Next Thursday, Sept. 7, the Loft Literary Center will kick off its fall season with a free Happy Hour. It’s actually three hours of mingling, mini-classes, face time with Loft teaching artists and a chance to learn what the Loft does and offers, and what might be in it for you.
Founded in 1974, housed in the Open Book building on Washington Avenue, the Loft is the largest independent literary organization in the U.S., a national model for what literary organizations can be. Many thousands of people each year take part in Loft classes, conversations, readings and conferences. They learn how to write fiction and nonfiction, memoirs, poems, picture books, marketing copy, plays and screenplays; how to find an agent; how to self-publish and more. There’s even a class on how to write a story about your dog.
This year, the Loft is starting something new. It will still offer the kinds of events and classes we’ve come to expect, but some will be related by theme. The first theme, to be introduced at the Happy Hour, is Vigilance. The general idea is this: Our lives are full of distractions. How can poems and stories help us pay attention? How does language bear witness? How can words help us hold light in darkness?
We asked Loft executive director Britt Udesen to tell us more.
MinnPost: Why themed programming, and why now?
Britt Udesen: First and foremost, because we believe that the narrative art, the written and spoken word, is a way to explore big ideas and difficult topics in a way that’s more accessible than perhaps any other art form. We also want to assert the essential nature of literature. That sounds really lofty – for lack of a better word – but we believe stories are an essential part of civic life, and we think that by exploring one theme through all of the different things we do, we can help assert that idea. …
Stories are not extra. They’re not a luxury. … Any time people come together to listen to stories, your mind is in some way changed. You are in some way changed by hearing someone else’s story. Even if that’s an incredibly personal act, it has wide-reaching effects.
The idea of themed programming started the day I got here, two years ago. … I brought in my passion, which was the idea that literature brings community together, that stories are the best way for us to understand each other. It happened that the world around us became even more fractured than it was.
MP: Do you see themed programming as an experiment or a direction?
BU: I see it as a direction. One thing I really want to stress is that there are still hundreds of offerings that have nothing to do with the theme. So if you want to take a memoir writing class or a travel writing class, they exist here as well. …
The plan is to have three themes per year moving forward. This is a brand new way to present to the community what it is that we do. No other literary center in the country is doing this. We’re pretty excited about that.
[Note: Vigilance is the fall theme, to be followed by True North for winter and To Be Honest for spring.]
MP: Why did you choose Vigilance as your first theme?
BU: We have a list of probably 40 different theme ideas we came up with. This felt like the clearest one to start with, because we think we can show the ways in which stories and poems help us pay attention to the world around us. It’s open enough that there is room for anyone to enter that conversation. The big idea is – how does the written word help us to look at things we might not want to look at?
For example, we have a conversation [in November] with Solmaz Sharif, a poet who wrote a book called “Look” about the war in Iraq, and the very personal effects of war. It’s hard to pay attention to things that are really difficult and painful, and she is asking us to do that. She’ll be in conversation with Sun Yung Shin, who edited “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota.” So those two will talk about ways in which the written word can ask us to look at things we want to avoid, like racism in our own community or violence in other communities.
MP: There’s a class with poet David Mura on reading James Baldwin’s “The Price of the Ticket,” and another called “Finding Creative Nonfiction that Breaks Boundaries.”
BU: The reading classes are new. They’re discussion-based classes. The Loft is for readers as well as for writers. I’m not a writer, I’m a reader. And all writers should be readers. Reading is often a solitary act; the classes are a way for people to come together to explore big ideas. …
Part of what we’re trying to do, in addition to improve our existing program and continue to do what we do well, is open the doors more widely. My hope is that the theme will invite people to think “I’m curious about this idea, and the Loft can help me explore it.”
MP: Does adding themed programming seem proactive or reactive? Are you thinking things at the Loft need to be shaken up or freshened up?
BU: The Loft is in middle age. We are not a spring chicken. We’ve been doing what we’ve been doing for quite a while, and the world has changed around us. And while we deeply value and continue to offer the core programs that started the Loft, we also are thinking ahead about the ways in which we want to be an arts leader, not only in the community but in the sector of the literary arts. So it’s proactive in that it’s helping us evolve as an organization, to be a leader in pushing the importance of literature. And it’s reactive in that we are creating themes and programs based on what our community is asking us to do.
As a person who’s been in nonprofit arts for 20 years, I’m more excited about this and about the direction of the Loft than I have been about almost anything else in my career. It’s a thrilling moment to be at the Loft.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The summer season for all 26 of the Minnesota Historical Society’s historic sites officially ends this weekend. Many sites will change to limited hours and close for the season in the fall. So this may be your last chance for a summer road trip (or short jaunt, depending on where you live) back in time. You might take a Summit Ave. Walking Tour (those continue through Sept. 30), or visit the Jeffers Petroglyphs or the Oliver Kelley Farm. Here’s a complete list of Labor Day weekend events.
Tonight (Friday, Sept. 1) at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater: “Attack of the Show Stealer” Starring Carnage the Executioner. Terrell Woods, stage name Carnage the Executioner, is a full-out phenomenon. We’ve seen him several times and he’s riveting. An improvisational jazz beat boxer/hip-hop emcee, Carnage creates beats with his mouth and body; records, layers, samples and loops them; then raps over them, all in live performance. This show at the BLB will be the Minneapolis premiere of his first live performance film, with sets by guest artists and the Executioner himself. All ages. Doors at 8 p.m., show at 8:30. FMI and tickets ($10-17 sliding scale).
Tonight at Studio Z: All Originals Jazz Series: Joan Hutton Jazz Project. Along with leading her own jazz ensemble – formed to showcase her own compositions and those by other members of the group – Hutton is a member of the ANCIA Saxophone Quartet and the jazz-funk group Rare Medium. Tonight’s performance will feature Hutton on alto and tenor saxes and bass clarinet, with David Milne on saxes and flute, Jendeen Forberg on drums, Joan Griffith on bass and Jesse Mueller on piano. Doors at 7:30 p.m., show at 8. FMI and tickets ($10).
Saturday at Gallery 71: “The Things We See.” Curated by artist Mary Bergs, this Edina gallery located within the 71 France apartment complex hosts four shows a year, always featuring local artists. Except for opening receptions, it’s open only on Saturday afternoons. As you’re heading toward Target or one of the dwindling number of Macy’s stores, stop in at this alternative space to see some things by Jennifer Nevitt (“woven” paintings inspired by textiles), Will Bentsen (material investigations and color thought experiments), Jeff Millikan (books made from beeswax), and Patricia Canelake, who lives and works in Knife River, Minnesota, on Superior’s north shore (simple figurative and animal subjects). 1-5 p.m. Opening reception on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 28.