Minneapolis Love: Ideas for Literary Advocacy in Dallas

You’ll hear me talk a lot about how I want nothing more than for Dallas to be more like Minneapolis, and so I went up to Minneapolis for four days earlier this week for an array of work meetings, with a distributor (I don’t think I can announce our arrangement yet, but if you know books, you already know who it is…) and the “big three” indie nonprofit presses (Graywolf, Coffee House, and Milkweed) to talk about best practices, development, marketing, and fundraising strategies. After four days in the Dallas-ish half of the Twin Cities, I seriously can’t get enough of Minneapolis and am feeling mega-inspired to start planning some programs to get people here excited about books in AND out of bookstores and readings…taking literature to the streets!

So you may ask yourself: “Why Minneapolis?!” The answer, my friend, is simple. Minneapolis, like Dallas, is about one zillion miles away from New York and LA, even further in the minds of the residents of those fair cities, especially in NYC’s book world. Like Dallas, Minneapolis is a huge regional hub for business, transportation, etc. and like Dallas it has a number of massive corporations based in the city. Unlike Dallas, Minneapolis has a massive bedrock of small and mid-size arts organizations upon which the strength of their arts community is based. And their strength is not just me talking from inexperience. Dr. Zannie Voss of SMU’s National Center for Art Research (which is incredible, btw, an invaluable resource for the city of Dallas BASED IN DALLAS!!!!!) presented to my Leadership Arts Institute class last year that basically Minneapolis has the most vibrant and robust arts community outside of New York based on any metric you use, but that’s per capita, of course, there are about as many people in metro NYC as in all Minnesota. But still, that’s in all arts disciplines: theater, music, visual & performing arts, and, most notably, literature. Dallas has some fantastic big arts institutions, but much, much less of the midsize and small arts organizations you need to keep the entire arts pyramid healthy and strong (a concept Dr. Foss discussed that I loved, it’s like the food pyramid, but for ARTS!).

So Minneapolis, aside from having one of the most well-respected theater communities in the country (not my particular field of expertise, but it is a fact!), also has the most incredible literary community in the US outside of New York. There are numerous independent publishers, magazines, bookstores, literary centers, and even book distributors all based in the city of Minneapolis (some used to be in St. Paul, but it seems like all are in Minneapolis now). I am most interested in the nonprofit literary organizations out of all of these, and there are legion: three of the best independent presses in the entire country are based in Minneapolis, and they are all nonprofits (like Deep Vellum, these are Graywolf Press, Coffee House Press, and Milkweed Editions); there’s also a literary review magazine called Rain Taxi that is also a nonprofit; and there is the Open Book/Loft Literary Center, indisputably the greatest literary center in the entire country, that hosts events and office space and is a one-stop shop for anything literary in the Twin Cities (and basically, I want to create one of those in Dallas). The one thing all of these organizations have in common is that they considered indispensable players in the local arts community, and they receive massive support from the network of arts funders in the Twin Cities, from government to foundations to corporations to individuals. And it is my goal to build a network of support for the literary arts like Minneapolis’ in Dallas. If I can be Graywolf, Coffee House, Milkweed, and Rain Taxi rolled into one (not that that’s possible, but at least for now…), then I can help change the mindset and discussion locally to have the literary arts considered as valuable in north Texas as they are in the Twin Cities.

Because one thing we lack in our arts community, in general, in Dallas, are any literary organizations that are considered a part of “The Arts” (using quotes to mean, those organizations that receive donations, grants, and support from that wide array of sources). We have a couple fantastic literary organizations (WordSpace, The Writer’s Garret) a few literary-sympathetic organizations (like the Dallas Institute of Humanities), and then Arts & Letters Live, a reading & literary discussion series based at the Dallas Museum of Art. That’s about it. As a nonprofit publisher, I’m looking for funding from the same mix of funding sources as the largest arts organizations in the city, but unlike them, most of the funding sources exclude literary organizations from applying, keeping open their applications only to visual and performing arts organizations. By excluding literary organizations from applying for the same type of funding that goes towards art museums, theaters, and musical spaces in the city, as an entire city we are saying that literature is not art, that it is not an important part of our arts community. But the fact is that literary arts an invaluable part of the arts community in any city. When corporations are looking to relocate to Dallas, they don’t only look to the health of our most prominent arts institutions, they look to the health of the entire sector, a fact that has led some huge relocations to turn elsewhere, we have a strong tip of the pyramid but are lacking a robust strata of small and midsize arts organizations, and we have a gaping void in the literary arts sector in Dallas and Texas in general.

One of the most important parts of Deep Vellum’s mission is to promote a more vibrant book culture in this city and beyond, and part of what I am doing to try to change the book culture locally is to advocate for literature and books to be included in the larger arts discussion. This means approaching arts funders (city & state government arts councils; foundations; and corporate & individual donors) to ask them to reassess their approach to arts funding to include more literary arts funding & to consider serving on the boards of smaller arts organizations. I don’t believe this lack of literary arts in Dallas is due to any negative ideas towards literature as part of the arts, but it may be something that has simply never occurred locally before. And if I can hope to ever do one thing as a resident of Dallas, it is to get more Dallas residents to think about books, literature, creative writing, translation–all those literary arts that have been neglected here for far too long. And hopefully that will lead more writers to live here, more readings to take place, more poetry events, more literary festivals, more publishing houses starting up, more literary centers popping up…it takes a village, so they say, and I know I’m not alone in loving literature here, and I feel the calling to get more people here to express their love for literature any way they can, whether it’s participating in a creative writing workshop, attending a reading, volunteering at an event, or donating to a literary organization whose mission they believe in. That is going to take a lot of work, and I can’t do it alone.

And all I’m trying to do is change the discussion…because I want Deep Vellum to last for decades, just like those literary nonprofits in Minneapolis I mentioned above (all have been established there for twenty years or more, employ dozens and dozens of people, and have substantial annual budgets, and an incredible array of recognition in the form of awards, front pages of the NY Times Book Review, Nobel Prizes, etc…). And I don’t want to be the only literary publisher here much longer. It gets lonely at times. You find yourself writing long blog posts on Friday afternoons…but I can’t stop thinking about the reading Rain Taxi held for Charles Baxter at 2am inside the underground James Turrell Sky Pesher at the Walker Art Center in 2012…I want to host mind-altering readings like that in Dallas!!!!!!!!!!!!

The trip was incredible. Fruitful. Fun. A reminder of how awesome everybody in indie publishing is. It’s so great to get out and meet the people who run the presses who serve as my inspiration for Deep Vellum. When I set up my business model, I looked to those three publishers as models for what I want to be. Of course, as a startup publisher, and in Dallas, I have a long road ahead of me, but it was so inspiring that everybody took the time out of their busy days to meet with me, chat, give advice, introduce me to everybody in their offices from the top to the bottom…I’ll never forget that experience. And plus it’s so cool to see these people where they work (and a real highlight was seeing the actual old letterpress in Coffee House’s office they used to print broadsides, posters, chapbooks, and other things…a nice physical reminder of the beauty and history of publishing and what it means to call yourself a “press”).

But here are some pictures from lovely Minneapolis:

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Found some Dallas love at the distributor-to-be-named-later’s offices!

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With Eric Lorberer of Rain Taxi at the Walker Art Center before the Internet Cat Video Festival

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Open Book in downtown Minneapolis w/ Milkweed Editions’ sign outside

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The write kind of bike rack outside of Open Book

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The Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge at the Walker Art Center, a piece by Siah Armajani, featuring a John Ashbery poem that traverses the pedestrian bridge over 1 million lanes of traffic

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With Steve Woodward, Associate Editor at Graywolf

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0 Responses to Minneapolis Love: Ideas for Literary Advocacy in Dallas

  1. Amos J Hunt (@ineffabilliken) August 22, 2014 at 7:25 am #

    From a philosophical point of view, I think it’s too bad that you have to make the case for the political relevance of letters in economic terms. From a practical point of view, I’m so glad you thought of doing it!

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