In a Loft class, Sheila Coy and her daughter Michelle cut and paste text to visualize the layout of Coy’s book. Photo by Sarah Whiting.
In a Loft class, Sheila Coy and her daughter Michelle cut and paste text to visualize the layout of Coy’s book. Photo by Sarah Whiting.
Sometimes poets read their work in a cozy library. Sometimes they read on a bright stage. Sometimes in a dank bar. Three decades ago, poets in the Minneapolis neighborhood of Dinkytown, at the edge of the University of Minnesota, read their work in a small loft above Rusoff & Co. Books.

When Marly Rusoff, owner of the bookstore, couldn’t afford rent on the loft space anymore, she appealed to her friends, and they agreed to start a poets’ club. At a fundraising party Garrison Keillor persuaded about 100 people to buy $15 memberships. The poets’ club became the Loft.

Thirty-one years and five moves later, the Loft has a staff of about 20, spacious quarters in Open Book (a renovated downtown warehouse), a membership of 3,500 and an annual calendar with dozens of classes, workshops, readings and other literary events.

Now, when poets read at the Loft, they read in the largest and most comprehensive literary center in the U.S., one that’s credited with helping create a literary scene second only to New York.

The secret of transforming a room with a couple chairs in it into a powerhouse of literary education isn’t easy, but it is simple, say those who have done it. You’ve just got to provide writers with a home of their own.

How to be a writer

At the heart of the Loft is a classroom with writers in it. Dozens of courses and workshops are offered year-round to writers at every stage of life and experience: a 14-year-old can take advanced fiction or a class on hip-hop and spoken word; an 84-year-old can learn how to break into sports writing.

Mary Cummings, education director at the Loft for 12 years, said more classes are offered, on more topics, than ever before. “We have more than quadrupled the size of our education program from the beginning of 2000 to now,” she said. “Certain areas weren’t taught at all in the beginning and are now very important: children’s literature, play- and screenwriting, journalist nonfiction.”

And the expansion isn’t finished: not by a long shot. This spring the Loft is announcing a new program, the Loft Master Track, which Cummings calls “an apprenticeship for serious writers.” (See sidebar.) It’s a two-year nonacademic writing program for those who want to work on their craft, but don’t want to sign up for a Master’s of Fine Arts (MFA) at a university.

“A lot of people don’t need the degree per se,” said Cummings, “but what they need is a focused period of time to mature in their writing in a structured setting with a group of peers.”

How to catch a reader

The Loft’s classes and workshops are aimed almost entirely at writers, but the literary center believes another group is just as important: readers.

“During the last 10 years we have focused on developing an audience for literature as a service to the writers,” said Linda Myers, the Loft’s executive director since 1994.

On paper, the Loft has 3,500 members. But Myers says that’s just a fraction of the number of people whose lives are enriched by the Loft’s activities. She estimates that each year about 20,000 people have face-to-face contact with someone from the Loft, including adults, children and teenagers taking classes or workshops, students in schools where the Loft holds residency programs and students in Head Start partnerships.

If the umbrella expands to include the people who listen to Talking Volumes, the triple media book blitz by the Loft, MPR and the Star Tribune, then the number of folks reached by the Loft is in the hundreds of thousands, said Myers.

A literary community isn’t just measured in numbers, though. It’s also measured in viability and visibility, in national reputation and local devotion. According to Myers, the Loft’s 2000 move out of the Pratt Community Center and into Open Book (a space it purchased along with the literary press Milkweed Editions and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts) ensured the literary center’s stature and visibility.

“Patricia Hampl, one of the founders of the Loft, said nobody will take literature seriously until it has real estate,” said Myers. “It can be invisible, because it has [only] the writer and the reader. If you’re fortunate, you may have a book group, but traditionally, book lovers don’t come together in the way people do to go to theater. Now literature has a house. That was the dream: to call attention to the whole community—the fine independent publishers, the independent presses, the various groups of writers who teach and practice their art in the community.”

And that attention is extending far beyond the metro area.

Hilary Reeves, managing director of Milkweed Editions, often meets envious strangers when she travels. “People are like, ‘Yeah, isn’t it great what you’re doing in Minnesota?’”

Within the Twin Cities are three of the four biggest independent literary publishers in the country—Graywolf Press, Coffee House Press and Milkweed. Add to this the Loft and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, and you’ve got a nationally renowned literary scene—a good chunk of it sharing the same old brick building on Washington Avenue.

“The Twin Cities is a leader in literature and book arts, and the organizations in Open Book are recognized around the nation for what has been achieved here,” said Reeves. “I just think this is an incredible community.”

The feedback that builds book people

After you’ve taken Loft classes, published your novel(s) and done a few books signings, you might very well find yourself back at the Loft as a teacher.

That’s how Patricia Weaver Francisco, author of Telling: A Memoir of Rape and Recovery and a creative writing professor in the MFA program at Hamline University, found her career. “The Loft is responsible for every phase of my development as a writer, including teaching,” she said. “I never wanted to teach. Now I love it and it’s a huge part of my life.”

Weaver Francisco took the first fiction class ever offered at the Loft, taught by Judith Guest. That class turned into a writers’ group, which lasted 10 years, and out of that writers’ group came Weaver Francisco’s first book, Cold Feet. She taught for years at the Loft and has been on the board several times. Now she sees some of her students using the Loft to launch themselves. “Suddenly there’s an opportunity to teach yourself how to teach,” she said. “Lots of writing students from Hamline get their first teaching experience at the Loft.”

Teaching at the Loft is different than teaching elsewhere, said Weaver Francisco. “The Loft is incredibly reasonably priced: there’s a sliding scale and scholarships and every Loft teacher is given the opportunity to donate spaces in their classes, and most do. There’s a real sense of ‘Please come here,’” she said.

Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, a Loft Teaching Fellow and author of Swinging on the Garden Gate: A Spiritual Memoir, concurs. “Most writing instruction is limited to academia. And the whole idea that you need an MFA to write is hooey. All you need is to read a lot and write a lot. The Loft has got a seat more on the ground with the ordinary people.”

How to create a literary future

In the beginning, there was…not much. “There was this feeling of ‘Well, here we are out on the prairie—a long way from the centers of publishing,’” recalled Weaver Francisco. “If I share who I know and what I know, then together we can start to have what we want, which is our voice. And then connect to a national audience.”

The fact that Minnesota now has a literary voice is largely due to the Loft, she said. “The Loft gets an enormous amount of credit for that. The Loft got that engine going and kept it going.”

Myers agrees. “Culture happens locally. The Loft is what it is because of people like Patricia Hampl and Jim Moore and Carol Bly and Robert Bly and Phebe Hanson and Garrison Keillor and the writers who were here in the early ’70s [who] didn’t want to have to move to New York to practice their art.”

The Loft may have deep local roots, but its seeds have been scattered from coast to coast. Several literary centers have been modeled after the Loft, and the Loft has been a mentor to some of them, including the Guild Complex in Chicago and Richard Hugo House in Seattle.

When Myers talks about the Loft’s future, she envisions both a deepening and widening of its spheres of influence. In the immediate future, there’s the Big Read, a citywide book-reading of Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Also this year, the Loft is experimenting with suburban classes in Woodbury, Shoreview, Eagan, Oakdale and Edina, and at the same time, reaching audiences with Equilibrium, its spoken word program, and through programs for children, teens and teen moms.

“We’re taking a long view of what it means to foster a writing community,” said Myers. “If we don’t have people reading, there won’t be people writing and there won’t be any more literature. We are looking at the increasing needs in our community—the schools [must] serve very diverse populations, the cutbacks in the schools, the challenges of the 21st century as related to literacy—we are thinking very carefully of what kind of contribution can we make.”
Carol Bly

Robert Bly

Michael Dennis Browne

Patricia Weaver Francisco

Judith Guest

Patricia Hampl

Garrison Keillor

Jonathan Odell