Literature 1-22-2009

2008 YEAR IN REVIEW: Literature and Film

Local authors, readers, and filmmakers weigh in on the high points of 2008 in Minnesota literature and film.


As many of our authors and readers note below, 2008 has been especially kind to Minnesota’s literary presses: Graywolf, Milkweed, and Coffee House have all had a very good year, with acclaimed releases and nationally recognized authors represented on all their lists for 2008. It’s also been a wonderful year for local poetry, especially for those poets and writers living in Greater Minnesota. And don’t forget the 2008 launch of’s flash fiction series, miniStories!

There have also been a number of notable happenings and releases in local film that deserve a nod: from the release of the acclaimed Listening Project documentary, to the ubiquity of affordable tools for DIY filmmaking, there are heartening trends afoot on the Minnesota film and video scene.

Read on for the memorable moments and offerings of 2008 in local literature and film, as selected by local writers and filmmakers, publishers and readers.



National recognition for Minnesota publishers’ poetry and fiction: Two of our local literary institutions, Milkweed Editions and Graywolf Press, found national success this year. And, in an industry which is a) laying off people left and right and b) dominated by Manhattan-based publishers, this is no small feat. And these presses did it by publishing books about the lives and loves and losses of people you and I can relate to – goodhearted, rugged Midwesterners.
         Author David Rhodes was an emerging talent in the ’70s, with three acclaimed books under his belt. After a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed, he settled into a life of relative obscurity in rural Wisconsin, which is where Milkweed editor Ben Barnhart tracked him down in 2005. Barnhart initially had hopes of simply getting Rhode’s earlier work back in print. But, it turned out that Rhodes hadn’t entirely given up the craft. And the fortunate result is Driftless, a tough tale of life and death in small town Wisconsin with a hotdish-like medley of small town characters you’re sure to recognize.
         Graywolf’s big book this year, Salvatore Scibona’s The End, was nominated for the National Book Award. And rightly so. Scibona is a writer’s writer, a real craftsman, and there are sentences in this book that are just stunningly perfect. The book centers on the shared histories of several members of a densely populated Italian immigrant community in Cleveland. Scibona’s rigidly defined setting and perfectly developed characters lend The End a cinematic quality – even though a movie about Cleveland seems like bit of a stretch.
Jay D. Peterson is a manager at Magers and Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis.

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In 2008 we saw two local presses, Graywolf Press and Coffee House Press, have finalists for the National Book Award in Fiction and Poetry; and we’ve also seen the selection of Elizabeth Alexander, a poet published by Graywolf, to read at the inauguration. This is encouraging news for independent publishers who dedicate some or all of their list to publishing poetry, with its typically slim margins. It shows that the interest and readership is out there for the worthwhile work that we do.
         In 2008, Milkweed Editions saw its poetry book with Alex Lemon, Hallelujah Blackout, receive a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and saw Deborah Keenan’s Willow Room, Green Door: New and Selected Poems win the Minnesota Book Award for Poetry.
James Cihlar is the poetry editor and managing editor for Milkweed Editions, and is the author of the poetry book Undoing (Little Pear Press, 2008).

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It looks like 2008 was the year of the doggedly-determined, Minnesota-based independent publisher. Another favorite press of mine, Coffee House, brought out Kao Kalia Yang’s much-anticipated memoir, The Latehomecomer, which just might be the most talked-about book by a local author this year. Yang’s debut is stunning not only for its subject-matter, but also for its lucid, beautiful prose. Kudos to Coffee House for seeing this gem, and putting their resources behind making sure the rest of us have access to Yang’s story and voice as well. Local poet Sun Yung Shin, also a Coffee House author, won a poetry award for the Asian American Literary Awards, a national organization, for her first book of poems, Skirt Full of Black.
          Also in this vein, Milkweed Editions and the Jerome Foundation teamed up to produce Fiction on a Stick: Stories by Minnesota Writers, which is the first collection in a long, long time that focuses on the work of new and emerging writers — many of whom are writers of color and immigrants — and who are rapidly changing the contours literary landscape locally and nationally.
         2008 also brought the release of Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers (Borealis Books), one of the best books of the year. As I wrote in my fall review on, “With writing from 21 Minnesota women which is edited by poet Kathryn Kysar, the book is easily the most even and accomplished collection I have read in ten years.” Another notable Borealis book released last year, Warren Read’s immensely compelling The Lyncher in Me: A Search for Redemption in the Face of History, provides a much-needed personal reinvestigation of a sad chapter in the state’s history.
Shannon Gibney is a writer living in Minneapolis.

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I vote for Carol Connolly! Saint Paul’s Poet laureate has been hosting her reading series in conjunction with SASE and the University Club for years, still, I think it’s one of the best kept secrets on THAT side of the river. Readings are held at the Commodore or in “the club,” which reeks of Saint Paul’s uppercrust, which makes it great fun for the writers who read there before going home to their ratty garrets. The thing about Carol is that she endures, as a tireless promoter of local literature written and spoken, a fine poet herself, and perhaps the most gracious event host around. She’s sassy and self-deprecating and will crow the praises of any writer with real promise. People show up as much to see her as to see the talent. Two weeks ago I went to see five poets and Carol at the Commodore, and in spite of crappy weather, there was an impressive turnout. She’d maybe flog me for saying this – but while she’s not ‘new’ or any sort of flash on the local lit scene, she’s a rock – venerable and constant, most generous and inspiring, and I’m just one of about a thousand writers that love her.
Sarah Stonich is a fiction writer living in Minneapolis, and author of The Ice Chorus and These Granite Islands. She is also contributed to Milkweed Editions’ anthology Fiction On A Stick with the story, Assimilation, which is one of sixteen in a forthcoming collection, Vacationland. More at or

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This year, Coffee House has been thrilled by the incredible success of Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, which came out in April, and since then has sold over 10,000 copies. As the first mainstream book by a Hmong writer in the United States, Minnesota State Senator, Mee Moua, has said that “Reading this book is about experiencing the Hmong American transformation,” and Kalia has been tirelessly visiting schools around the country, in addition to her busy book tour schedule, meeting with students from grade schools to college campuses to share the story of the Hmong people.
         Ellen Hawley, who wrote the hilarious political satire Open Line, returned to her Minneapolis home from Cornwall England in May for a lively local book tour. America’s favorite librarian, Nancy Pearl, recently reviewed the book for Seattle’s NPR affiliate KUOW, and said that “Open Line may be a sad commentary on the political/media complex, but it makes for an entertaining reading experience.”
         And we were honored to publish local author David Mura’s debut novel Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire. On February 19th, he is scheduled to read at the Smithsonian Museum’s Day of Remembrance in Washington, DC, and will continue his local tour this winter at Common Good Books and St. Paul Public Library’s Fireside Literary Reading Series. All in all, a truly fantastic year for which we are deeply grateful to the readers, writers, and local arts community. Here’s to 2009!
Esther Porter is a staffer at Coffee House Press.

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Wet earth begs human touch–so the image of the Sumerian cuneiform tablet inside Humming the Blues (CALYX, 2008) reminds us. We want to form clay, push it through our fingers, and scratch our names in it. Who can resist? Not poet Cass Dalglish, who joyfully mucks about in 4,000 year-old poet Enheduanna’s words as though she’s gotten her hands into a wedge of fresh clay. These are the Ur texts, literally: original writings committed to stone and clay thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia. We cannot help but think of Iraq, both the ancient world where Enheduanna made her poems and the world at war we know today. Now recast by Cass Dalglish, these translations recognize the simultaneity of possible meanings of words. Her own poetic intuition often pushes lines to move beyond words to that place where jazz scat gets its urgency. She vocalizes in sensual oohs, and ahhs, in great bellows, and in powerful lament that voices the “life-giving rage” original to these poems. Enheduanna, the ancient poet, stands as torch singer whose long drawn notes address God as Sister in detailed and intimate adoration. These are psalm-improvisations to Inanna, the “womanly god,” the moon, the “wild impetuous” and “mother of all ritual.” These poems, lapis blue and saffron-perfumed, come through Cass Dalglish from ancient Enheduanaa in the voice of a sister who carries ruined roses and woe across many centuries to stand against the ransacking of sacred places, to confront terror with a woman’s strongest weapon: the force of life.
Heid E. Erdrich knows squat about jazz and cuneiform, but she does have a new book of poems, National Monuments, from Michigan State University Press

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DIY Publishing: When the times get tough, as they did for nearly everyone in 2008, the tough turn to poetry. And for my money Ben Weaver is doing some of the most interesting stuff in that world. Mostly known as singer/songwriter, Weaver has formed his own publishing “house” and released one book in each of the past two years. This year’s The Talking Comes Later has four great things going for it. It’s fairly priced at $12. It contains Weaver’s own, sometimes whimsical, occasionally heartbreaking drawings. The poems, like his songs, are smart and varied and complex or brutally blunt and honest. To boot, it has great cover art done by local wizard D. Witt. And this isn’t Billy Corrigan rock-and-roll star poetry—it’s the tough kind. The kind we could all use a little of right now.
Hans Weyandt is co-owner of Micawber’s Bookstore in Saint Paul.

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Louis Jenkins, Duluth poet extraordinaire, published a wonderful new book called European Shoes, which is a combination of prose and prose poems, a Jenkins version of the Japanese haibun form, which often concerns a journey by the poet. In this case, the journey was a long reading and pleasure tour through the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, France, and Italy. One significance of this publication is that it represents an additional offering from Jenkins’ own press: Will-o’-the-Wisp Books. It’s notable that advances in technology (software and web marketing) make starting a press and publishing small offerings a completely reasonable and attractive option for writers. I believe changes are coming in publishing that mirror what we are seeing in the music industry.
Connie Wanek is a poet living in Duluth.

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The best local book I read this year was Saint Paul resident Kao Kalia Vang’s debut memoir The Late Homecomer (Coffee House Press). It’s a lushly written love letter to her multi-generational family and details their exodus from Laos jungle to Taiwanese refugee camp to their own Saint Paul home. While most memoirists use their stories to draw emotional or intellectual insight, Yang stays in the sensual and experiential realm (think Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes). It makes The Late Homecomer an earnest and powerful read from a new writer brave enough to let us get close.
Stephanie Wilbur Ash is a freelance writer living in palatial St. Anthony Village who regularly writes about books. She is also one of the writers/performers of the Electric Arc Radio Show.

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“Outstate” poets on the rise: It was an important year for the Minnesota literary scene, but I feel the single most important event was the successful rollout of a new publishing outfit, Whistling Shade Press. With the launch of this press, Joel Van Valin, proprietor of the free local journal Whistling Shade, has provided a new outlet for both homegrown and international voices. Keep a close eye on what comes out of this startup as it grows.
         Also, there has been a strong showing for poetry published by relatively new “outstate” authors. I Bring You Dead Things, by Kevin Zepper, Healing Tree by Joyce Chelmo and Breaking the Glass by LouAnn Shepard Muhm come to us from the western part of the state. In the Twin Cities, Diana Lundell awakened us to Awaking Indigo, while The Cockeyed Precision of Time by Linda Back McKay and Love in the End by Mary Kay Rummel added to the list of accomplishments by these highly appreciated poets.
         There were too many poetry events to keep track of, much less to attend, which is probably a good problem to have. One of note, though, would be the “Night of the Living Poem,” held at Intermedia Arts in November. A joint effort of Whistling Shade, webzine Pike Mag, and online workshop Northography, the free event featured eleven poets in an entertaining micro-festival, with a brilliant intermission performance by singer-songwriter Moses Scott Murray. The presenters raised hopes that we might one day see a much larger regional poetry festival, which would encompass a wide scope of voices and styles in multiple venues. Let’s wait and see what happens.
Britt Fleming is the founder of the online literary salon, Northography.

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Dave Schwartz’s Superpowers is an amazing novel by a local author in 2008 that is all the more so because, in less careful hands, the book could have been awful. His handling of the events of 9/11 is heartbreaking and understated and beautiful. Also released last year was Geoff Herbach’s The Miracle Letters of T. Rimberg (read a great review from Ashleigh Lambert at InDigest here), an unapologetically uplifting book and, as always with Herbach, hilarious. And, lastly, my shameless plug for InDigest Magazine. Although we technically launched in 2007, InDigest came into its own in 2008. From the beginning we’ve offered a unique home for Minnesota writers and artists to be showcased on a national and international stage, and in our anniversary issue we published many of our favorite Minnesota writers and artists again.
David Doody is a writer, editor of InDigest Magazine, and a bookseller at Common Good Books in St. Paul



My pick for best local film production from 2008 would have to be Ana’s Playground, directed by Eric Howell and produced by Jillian Nodland with Marsha Trainer and help from Mary Jo Howell. This short narrative was shot in November 2008 near the Riverside Towers in Minneapolis and highlights a script dealing with issues faced by children who’ve lived through armed conflict. What makes this film special is that the production has been seven years in the making; it is the result of the collaborative effort of a community of filmmakers, film industry professionals, and students who have come together to give their time and expertise to this project in the name of “doing something” about an urgent global issue, but one that most of us, as individuals, find it tough to imagine really making an impact on. The film will be donated to international nonprofits focused on helping children growing up in war zones. Three cheers for mixing film with a cause!
         Another trend I’m seeing is that youth media is picking up speed, and this years Fourth Annual Twin Cities Youth Media Network’s film showcase saw some of the best pieces made by youth to date.
          Finally, IFP celebrated 20 years; and with 2008 bringing a crunch on the budgets of many art nonprofits, it is notable that organizations like IFP are still around, serving the local film community. MN Film Board also celebrated an anniversary, and the smaller, all-volunteer film organization MN Women in Film and Television finished its second year. The Minnesota Film community is showing stamina—taking economic hits, but still pushing forward.
Joanna Kohler is a Minnesota-based filmmaker and documentarian.

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Ten notable moments from 2008 in local film
Compiled by’s editor, Susannah Schouweiler

1.   The launch of a much-needed new online hub for local film: Minnewood

2.   The premiere of Love: A Documentary, a quirky funny satire of divorce by Minnesota filmmaker David Ash

3.   Minneapolis-based Rikshaw Films releases the intriguing, powerful documentary, The Listening Project, which offers revealing conversations with people living around the world, all focused on the question of how America is viewed from the outside.

4.   The making of Joanna Kohler’s roadtrip doc, Minnesota Motorcycle Stories

5.   The announcement that Oak Street Cinema is, once and for all, closing its doors

6.   The ever-widening ripple effects of affordable, ubiquitous camera equipment and video editing software on citizen journalism and independent filmmaking on a shoestring

7.   Minnesota animator Tom Schroeder’s 2008 short, The Yellow Bird is accepted into the 2009 Sundance Festival

8.   Parkway Cinema’s wonderful “Homegrown Cinema” series showcasing a line-up of new work by Minnesota-based independent filmmakers

9.   Childish Films at the Minneapolis Public Library: from all of us who regularly spend time entertaining the rugrat set, a hearty thank you to the programmers of this wonderful free film series, which screens cinematic gems from around the world which are both edifying and truly entertaining for kids.

10.   And for indomitable DIY support for local film: Pam and Gary’s Lawnchair Theater, a local film series which screened offerings by Minnesota filmmakers like Ali Selim (Sweet Water), Dawn Mikkelson (Green, Green Water), and Simone Ahuja (Indique – Untold Stories of Contemporary India), from the couple’s own St. Louis Park backyard all summer long last year. In 2008 Lawnchair Theater series completed its 14th year of home “drive-in” screenings and discussions with local auteurs; here’s hoping Pam and Gary keep doing their thing for many more.