Black women writers turn a book reading into a true community event

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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the roles of speaker and listener at readings. Often, readings of prose or poetry serve the purpose of publicity—a new book or project that must be advertised, which makes sense. The words being read are, in essence, a free sample of a product being sold. And the listeners—the attendees at a reading—are the market to which that creation is being offered. While this view is a cynical one, and while it can’t be easy for writers to travel around shilling books that came out of their fingertips as art, sometimes the literary community, no matter how small or large, can feel a little commercial—especially in times of economic strife. And it bums me out.

Last week, deep in the throes of this sort of weird angst about the literary community I pressed on and took my sad bookish bones out to the Kenwood Café for the Birchbark Books Reading Series, featuring the Twin Cities Black Women Writers. That night, listening to a group of talented local writers read their work—some of which was from completed or forthcoming books, some from pet projects that aren’t yet finished—without any real sense of agenda, renewed in me a joy of community that I hadn’t felt in some time.

From what I understand, based on Mary Moore Easter’s gracious over-the-microphone thank-you to Carolyn Holbrook, the reading was originally only meant to be Holbrook’s. However, Holbrook invited some women from her writing group (the Twin Cities Black Women Writers) to share the spotlight with her and read some of what they’d been working on. The group, assembled by Holbrook about six years ago, and containing anywhere between six to ten women at any given time, began out of the desire of these talented women to get feedback from other black women with the ability to discuss issues unique to their community.

The first to read was Mary Moore Easter, a poet/dancer/choreographer with fantastic posture who has been head of the dance program at Carleton College for 40 years. She read for us a yet-unfinished crown of sonnets about seeing the Terracotta Warriors on a visit to China with her husband. It was a captivating poem, a story beginning with her experience viewing the army and ending (for now) with the experience of the man who discovered them.

Next to read was Aundria Sheppard Morgan, the author of an intense-sounding memoir entitled Cross My Heart and Hope to Die, some of which she read. While hearing Easter read was especially lovely because she had tamed the wild sonnet and I felt as a bubble in a sea of appreciators of the form, listening while Morgan told us artfully arranged intimate details about her life, my role as an audience member became more intuitive; less brainy. The crowd groaned with sadness in unison, and we became more of a Greek chorus, interacting with her, and supporting her. It was a fulfilling time, and I was so happy to be there, being part of what we became as a group.

Though she was “headlining” the event, Carolyn Holbrook read after Morgan. I feel ashamed of myself for not having known who Holbrook was before attending. She is a woman who every woman should know. The founder of SASE: The Write Place, which in 2006 merged with Intermedia Arts, Holbrook also spent time serving as the program director for The Loft Literary Center, and won a Kay Sexton award at the Minnesota Book Awards last year. (There are plenty more things on her résumé, too.) She read the chapter about her rise in the ranks of Minnesotan arts administration from a book she is currently working on, which she received a Travelers grant to write telling the stories of 20 leaders in the local nonprofit sector. While Holbrook’s chapter was fantastically written, peppered with darling asides and much giggling from the audience, the thing she said that struck me most was, “I come from a long line of female role models,” which gave me the chills because there is no doubt in my mind that it’s true—and I am positive that she is continuing that legacy with her children, and the children she has had as students in her various capacities as a teacher.

Wrapping up the evening was Sherrie Fernandez-Williams, recipient of multiple writing awards and selectee for the Loft Mentor Series in Creative Nonfiction. Williams is also the author of a memoir chronicling her long relationship with an unfaithful man, excerpts of which she shared with us that evening. Though all of the women were spectacular, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that Williams was definitely my favorite, because I didn’t write anything down in my little notebook, which is usually what happens when I am wholly captivated by a reader. She is a natural-born storyteller, a gift that translates so well to readings. Her face was expressive, her speaking tone changed to add dimensions to the story, and her body language hinted that she understood the performative element of reading to a crowd.

When I think of the word “refreshing” a lot of things come to mind, but I never thought an event like this would top that list. The Minneapolis literary community continues to surprise me and delight me at every turn. That Birchbark Books Reading Series event was one of the best I’ve been to in the Twin Cities, and good on curator Michael Kiesow Moore for making it happen. I am definitely looking forward to more events like this.