Laurie Hertzel is senior editor for books at the Star Tribune, where she has worked since 1996. She is the author of "News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist," winner of a Minnesota Book Award.

Posts about Readings

The quiet power of Claudia Rankine

Posted by: Laurie Hertzel Updated: January 30, 2015 - 10:57 PM
Marlon James and Claudia Rankine. Star Tribune staff photo by Aaron Lavinsky

Marlon James and Claudia Rankine. Star Tribune staff photo by Aaron Lavinsky

The crush of people started early: in the foyer of Open Book, through the lobby, up the famous winding staircase to the second floor. Graywolf Press folks hustled past the line, privileged, no need to wait--they were the publishers, after all, of the evening's poet, and they had a lot to do.

"I feel like I'm at a rock concert," one young woman said as the crowd inched up the stairs.

And she wasn't far wrong; poet Claudia Rankine is a literary rock star. Her newest collection, "Citizen: An American Lyric," was a finalist for a National Book Award and is a finalist in two categories (poetry, and criticism) for a National Book Critics Circle award.

Rankine, who teaches at Pomona College, was in Minneapolis on Friday night after spending most of the week at the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, doing readings and talking to students.

The performance hall at the Loft was at capacity (about 200 people); three overflow rooms held a couple hundred more, hooked up by video and not always reliable audio. Macalester College professor Marlon James, author of "A Brief History of Seven Killings," introduced Rankine.

Claudia Rankine laughs at Marlon James' introduction. Star Tribune photo by Aaron Lavinsky

Claudia Rankine laughs at Marlon James' introduction. Star Tribune photo by Aaron Lavinsky

"I can't tell you how quickly I responded to that e-mail that said did I want to introduce Claudia Rankine," James said, chuckling, calling himself one of her biggest fanboys. "Even at its most boldly confrontational, 'Citizen' grabs us with its big heart. It's the pre-Ferguson book that feels post."

Rankine, quiet, thoughtful, measured, talked about the beginnings of her book. "I went to friends and asked them, 'Will you tell me a story where race entered the room?'" she said. They did, and she listened. These stories found their way into the first section of "Citizen," story after story, written in the second person the more to involve the reader, written plainly and nearly without emotion, but story after story, one building on another to devastating effect.

A friend ("you" in the piece) went to her first therapy appointment at the therapist's house, and the therapist screamed at her to get out of her yard.

Rankine ("you" in the piece) asked a friend to babysit while she went to the movies. On her way home she got a call from a neighbor, warning her about a "menacing black guy" in front of her house, casing the joint. Don't worry, the neighbor says; he's already called the police.

And when the menacing black guy turned out to be Rankine's friend who had stepped outside to make a phone call while babysitting her children, she suggests to the man that in future, he stay in the back yard. "He looks at you a long minute before saying he can speak on the phone wherever he wants. Yes, of course, you say. Yes, of course."

Claudia Rankine. Photo by Aaron Lavinksky

Claudia Rankine. Photo by Aaron Lavinksky

The crowd at the Loft was perfectly silent as she read this piece, and then Rankine looked up and said, "That's the tortuorous and complicated and sick thing about racism. I want to protect you from my neighbor, and my way of protecting you is to curtail your rights. It's insidious."

For another part of "Citizen," Rankine asked her friend Rupert, an attorney in Los Angeles, to tell her about the times he had been pulled over by the cops. Rupert and his wife came over to  Rankine's house, and "one of the things that surprised me was that she had never heard any of his stories," she said. "And as he told them I could see him getting angrier and angrier."

She read some of Rupert's stories in her quiet, strong voice: "Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. I must have been speeding. No, you weren't speeding. I wasn't speeding? You didn't do anything wrong. Then why are you pulling me over? Why am I pulled over? Put your hands where they can be seen. Put your hands in the air. Put your hands up."

After the reading, the audience questions came slowly at first, as though everyone needed some time to absorb the words they had just heard. One man had no question but merely wanted to thank her for reminding him that he is not alone. 

A woman asked about Rankine's emotions as she was writing the book. "There were things that distressed me," Rankine said. "The piece about the therapist really shocked me." But when she was writing, she was concentrating more on the language than the feelings behind them. "Sometimes it takes weeks to figure out the right order of the words, or the words themselves," she said.

A teacher asked how to respond to white students who read "Citizen" and feel defensive. Rankine suggested that defensiveness is only one way a person can respond, and that the teacher might consider asking her students to look for other ways, too. 

"We are all struggling around this," she said. "The only chance we have is engagement."

Club Book 2015 season is strong and diverse

Posted by: Laurie Hertzel Updated: January 7, 2015 - 12:17 PM

Marisa de los SantosThe spring season of Club Book--the free writers series that brings nationally known writers to libraries and community centers all over the metro area, mainly outside of the core cities--kicks off on Feb. 12. This season's lineup is diverse and strong, including Quan Barry, Sonia Nazarrio, Jonathan Odell, and Garth Stein. March is particularly busy, with five of the nine events that month.

Here's the lineup:

Peter Heller. 7 p.m. Feb. 12, Stillwater Public Library, 224 3rd St. N., Stillwater. Heller is the author of "The Dog Stars" and "The Painter," and he has written extensively for National Geographic, Outside Magazine, Men's Journal and other magazines. The Star Tribune called "The Dog Stars" "a heart-wrenching and richly written story," comparable to the work of Cormac McCarthy.

Amy Quan Barry. 7 p.m. March 4, Northtown Library, 711 County Road 10 NE, Blaine. Barry is a poet and novelist, winner of the Donald Hall Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker and Ploughshares as well as other journals and magazines, and her new novel, "She Weeps Each Time You're Born," will be published this spring.

Nadia Hashimi. 7 p.m. March 11, Highland Park Community Center, 1974 Ford Parkway, St. Paul. Hashimi is the daughter of Afghan immigrants to the United States, and her novel, "The Pearl that Broke its Shell," is the story of two Afghan women. Hashimi, a pediatrician, is working on her second book, which is about Afghan refugees in Europe.

Jonathan Odell. 7 p.m. March 17, Prior Lake Library, 16210 Eagle Creek Av. SE, Prior Lake. Odell grew up in Mississippi and now lives in Minneapolis. His novel, "The Healing," published in 2012, was a local bestseller and named an Indies Next pick by the American Booksellers Association. His new novel, "Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League," about the relationship between a black woman and a white woman during the American civil rights movement, will be published this month. (It is a reimagining of his first novel, "The View from Delphi.") 

Anthony MarraAnthony Marra. 6:30 p.m. March 19, Chanhassen Public Library, 7711 Kerber Boulevard, Chanhassen. Marra, winner of a Whiting Writers Award and a Pushcart Prize, is the author of "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena." Set in Chechnya, the book was longlisted for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for emerging authors.

Marisa de los Santos. 7 p.m. March 31, Roseville Public Library, 2180 Hamline Av. N., Roseville. De los Santos is a poet, young-adult writer, essayist, and the author of three New York Times best-selling novels, including "Falling Together." Her new novel is "The Precious One."

Jon Ronson. 6:30 p.m. April 13, R.H. Stafford Library, 8595 Central Park Place, Woodbury. Ronson is a journalist and the author of "The Men Who Stare at Goats," later made into a movie starring George Clooney. His most recent book is, "So You've Been Publicly Shamed."

Garth Stein. 7 p.m. April 20, Galaxie Library, 14955 Galaxie Av., Apple Valley. Stein is the author of the best-selling "The Art of Racing in the Rain," which was on the New York Times best-seller list for three years. His new novel is a ghost story, "A Sudden Light."

Sonia NazarioSonia Nazario. 7 p.m. April 27, Southdale Library, 7001 York Av. S., Edina. Nazario is a reporter who has worked for the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. At the Times she won the Pulitzer Prize for her serial narrative "Enrique's Journey," the true story of a young Honduran boy who was attempting to cross the border into the United States to find his mother. 

Club Book is funded through the state's 2008 Legacy Amendment. All events are free and open to the public, and since 2014 have been recorded and are available as podcasts on the Club Book website. Doors open 45 minutes before the event, and each event will be followed by book sales and signings by the authors.

James McBride to headline the fall English @ Minnesota series

Posted by: Laurie Hertzel Updated: August 27, 2014 - 1:33 PM

 

James McBride. Photo by Chia Messina.

James McBride. Photo by Chia Messina.

This fall's English @ Minnesota series will bring in novelist (and jazz musician, and memoirist, and ...) James McBride, who will talk about "The Good Lord Bird," winner of the 2013 National Book Award (and soon to be a major motion picture, starring Jaden Smith) (and produced by McBride himself).

"The Good Lord Bird" is a funny, poignant novel about a young boy (nicknamed Onion) who travels with abolitionist John Brown in the months leading up to the Civil War.

McBride will be at Coffman Union Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 8.

The program will also host:

Jeff Sharlet, Edelstein Keller visiting writer and the author of "Radiant Truths," "The Family," and other books of literary journalism. 7 p.m. Oct. 2. Upson Room, Walter Library.

Stacey D'Erasmo, author of "Wonderland" and other books. 7 p.m. Oct. 14, Weisman Art Museum.

A conference on John Berryman at 100, the weekend of Oct. 24-26, at the Elmer L. Andersen Library. Poet Berryman, who died in 1972, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and taught at the University of Minnesota. 

Hunger Relief, with Jess Row. This will be the seventh annual hunger relief benefit, organized by Charles Baxter. Jess Row, author of "Your Face in Mine," will join the English Department's faculty raising money for Second Harvest Heartland. The benefit will be at 7 p.m. Nov 3 in McNamara Alumni Center. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5.

Jamaal May, Edelstein Keller visiting writer and author of "Hum," will read at 7 p.m. Nov. 12 in the Upson Room of Walter Library.

Hamline announces YA reading series

Posted by: Laurie Hertzel Updated: June 24, 2014 - 3:19 PM

Anne Ursu

Anne Ursu

As part of its Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults summer residency, Hamline University will host a ten-day reading series in July, featuring notable writers of books for children. Authors include Twin Cities writer Anne Ursu, whose latest book ("The Real Boy")  was on the long list for the National Book Award; Gene Yuen Lang, whose "Boxers and Saints" was a finalist for the award, and many others. The keynote address, which will take place at graduation, will be by author and illustrator Vera B. Williams, winner of the Charlotte Zolotow Award.

The series runs from July 11 through July 20 and is free and open to the public. All events will be in Room 110E of the Giddens Learning Center on the Hamline Campus, except for the keynote address, which will be in the Anne Simley Theater of the Drew Fine Arts Center.

Here's the schedule:

Ron Koertge, Marsha Qualey, Laura RubyFriday, July 11, 6:45 – 8 p.m.

Clare Vanderpool: Saturday, July 12, 3:00 – 3:30 p.m.

Gary Schmidt, Jane Resh Thomas, Marsha Chall: Sunday, July 13, 6:45 – 8 p.m.

Gene Luen Yang, Anne Ursu, Phyllis Root: Monday, July 14, 6:45 – 8 p.m.

Swati Avasthi, Claire Rudolf Murphy, Jackie Briggs MartinTuesday, July 15, 6:45 – 8 p.m.

Ricki Thompson, Alicia Williams, Melinda Cordell: Wednesday, July 16, 6:45 – 8 p.m.

Sara Kvois, Mike Petry, Katie Knutson: Thursday, July 17, 6:45 – 8 p.m.

Maria Macioce, Araceli EsparzaSaturday, July 19, 6:45 – 8 p.m.

Vera Williams: Sunday, July 20, 3:30-4:30 p.m.,Drew Fine Arts Center, Anne Simley Theatre.

Bly comes out for Poetry Month, and the poets come out for Bly

Posted by: Laurie Hertzel Updated: April 16, 2014 - 5:56 AM
Robert Bly autographs a book for a fan before his appearance at the University Club on Tuesday night. Star Tribune photo by Jeff Wheeler

Robert Bly autographs a book for Renee Valois before his appearance at the University Club on Tuesday night. Star Tribune photo by Jeff Wheeler

He was in good form Tuesday night, our Mr. Bly, Minnesota's most famous poet--funny and crotchety, coming alive, as he always has, for poetry. Though he is 87 now and growing frail, he declined the comfortable easy chair that had been set at the front of the room for him, and he declined the help of his old friend and fellow poet, Thomas R. Smith, who was willing to hold the microphone for him, and instead stood strong and firm at the lectern and read and occasionally recited, and made jokes (sometimes the same joke) and offered the occasional poignant aside.

Bly was at the University Club on Summit Avenue in St. Paul as part of the monthly Carol Connolly Reading Series. April is poetry month, and Connolly had packed this month's bill with nothing but fine poets. Louis Jenkins ("Nice Fish") was a crowd pleaser with his humorous prose poems; Freya Manfred, tall and strong, read her earthy poems of nature and family; and Smith opened the evening with a powerful poem of spring, which he read with vigor. "It's amazing how doing a good loud poem clears away nervousness," he said.

Each poet paid a little homage to Bly, the star of the evening. "We're all borrowing so much from Robert that in the next life we're all going to have to do his dishes and take out his garbage," Smith said, before reading a final poem that he acknowledged was inspired by Bly.

Jenkins' prose poems kept the crowd laughing--poems about regret and basements and forgetfulness and the nostalgia of red cars and blond girlfriends and the burden of too much zucchini. He, too, acknowledged a debt to  Bly (who was laughing in the front row at some of Jenkins' poems), saying, "We steal from him all the time."

Manfred read a poem about the eye of a loon, telling the audience that Bly had influenced her last line, suggesting she remove one word, "dreadful." She shook her head, in amazement at herself for writing it that way in the first place, perhaps, or in amazement at Bly for the catch. "He was right about that last line," she said.

The audience was studded with poets--Charles Baxter and Joyce Sutphen, Ethna McKiernan and Su Smallen, Tim Nolan and Danny Klecko, James Lenfestey and Patricia Kirkpatrick. It was poets listening to poets on a mild spring evening during Poetry Month. But the star of the night was Bly.

He read some of the poems that he read last autumn at the launch of his latest collection, "Stealing Sugar from the Castle"--some of the old farm poems ("for a while we had goats. They were like turkeys, only more reckless"), "My Father at 86," "Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat," and several poems from "The Man in the Black Coat Turns," including "Snowbanks North of the House." 

"That's the first poem I ever wrote that had some of my darkness in it," he said.

As always, as in the past, Bly's comedic timing was sharp, he repeated stanzas and last lines, he dipped his hand to the rhythm of the words. He was enigmatic, and the audience, while drinking in his every aside, wanted more. 

At the end of "Snowbanks North of the House," Bly recited the final stanza twice: 

And the man in the black coat turns, and goes back
down the hill.
No one knows why he came, or why he turned away,
and did not climb the hill.

"Maybe there's somebody like that in each of us," he said. "If I had known what that poem meant, I wouldn't have had to write it." And the poets and the fans and the readers in the audience sat forward on their chairs, listening, as outside the big windows of the University Club the light drained from the sky and the night grew dark.

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