when I tried to express what appealed to me about small liberal arts colleges to faculty search committees!)

The reading was lively, powerful, alternately raucous and still, and Smith had no trouble engaging us all. Among the most memorable poems was “my president,” about all the people they would be proud and happy to call their president (celebrities, family members, and so on). Sometimes I felt like Smith was not talking to me, that I was on the outside looking in, because I’m not black, but this felt right in a way, because not everything we say is for everyone.

The most moving moment of the night, for me, was the reading of the last poem. Smith said they’d posted on social media asking people to give them a very brief description of when they knew their best friend was their best friend. I believe the responses fed into the poem, which is entitled “acknowledgments.” It was funny and beautiful and poignant, and I loved it.

No Justice, No Peace

For the past week or so I’ve been reading Angie Thomas’s debut YA novel, The Hate U Give. In the opening pages of the book, 16-year-old Starr and her best childhood friend Khalil, both black, are driving home from a party when they’re stopped by a white police officer. After being ordered and half-dragged out of the car, Khalil goes to open the door to ask Starr if she’s okay, and the police officer shoots him to death. The rest of the book details the aftermath of Khalil’s death, Starr’s decisions to speak out as the witness to the shooting, and the complex relationships among Starr’s family, neighbors, and friends both in her neighborhood and at her mostly white suburban prep school.

Yesterday morning, I was riding the bus to campus and had reached the last pages of the book. I got to the second-to-last page:

It felt like the narration had broken a wall. Up till now, it had been about the fictional Khalil, but now it was about real people. As my gaze traced this litany of familiar names, my memory filled in surnames where I knew them: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice (twelve. years. old), Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and then… Philando Castile.

I flipped to the front of the book; when had it been published? Just this year. Philando Castile was killed a little less than a year ago, which means Angie Thomas must have added him to this list in a later draft of The Hate U Give (maybe he wasn’t the only one she had to add).

Philando Castile was from St. Paul, MN. He worked at a school, where he was a beloved figure. I remembered the protests that happened last summer outside the Governor’s Mansion on Summit Avenue, right near where I used to live. I remembered the four-year-old girl who’d been in the back seat of the car when the police officer shot Philando to death and who’d tried to comfort her mother, who was streaming her partner’s death on Facebook Live. And I thought about how over the past few days I’d been reading Star Tribune articles about the jurors’ deliberations in the trial of police officer Jeronimo Yanez. The jury was struggling; the judge was advising them while turning down certain requests they made. This was happening right now, and here was Philando’s name in the book in my hands. Tears sprang into my eyes, and I thought I was going to cry on the bus.

After lunch, I read in the Star Tribune that Yanez had been acquitted on all counts. And I was not the least bit surprised. But my heart ached. In The Hate U Give, the police officer who kills Khalil is never even charged. Angie Thomas could not have written the book any other way.

There was no justice for Philando. This is wrong. Our country is sick. I don’t have eloquent words to offer, and my voice isn’t among the most important on this subject. I want to have Starr’s hope, and I think, somewhere, I still do. But right now it’s these words from The Hate U Give that are echoing in me: How? I don’t know. When? I definitely don’t know. 

Wildings Launch Party at Red Balloon

Preface: Look, I can’t post this blithe write-up of my launch party pretending like yesterday didn’t happen. And it would also be pointless to hide my politics. The outcome of the presidential election has left me stunned, deeply disappointed, and more than a little afraid of what the future holds. I am a woman of color, but I enjoy all kinds of privilege, and I’m more afraid for others than I am for myself. At the same time, I have faith that no matter who is president we can keep working to spread justice and end oppression. We can continue to welcome the immigrant and the refugee in our communities. It may be harder, but we cannot, and will not, give up. We are not powerless. And I’m resolved to do my part. And for those of you who are hurting, who are terrified, my heart goes out to you. I’m here for you, and I’ll stand with you.

So.

This past weekend I traveled back to Minnesota to celebrate the release of Wildings at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul! It was a lovely launch party. I feel so lucky to have gotten to share this occasion with so many people who are important to me. Members of my extended family, from both my parents’ sides, came, as well as a number of my high school friends and/or their families. My cello teacher, with whom I studied for nine years, came and admired the hand positions of the cellist on the cover of Wildings. My best childhood friend, whom I’ve known since I was born and with whom I wrote my first stories, was able to be there because she’s now in grad school at the University of Minnesota. One of my Lutheran Volunteer Corps housemates came with her husband.

My mother invited a neighbor girl who lives at the end of our block and whom I’d never met before. She read Sparkers in advance of the release party and sat in the front row at the bookstore. She asked several questions during the Q & A and then came up to the table where I was signing books several more times to ask further questions. One of them was who my favorite teacher was. Will anyone who’s read Sparkers be surprised to hear it was my middle school orchestra teacher? The last time, she gave me a card in which she told me she was an aspiring author. ❤

And now for some photos!

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Here I am! (photo by my mother)

reading

Reading from Chapter 1 (photo by my aunt)

signing

Signing books (photo by Madeline)

cake

The cake! (photo by Stef)

cousin

Me and my youngest cousin (photo by my aunt)

grandma

Me and Grandma Yee (photo by my mother)

Sparkers Launch Party at Red Balloon

Today is the official publication day of Sparkers! It’s out in the world. It’s hard to believe this day has finally arrived, and yet today also feels like any other day. I’m grateful to everyone who has taught me, advised me, cheered me on, and kept me company along the way.

Last Friday, I had my launch party at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul. As I’ve mentioned before, this is the children’s bookstore where I met Eoin Colfer when I was in middle school. During my volunteer year, I lived in the neighborhood and loved being able to walk to Red Balloon whenever I wanted. It was a dream come true to have the Sparkers release party there.

A lovely crowd came out to celebrate with me, including much of my extended family, several of my high school friends, parents and siblings of high school friends who have left the Twin Cities, some of my parents’ friends, my 7th and 12th grade English teachers, my 5th, 9th, and 11th grade French teacher (and her friends from France!), a bunch of church members, two of my Beth Shalom housemates, my former boss at the interfaith advocacy organization, a bunch of my former colleagues from the non-profit/advocacy world, and my cello teacher. I was touched by everyone’s support and enthusiasm.

And now, a few photos from the party…

Books

Books!

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Me with books!

cake

Red Balloon ordered this gorgeous cake, complete with edible glitter and a frosting violin

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Me talking (and note Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen’s The Dark!)

friends in the audience

Friends, teachers, coworkers!

signing

Hoping I’ve developed a consistent signature…

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I’ve perfected the “little grandmother” look. (Photo by Laura C.)

Thank you to the Red Balloon staff for hosting such a wonderful party for me and thank you to everyone who came!

Northern Spark 2014

I am on vacation in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and I arrived just in time for Northern Spark 2014. This is an all-night arts festival I’ve attended with friends for the past two years (I mentioned the 2013 festival briefly in my 2013 recap post). The first year I went, it was in Minneapolis, and we spent most of our time around the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi. Last year, it was in St. Paul, in and around the Union Depot railroad station. This year, it was back in Minneapolis, and it coincided with the opening of the Green Line, the new light rail train that connects the Twin Cities’ downtowns. The light rail line was in the midst of construction the whole time I lived in Beth Shalom last year, and whenever I walked down University Avenue to go to the library or to grab a meatball bánh mì, I would see the as yet unused rails and the empty stations and regret the fact that I would be leaving before the trains started running. In celebration of the opening of the Green Line, all Twin Cities buses and trains were free this past weekend–a public transportation fan’s dream! 

Saturday was rainy and blustery, so I did not ride the Green Line to St. Paul as I’d hoped. Besides, we were hosting a garden party at home, which ended up being indoors due to the weather.

Peonies

Some of my mother’s peonies

In the evening, as a thunderstorm rolled through, I took a (free!) bus to downtown Minneapolis and met some friends at the Convention Center for the opening ceremony of Northern Spark. After some taiko drumming and a welcome from Mayor Betsy Hodges, we headed to Orchestra Hall to hear the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Courtney Lewis, perform Kevin Puts’s Symphony No. 4. It was my first time in Orchestra Hall since it was renovated, and for the most part it didn’t look that different. It was also my first time hearing the Minnesota Orchestra since the lockout ended. The last time I heard these musicians perform live, they were playing independently as the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. And the last time I heard them at all was in October, in LA, when I listened to Minnesota Public Radio’s live stream of Osmo Vänskä‘s last concert as conductor of the orchestra. Now the lockout is over, and Osmo is back! So it was really meaningful to be back in that familiar hall hearing this orchestra again. The symphony was accompanied by a light show against the cubes embedded in the wall behind the stage. Some of it was rather pretty, but it felt a bit superfluous to me.

After the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance, we prowled around Orchestra Hall and the Convention Center seeing what else there was to see. There was a trebuchet out in the street hurling water balloons containing LED lights in soaring arcs over the pavement. There were some musicians playing unusual instruments (bowed banjo?) in the Convention Center arcade. We dashed through the rain to this seesaw that was supposed to do something light/sound-related, but it was hard to tell what it was doing, exactly, and we were getting wet.

Eventually, we rode the new Green Line a short ways to the East Bank of the University of Minnesota and ducked into the Weisman Art Museum. This is where I knew the local Sacred Harp singers were holding an all-night Northern Spark singing. The people I was with were very good sports about singing with me for most of the hour between midnight and 1 a.m., and it was rather fun to make my reappearance among the Twin Cities singers in the middle of a stormy night. We sang some tunes befitting the circumstances, like The Midnight Cry and Showers of Blessings.

From the Weisman, we hopped from one U building to the next. The Gossip Orchestra was pretty cool, and in Northrop Auditorium we experienced the Fruit Orchestra, in which you hold an alligator clip in one hand and hit pieces of fruit (a banana, a lemon, a lime) with the other to make music. The tomatoes and cherry were in somewhat bad shape by the time we got to the Fruit Orchestra. (It strikes me that there are a lot of orchestras in this post.) Also in Northrop was a slideshow, projected on the wall, of the outlines of all the lakes in Minnesota.

As it approached 2 a.m., we decided we’d had enough of running around in the rain and exploring Northern Spark in wet clothes. For our final adventure of the night, we crossed the Mississippi using this former railroad bridge that I hadn’t known existed (according to Wikipedia, it is Northern Pacific Bridge Number 9) as the wind blew rain in our faces and thunder rumbled overhead.

One last thing! For helping to fund Northern Spark this year, I received this bit of plastic, which, believe it or not, is called a sparker (as are people who attend Northern Spark, apparently–that makes me a Sparker!).

Sparker

My sparker

Why is it called a sparker? Because it does this:

Sparks