Coffee House Press is embedding artists and writers in libraries – even little ones – to look for inspiration.
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.