Writers ignite next ‘black literary renaissance’

Brenda Bell Brown, Louis Porter II and Ellena Schoop at the retreat.
Photo by Karla Nweje
Brenda Bell Brown, Louis Porter II and Ellena Schoop at the retreat.

If you happened to have been strolling through the rainy woods of northern Minnesota recently, you just might have gotten a glimpse into the “cradle of the next great black literary renaissance.” That’s how Arleta Little, poet and executive director of the Givens Foundation for African American Literature, describes the first annual Givens Black Writers Collaborative Retreat, held at the Dwelling in the Woods outside of McGrath, Minn., on May 1-4.

Little, along with playwright Ellena Schoop, local mentor and writer J. Otis Powell, and national mentor and literary legend Amiri Baraka, accompanied 10 Minnesota-based African-American writers for an intensive four-day literary retreat. The group piled into two vans and pointed north into the wilderness. Think spotty cell-phone coverage, doubtful Wi-fi access and an undistracted meeting of some of the most creative minds in the Twin Cities.

Poet, teacher and movement artist Karla Nweje won a coveted spot at the retreat, and says the change of scenery helped her break through some creative blockages. “The one-on-one mentoring was amazing. The group of people was so inspiring. And the air just smelled wonderful! That connection with nature is so important to being an artist. I felt so relaxed and so nurtured and supported that I almost felt vulnerable when I came back to the city.”

Retreat from urban wildlife

She says the local black artistic community too easily gets locked into urban experiences. “The people at the Dwelling in the Woods who hosted us were warm and welcoming and fabulous. But I can only imagine what they were thinking when they saw us coming: ‘Wow. Big-city black people coming out to the woods!’ And let’s get real: We were not just a bunch of black people coming to the woods — we were a bunch of black artists, which is a whole other entity.”

The wow factor went both ways, though, says Nweje. “During our orientation, some people were clearly apprehensive about the environment. It was hilarious, actually. They wondered if there would be electricity. I’m pretty adventurous, I’ve been to other countries, so to me, it was quite modern. We were pampered. But it was rustic and it was remote, for sure.”

Others felt right at home in the woods. “I have a great love affair with the North Shore,” says Rush Merchant, a native Minnesotan, musician and spoken word artist who works for the Jerome Foundation by day, and by night performs at places like the Dakota and Patrick’s Cabaret. “I find it a great place to recharge and do some heavy re-evaluating. And I always love to put my feet into Lake Superior once a year.

Amiri Baraka
Photo by Karla Nweje
Amiri Baraka

“City life can be somewhat of an inspiration, but it can be a bigger distraction. Despite the wonderful conveniences that the electronic world offers, my preference is to sit down with someone face to face. During the weekend, I could walk in the woods and talk with another writer, we could generate the connection and humor that comes from group experiences, and we had the most phenomenal dinner conversations — all with no background noise. It was so peaceful and so beautiful. We could really hear each other.”

The retreat included time with the mentors, workshops, panel discussions and an “open-microphone” night during which the group admired novels-in-progress, poetry and spoken-word performances, snippets of memoirs, and impromptu jam sessions, as various writers picked up instruments and expanded upon words with music or dance.

Although the Twin Cities is home to African-American writers working in every genre, it’s a very fragmented community, Nweje and Merchant say, and the hope is that the connections forged during this retreat will continue, and help nourish a more supportive and cohesive network of writers. More retreats are in the works, and this inaugural group plans to gather and support one another, even back in the wired city.

“Oh, the emails have been flying fast and furious,” says Merchant. “We are not going to lose the momentum on this. It was just too incredible. I haven’t stopped smiling since I got back.”

In other news

• Bill Holm has been selected as the Minnesota McKnight Distinguished Artist for 2008. Last year, Holm published his 10th book, “The Windows of Brimnes,” and he’s one of the most industrious teachers, writers and commentators in the Minnesota writing community. The McKnight award recognizes artists with a significant body of work and a “contribution to the state’s artistic life over several decades.” It also comes with a stipend of $50,000, which is going to look a lot like a Powerball payout to a prairie poet like Holm.

• Starting in June, Hennepin County library users can access their taxpayer dollars at work on their day off from work. Thanks to a sliver of the revenue from the Twins stadium ballpark tax, several of the merged Minneapolis-Hennepin County library locations will open their doors on Sundays. It’s a long-dreamed-of day for modern people with modern schedules. Locations include Minneapolis Central, Augsburg Park, Brookdale, Brooklyn Park, Champlin, East Lake, Eden Prairie, Golden Valley, Hopkins, Hosmer, Maple Grove, Oxboro, North Regional, Ridgedale, Rockford Road, Southdale, St. Louis Park and Westonka.

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