As thousands of people have discovered in the past couple days, Minneapolis is quite the literary city. At least, Adrian Todd Zuniga, host of Literary Death Match, thinks so.
“Not because there are great writers, but because it only costs $2.25 to get from the airport to the city center” on the light rail, Zuniga said. “It’s like they’re recognizing our financial situation.”
Los Angeles-based Zuniga brought his traveling competition for writers here to coincide with the largest literary conference in North America. It was one of dozens of kick-offs Wednesday night to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, known as AWP, which is taking place at the Minneapolis Convention Center through Saturday.
With some 13,000 attendees landing here, including top-tier writers, a bookish crowd has taken over a substantial chunk of downtown and beyond. Tourism officials estimate the conference will pump $28 million into the local economy as attendees spread out into bookstores, museums, restaurants and bars.
A crushing throng gathered at Nomad World Pub in Cedar-Riverside Wednesday night for Zuniga’s death match, a star-studded show that pits writer against writer on the basis of literary merit, performance and “intangibles.” The judges included New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean and local rap luminary P.O.S. Among the readers was Roxane Gay, the prolific essayist whose introduction brought screams from the audience.
Though Gay didn’t win, she had a celebrity moment.
“You were robbed,” fans told her after the show as they lined up to take photos and get signed copies of her book, “Bad Feminist.” Devin Symons, who flew in from Washington, D.C., presented Gay with a sketch of her face that he drew during her reading.
Writers rarely get that kind of attention. When Gay went up to the microphone and saw the scope of the audience, she gasped. “I’m just a girl who writes,” she said afterward.
Poetry for the Purple One
Later Wednesday, in another part of town, two bands of royalty-inspired fans merged on a single Minneapolis street. Little girls in princess dresses with light-up wands leaving the “Frozen on Ice” show at Target Center filed past AWPers decked out in purple waiting to get into a Prince-inspired poetry reading at First Avenue.
The line came alive when a limo drove up. “Is it Prince?” the early-birds tittered. It was not.
Poet Patricia Smith, who hails from New Jersey, organized the event. She’s a longtime Prince fan. “When I found out AWP was going to be in Minneapolis, I knew I wanted to plot and plan an homage to Prince,” she said.
She had her audience pegged. Almost 700 people RSVPed on Facebook for the party, which had a capacity of 300.
Those lucky enough to get in crammed into an upstairs room at the legendary club. They got to see 13 poets deliver odes to Prince, and often, his contributions to their sexual awakenings.
The dance party that followed went late into the night — the revelers giving little thought to AWP’s early start time the next morning.
Minutes before AWP’s massive Book Fair opened for business at 9 a.m. Thursday, a mob waited to storm the exhibition hall.
With some 700 presenters, participants could spend all their time in this marketplace that’s always open during the hundreds of panel discussions that make up the bulk of AWP. There’s free food (from smoked salmon at the Concordia College booth down to Tootsie Rolls from the small presses); around 400 author appearances; and games — AWP Bingo, to be exact.
Indie publisher Electric Literature gave out bingo cards filled with clichés found at a lit-con. “Person with two tote bags.” “Bird on poetry book cover.” “Papercut.”
Sarah Einstein and Jill Kandel can check off “Meet writer you know from Internet.” The Facebook friends met in person while waiting to get into the Book Fair. Both award winners for their recent books, they were jazzed to mingle with the organizations that have supported them.
“Those are the people on the front lines,” said Einstein, gesturing toward 20 aisles of small publishers and MFA programs inside the hall.
“We’re really happy those people in there are saving literature, because they’re saving it for us,” she added, sharing a fist bump with Kandel.