MSP Reading Time: Rain Taxi and George Saunders

[Cross post with my Reading Rainstorm blog segment, Land of 10,000 Pages]

On Monday, I was excited to head out to Macalester College see a writer 25893679who has been described as “the best on the planet,” George Saunders, presenting in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the awesome local literary publication, the Rain Taxi Review of Books. Publishing four times a year and offering reviews of independent and obscure works of literature in diverse genres, from poetry to graphic novels, memoir to science fiction, if you see it in the racks at local coffee shops or bookstores, don’t forget to grab a copy. They’re free! Like the City Pages, and the late lamented Vita.mn and Onion papers, they have a tendency to pile up on my couches and in the backs of my friends and family’s cars. Of course, for the low price of $12 a year, you could subscribe and make sure you get all four copies. Always plenty of fodder to pile up on that ever growing reading list!

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Crowd queuing to listen to George Suanders, Kagan Commons, Macalester College

When Rain Taxi began back in 1995, one of their first issues reviewed a book of short stories by a new writer, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders. To help celebrate this, and the new edition of Saunders’ charming and eccentric children’s/adult’s picture book, the Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, Saunders visited the Twin Cities to read a few of his works and talk about his writing style. I don’t think you could choose a better introduction to the wit and style of George Saunders than the Gappers of Frip.  Read to a rapt audience by George Saunders himself, it was great way discover Saunders’ humorous and surreal, yet true to life writing. I can thank my English major sister for introducing me to his work, though I am still trying to complete my reading of his opus. I would also recommend listening to Saunder’s audiobooks, as he has a great, expressive reading voice, which made his live reading even better! Saunders was even kind enough to mention that the Twin Cities is a great place to do readings!

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George Saunders discussing Gappers to rapt attention

There is nothing cynical in Saunders’ work, but it also does not shy away from depicting the dark injustices faced by every citizen in our imperfect world, poverty, prejudice, greed, apathy, fear. Yet these elements are accompanied by a gentle, bright humanism that really shines through as well, making it a great exploration of the world as it is.

I’ve read that one, along with his latest collection Tenth of December and have always been in absolute awe at his writing prowess. More than any other author, I feel, he is able to capture the idiosyncrasies and feelings of everyday life infused with a total oddness that is itself true to life. In both Tenth of December and CivilWarLand, normal, flawed humans deal with absurd and bizarre situations they way we do with all of those inconvenient but normal problems of everyday life. Each story, also, takes a totally different and unique situation and takes it totally unexpected directions. In his discussion of his writing, Saunders mentioned a really interesting thought, that the writer’s job is really to bring their subconscious to the table, to make the richest and most resonant writing.

This is the stuff that draws me into Saunder’s stories, and into the deep, obsessing world of books in general. As Eric Lorberer, editor at Rain Taxi said in the video celebrating the magazine’s 20 years, books, “as the vital transporters of ideas, and of culture, and of values,” writing as a work of art and books will never leave humanity. Nothing exemplifies this better than the work of George Saunders. 

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Twin Cities Zinefest 2015

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Bryant Square Recreation Center, site of the Twin Cities Zinefest 2015

On an unseasonably warm Saturday, my sister and I stopped by the latest Twin Cities Zinefest, on hiatus since 2013. I attended in 2012 and really enjoyed it, so I was very excited to see what awesome stuff was on exhibit this time around. Held at the Bryant Square Recreation Center off of Lyndale Avenue just south of Lake Street, more than a dozen exhibitors displayed their creations to an appreciative audience. It is amazing how much talent  and ideas from the metro came together to share their visions.

As I have written earlier in my exploration of the Floating Library this summer, the medium of the zine is one that I find fascinating and evocative. As a DIY way to explore your own creative impulse and share stories and topics that are often neglected, ignored, or hidden, zines are a great window into other people’s lives. Whether intricate and elaborate or simple and spare, each of these pieces are something to treasure. We were both very inspired by the many diverse offerings, each representing a different style, genre, or topic of creative expression, whether comix, photography, memoir, social justice, fantasy, poetry, or the undefinable. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Minnesota, and the Twin Cities in particular, have a very strong and vibrant zine community, one that I have found very influential to my own writing styles. As I reported recently, I am trying to put together my own zine with the help of anyone else who is interested; check out the details in my blog entry here. Hopefully, we can share them in future Twin Cities events!

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A few of the awesome pieces we picked up from the exhibitors at the Zinefest

 

 

 

We Have a State Photo?

The colored version, the kind that hung in my grandparent’s dining room, painted over by Eric Enstrom’s daughter Rhoda Nyberg

So, MNopedia, that great resource for Minnesota history online, has just posted my second article, and only today it was reposted by MinnPost as well, so I’m pretty well chuffed! This was an interesting (that well worn Minnesota term) topic for me to research. Watching the response the article online so far has been interesting too, so I’m posting a little bit of a personal reflection behind my research, stuff a tad too subjective for a peer reviewed article.

I first wrote on Grace, Minnesota’s official state photograph, for a class in Mythology in American History, and much mythology surrounds this “painting” after the ninety or so years it has existed. A quick and informative look at how myths operate in modern American culture can be seen in this episode of PBS’ Idea Channel. As a total agnostic coming from a Lutheran background, I had a distinct mixture of feelings as I delved into the history behind Grace. As I researched, I discovered that the story behind it, while ostensibly simple, was filled with rumors, hearsay, and myths. Like many, I associated the picture with relatives, in my case, my grandparents. Like many, it seems, I had taken the image to be an oil painting, rather than the skilled photograph it is. What does it say about us that this is Minnesota’s official photographic representation of who we are as a state?

It was, for years, a fixture at my grandparents place. The picture hung in a place of prominence on the dining room wall of their tiny, musty house in Winona, Minnesota. As the bluffs loomed over the Mississippi, the dingy old picture to us loomed over our grandparent’s lives. Like the squeaky guest beds and lefse for breakfast, the painting was emblematic of our visits to them; their favorite picture exemplified everything we understood about my grandparents. It was an extension of their personalities and a favorite topic of conversation for Grandma. Grandpa had less to say about it, but, then, he had less to say about everything. Still, it had to have meant something to him, as he had the final say in everything around the house. He had no doubt hung the painting there himself soon after moving into the old house. It remained in the same place for decades, beginning sometime in the sixties, it is certain, until my grandfather passed away in 2005. My Grandmother took it with her to her new apartment, where it again took prominence in the decor, hung above the dining table. It remains there today, slightly faded, a little the worse for the wear with scattered water damage from some unremembered spill but still a centerpiece in the room. Where did it come from?

The year was 1918. The United States of America had finally entered the Great War, what would only later, after yet another war, be called World War I. Even in the middle of the isolated northern forest the events occurring in the killing fields of Europe were striking close to home. In the village of Bovey, Minnesota, a mining town in the heart of the Iron Range far to the north of Winona, a Swedish born photographer name Eric Enstrom attempted to capture a picture for the time and end up creating an image of the Minnesota experience. Charles Wilden, an elderly, homeless man peddling shoe scrapers stopped by one day trying to sell his wares. Something about the weathered, bearded Swede trying to sell him orthopedic devices inspired the small town photographer, and he asked Wilden to sit for him with a few props. The resulting photo, which Enstrom later called “Grace,” captured the sentiments of the region. Something about it seemed to speak to the Midwestern soul. At least, this is the story as told be Enstrom himself, as other reports list the photo as not having been taken until 1920, two years after the end of the Great War. Still, the connection worked.

Enstrom, and his daughter, Rhoda Nyberg, painted over the original photograph to give it the classic look of an oil painting, which only increased its popularity. By 1926, Wilden had sold his image to Enstrom for the grand total of five dollars. Enstrom, in turn, sold the photograph to Augsburg Publishing House, the largest Lutheran publisher in the world, who printed hundreds of thousands of copies over the years. The photo is now in the public domain, but Augsburg, among other printers, continue to sell it. The eventual fate of the homeless Wilden remains, in this story, unknown.

During my childhood, I associated the picture with my grandparents alone, having little reason to think it existed outside of their lives. However, I began to see the same picture elsewhere; an old Lutheran church in Iowa, a small town restaurant in Wisconsin, the bookstore of a small religious college in Minnesota. Describing it to friends and acquaintances throughout Minnesota, it seemed that many people could recall that the same picture hung in the homes of many of their own parents and grandparents as well. What was it about this picture that seemed to appeal to several generations of Midwesterner?

It all came to a head in 2002, when the Minnesota State Legislature, under Governor Jesse Ventura himself, established Grace as the state’s official photograph. Like our state drink (milk) and our state muffin (blueberry), we would now have a state photo to represent us, and it was a photo of an old white man praying. I was surprised to find very little controversy regarding the choice, in spite of the overt Christian religious nature of the photograph, and a legislator said it was a simply a picture of an “elderly person showing his feelings.” I must admit, I am not entirely comfortable with the message this sends. It is obvious, after looking through the many comments in the social media accounts of the article, that for many Minnesotans, it remains an important part of their lives, a meaning that goes beyond the societal into the personal; they see their own families and their own history in this image. For many, including myself, the guy in the picture represents nothing less than their own relatives. Some, in fact, had the childhood impression that he actually was related to them or to someone close to them, a grandfather or a family friends’ uncle. 

Like all photographs, this one was setup to convey a specific feeling  The “Grace” picture was carefully crafted by Eric Enstrom to put forward a very specific type of feeling; a spirit of religious faith, thankfulness, and humbleness that many European immigrants to Minnesota wanted to present of themselves. Enstrom said “this man did not have much in the way of earthly goods, but he has more than most people because he has a thankful heart.” The rumors that surround Wilden himself, though, paint a different picture; that of a shiftless alcoholic, a womanizing petty criminal known for breaking up families from Moorhead to St. Paul. Perhaps an older version of the man with whom my great grandmother was supposed to have run away. Not exactly what you would call a “holy” man, but in fact homeless man who signed his very image away for the paltry sum of five bucks. Interesting how such a conflicted figure, a man known for such cruelty, living his life in poverty with substance abuse issues, has become so many people’s vision of Minnesotan faith. Now, he’s everyone’s grandpa.    

Honestly, I cannot say I ever liked the picture. While I wouldn’t have been able to express this during childhood, it always struck me as being rather depressing. On the other hand, it fascinated me, and it had an almost Medieval effect upon my mood. That old guy just sitting there alone at his table, eating what was no doubt stale bread and gruel, it was certainly lonely. Even in my church going days, such fervent prayer as evoked by this man was alien to me. What does it say about the culture of the state that this is now our official photograph, the official representative of our place and its people? We’re white, obviously, but also old. We’re devout and Protestant (I wonder if the picture has the same impact among Catholics that it does among Lutherans). We’re not fancy. In other words, humble. Even the few possessions we own, we give thanks for, because it could always get worse, you know.

A Zine Exploring the Hidden Sides of the Twin Cities: Searching for Contributions

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Shock a Piece of History

There are a lot of stories out there, stories that reflect our lives in this place that we live, stories that illuminate things we didn’t even know were there. Everyone knows secrets hidden below the everyday, in a city we all think we know. I’ve kind of been yearning to put a few of them together into a little self-published zine and I was wondering if anyone would like to collaborate?

I’m planning to put together a collection of stories that would explore the strange, quirky, wonderful, and just plain obscure aspects of life in the Twin Cities. Anyone interested in contributing stories, poems, art, fiction, non-fiction, anything exploring or capturing some of the stranger feelings and ideas of what it means to live in the Twin Cities would be greatly appreciated. Whether, eerie, beautiful, or just weird, I’d like to show some of the mysteries and lesser known things hidden under the surface of the metro.

I’m just doing this for fun and I’m definitely open to suggestions about distributing, creating, or producing the end project. There could definitely be multiple issues if enough material comes in, but I’m aiming to get one done by the end of the year. So, as of now, a (flexible) deadline of December 31st for volume one. If there is anyone else you think might be interested, let them know too. Feedback, criticisms, and questions are highly encouraged, too. Email any contributions, questions, etcetera,  to burk0277@gmail.com. Thanks!

Moth St. Paul Story Slam at the Amsterdam

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The Moth Story Slam: Adventure theme begins at the Amsterdam, May 2015

So, back in May, I attended the monthly Twin Cities branch of the Moth Radio Hour, performed at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall in Downtown St. Paul. The Amsterdam seems to have become one of my favorite venues in recent months, with a pretty good beer list and some delicious Netherlands style Frites.

The Moth, “True Stories Told Live,” is one of my favorite events there. Coinciding with events in locations throughout the nation and the world, the Moth celebrates the “art and craft of storytelling,” by inviting people to step up to the mike to share their own stories, based on a chosen theme. I am big follower of the Moth Story Hour NPR radio show and podcast, and I find storytelling in general to be a very interesting and dynamic genre. When your own life is dull and mundane, how fun is it to live vicariously (and learn) by listening to others. What a great way to gain insight into other viewpoints, lives, and experiences and learn how others transform their dull and mundane lives into interesting and affirming tales. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, some are hilarious, and some bridge the gap between these; some are action-packed, some languid. All are wonderful.

At each Moth event at the Amsterdam, the audience is invited to write their name down and throw it into a hat to be randomly drawn to perform at this month’s show. A few rules are provided, as expressed on the sign here.

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The rules…

The theme at the Amsterdam in May was Adventure, a fitting one for me, of course, though in spite of a few beers, I did not have the confidence, quite yet, to step up and throw my name into the hat. There were a lot of exciting, funny, and affecting pieces shared, from road trips, camping in Alaskan bear country, among others. The favorite piece is then voted upon by the audience and submitted to this years’ Moth Grand Slam, which I wrote about last June, and a chance to even appear on the radio show/podcast!

The next show is on Wednesday this week, with a theme of Balance, “maintaining equilibrium in a board room or on a surf board.” I’ve made it a goal this year to throw my name into the hat at some show this year; we will see if that happens!

Amsterdam Bar and Hall, 6th and Wabasha, St. Paul. Easy walking distance from St. Paul Central Station Green Line, parking lot available across street. Moth Story Slam tickets $8 online, $10 at door. Doors open at 6:30, stories start at 7!

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Amsterdam Bar and Hall

MNopedia Article

Wow, it’s been almost a month since I last posted! I had a better track record on writing about my Twin Cities adventures when I didn’t even live in the Twin Cities! It is not that have not been doing a lot of awesome stuff lately, it’s just, well, I’ve been doing a lot of awesome stuff lately and have been a bit overwhelmed about writing about it. Yeah, yeah, I know, excuses, excuses! I think you can look forward to several new updates in the next few days, though.

In the meantime, while living in greater Minnesota, I was able to do some fun research for a very interesting, not well known topic of Minnesota history, Julia Sears and the “Sears Rebellion” of the Mankato State Teachers College, 1873 for the people at MNopedia, the Minnesota Historical Society’s online encyclopedia of Minnesota. Recently, they published my work in the encyclopedia, and It’s pretty amazing to be included in such august company! Check it out! Just today, the article was reposted by MinnPost, an awesome online newspaper, so I’m feeling kind of beside myself. Thanks for sharing my work!

Look forward to more adventure coming shortly…