How to read poetry

Today is the 190th birthday of Emily Dickinson, an incredibly important and well known American poet. She’s also one of a handful of poets that many folks know of at all. Generally speaking, people are not huge fans of poetry. Nearly 90% of Americans do not read poetry in a given year, according to a 2018 survey, and that was even an improvement from two years earlier.

Dog with Emily Dickinson book

Just ask anyone who was assigned to read Emily in high school (or Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, etc.) There are usually several reasons why: Poems are difficult to understand because of ye olde language and references. The deeper, profound meaning of poems is too hard to uncover. They’re just plain stupid and have no point. Now, that’s a little harsh. And more importantly, reading poetry doesn’t have to feel any of these ways.

Often English teachers and even poets don’t do themselves any favors. Take our friend Em, for example, who said: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.” (You okay there? Maybe try a Snuggie.)

Don’t get me wrong — I love Emily Dickinson. (I took a tour of her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, and even had a T-shirt, much to my family’s chagrin.) But it might be more helpful for today’s readers who are open to trying poetry again to get some advice from contemporary voices. With that in mind, I reached out to some poets and writers who are working today to get some suggestions on how to read poetry for enjoyment, not for a book report.

1. Enjoy the music of the poem

People seem to think that poetry is like a logic puzzle or something when really it’s layered like music. You can like the lyrics or the beat or the sick guitar riff, but the bottom line is how the poem makes you feel. Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón is the book I recommend for people who want get into poetry.

—Kate MacLam, poet (read “My Mailman” and “Dermatitis“)

I remember reading poetry in junior high and high school, and loving and connecting with the sounds and images enough that that gave me pleasure. What was frustrating then, when I got to college, was in literature classes being asked to ignore those things that gave me pleasure to analyze it to death. Poetry has this reputation: ‘Oh, this is difficult. There’s a deep meaning that you have to have be really intelligent or have read zillions of poems to understand.’ And I disagree with that. When you read a poem, you should ask, ‘What gives me pleasure in this poem? Is it a single word or an image?’

—Candace Black, poet, author of Whereabouts: Poems, professor in the creative writing program at Minnesota State University, Mankato

The way we usually learn poetry in high school turns so many people off before they even get started. You don’t have to understand the poem logically! It’s like music — you just have to feel it. Start with contemporary, accessible poets like Ada Limón and Ross Gay or an accessible genre of poetry like spoken word.

—Lorna Pecard, poet

Enjoy the language, structure, and tone even if you don’t understand the poem on the first read. Mark poems that mirror scars in your memories to help you become closer to your obsessions. Talk about the book cover and how it may connect to the poetry collection as a whole. Be honest if you don’t understand the poem; it helps you become a stronger reader (and writer). If you don’t like a poetry collection, you can always learn from it. Find your taste, your obsessions, let that voice hidden in the dark find its light. Poetry is about the process of understanding, never the results of understanding.

—Sengarone Vetsmany, poet (read “Lady of the Woods” and “Traveling home with cherries”)

2. Keep things simple

When people say they have difficulty with poetry, it’s usually because somebody else has raised the bar for enjoying it. And, really, there is no bar. A poem either engages you or it doesn’t, and you just move on. It doesn’t need to be understood — it just needs to be felt or heard. When you read a novel, for example, you engage with the character and the story, and at the end of it, you feel like you’ve been on a journey. Poets are the same way. They’re trying to capture a moment or feeling. They’re stopping time and inviting you into that moment. At the end of it, the poets are not saying, ‘Did you understand me?’ The question poets ask more often is: ‘Did you feel it?’

—Richard Robbins, poet, author of Body Turn to Rain: New & Collected Poems, professor in the creative writing program at MSU Mankato

Stop everything and read “Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think.” Poetry seems like a mystery to a lot of people, something that is hard to crack, hard to write, hard to understand. But it doesn’t have to be. The first step is to simplify the poem by reading it aloud. Yes, out loud — not in your head! You can whisper it if you want, but poetry is better when experienced by the ears as well as the eyes.

Then you must identify what is literally happening in the poem. Don’t read too deeply. If you’re familiar with the concept “read between the lines,” this is the opposite. Go line by line, stanza by stanza, or sentence by sentence — whatever is easiest — and really break down the poem.  If you encounter words or concepts that you think should be common knowledge, or you think you knew what it meant once, go ahead and look it up. Once the poem is understood on the surface, you can get into it on a deeper level.

—Emily Johnson, nonfiction writer, associate lecturer at University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Think about each line in a poem as a tiny mini-poem. If you don’t get or like an entire poem, you can still hone in on units of the poem (individual lines or maybe stanzas) that you do like or get. These moments can be a sort of starting place for getting meaning and significance out of the poem. But not knowing is also kind of the point of poetry. John Keats called this idea ‘Negative Capability’ and described it as people’s capability for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” That’s important. Lastly, I think “Project” by Rae Armantrout is perfect for poetry beginners. It’s not an easy poem, but it’s very accessible. And it’s becoming one of my favorite poems.

—Tyler Barton, fiction writer and poet, author of The Quiet Part Loud: Stories (read three DJ Poems)

3. Read current poets

I like to show those people a poem that is in free verse and has a pop culture reference (musician, technology like a computer or text message, UGG boots, etc.). People need confirmation that poems don’t have to rhyme and don’t have to be about nature or love.

—Erin Dorney, poet, author of I Am Not Famous Anymore: Poems After Shia LaBeouf (read three Adriene poems)

Start with poetry written sometime in the last fifty or sixty years. You might try to find an anthology, something either in print or online that offers work from a variety of people. Read the poems not as puzzles or morality lessons, but as somebody simply talking to you. Find some voices that you’d like to hear more from, and then look for books by those writers.

—Richard Terrill, poet and nonfiction writer, author of What Falls Away Is Always: Poems & Conversations, professor emeritus at MSU Mankato

Only read poetry you like. Even if you don’t know why you like it, keep reading it until you figure out why. And if you don’t like it, or feel like you don’t get it, don’t keep reading it. There is a lot of poetry out there, and even the stuff deemed good by some isn’t worth your time if you don’t like to read it.

—Angela Voras-Hills, poet, author of Louder Birds (read “Chateaubriand” and “Nothing to Undo That Can’t Be Done Again”)

You might not have many poets you like or even know. But even if you have one name (Yesika Salgado or José Olivarez, for example), you can Google search them and more than likely, there’ll also be a “People also search for” list on that page. That’s a good place to start expanding who and what you read.

—Michael Torres, poet and nonfiction writer, author of An Incomplete List of Names, professor in the creative writing program at MSU Mankato (read “Doing Donuts in an ’87 Mustang 5.0, After My Homie Chris Gets Broken Up With” and “All-American Mexican”)

Of course, there’s no wrong way to read poetry. No one can tell you what to like. And Emily Dickinson’s writing might speak to you today in ways that it didn’t before. (If you want to grab a dictionary, reference book of Greek mythology, and the complete sonnets of John Donne, then by all means, go for it.) But the point is not to try so hard. No one’s giving you a grade. By focusing on the parts that are enjoyable and the voices that get you, rather than working to dissect the text, anyone can read poetry.

Not sure where to grab your next poetry collection? Check out this list of independent Twin Cities bookstores, all of which would be happy to help with recommendations!

At the State Theatre, Hozier reminds us to have fun because we’re all about to die

Originally published on City Pages: June 3, 2019

Hozier at the State Theatre in Minneapolis, June 2019

The end is nigh and Hozier doesn’t want anyone to forget it.

At last night’s sold-out State Theatre show, the Irish singer-songwriter led the audience through a packed set list, spanning sounds from heavy blues-rock to folky acoustic tracks. He spoke between songs only to remind everyone to enjoy themselves — because we don’t have much longer to do so.

But Andrew Hozier Byrne didn’t really need to find the words to express this: The ideas were already present in the music. Although there are undercurrents of love and optimism, his sophomore album, Wasteland, Baby!, addresses ever-looming climate crises, political upheaval, and collapse on a cosmological scale.

This grim realism was present, though not as obviously, from the start of the set. The first song, “Would That I,” uses images of forests being felled and set alight. The simple yet steady percussion from drums and boots stomping the stage resembled the strike of an axehead, as Hozier sang, “The sound of the saw must be known by the tree.” 

Each band member contributed backing vocals, on this track and nearly every other, creating rich and layered orchestrations throughout the show. Although Hozier was the star, he made sure the musicians’ talents were given their due. The musicians — some of which were singer-songwriters in their own right, he mentioned — took ownership with multiple drum, bass, and organ solos sprinkled throughout the set.

Paying respect to musicians who came before them, the band performed “Nina Cried Power,” which honors and namechecks African-American artists such as Nina Simone, Curtis Mayfield, Billie Holiday, and James Brown, as well as John Lennon, Woody Guthrie and Joni Mitchell. These musicians, Hozier has said, were not afraid to put politics into their music, to speak truth to power.

What this performance missed were the powerful vocals of Mavis Staples, who sings on the chorus and bridge of the record version. However, Hozier added an additional stanza in the first verse, clarifying the protest-song-inspired track’s call to action with lines like: “It’s not the talking, it’s the doing.”

When the song ended, he invited the audience to the front of the theater, saying if he had his way, everyone would be up on the stage with him anyway. He encouraged the audience to enjoy themselves by standing—and doing other things—in front of the stage as they saw fit. “If you wanted to do something illicit or maybe illegal, that’d be fine, too,” he said.“I guarantee I wouldn’t be the one to call the fucking cops.”

While Hozier was working on Wasteland, Baby! in 2016, a long-awaited follow-up to his self-titled 2014 debut, the Doomsday Clock was moved up to two minutes to midnight, the furthest it has ever gone. He realized then that he “was writing a few love songs for the end of the world,” he said, and these include the title track. “And the stance of the sea and the absence of green / are the death of all things that I’ve seen and unseen,” he sang on “Wasteland, Baby!”

Hozier briefly mentioned the Doomsday Clock in his introduction to “No Plan,” just to say, “This one is about something far better.” Rather than stop with the apocalypse, this track takes listeners to the end of the universe, referencing research by astrophysicist Katie Mack whose forthcoming book, The End of Everything, explains about how the universe will go dark. 

Again, this needed little explanation, since the chorus laid it all out: “Sit here and watch the sunlight fade/Honey, enjoy, it’s getting late/There’s no plan, here’s no hand on the reins/As Mack explained, there will be darkness again.” The cutting blues riff seemed to grow fuzzier with each repetition due to Hozier’s guitar, which was made from a gasoline can. That fit well here, though it would’ve been too on the nose in the tracks about ecological disaster.

Sure, the show was a little grim. But for anyone who follows the news (or even glances at a TV while waiting for coffee, or just sees those articles that your cousin, you know, the one who’s all political, shares on Facebook) it felt accurate. Maybe that’s why Wasteland, Baby! debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in March and why multiple tracks have enjoyed so much radio play.

Despite the constant reality check, Hozier remained upbeat, imploring people to have a good time. And we did. The audience sang along throughout and took it up a few decibels for songs off the first album, including “To Be Alone,” “Jackie and Wilson” and, of course, “Take Me to Church.” Hozier changed up his well-known songs, including a slower, funkier version of “Someone New” and a stripped down rendition of “From Eden.”

Throughout the night, Hozier came across as a nice, sincere guy. After a three-song encore, which ended with the slow, brooding track “Work Song,” he thanked pretty much everyone involved with the concert, from the musicians in his band and the opening act, Bailen, to the guitar tech, merch guy and lighting crew.

The concert could be summed up in Hozier’s explanation of “Almost (Sweet Music),” a song that references many jazz artists and standards that made an impact on him. When it comes to both the universe and the music, we’re all just “trying to escape the inescapable”—the fact that eventually the everything must end.

Random notebook dump: How to describe the excellent opening act, Bailen? It’s like the instrumentation of Jeff Buckley with the vocals of Nickel Creek, and maybe a dose of Fleetwood Mac with contemporary indie rock? However you would describe the group of three siblings from New York City, their music featured great guitar work, interesting chord progressions, and incredible harmonies, all of which were present on “I Was Wrong.”

Overheard in the crowd: Called out afterguitarist/vocalist Julia Bailen of the opening act, Bailen, said it would be “on brand” for the band to get a MySpace account: “Does anyone under 22 even know what that is?”


Would That I
Dinner & Diatribes
Nina Cried Power
Someone New
Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene
From Eden
Wasteland, Baby!
No Plan
To Be Alone
Almost (Sweet Music)
Jackie and Wilson
Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)
Take Me to Church


Cherry Wine
To Noise Making (Sing)
Work Song

Note: This concert review originally appeared on the City Pages website on June 3, 2019, and as that Minnesota alt-weekly is, sadly, now defunct and beginning to randomly remove articles, I wanted to preserve it online here.

Ever wonder what a band from Mankato sounds like? Meet Good Night Gold Dust.

Originally published on City Pages: Thursday, October 4, 2018

Good Night Gold Dust. Photo by Dan Dinsmore

Good Night Gold Dust couldn’t see where they were going.

Barely outside of Mankato, they were driving through a snowstorm on the way to a January 2016 show at Icehouse.

Colin Scharf (guitar and vocals) had grown excitable about a defective wiper blade that left a thick slurry of ice across their van’s windshield. Calmly, Michelle Roche (drums) told him to stop in St. Peter to buy a new one. Laura Schultz (guitar and vocals) had tuned out the chaos, and Zack Arney (synth) was already in the Cities, though he’s heard the story so many times that it feels like he was there.

While Scharf was inside an auto parts store and Roche was watching a how-to video about wiper blades on YouTube, Schultz listened to the radio.

“It was Mark Wheat on the Current, and he said, ‘This next band is coming to Minneapolis to play one of their first big shows in town,’” according to Schultz. “And I was like, ‘I wonder who that is?’ Then he said, ‘They’re from Mankato, Minnesota.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re from Mankato, Minnesota’—not making the connection.

“Then he said, ‘This is a band called Good Night Gold Dust, with their song ‘Broken Wing.’ And I was just like, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.’”

She rolled down the windows and cranked the stereo. Roche stopped messing with the wipers, Scharf left the checkout line, and the three held an impromptu dance party in the parking lot.

That, Scharf says, was the moment they felt like they’d made it.

The band is sitting on the patio at Mankato’s Pub 500 this summer after an all-day practice. Scharf points to another bar patio along a street littered with them. That, he says, is where he met Laura Schultz, not knowing that they would form Good Night Gold Dust and later get married.

This is pretty much where you’d expect such an important moment in the band’s history to happen. This block and a half of South Front St., which some refer to as “the Barmuda Triangle,” is the center of Mankato. Its closeness and familiarity can feel comforting, but also stifling.

Any Minnesota band based outside the Twin Cities metro faces obvious challenges. But with a recently released EP and a show this Friday at Icehouse, Good Night Gold Dust is focusing on the benefits.

For Scharf, this is familiar territory. Growing up in Buffalo, he rooted for the Bills and Sabers, teams that were always expected to lose—and rarely disappointed.

“The whole rustbelt is an underdog, and you carry that around with you,” he says. “It gives you a boost of confidence, in a way, to not be from the big city and still be kicking ass—making really cool music and playing awesome shows.”

It Could Have Been You is the band’s third EP, but the second with this lineup after Roche and Arney joined the band four years ago. On the new six-song album, the band displays traditional rock chops but also experiments confidently with synthesizers, samples, Auto-Tuned vocals, and drum machines. It also showcases the difference between how Schultz and Scharf approach songwriting.

Schultz relies on her singer-songwriter background, despite the emphasis on electronic instrumentation. “Second Moon,” for example, fades in with synth and light guitar, building as Schultz sings, with that mournful sweetness only a folk-singer can manage: “The night’s a cruel companion, one that keeps repeating, ‘It could’ve been you. It could’ve been you.’”

On the other hand, Scharf channels Joe Strummer on tracks heavy with rhythm, guitar riffs, and attitude, such as “Thieves.” Snarling through the song’s backbeat, he sings, “Yeah, we pulled a fast one, clean in the spring air/ No security cameras, ain’t nobody gonna catch us.”

Experimentation, both in practices and in the studio, makes these disparate styles work together. The band had worked with Brett Bullion, who has produced albums for Fog and Bad Bad Hats, on their 2015 self-titled EP, and they booked studio time again with him for It Could Have Been You. But this time, recording was a much different experience.

“The last album, we came in with skeletons of songs, and what we came in with was very different from what we came out with. A lot of it got shaped in the studio,” Arney says. “With this record, we were prepared and knew the sound we wanted.”

It’s a bit tricky for a Mankato-based band to find a venue for its Minneapolis album release and to promote it. Fortunately, Scharf and Schultz can turn to Twin Cities musicians they know, including members of Communist Daughter, Fathom Lane and Field Report.

In 2016, Scharf and Schultz started hosting living room concerts featuring these and other acts. Sometimes they were passing through town, and other times Good Night Gold Dust invited them. In a place where you have to make your own fun, Scharf says, these things just happen.

This is the paradox of being based in Mankato, according to Schultz. “The thing about the living room shows is we were able to establish relationships with artists. Chastity Brown came and played, so we had access to those artists like mentors,” she says. “We would never have had that experience with them if we’d just played a show together at Icehouse.”

Being accepted into the Twin Cities music scene offers validation, even with the novelty that comes from being from Mankato, Scharf says. If Twin Cities recognition is so validating, Good Night Gold Dust should just relocate, right? After all, none of the band members are from Mankato. They all moved to the area from different cities or states for school or work.

But Good Night Gold Dust is staying put for a simple reason: Despite smaller audiences and larger distances to major venues, they love Mankato. Like many others in the area, they want to prove there’s more than the Barmuda Triangle.

“There really is a great network of artists and creators in this city,” Scharf says, mentioning the 410 Project art gallery, the revival of the Old Town district, and musical acts such as folk rock group Bee Balm Field and hip hop artist !ntell!gent Des!gn. “The city just feels like it’s got this creative energy bubbling and bursting.”

Good Night Gold Dust 
With: Har-di-Har 
Where: Icehouse 
When: 10:30 p.m. Fri. Oct. 5 
Tickets: 21+; $8/$10; more info here

Note: This concert review originally appeared on the City Pages website on Oct. 4, 2018, and as that Minnesota alt-weekly is, sadly, now defunct and beginning to randomly remove articles, I wanted to preserve it online here.

Elvis Costello is a rock star whether he likes it or not

Originally published on City Pages: Friday, November 16, 2018

Elvis Costello and the Imposters at the University of Minnesota, 2018

What would happen if we called BS on Elvis Costello?

No one who attended his three-hour, double-encore performance with the Imposters at the Northrop last night could do this about his music. And they likely wouldn’t find fault with Costello’s stage presence—a timeworn distance, command, and abrasiveness peppered with dry humor and sincerity.

But what if we call out just a single comment, hardly the most inflammatory of his career but one that nonetheless rings false? The 64-year-old stated in a recent interview that he’s not a rock star. “It doesn’t say on my business card, ‘Rock star,’” he said. “I’m just a musician.”

Respectfully, sir: bullshit.

Costello’s rock stardom shone clearly last night from his opening song, “This Year’s Girl,” through his final encore of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?” It was there in the swift, pounding rhythms of Costello’s earlier work and in the ’60s pop-infused tracks off his new album, Look Now. It was there in his searing solos, guitar lifted high in the air to hold out a single cutting note, and in the sunglasses he wore at night. “Rock star” is encoded in Costello’s DNA.

But maybe this is ignoring the point Costello wanted to make: He’s not solely a rock star. And the pieces that make up Costello are difficult to categorize, varying widely over his career and from song to song in the live show. If there’s one thing Elvis Costello & the Imposters want to highlight in the Look Now and Then Tour, it’s multiplicity.

This was clear from the setlist. The band performed tracks from throughout Costello’s career, experimenting with the arrangements on many. Some performances remained true to the original recordings, including “Watching the Detectives” and “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” written with Carole King. But “Alison” began with just guitar, then Costello and his two phenomenal backup singers followed along. Even when the full band kicked in around the second verse, the tempo was slower, the instrumentation more subdued than expected.

Costello’s punctuated many of his quick, radio-ready hits with a protracted guitar solo, while some newer songs, such as “Stripping Paper,” received keyboard prefaces from Steve Nieve. As Costello was describing that one as the first song he’d written about interior decorating, someone in the balcony shouted out their admiration. Costello said the female protagonist in his song was about five gimlets in as she carelessly removed wallpaper. “And you’re at six,” he told the fan. “I know that sound. I’m a six or seven gimlet man, myself—well, I was.”

It was clear in the band’s instrumentation. Although Nieve played at least half a dozen pianos, organs, and synthesizers on “Clubland” alone, Costello, bassist Davey Faragher, and drummer Pete Thomas covered a slew of styles—including rock, tango, gospel, and the “uptown pop” of Look Now—with relatively few instrument changes. Costello also displayed his broad vocal range, at times emphasizing that characteristic snarl, at others highlighting vibrato or falsetto, the belted notes of a big band singer, or the passionate testifying of a gospel singer.

It was clear in the way Costello, ever the enigma, carried himself. He stood out as the frontman, the ringleader and main attraction, in black suit and blue-tinted sunglasses. He did share the spotlight with those joining him on stage, calling out each one’s name and at points imploring them to display piano chops or vocal virtuosity. But he also wanted command of the audience, standing stock still and demanding applause at the end of songs with a stone facade, guitar held high, speaking nary a word.

And yet, he also wanted to endear himself, telling stories and making jokes. Early in the night, he commented, “It’s the first night of the tour here.” After a pause, he added: “In Minnesota.” The audience laughed, and that snarl disappeared, momentarily, replaced by a small smile. “We heard you’ve got 10,000 lakes here and wanted to play on the edge of every one of them,” he continued. “And the booking agent said, ‘What the hell are you thinking? At this time of year?’”

So maybe Costello is a nice guy, maybe not. This is what we love about him, and why fans were so concerned when rumors that he was battling an intense form of cancer began to spread earlier this year. Luckily, the rumors, which he didn’t mention at all last night, turned out to be inaccurate. The three-hour Northrop performance proved that Costello is still as tough as ever, and even more complicated than we previously thought. He’s a soul singer, a pianist, a composer, a guitar virtuoso, a true entertainer.

And he’s a rock star, too, goddammit. Not that he doesn’t deserve the right to define himself. But because of everything he is, it’s impossible for anyone, the artist included, to put a single label on Elvis Costello.


This Year’s Girl
Honey Are You Straight or Are You Blind
Don’t Look Now
Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter
Green Shirt
Photographs Can Lie
Hand in Hand
Moods for Moderns
Tears Before Bedtime
Why Won’t Heaven Help Me?
Jimmie Standing in the Rain
Under Lime
Watching the Detectives
He’s Given Me Things
High Fidelity
Unwanted Number
It Takes Time
Everyday I Write the Book

First Encore

Accidents Will Happen
Shot with His Own Gun
Stripping Paper
(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea
Suspect My Tears
Mr. & Mrs. Hush
Pump It Up

Second Encore

A Face in the Crowd
American Gangster Time
(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?

Critic’s bias: Not long before moving to Minnesota, I encountered a large chalkboard paint mural that said, Before I die, I want to . . . My answer: See Elvis Costello live. I don’t remember how I first heard of Elvis Costello, but I remember the first album of his I, as a high schooler, borrowed from a public library in suburban Indianapolis. When I Was Cruel hooked me, but I had no idea what was in store as I worked through his catalog.

More than that, Costello was a misfit, something I think a lot of fans identify with. When I was reading the biography Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello, a friend of my parents who loved Bruce Springsteen said, “Elvis Costello? He’s a really weird dude. Really weird.”

But what I remember most about the book was a story recounting how the young Declan MacManus saw Bruce Springsteen perform at the lauded Hammersmith Odeon in 1975. The now legendary show began with a stripped down, piano-and-vocals-only rendition of “Thunder Road,” after which, Costello turned to his friend and shouted, “He’s done it. He’s done it!” Every track during last night’s concert elicited the same response in me: He’s done it. He’s done it!

Overheard in the crowd: Grumbled, when the auditorium staff announced again the concert would begin shortly yet the bar line wasn’t moving: “What, does Elvis have a bedtime? I mean, fuck.” The man then commented, “The last time I saw Elvis was here in 1976.” A friend, or stranger, he was haranguing in line commented that it’s been quite a while. “Yeah,” he said, “and they still expect me to sit down without a cocktail?”

Note: This concert review originally appeared on the City Pages website on Nov. 16, 2018, and as that Minnesota alt-weekly is, sadly, now defunct and beginning to randomly remove articles, I wanted to preserve it online here.

Twin Cities bookstores that can help you get lit even during quarantine

So many of us are staying at home to help limit the spread of COVID-19, and a lot of our to-read book piles are slowly shrinking. Quarantine is very important for flattening the curve, but it’s definitely rough on local bookshops, which must remain closed to the public in Minnesota for now. Since libraries are closed, too, we no longer have to feel guilty about buying so many books we could have borrowed. (Just me?)

Right now, Twin Cities booksellers are adapting to the constantly changing situation, working to stay afloat and serve loyal customers while ensuring the health and safety of everyone. Which is no small task. After browsing through their websites, here are a few tips for supporting them:

  • Buy books from their websites: maybe you have been looking forward to it, or maybe you just miss browsing bookstore shelves for the title you didn’t know you had to have, or maybe you’re a tsundoku devotee. Either way, you can feel good about the purchase. The indie shops need the orders; Jeff B., not so much.
  • If you can’t find a book on their websites or want a recommendation, call or email them — after all, who doesn’t need a little more human interaction right now? Even millennials might pick up the phone! Especially for used books, it’s likely not everything will be listed online.
  • Buy gift cards — whether for future use once we can return to “normal” life or as presents to make sure your friends and family are buying from indie book stores.
  • Engage from afar: Watch their social media accounts for live readings and book discussions that are now online.
  • For audiobooks, use, an independent platform gives proceeds to the local bookstore(s) of your choosing. Right now, the website is donating all proceeds for every one-month gift membership to your chosen bookstore(s).
  • If buying over phone or email makes you anxious, you are having trouble finding a title, or there’s some other reason, buy books from This new independent platform gives about 75% of profits to local bookshops across the U.S. and keeps a running tally on its homepage of how much it has raised. (Some of the shops below now use, which is still in its beta version, as their e-comm platform.)

Below is a non-definitive list of bookstores in the Twin Cities that are still filling web, email, and phone orders right now. Please remember this can change, and I’m sure I missed some that should be included. My intent is to help people spread the love around and also see which locations you didn’t know about or haven’t visited. Maybe when this all ends — and it will end, rest assured — we’ll see each other at one of the locations for a reading, book club, or just to browse.

Birchbark Books | 612-374-4023 | email via form | Note: specializing in books by or about indigenous peoples — every Louise Erdrich title is signed!

Book House in Dinkytown | 612-331-1430 | email via form

Daybreak Press Global Bookstore | 612-584-3359 | | Note: specializing in global books that focus on faith, social justice, and women’s empowerment

DreamHaven Books | 612-823-6161 | | Note: specializing in science fiction, fantasy, horror, film and media books, comics, and graphic novels

Eat My Words Bookstore | 651-243-1756 | 

The Irreverent Bookworm | 612-500-4339 | | Note: free shipping on all Minnesota orders

James and Mary Laurie Booksellers| 612-338-1114 | | Note: specializing in used and rare books and records

Magers & Quinn Booksellers | 612-822-4611 | email via form | Note: free shipping on orders over $25

Midway Used & Rare Books | 651-644-7605 | | Note: free shipping on orders over $20

Milkweed Books | 612-215-2540 |

Moon Palace Books | 612-454-0455 |

Next Chapter Book Sellers | 651-225-8989 |

Once Upon a Crime: Mystery Books | 612-870-3785 |

Paperback Exchange | 612-929-8801 |

Red Balloon Bookshop | 651-224-8320 | | Note: specializing in children’s lit, free shipping on orders over $20

Subtext Books | 651-493-2791 | | Note: $2 shipping in Minnesota, $4 across the U.S.

Wild Rumpus Books | 612-920-5005 | | Note: specializing in children’s lit

10 things to know about Henry

This week, we lost Henry. He was a rabbit. He was our friend. There has been so much sadness in our little zoo of a house, but also a lot of remembrance.

Henry the rabbit

Anyone who’s ever loved a “pet” (a term I dislike) for some time knows that they have a unique personality and tendency to do particular, oftentimes funny, things. In spite of his small size of 2.5 lbs for most of his life, Henry had one of the biggest spirits I’ve encountered in an animal. And he regularly left a mark on people who met him.

So in celebration, rather than sadness, I with Stephanie’s help put together a brief list of facts about Hen Hen. (Oh, and like most companion animals, he ended up with many nicknames over the years.)

That said, Henry was . . .

1. In double digits

We first brought Henry home in January 2011, but he’d had another home before that for about a year. So we estimate he was born sometime in 2009, and had likely turned 10 years old in recent days. We were always commenting about what a spry little guy he remained, even in his later days, running around and jumping and nudging us to pay attention.

One memory that came to mind last night: Every week after we’d clean the bunny cage, he’d hop in and do an inspection, looking under the platform in particular to make sure everything was just right and sometimes kicking bedding out into the main area.

Henry on the day we brought him home. Note also the wicker furniture indoors.

2. Originally called Frodo

Yeah — that had to change. At his first house, he had the unfortunate experience of being named after a hobbit, and even though he ate like one, it didn’t fit him. At that time, I’d been misguidedly reading a lot of Thoreau in search of enlightenment. The one lasting effect was that I had the perfect name for our little buddy.

3. In a relationship

None of us animals are meant to be alone, right? So, half a year after we brought home Henry, Harper followed in July 2011. The two took to each other immediately. Which isn’t always the case with rabbits, and some pairs bond only after exceptionally difficulty and effort from their humans. And that remained unchanged even as Harpie (again, the nicknames) grew from being half his size to twice his size. I don’t care if it’s anthropomorphizing: These two loved each other. Insert quote about love and how it relates to hating the absence of someone. And his loss has been just as hard on her.

Henry and Harper the rabbits
Harper visiting Henry at the hospital one of the last times.

4. A true pal

When I was sick, Henry hopped on the bed to make sure I was all right. When a friend needed a wingman, Henry posed for a Tinder profile pic (you know who you are!). When you were down, he’d come up an nudge you with his nose, then rub his chin on you to mark you as part of his crew. Indeed he was a true pal.

5. A movie star

His debut performance was in “Animaux à Paris” — a grade-A film written, directed, and produced by yours truly for French 201. He starred as Monsieur Lapin, with Harper performing as sa femme, Mademoiselle Lapin. From these humble beginnings, he rose to play the role of Rabbit Friend in a short called “Jamie Snodgrass: Class-C Mulberry Scout” from the Indianapolis-based artist collective Know No Stranger.

Henry the rabbit in a movie

6. And a model

Henry and Harper worked the angles for an article about rabbit care. And yeah, maybe I took the photos, and wrote the article, so there might’ve been some nepotism, but look at the top-tier smizing. If you meet bunny people, you know that they could talk forever about rabbits and their unique dietary and health concerns. This piece allowed me to sum it up in a way that was hopefully helpful to others (with serious SEO value, right fellow AL newsies?). One of the vets interviewed commented: “The rabbit patients I have share a very strong human-animal bond.” An understatement.

Henry and Harper the rabbits

7. An adventurous eater

Although rabbit diets consist largely of timothy hay and pellets — not carrots and iceberg lettuce as sometimes thought — they can enjoy a number of other foods. And enjoy Hen did. A non-exhaustive list of things he tried and liked includes apple, watermelon, blueberries, strawberries, various lettuces and spinach, celery, parsley, carrot and radish greens, dill, basil, spinach, collard greens, rose petals, grapes, and so on. His favorites were cilantro and banana (as evidenced in this video). Some mornings, I would make him a plate of greens so that we could eat breakfast together. The only things he didn’t seem to care for were mango and mint, go figure.

Rabbit eats spinach from plate

(The House Rabbit Society offers a list of fruits and veggies approved that are good for bunnies.)

8. A too-adventurous eater

Listen, no shame here — bunnies have to chew on things to keep their teeth from growing too long. Which leads to serious health issues and costly remedies. But Henny Hen would on occasion eat some unapproved snacks too, including homework and a senior portfolio, shoes in the closet and pants even while they were being worn (leaving a hole in the butt), a chunk of Nutrigrain bar right from Stephanie’s hand.

9. A bun of the world

Counting the place where he was born and his first house where we picked him up from in 2011, Henry lived in 10 homes during his life, as Stephanie and I moved during college in Indy and then during and after grad school in Minnesota. He was a trooper, though, typically taking to new digs quicker than Harp or any of his cat sibs.

The entire crew (at the time two buns and two cats) even stayed in a hotel for a week as we waited for our first Mankato apartment to be finished. We convinced the company to give us two rooms, considering the size of our group. One day, however, the bunnies whom I’d let out a little earlier to exercise in the second room, were nowhere to be found. I thought housekeeping might have come in and taken them away, but then I looked under the bed and saw something moving around in the box spring. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” I reported to Stephanie, “but the bunnies are inside the bed.”

Henry the rabbit with Herman the kitten
Henry munching some paper the first time he met little Herman.

10. A little guy with a big personality

Henry was never afraid of new people. He played with dogs and cats during his life, and oftentimes pushed them around. He was a boss, but the kind you like to have. Henry was so involved in our daily life — the fun, silly chaos of living with five wild dingi — that we have been experiencing many first times doing this or that without him.

In true Libra fashion, I rang in my birthday last night with tears. “Animals break your heart,” a friend recently told me. It’s true, but only if they take up significant space in it to begin with. So although this post is supposed to contain facts about Hen, here are a few about us: 1. We miss Henry very much. 2. We hope we gave him the best life a bun could have. 3. We are very sad for his loss. 4. We don’t see that changing anytime soon. 5. We know it’s because we so enormously loved and were loved by that little guy.

Henry the rabbit

What This Karaoke Song Is Really Saying


Bonnie Tyler: “Total Eclipse of the Heart”

If I didn’t possess the voice of an angel, I wouldn’t attempt this song; if I didn’t attempt this song, I wouldn’t end up in the dark parking lot leaving another voicemail for my ex, Nigel, that he’ll probably never return.

Hinder: “Lips of an Angel”

I own a ferret.

Bruce Springsteen: “Born to Run”

My sister’s garage, unfinished and all, is cozier than you’d think, even if my brother-in-law steals Miller High Lifes from my mini fridge in lieu of the unpaid rent.

The Chainsmokers: “Closer”

This bar is so lit — they never card.

Lady Antebellum: “Need You Now”

Sure, we wear matching outfits and fight if the other one compliments a stranger, but we’re not co-dependent.

Nickleback: “Photograph”

He’s not my first ferret.

Foreigner: “I Want to Know What Love Is”

I’m dedicating this song to that beautiful woman right in front, the love of my life, the woman I’m moving in with, the woman I plan to marry, as soon as I tell my wife.

Michael Jackson: “Billie Jean”

Now you know why they call me the cool grandma.

Neil Diamond: “Sweet Caroline”

Every time you all repeat, “So good, so good, so good,” I want to thank you for filling in for the friends I lost touch with when I became a parent, with all of the late nights and diaper changes, about 24 years ago.

Hoobastank: “The Reason”

Did I mention his name is Ferret Bueller?

Rod Stewart: “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”

I already know you don’t, but what’s the worst that could happen — if we pretend for tonight, or if we don’t?

Sublime: “Santeria”

All I really want to say is: when you all wake up for work, when you’re stuck in freeway gridlock, when you’re chained to a desk in that prison of an office park, I’ll still be here, I’ll still be high, and I’ll still be singing.

5 tips for surviving creative writing workshops

Creative writing workshop feedback

Learning how to put words together made me cry. The memory still stings a little: sitting in the family room, my mom pointing to letters on a sheet of paper, creating new three-letter sequences, such as C-A-T. But why was it so damn hard, M-A-N? My frustration grew with M-A-D. I tried halfheartedly to sound out S-A-D. Then came the tears.

It’s funny now, since words became such large a part of my life. I soon started writing—stories, songs, top secret files for my imagined detective agency—and I read like crazy. I went on to get a bachelor’s and will soon finish a master’s in creative writing. But many times along the way, attempting to put words together has made me want to weep. These moments still pop up, as I string words into sentences, into paragraphs, into chapters of books. And they probably always will.

With this in mind, here are some thoughts to hopefully help you survive your creative writing education. I’ve tried to be broad enough that it will help no matter if you’re taking one-off classes at the local writing center, crossing off a gen-ed for your chemistry degree, or on the way to completing an MFA. The advice is aimed to help, but I feel a little preachy. I would feel even more so if I hadn’t made each mistake mentioned. One faux pas isn’t the end of the world, but it is something to notice and work to correct to be a better writer.

1. Write, write, write, write, write

Only one thing I know of separates writers from non-writers: writing. Students in creative writing classes should go one step further and create dedicated writing time. A professor once advised me not to apply to MFAs until after getting in the habit of writing every day. Recently, a professor gave similar advice: Figure out what kind of writer you are. Can you accomplish something substantial in one hour each day? Or do you need larger chunks, four or eight hours a couple days each week, to really get in a groove? Whatever works for you and your schedule, set aside and protect it.

2. Use the Golden Rule when workshopping

The age-old advice is true for so many creative writing workshop quandaries. Should I be nice at the risk of not giving helpful, critical feedback? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Should I make a brutally honest comment at the risk of discouraging and demoralizing the other person? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Should I turn in something that I haven’t proofread very well? Do unto… Well, you get the point.

3. Be a critic and fan of your peers

It’s easy to praise good work and criticize work that’s not so hot. But in a workshop, that’s not enough. Find ways to make good stories better. Find encouraging things to say about hot-mess poems. This will make things better in workshops and beyond. When your friends place work at your dream lit mag or win top awards, you can celebrate without comparing your successes to theirs because you’re a fan. When they ask your opinion on an objectively flawed essay, you can say so because you’re a reasonable critic, too. But even if it’s tough to be a fan, even if a workshop peer writes robo-unicorn-erotica, never say, “I’m not the audience for this.” Because: 1) you’re automatically the audience by joining the workshop, and 2) well, maybe you should reread the Golden Rule chunk.

4. Get involved outside of class

If you’re lucky enough to be at a school with a reading series, go to every event. You’re a novelist and the reader is a poet? Go anyway. You’re a poet and the reader does graphic CNF? Go anyway. If you’re not in school or your school doesn’t have a reading series, find somewhere nearby that does — another university, a bookstore, a monthly meeting of local writers — or find ways to participate online. Hear as many voices as you can, and meet as many other writers. Even if the reader’s work is not great or the delivery is subpar, you can learn and be a better writer just by going.

5. Be humble and keep working

When a workshop peer points out some canned images or bad tropes that your piece relies on — or simply disagrees with your approach — don’t brush off the advice. Think about where the advice is coming from. What in the piece is causing them to read it that way? What could you adjust or scrap to better reach your reader? Above all, don’t tell your workshoppers you’d already identified every plot hole, inconsistency, mixed metaphor, etc., that they pointed out. Because: 1) you probably didn’t and are just trying to protect your ego, and 2) if you did, you should have done your damnedest to fix said problems before turning in the piece.

But listen: we’re all still figuring out this writing business. George Saunders thought he  failed because he couldn’t write like Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald died believing The Great Gatsby, out of print at the time, was a failure. Toni Morrison didn’t even get into the game until her late thirties because she realized the only way to find the book she wanted to read was to write it. We can never know whom our writing will connect with or when. All we can do is to keep trying to put words together, combining them into narratives and stanzas and punchy fragments. By doing this, we can not only survive but also find our own versions of success as writers.

Do you have any other advice to share from your experience as a writer or in creative writing classes? Leave it in a comment below!

17 Thoughts & Prayers

1: Thought

Are roses still discounted the day after Valentine’s Day, if on Valentine’s Day there was a mass shooting? Or are those clipped stems, floating in a vat of water, still full price? After all, it’s a supply-and-demand thing—the way gun sales go up after a mass shooting—and either way, these people stand to make a killing.

2: Prayer

That we can protect those with little power. As one Florida writer noted: “our two deadliest shootings . . . have involved children (parkland) and queer people (orlando).”

3: Thought

The most powerful members of our society—the President, Vice President, representatives in the House and Senate—profess at a rate of more than 90% to be Christian.

4: Prayer

That it will not take a Judgment Day, at the separating of the Sheep and Goats, for us to understand Matthew 25:45: “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

5: Thought

The shooters, we’re told, quite frequently suffer from mental illness. Which is meant to explain why it wouldn’t help to do anything. Really, as those of us with mental illness can attest—those who take the pills, those who see the therapists—it explains why we could do much more.

6: Prayer

That the President, who reminded us this morning that the blame for this falls on those who suspected the perpetrator was homicidal and did nothing, will reconsider his policies that make it easier for those with mental illness to get guns.

7: Thought

This morning FOX News shared on social media that the White House had lowered its flag to half staff. Which seemed to be the least they could do. And really, it was.

8: Prayer

Maybe it’s wrong to disrespect our leaders like that, in a Christian sense, at least. Because 1 Timothy 2:1-2 says: “. . . I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life. . . .” Similarly, Confucius said to shame the powerful into doing what’s right by living blamelessly, by walking uprightly.

9: Thought

Because something that should be unnecessary is shaming politicians on Twitter who send thoughts and prayers also on Twitter while they take money from the NRA in real life.

10: Prayer

That somebody will do something, that once the vigil is over we will not blow out our candles, that we will remember how James 2:26 says: “. . . As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” Or how Langston Hughes says:

I am so tired of waiting,

Aren’t you,

For the world to become good

And beautiful and kind?

Let us take a knife

And cut the world in two-

And see what worms are eating

At the rind.

Or how the Bible also says to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” and what most of our Caesars need is a permanent vacation.

11: Thought

Because something else that’s unnecessary is politicians who take money from the NRA. And people who wait for them to do the right thing.

12: Prayer

That we can live a peaceful and quiet life once the majority of Americans who support comprehensive gun reform are heard over the exploding barrels of AR-15s. That we can walk uprightly because we don’t have to hide under desks, around corners, in locked classrooms, like we’ve drilled, so many times.

13. Thought

At school, when teaching logical fallacies, it can sometimes be difficult to come up with an example for the “fallacy fallacy, in which one problem with an argument invalidates the entire point. Here’s a handy example: “It wasn’t an actual AR-15,” or: “No, AR-15s are only semiautomatic.”

14: Prayer

That these final lines from Kathy Fish’s story, “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” will stop haunting us:

Humans in the wild, gathered and feeling good, previously an exhilaration, now: a target.

A target of concert-goers.

A target of movie-goers.

A target of dancers.

A group of schoolchildren is a target.

15: Thought

But, as we’ve heard, it’s disrespectful to talk about the problem so soon: too soon after Parkland, too soon after Vegas, too soon after Sandy Hook, too soon after Virginia Tech, too soon after Columbine.

16: Prayer

That maybe, this time, we can talk about the problem sooner.

17: Thought

It’s probably cheaper to buy two bouquets of a dozen roses than to buy seventeen individually. Just tie together the ones you must, stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem to stem, and pile them on the roadside memorial. The others you can throw in the trash. Because what does it matter when they’re already dead?

I have been spoiled


My coworkers.

The front room of my house is called the pawffice. It has a broad desk, a chair, three windows, a guitar, and a varying number of cats, depending on which spot they fancy that day, that hour, that instant. I used to have to share the pawffice. Stephanie and I both started to work from home when we moved to Minnesota in 2015. We’d trade desks and tables and spaces, the other office in our bureau being less cleverly named the bunny room. Which is exactly what it was. I’d wander in to share some unrelated nugget of information like an annoying officemate who keeps stopping by your desk. This wasn’t new. We’d worked together, in the same office, for a little over a year.

Stephanie in the pawffice

It’s easy to imagine some couples struggling with having to spend this much time with each other. You wake up together in the morning, commute together, go to meetings together, discuss deadlines together, roll your eyes together, leave work together. Then over dinner, you have to think of something new to talk about, because you already know the answer to that go-to question: “How was your day?” But I never minded. Stephanie is one of the smartest, hardest working, and most reliable people I’ve ever known. I, on the other hand, am allergic to deadlines, overly sarcastic in my attempts to be funny, and switch between projects constantly. But for me, even when the work was frustrating, it was a joy to be on her team.

IMG_4139.jpgSo working from home was much the same as before, just with the ability to wear pajamas most of the day or skip out for an hour in the morning to do yoga. Even after we were laid off from our previous employer, we continued to work together—in the same space, that is—on various freelance projects. Then last spring, Stephanie got a new full-time job that she greatly deserved. One thing became clear over the months I’ve worked from home on my thesis, lesson plans, and magazine article, with just the cats as coworkers: I have been spoiled. Spending that much time with one’s best friend is not a luxury most people get.


On Monday, 13 inches of snow dumped on Mankato. It started in the early morning and continued through the evening, piling higher and higher. Stephanie went to the office for a few hours, but then I picked her up when it started to get bad. For half a day, we shared a workspace again, and because she doesn’t often get the luxury to work from home, she claimed the pawffice with its wide (and for once, relatively clean) desk and view of the street. It was nice. Like old times, I walked out to make some observation, but before returning to my workspace, stopped as we watched the snow come down together.