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The City and the Writer: In Minneapolis–Saint Paul with Leslie Adrienne Miller

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of St. Paul as you feel/see it?

In Space and Place: The Perspective of Human Experience, Yi-Fu Tuan writes,

“Place is whatever stable object catches our attention. As we look at a panoramic scene our eyes pause at points of interest. Each pause is time enough to create an image of place that looms large momentarily in our view. The pause may be of such short duration and the interest so fleeting that we may not be fully aware of having focused on any particular object; we believe we have simply been looking at the general scene. Nonetheless these pauses have occurred.”

So what happens when one looks at the same place over and over again for nearly a quarter of a century, as I have done with the city of St. Paul? I came in 1991 from Texas. I didn’t even own a winter coat, let alone the Sorel Boots or Thinsulate gloves I would soon have to acquire. My view is a mosaic of multiple pauses, overlapping and perhaps informing and underlying each other, each one girded by the conditions under which I opened my eyes.

Some twenty years ago, I was still a young woman. I did not know anything more about these northern cities than a loon knows about the way magnolia blossoms unpeel and sink their branches. I did not know how to walk alone in the near dark at that moment when the lamps are lit but the shades are not yet drawn, did not know that I could part the thick late summer air with my body for hours before the emptiness began to go blue; trees fountained leaves over the lockets of light, and the interiors beckoned. I had gone nowhere alone for years, and suddenly there were sidewalks wide as streets, the rims of lakes I could take with my two feet. In those first days I had exactly one friend, a woman, who took me to a bar with tall windows. Our elbows touched the elbows of strangers, and the bread was salty and better than you’d guess. Menace did not show up right away, and when he did, we admired his goatee. The river met us by turns, and there were days when she or I had to cross it twice to meet. The lakes too required wending, one-ways, and gleaming at a distance. So much goose shit to sidestep. I learned to paddle with the obliques, share giant portions of meat. Winter was instant, and the tall windows went white with the breath of all that talk. There was a boy we both liked who took flight. By October, cars were snowy loaves, sound escaped entirely, and the telephone mouthpiece grimed under constant breath. The weather itself built a city of boulders shoved into pockets and rims, and the way they sharpened in hard sunlight as they clutched their runnels of carbon was not inelegant or less than the way snarls of moss dripped from the oaks in the place from which I’d come. Fear’s hot clutch seemed to have given up all at once in that first expanse of glowing foursquares tucked in excessive green, but that’s not to say it didn’t go on in ruinous increments. Walk out some January night and look up: the two circlets of city packed into their bends of shore huff glacial pillars at one of the most meticulous moons you’ll ever see.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The day Paul and Sheila Wellstone’s small plane went down over Eveleth, Minnesota—October 25, 2002, eleven days before the Senate election—was one of the darkest I can remember of my years here. Many of us felt the shadow of that plane going down as an ominous end to the safety and hope of a political vision honestly focused on peace and equality for all. A political science professor from Carleton College, Wellstone was a beloved Grassroots Democratic Farm Labor senator in Minnesota from 1991 until his death in 2002. Many hoped he might one day be persuaded to run for president. His tireless work on behalf of anti-war efforts, labor, health care, the environment, victims of domestic abuse, and civil liberties of all kinds made Minnesota feel, for a while, like one of the fairest places on earth to live and work. After his death, green signs sprang up in yards all over the cities, saying, “What Would Wellstone Do?” The understood answer, of course, was: such honesty in politics would never again be embodied quite so perfectly in a living politician, so we’d have to channel him from our memories henceforth. If you look carefully at older cars (we call them “beaters”) while you are here in the cities, you might see one of those iconic Wellstone stickers still clinging to its bumper.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

In Perilous States: Conversations on Culture, Politics and Nation, George Marcus asks, “How to render a description of cultural process that occurs in transcultural space, in different locales all at once, in parallel, separate but simultaneous worlds?” and he decides that ethnographic description may only be possible by adopting a montage technique as opposed to a narrative or linear realist method.

If you’ve come from afar, you might miss the fact that there are two cities here. St. Paul is the secret sister, more lovely, but so quiet you might fail to see her. So much of her original Prairie architecture and riverfront remain, where in Minneapolis much of it has been torn down. But St. Paul’s downtown—aside from the Rice Park, area home to the Ordway Theater, Landmark Center, and the St. Paul Hotel—is a little ghostly, especially at night. It’s not a thriving metropolis like downtown Minneapolis, but the up side of that is that empty warehouses have been reclaimed by artists and artist cooperatives, cheap real estate with river views. Envisioned by Archbishop John Ireland as a Catholic city, much of St. Paul is laid out on a grid between the cathedral on the bluff above the river downtown and the University of St. Thomas to the west. The university sits at the other angle in the river, and in the loop between cathedral and university are neighborhoods once organized into a tight system of parishes tied to smaller churches and church schools. The writer Patricia Hampl has written most lavishly about this history in her book The Florist’s Daughter, and more recently John Reimringer, in his novel Vestments.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

You will already know, perhaps, that this is the land of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and of living legends Robert Bly and Louise Erdrich. You may also know that James Wright and John Berryman spent important years here. Berryman, in fact, died here in a jump from the Washington Avenue Bridge and is buried in Mendota Heights with a simple (and very hard to find) brass plate marking his place. But let me recommend a book that is rich in women poets of the region: an anthology of poems, To Sing Along The Way Minnesota; Women Poets from Pre-Territorial Days to the Present, edited by Connie Wanek, Joyce Sutphen, and Thom Tammaro. Joyce Sutphen, our poet laureate, is also someone you should read.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I lived seven years on the hill just under the Cathedral of St. Paul. What a thrill to find affordable rooms with a view of it, the monolithic concrete dome with its portholes and copper cap, whitened at night by spotlights into a massive cake fit for the wedding of the planets. I could wake to its bells and birds, turn on the walk to find its hulking shadow covering me like a dirigible passing over the city. But it is a spare, Midwestern affair, blocky and plain up close, missing its braids of saints and angels, gargoyles and spires. Surrounded by blocks and parking lots too empty to walk, my place caught all the wind and the lament of a woman downstairs who drank herself vicious, a troll we’d have to pass to get in or out. But I had a vista, the city and river to the east, and the crenelated line of downtown against dawn registering its seasons in me.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

In the House of Hope Presbyterian Church on Summit Avenue there’s a literary delight poets won’t want to miss: in the church’s chancel are four stained glass windows designed by Rowan LeCompte. They celebrate the four seasons with playful pairings of poets and composers: the spring window features Mozart with his violin, e. e. cummings’s balloon man, and a woodsy Whitman catching a butterfly; in the summer window, Beethoven reaches up through the clouds, Bach plays at a keyboard with his head in the stars and Emily Dickinson in her famous white dress tries to sneak out of the right side of the frame. The fall window shows John Keats and Wilfred Owen, both early deaths, and beside them Ralph Vaughan Williams and Johannes Brahms share a beer! In the winter window Franz Schubert, Maurice Ravel, and Thomas Tallis appear with W. H. Auden, who lifts a candle against the darkness. Some Sunday mornings I like to sit east of the chancel where I can catch Whitman cavorting with the balloon man, but other Sundays I prefer to sit to the west, where I can dash out of the frame with Emily and her flaming red hair.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Hidden cities are many here: one I know well is the hidden city of single mothers with young children. This city, like so many others inhabited by women, defines its spaces by their relative safety. It pops up anywhere there is a play structure, adequate parking, and access to a restroom. A view of water is a plus, but it must be at enough of a distance that one could overtake the child at a run before he reaches the edge. We always carry bug spray and sunscreen, cheese sticks, juice boxes, at least three different kinds of balls, Band-Aids, tissues, blanket, and towels. If there are dogs off-leash, rowdy teens, uncut grass, too many men, used condoms, or the smell of insecticide, we go on to the next one.

The Twin Cities metro area is one of the greenest in the country: fifty-three parks and park reserves, and more than 340 miles of interconnected trails. In some of these parks, it’s possible to be inside the metro yet feel you are miles outside the city limits. Hidden Falls Park and Fort Snelling State Park, both along the Mississippi River in St. Paul, are within ten minutes of my house. I have walked off many a grief in the cathedrals of their trees.

Another hidden city is perhaps L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion elementary school. When my son attended there, it was tucked into a traditionally Hispanic neighborhood on the east side of St. Paul. Headed by a visionary Caribbean principal, the school drew families and teachers from diverse nations—Belgium, Canada, Haiti, Martinique, Francophone Africa, and the local Hispanic neighborhood. Walking into its hallways from a gray winter landscape always afforded a bright wash of color: the flags of Francophone nations lining the hallways, staff, teachers, and parents in the traditional garb of their nations: printed cotton wrappers and head ties on the women in yellows, oranges, greens and browns that made them seem taller and more powerful than the rest of us tromping along in our drab puff coats.


Where does passion live here?

Passion, I’m afraid, does not live here in the usual sense. “Minnesota Nice” has a way of deflecting most things passionate, muting emotion, keeping civility on the face of things. Once I chafed at this temperament and missed my former community of hotheaded southerners, but Minnesota Nice has its advantages: even those who dislike you will put on the mask of kindness and assist in dire circumstances. But more importantly, this devotion to civility does bear out in strong communities, inclusivity, and efficiency. Reason and kindness might not be the most valuable resources for making art, but they sure make good neighbors.


What is the title of one of your works about St. Paul and what inspired it exactly?

They say it takes ten years for a transplant to feel at home in Minnesota. It took me a little longer, and I’d say that it required giving birth to a child here for me to fully lay claim to Minnesota as home. My most recent collection of poems, Y, attends to the process of watching a male child develop in the context of this city and culture. Attending to how gender, genetics, and culture evolve in one’s offspring is, indeed, a most enduring way to relocate the self and its place in an adopted city.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside St. Paul does an outside exist?”

Neither Minneapolis nor St. Paul can, in my mind, really be considered entirely urban places. The metro area, dotted by some 900 lakes, extends in every direction with more lakes and cabin culture. In summer, the local news stations even include “cabin casts” with reports on weather and fishing, and those who’ve lived here for multiple generations often repair to family cabins weekends and holidays, the freeways going north bumper to bumper with boats in summer, deer carcasses in fall, and snowmobiles in winter.


Leslie Adrienne Miller’s collections of poetry include Y (Graywolf Press, 2012), The Resurrection Trade (Graywolf, 2007), and Eat Quite Everything You See (Graywolf, 2002), as well as Yesterday Had a Man In It, Ungodliness, and Staying Up For Love from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Miller’s poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, Georgia Review, Ploughshares, and Crazyhorse. A professor of English at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, she holds degrees in creative writing and English from Stephens College, the University of Missouri, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the University of Houston. 

Published Feb 12, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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