Mural in George Floyd Square

I. Aug. 1- Reunion with Sheila

II. Aug. 2- Lake Street, George Floyd Square, and Wing Young Huie’s Third Place Gallery

III. Aug. 3- Birchbark Books & Native Arts, Lunch with Stephan and Jim from Howling Bird Press, Rain Taxi Reading & Interview with Rita Dove & Jericho Brown

I. Aug. 1: Reunion with Sheila

I first visited Minneapolis in 2012, when I had a month-long writing residency at the Anderson Center in Red Wing. There, I met Sheila O’Connor, who was working on her beautiful novel, Keeping Safe the Stars. Over the course of the month, we bonded over dinners, made extraordinary efforts to download new episodes of Mad Men we could binge together, and occasionally stayed up late talking about our writing projects and our lives. I was working on an emotionally difficult sequence of poems from Blood Creek at the time, and it’s due in large part to Sheila’s support and encouragement that I was able to finish the collection during that residency. When the month was over, Sheila invited me to Minneapolis and showed me around the city where she’d grown up and spent most of her life. The best part about a Sheila O’Connor tour of Minneapolis is that it’s equal parts imagined and actual, so you kind of feel like you’re inhabiting two worlds at once. (“Here is the park where V won the singing contest,” Sheila might say–V being a character from her phenomenal 2019 novel, Evidence of V. )

Although I hadn’t seen Sheila in nearly a decade, she invited me to stay with her while I was in town this time around, and within a few minutes of walking into her house, I felt as though it had been days rather than years since I’d seen her last. That night, I went with her and her husband, Tim, to Lake Nokomis, near where Sheila had grown up, for barbeque and fish tacos.

Sheila and I on Aug. 1, 2021 at Lake Nakomis

II. Aug. 2: Lake Street, George Floyd Square, and Wing Young Huie’s Third Place Gallery

The afternoon after my arrival, Sheila and I made our way toward George Floyd Square via Lake Street, one of the hardest hit areas in the aftermath Floyd’s murder. Gorgeous murals such as the one below had been painted all along the street, though an abundance of boarded up windows and shuttered businesses made it clear that the corridor was still struggling.

Mural on Lake Street

We parked on East 38th Street, a couple of blocks from the site of Floyd’s murder. Where we approached on foot, the entrance to George Floyd Square was marked by a sculpture of a raised fist, alongside two signs: “This is a Sacred Space” and “Fuck Your Reopen.” (Earlier in the summer, city crews had partially reopened the intersection to traffic.)

38th Street Entrance to George Floyd Square

At the intersection of Chicago and 38th, there was another sculpture of a raised fist, this one topped by a pan-African flag and positioned in the center of a carefully tended, circular flower bed that had been constructed of cinder blocks to form a makeshift traffic circle. Springing up among the flowers and vegetables that had been planted in the traffic circle and along the sidewalks of Chicago Avenue, numerous yard signs featured portraits of Rodney King, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, and many other victims of police brutality.

Signs adorning the gardens planted along Chicago Avenue

In front of Cup Foods, at the site of Floyd’s murder, there was an angelic figure painted in the road, surrounded by a roped off area inside of which mourners had left dried and silk flowers, paintings, poems, letters, candles, beads, stuffed animals, and other tributes. Meandering through the space, I catch a glimpse of a woman closing her curtains in the apartment above Cup Foods, and I get a shiver when I think about what it might be like to live there. Some tears come, but I breathe through them, grateful to be wearing sunglasses.

Momentos left around the site of George Floyd’s murder

After paying our respects, Sheila and I walked across the street to The Third Place Gallery, where the photographer, Wing Young Huie, was giving a younger artist some feedback on his work. More than twenty years prior to the murder of George Floyd, Wing Young Huie began documenting life on Lake Street through photographs, and in 2000, he asked local businesses if he could display his prints in their windows, transforming a six-mile stretch of the street into one long gallery. The photos from the project were featured in Justin Ellis’s 2020 Atlantic article, “Minneapolis Had This Coming,” and are also collected in the book, Lake Street USA. As I studied the photos on the wall, flipped through the book, and thought about the Lake Street Wing Young Huie had photographed all those years ago and the one I had driven down on my way to the memorial, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. The photos seemed to tell part of the story of how Minneapolis came to be a kind of epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Days later, when I wake at 3 AM in a lodge outside Glacier National Park and begin writing because I can’t fall back asleep, it strikes me that what remains in George Floyd Square is not only the physical space of the memorial, but also the emotional space within which it took shape; I find myself completely overwhelmed once again by how much love, anguish, anger, determination, and hope are still evident there, as well as by the tension that–in spite of how much care and effort have gone into sanctifying the space–certain elements of it are still very much ephemeral: the silk flowers and stuffed animals are becoming weather worn, some barricades have been removed, traffic is beginning to resume on 38th, and there is ongoing disagreement about reopening Chicago Avenue.

As a white woman who simply visited for a few days from out of town, I’m certain I don’t have all the answers about what should happen with the space, but I also feel strongly that the city has a moral obligation to make room for a lasting memorial that honors George Floyd and other victims of police brutality. It also seems only right that in order to do so, city officials should consult and work with those who have been tending the space so carefully since Floyd’s murder. Of all the memorials I’ve visited over the years (and there have been many), this is the only one I’ve woken in the middle of the night thinking about days later. It is indeed a sacred space.

III. Aug. 3- Birchbark Books & Native Arts, Lunch with Stephan and Jim from Howling Bird Press, Rain Taxi Reading & Interview with Rita Dove & Jericho Brown

My last day in Minneapolis was all about my mission to research business plans for Longleaf Press, a literary nonprofit I recently took over and am in the process of transforming from a regional, university press to an indie publisher catering to a larger audience. One of my aspirations is to attain a dedicated space for the press, so on this trip, I am visiting various literary centers and bookstores to see what wisdom I can glean from their design and programming. At the moment, I have over twenty years’ worth of Longleaf publications stored alongside camping equipment in my spare room, but I envision someday having space from which to work, host readings, sell books, offer workshops, and provide writing mentorship for local youth, especially those from underserved communities.

On a previous trip to Minneapolis, I visited The Loft, one of the largest literary centers in the U.S., as well as the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and Wild Rumpus, a fabulous bookshop that is also home to cats, chinchillas, fish, and birds. This time around, Sheila recommended that I visit Birchbark Books & Native Arts, a small, local shop owned by the Pulitzer-prize-winning, Turtle Mountain Chippewa author, Louise Erdrich.

Birchbark Books & Native Arts, as seen from its children’s loft. The canoe suspended from the ceiling was hand-made by Charlie Gibson.

The bookstore was cozy, with lots of reading nooks and a small, whimsical section with a loft dedicated for children. As the website notes, Birchbark is a “teaching bookstore” that “provides a locus for Native intellectual life,” and as such, it stocks a well-curated selection of books and artwork by Native authors and artists. Throughout the store, meticulous notes give customers insights about the merchandise. While I was browsing, the poet, Heid E. Erdrich, came in and got a cup of water for a gentleman outside who was “down on his luck,” as she put it. When I finally dragged myself away with my little bag of books, she was still outside talking with him.

Later that afternoon, I made my way to Saint Paul to meet up with another former Anderson Center resident, Stephan Clark, and his colleague, Jim Cihlar, who oversee Howling Bird Press, the publishing house of Augsburg University’s MFA in creative writing. Howling Bird is similar to what I had imagined Longleaf might be when it was still university-affiliated: a teaching tool, providing students with opportunities to gain experience in the publishing industry and network with professional writers. Before I’d been informed of my impending layoff, I had designed a sequence of classes that would allow my undergraduate students to participate with oversight in the editing and publication process, as well as interact with authors and help with marketing. When I explained to Stephan and Jim that I’m traveling around the country, trying to decide where I wanted to relocate with the press and talking to anyone and everyone who might have helpful advice for me, they gave me lots of great ideas: write a pitch to send to various universities, consider communities such as Detroit that are trying to revitalize, look into Small Press Distribution… The conversation was helpful. Jim even offered to connect me with students looking for internship opportunities.

That evening, I made my way back to Minneapolis, where Sheila and I watched Rain Taxi‘s livestream of Jericho Brown interviewing Rita Dove. The highlight for me was Dove reading “Ode on a Shopping List Found in Last Season’s Shorts,” which recalled for me a different shopping list I found in the coffee table drawer a few months after my sister’s death from Adenocarcinoma twenty-three years ago. On the back of the list, Chelsea had drafted what she had planned to write in the birthday card she gave me when I turned 16. Weak from two years of battling terminal cancer, though, she had never mustered the energy to write a final draft and had instead handed me a blank card with some cash inside. Rifling through the drawer months after her death, I noticed her handwriting on a folded-up piece of paper and picked it up to find her grocery list with the draft of a sweet note to me on the back, which I now keep folded up inside the card in a frame on my bookshelf.

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