When word came that poet Éireann Lorsung had been named writer in residence at the Little Free Library on Lake Street, it was hard not to wonder: How will she ever fit?
The library — a wooden box a little bigger than a packing crate, with a red-framed glass door — stands on a post outside the Blue Moon Coffee Cafe at the corner of E. Lake Street and 39th Avenue S. in Minneapolis. It holds about a dozen volumes of poetry, there for the taking, or the borrowing. It doesn’t have room for an actual poet.
So where is Lorsung? Ah, over there, just inside the coffee shop, by the front door. Her notebooks and pencils and watercolors and a couple of books of poetry are spread out on the table in front of her.
She sits on a red vinyl chair under stained-glass panels and spangled mobiles, one foot tucked up beneath her. Her dark hair is twisted into braids pinned across her head and her brown eyes are framed by thick bangs. Her head is bowed; she is writing.
She might be jotting down an observation from outside the window, or a snippet of conversation from the men rolling dice a few tables away, or a quotation from Kathryn Kysar’s “Dark Lake,” which she selected from the library outside. She might be recalling an oddball, out-of-context quote from the first night of her residency: “I shot him a note that said, ‘Are you in France?’ ” or, “He’s so tall — I hate this about him.”
All of these things — the poems, the people, the conversations, the music on the coffee shop speakers, the passersby outside, the billboard across the street, the milky coffee in her glass, the rattle of dice, the gardens she bicycled past earlier that day — are fair game for her art. Any of these things might end up in a poem.
Turn a writer loose in a library and what do you get? Someone who reads away the day? Someone who disappears into research, not to emerge for years?
What if writers were assigned to libraries — but first told they had to produce art? Give them a little stipend. Set a time limit. Go.
Come back with something beautiful, or interesting, or new. Blog about it every night. Do a public presentation at the end.
The pressure! The freedom!
Coffee House Press has been doing this with writers over the past year, granting brief residencies in all kinds of libraries — academic, public, institutional, little. Libraries, says Jay Peterson, who is managing the CHP in the Stacks project for publisher Chris Fischbach, should not be just repositories of information, but places of inspiration.
And so poet Ed Bok Lee, the son of Korean immigrants, spent several weeks in the American Swedish Institute’s Wallenberg Library and Archives. “We put him into a collection of largely Swedish journals and diaries from the late 19th century and said, ‘All right, good luck, see what you can do,’ and he came up with something tremendous,” Peterson said.
“The Swedish Institute then built an exhibit around Ed’s work. It showed them that what they had in their collection is not just artifacts, but also materials that could spawn new works of art.”
Librarians have been crucial, pointing out gems from collections, Peterson said. In some cases, “it’s been a matter of a librarian saying, ‘I find this fascinating, come to this shelf, open up this drawer.’ ”
Illustrator and writer Eric Hanson immersed himself in the library of the Minneapolis Institute of Art; poet and dancer Lightsey Darst was at the Walker Art Center; poet Sarah Fox was at the American Craft Council library.
And it was Éireann Lorsung’s luck to be invited to the Little Free Library on Lake Street.
A book of Minneapolis hours
“I said yes right away,” Lorsung said. She grew up in Minneapolis, where her parents still live, but has been living abroad for years. She was to be in the United States this summer anyway, and she welcomed the chance to do a Minneapolis project.
“City of my childhood and young adulthood, city of blinds pulled against the heat in west-facing windows, city of bedtimes while it’s light outside, city of asphalt that smells like ozone, city of tar shingles burning my feet,” she wrote in the second blog post of her residency.
For the Little Free Library residency she decided to create a modern-day, secular Book of Hours — an illuminated devotional book popular in the Middle Ages. She devised a highly detailed plan: She would divide the residency into six four-hour vigils, writing and sketching what happened each day. She would draw inspiration from poems in the little library, as well as from the world around her. She would invite passersby and coffee shop patrons to contribute.
Peterson worried about her approach, that she was boxing herself in. Other writers had gone into their residencies relying more on serendipity, he said. Lorsung just smiled.
“For me, structure removes the pressure,” she said. “And then I push against it, crawl up the wall of the box, and sometimes break out of it.”
The fruit of the residencies
Each artist in the CHP in the Stacks program has emerged with new work and new ideas, presented in a program at the end of the residency. (Lorsung’s presentation will be at 7 p.m. Monday at Blue Moon.)
“Each of these has been so different,” Peterson said. “Lightsey Darst looked at the choreography of libraries, the order of shelving and cataloging. Andy Sturdevant looked at the cultural use of libraries.”
Fischbach and Peterson are now working to bring the program both statewide and nationwide, with plans for residencies in New York and on the West Coast. The next residencies will go to bookseller Hans Weyandt later in August at Minneapolis’ Central Library Special Collections and children’s writer Stephanie Watson at Ridgedale Public Library in October.
“Each one has been so unscripted, and it has all turned out so magically,” Peterson said. “I think [Lorsung] will find something to turn into a story or a poem. I’m pretty confident that she’ll come up with something great.”
Lorsung, working away on her Minneapolis Book of Hours, sketched a bean plant, empty coffee cups, the view from the window. “Glorify the ugly billboard,” she said. “Glorify the dudes on the bench. The ordinary thing is also beautiful, but we’re not trained to see it that way. Every day, the tiniest gestures are how you live, and paying attention is how art is made. Glorify the Russian sage!”
And she bent her head and went back to work.
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