Literature 4-11-2006

Letters from a Writer: Poets Who Are Never, Ever Moving to Minneapolis–EVER

First, it was immigrants in the streets. Then, denizens of the local, the peculiar, and the isolated insisted on their right to live and make art where they would. Jean Sramek does her best to offend the Twin Cities, but more in sorrow than in anger.

Jean Sramek

Poetry Harbor, a Duluth writing consortium, published a 1990 chapbook titled “Poets Who Haven’t Moved To Minneapolis,” followed a year later by “Poets Who Haven’t Moved to St. Paul.” The titles of these collections refer to the preceding decade, when St. Louis County was reeling from an economic depression, Ronald Reagan was in office, and Duluth’s arts scene wasn’t what it was today.

No matter what the uber-hip 28-year-old art slacker zines say, I am compelled to point out that, in 2005, the economic picture is worse in many ways than it was then, Bush is a gazillion times more evil than Reagan, and Duluth’s arts scene was pretty good back in the 1980’s. But Duluth’s two primary exports seemed to be money and talent, both headed south on I-35.

You talked about Minneapolis and St. Paul as though you loved them best, and you rolled your eyes and used a snotty tone when talking about Duluth. At the very least, you went down to the ‘Cities every other weekend to catch a show of some kind or to buy records or to make color photocopies [note to the very young: yes, today we have cell phones that can make digital movies and surf the web and measure body fat; in 1985, you had to drive to fucking Minneapolis to make color photocopies and they cost around $4 apiece at a time when minimum wage was $3.35 per hour]. To stay in Duluth was to wimp out. To settle. If you were serious about your craft, you didn’t waste your time in Duluth, watching the census hemorrhage people between the ages of 18 and 40. You packed up your rusty Japanese hatchback and sold your sofa and your big speakers. You moved to a grand old house, shared with 6 other people, in south Minneapolis; when you got on your feet, a studio apartment with mini-blinds and hardwood floors in Uptown. You carved yourself a niche and became what you were meant to be, and which you could only be in the Twin Cities: a Creative Artist.

To those people I say: how do you like it now?

I’ll go first. Don’t take this the wrong way. I have been to the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area three times in the last two months and, if my brother didn’t live there, if Jeune Lune productions toured Duluth once in a while, and if we had more than 14 decent restaurants in the Zenith City area, I’d be happy to never venture south of Carlton County again. The cancerous suburban rash that is sprawl, with its repeating pattern of Applebee’s, Cub Foods, Wal*Mart, Old Navy, Taco Bell, and the depressing condos-in-a-cornfield developments, starts somewhere around Hinckley these days anyway. REI and IKEA and Nordstroms now have websites, and they ship; for this I am thankful because they are located in the Twin Cities and I am, happily, not.

I used to look wistfully at events happening in the ‘Cities—readings and plays and concerts that happen on weeknights—and think, if only. I still look wistfully at them, but the thought of actually, physically traveling down there is so distasteful that “if only I could” quickly turns into “thank Jeebus I don’t have to.” The scene, the parking, the dressing a certain way, the traffic, the oppressive Spy magazine vibe of it all: I’m getting the shakes just thinking about it. Sometimes I torture myself with a what-if scenario that starts with my husband or me getting a can’t-refuse job offer which requires us to live in the Twin Cities, and no matter how I pretty it up, I get advance homesickness.

The secret of Duluth is that we have world-class talent here and plenty to keep us occupied—probably more per capita than the metro area. The ‘Cities has a lot more choices, just like Applebee’s does. Good for them. The other secret of Duluth is that we wear hiking boots and Gore-Tex parkas to the symphony, not because we’re too hickish to dress ourselves appropriately, but because we might want to go for a hike before or after the event, which we can do because getting to [fill in name of thing you want to attend] is never more than a few minutes away.

When I hang with people in the ‘Cities, they invariably say, “Wow, you came all the way down from Duluth,” and “Pretty cold up there, isn’t it?” and I nod and say yes, and all the while I’m thinking, You poor saps. Yeah, it’s a whole four degrees colder in Duluth than it is here. How could that possibly be important to you, since you spend your entire lives on the freeway, driving in your vehicles. Vehicles whose A/C settings are cranked up to high from June to September because, while Duluth is a breezy 78-degree paradise, the metro area is a sweltering hellhole. I hear you have air pollution index warnings now. What progress. I guess having an IKEA makes it all worth it. Once in a while someone says what I used to say circa 1985. “I guess there’s not much going on in Duluth, culture-wise.” Next time that happens, I am going to merely tell him how much my annual property taxes are. The official answer to “Will this Colder by the Lake production be funny to people from the Twin Cities?” has been changed from “There are universal themes which will be understood by people regardless of where they live” to “Who cares?”

Nice place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there, et cetera. If only Duluth had an Ethiopian restaurant, everything would be perfect. And an indie film venue. And, okay, an IKEA.