People are always talking about how great Minneapolis is for writers. Sure, there are a ton of publishing houses (big and small), tons of open mic nights, and erudite book-worshipping communities, but the people talking about how writer-types have it made in Minneapolis are all over twenty years old. Last week, I dared to climb to the third floor deck of Open Book and shout to the rooftops the age-old question “What about the children?”
Turns out, there’s a lot about the children here in Minneapolis when it comes to writing. Intermedia Arts has a once-monthly, ongoing, drop-in “writing circle for teens” called Young Writers, led by ex-Bitter-Enemy Dana Killmeyer (you go, girl!). Hennepin County Library has a whole website section devoted to “teen topics” with regards to writing and reading, sharing links to websites like Figment: Write Yourself In and Teen Ink, to help develop a young writer’s sense of self. The Hennepin County Library on East Franklin also hosts a weekly writing workshop on Thursdays for teens in grade six and above. While it’s very heartening to see all of these places around town supporting the literary dreams of our city’s youth, there is one place that stands head and shoulders above the rest with regard to their dedication and devotion to teen writing: The Loft Literary Center.
While The Loft and its bookish wonders are no secret to most people in the Twin Cities, for those of us who don’t have kids or are old enough to grab a beer at Grumpy’s down the block, the teen writer resources there are probably less familiar. That doesn’t mean the information isn’t available to us for perusal and addition to our arsenal of amazing tidbits about the artistic side of Minnesota to casually drop into conversation with friends and family from other states.
Sitting on the racks outside of The Loft, just up the beautiful stairway from the MCBA, there is a 35-page booklet about The Loft’s Young Writers’ Program. Packed in those pages are tons of classes ranging in age and ability from beginner kids to intermediate teens. It’s a very impressive educational spread. The thing is, though, that if you are a teen from a family struggling to make ends meet—like many families are in these exhausting economic times—then the cost of the classes may present some difficulty.
Fortunately for those families, The Loft recently received an Access grant funded by Legacy money to allow for three specific populations—one of which is the teen population—in the Twin Cities to more readily participate in programs at The Loft. This grant allowed for the very cool, very recent, very free workshop led by Dessa, Truth and Letters—part of last weekend’s Teen Writer’s Conference. Bao Phi, associate program director at the Loft, was kind enough to give me some insider information via e-mail about how the program was created, and how Dessa was chosen to mentor:
“We convened two teen focus groups, one here at the Loft and one at Edison High School. We asked teens how we could create access for them, what kind of literary events they’d be interested in, etc. A name that came up in the focus groups again and again was Dessa.
“Dessa has performed for us before, as a part of our long-running Equilibrium program (which serves spoken word artists and community members of color). I’ve also known Dessa for a few years now as a fellow spoken word artist. We were thrilled to hear teens wanted to work with her, as she’s a top-notch poet who is also great at conducting workshops for youth.”
It’s awesome that the kids decided—that this wasn’t a case of giving the kids what adult think they want or need. No, this was pure democracy.
It must be flattering for Dessa that the kids chose her by name, but how were the kids chosen? In a complementary turn of events, the participants were chosen by Dessa.
Bao explains that The Loft put out an open call for applications—spreading word of the workshop to as many places rampant with teens as was humanly possible. The Loft sweetened the deal even more so by offering financial assistance for transportation, childcare, and other potential costs incurred by the teens attending this amazing (and free) workshop for the week. The applications poured in by the bucketful, I’m sure. After the applications were collected, Dessa went through them and picked ten mentees according to their literary aptitude. In the words of Dessa (who was also wonderful enough to e-mail with me), “Teen workshops, like adult workshops, are only good as the participants,” and she curated “a strong team of young writers,” of which I am certain there is no shortage here in the Twin Cities.
When asked about her past experience working with teens, she said, “As a performance poet and a rapper, you run into plenty of opportunities to work with teenagers. I’ve been a part of writing workshops, seminars on finding one’s voice, and discussions on race and sex in the arts. My message is largely the same: be kind, keep your overhead low, and hustle. Hard.” I wish someone had been as frank with me when I was a teenager. My respect for, and girl-crush on Dessa works retroactively, apparently.
Now that The Loft has this Access grant, hopefully there will be more workshops like this coming down the line, to teach our city’s youth how to transform their from something akin Dessa’s admittedly “lousy” teen writing about her “deep, terribly romantic pain,” into something that transcends age.