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The Writing Life: An Interview with Jocey Hale

2013 April 24

Jocey Hale

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to interview Jocey Hale, the Executive Director of The Loft Literary Center. I have long had an admiration of the Loft, and in recent years, this admiration has grown into a fierce love of this Twin Cities literary organization.

The Loft is a non-profit that truly fulfills its mission, every single day. Founded in 1974, the Loft has made its mission as one of the leading literary arts center in the U.S., to “advance the artistic development of writers, foster a thriving literary community, and inspire a passion for literature.” Hale has been Executive Director since 2007, and during her time there, has brought the Loft even further to the forefront of the national literary scene. (For those of you not in Minnesota, fret not! A few of Hale’s other favorite literary centers in the U.S. include Grub Street in Boston, Lighthouse in Denver, Hugo House in Seattle, and CityLit Project in Baltimore.)

Hale’s diverse background includes journalism, the dot com world with an emphasis in online education, and the arts. She received her masters in arts management from the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. Even before the position at the Loft came about, Jocey was a regular face in the organization: “I just fell in love with the Loft and kept hanging out here and spending a lot more time than I should; I was spending so much time on this volunteer activity,” says Hale. While finishing up her masters at the Humphrey, Hale’s college roommate took her aside and encouraged her to apply for the position. “It’s definitely been a dream job. I love the Loft,” says Hale.

Taking over the helm of the largest literary nonprofit in the U.S. was a big task, but one made less daunting thanks to the great work the organization had already done. Hale stresses that she was extremely lucky coming into the Loft, as the organization already “had a really strong reputation, and was an organization that had been beautifully run for 15 years, with no deficit and had a strong national reputation.”

However, one of Hale’s first projects was figuring out how to incorporate the ever-changing and growing world of technology into the curriculum and mission of the Loft: “In 2007, the whole economy changed, the way people were funding changed, and the way technology was impacting reading and writing was changing. So I had to take that on immediately, both the economic situation, and then how the Loft was going to embrace technology to serve the writers in our community.” The Loft moved to offering classes online, in addition to their in-person curriculum, and has since worked in other ways to achieve this goal.

The Loft’s welcoming arms reach well into the local community. Collaboration is a key part of the Loft’s success and relevance to the current climate of the Twin Cities literary community. Hale observes that the local community can get divided by niche groups and even race lines, so the Loft works to collaborate in ways that cross these lines, through their events and accessible low income pricing. The classes are, in Hale’s words, “really writer-centric,” which, as a previous Loft class participant myself, I’m happy to confirm. Not only does the Loft offer classes and events, but it is also the administrative home of the McKnight Fellowships for writers, as well as a mentorship series for emerging writers, and more, through which it pays writers over $400,000 collectively. As Hale underlines, “What really makes the Loft an important organization is our continuum of opportunities.” This is an organization with writers from the very beginning, all the way through to publication and beyond.

The Loft wields valuable influence as an institution that fosters a vibrant local literary ecology. This ecology in turn encourages not only writers, but small start-ups to succeed (such as Paper Darts, and Revolver, to name just a few). Indeed, Hazel & Wren even owes much of its success to the welcoming arms and enthusiasm of the local community. Hale continually stresses how fantastic the Twin Cities literary community is, with such a great number of up-and-coming fresh new voices of literary magazines and organizations. This period of intense creative growth in Minnesota excites one of Hale’s interests: the life-cycle of nonprofits.

“You’re all in that start-up phase which usually comes from visionaries who are really excited, and they’re going to give their time, and usually they’re not being paid during that phase. You’re working your heart out,” says Hale. “From an organizational theory, it’s really interesting to watch this, because I have a theory that a place like the Loft, an institution, in general is not going to be able to compete with the intense creativity that’s coming out of the new journals.”

She goes on to assert that start-up organizations aren’t held accountable to a paycheck, and are therefore able to be as creative as possible. “That is so important for the community to be able to have this,” she adds. These start-ups with boundless creativity are reflective of the local literary community. As Hale says, “To me, it’s a sign of a community that has an institution like the Loft, because the ecosystem is working. It’s not that the Loft can take any credit for […] all [of the] creativity that is happening around [it], but it does create a community where all you creative people are just drawn to it.” She highlights the “exciting core” of Twin Cities institutions that make this an encouraging place to live and start something new, thanks to the Loft, Graywolf Press, Coffee House Press, Milkweed Editions, and Rain Taxi. “Everyone’s just excited about that energy,” she adds, smiling.

Still, there comes a time in the life cycle of most nonprofits where, in order to survive long-term, grants, advertising, and/or paychecks must become a part of the equation; and with them, more obligations. “When money starts to get involved, you reach this tension where you might become a little bit more conservative, because suddenly, you’re answering to other people,” says Hale.

Since my conversation with Hale, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this life-cycle of nonprofits. As a start-up ourselves, we at Hazel & Wren are daily turning this over in our heads. How will our life-cycle change over the years? What will growth mean for our literary community? Will we survive as a purely unpaid, volunteer-run organization? I’m not sure what five years down the road will look like for Hazel & Wren, other than I’m sure we’ll still be here in some form. But how? It’s a huge question for start-ups, but one that is exciting to ponder.

What are the literary institutions that make up your literary climate? Do you think these institutions are necessary for a welcoming climate for small, unpaid start-ups?


An Interview with Dessa

2011 October 19

Photo Credit: Kelly Loverud

Wren and Timothy share a love of local hip hop collective, Doomtree, a group of talented and versatile artists whose interests extend beyond music. One of their members, Dessa, in addition to being a singer and emcee, is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist. Her first collection, Spiral Bound, was released on Doomtree Press, a publishing wing set up solely to publish her work. Dessa’s album Castor, the Twin was released at the beginning of this month, and included, for the first 1,500 preorders, a new piece of fiction titled “Sleeping With Nikki.” Wren and Timothy caught up with Dessa recently to talk about her process, and experiences in the local literary scene.

Wren & Timothy: How long have you been writing? Was there certain point when you started to separate your musical writing and your literary writing?

Dessa: I’ve been interested in language since before the tape was really rolling in my memory. My mom says that I sat across from her and asked, “Can we do the thing where you talk, then I talk, then you talk again?”

“You mean a conversation?”

“Yes, please. A conversation.”

I loved talking; I loved the themed conversations at the adults’ table; and I loved innovative turns of language. Still do. I remember writing silly poems in 4th grade, unsuccessful fiction in 6th, and really lousy juvenilia in high school. It wasn’t until college that I was introduced to creative non-fiction in general, and the literary essay in particular—my favorite form hands-down.

W&T: What is your writing process? Is it different than your more collaborative relationship with your fellow Doomtree artists? How so?

D: I write slowly, with great effort, and lots of cursing. The feeling I get from crafting a perfect metaphor, or planting a clever seed of subtext is a very powerful feeling. There’s the thrill of personal accomplishment and there’s also a brand of awe—the recognition of a connection that had been previously hidden. But it’s not easy and it’s not really fun, at least for me. I can’t speak for the other members of Doomtree, but my impression is that Sims and P.O.S seem to have an easier time of it than I do. Cecil is a slow, deliberate writer. I know less about how Mike works than I do the others—though I think spontaneity plays a much larger role in his process than in mine.

W&T: Do you have separate writing styles and/or approaches for both your musical writing, and your literary writing? 

D: When I write songs, I listen to the music again and again and again. I listen for a feeling, for melodies, and for phrasing. I write little 2- and 4-bar sections that I’ll sew into a full lyric.

When I write prose (which I do far less frequently than I wish I did), I write on the computer and I do my best to restrain my impulse to write and edit simultaneously—I try to come up with a substantive draft before going back in with a scalpel and a plan.

W&T: How do you approach writing while on the road?

D: On the road, I’ll sometimes catch a phrase or a snippet of an idea. But not too much really gets done until I’ve had the chance to sit down and stitch these scraps together into a cohesive whole.

W&T: Do you find much crossover between the music world and the literary world here in Minneapolis?

D: I think we’ve got some very literary songwriters in this market, among them Jeremy Messersmith, Peter Mayer, and Astronautalis. We’ve also got a lot of talented writers who regularly appear in our music scene, among them John Jodzio, Maggie Ryan Sandford, and Shane Hawley. It’s tough to create an event that showcases both music and writing, but when it works, it’s pretty kick-ass.

W&T: How did you come to the decision to self-publish rather than pursue more traditional modes of publication?

D: Well, I didn’t really have too many deals to turn down. I met with one, very small publisher and was rather unimpressed by the business model he presented. It seemed as though distributors and retailers were taking considerable margins and very little risk. I’m a big advocate of shared stakes in business relationships: where all the parties in an agreement win or lose together, so there’s a shared incentive for success.  I didn’t see that in my little peek into the publishing world. But to be honest, I wasn’t looking too hard. Doomtree already had a modest infrastructure for selling art straight to consumers: we sell CDs at our live shows, through independent retailers, and on our website, where we can reach customers around the world. I figured why not just get an ISBN and see if rap fans will buy a book. So I published Spiral Bound through Doomtree, we invented a little publishing wing called Doomtree Press. I was a little surprised, to be honest, at how readily our listeners were to buy a literary item.

W&T: As a piece of fiction, “Sleeping With Nikki,” is a departure from the non-fiction and poetry in Spiral Bound. Does this mark a shift in what and how you’re writing, or can we expect to see more of all three genres in the future?

D: I think I’m strongest when I’m working in creative non-fiction. But there have been a few story ideas that compelled me to sit down and come up with a bit of fiction. “Sleeping With Nikki” is a story about debt and human agency, sleep and submarines. Because it might not fit easily into a future collection of essays, it seemed like a great candidate for a stand-alone piece. I had it bound at a printing house in Minnesota and ended up with 1,500 tiny, saddle-stitched books. The spine is just over 4 inches high. I gave those copies away to people who preordered my new record, Castor, The Twin.

W&T: You’ve taught classes for young adults at the Loft Literary Center. What got you interested in this? How was the experience?

D: The Loft approached me to ask if I’d conduct a workshop at the literary center. I’ve worked with youth before, and I’ve had mixed experiences. I love writing and I enjoy teaching willing, engaged students. But I don’t use writing for therapy in my own life, so I’m probably not the best instructor to advocate such an approach—many youth writing programs are more interested on providing an outlet for feelings than they are in developing skills. But The Loft worked with me to create a free program that could really help teen writers hone their talents. I liked the students, I think they liked me, and together I think we made some real literary headway.

W&T: As far as your non-music writing goes, is there anything new in the works? Will you be teaching writing again? What’s next?

D: As slowly as a person can write—and still claim to be writing—I am assembling a new collection of prose. It’s tentatively titled The Perfect Burn.

In the meantime, Doomtree is releasing an all-crew record called No Kings on November 22nd  of this year. It features all seven members and it’s a big, bold, weird project. The ideas are radical, the beats are aggressive and full of unusual sounds. If you’d like to check it out, we’ll have a song available soon at [ed. The song in question, “The Grand Experiment,” is out now.]

What We’re Reading: Views from the Loft

2011 July 7
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Views from the Loft: A Portable Writer’s Workshop is a book that every writer should own. Published by Milkweed Editions, and edited by their publisher, Daniel Slager, it’s an anthology on the craft of writing featuring writers, teachers, and editors who have ties to The Loft Literary Center. It crams all the knowledge gleaned from workshops and classrooms into one slick volume. The book has the necessary umph behind it from these two powerhouse literary organizations to be able to bring in great writers and loads of insightful material. Slager’s introduction is a loving tribute to the Open Book building which Milkweed Editions, The Loft Literary Center, and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA) call home. I also love this building, having spent much time there as a past intern at Milkweed, a longtime fan of MCBA, and a frequenter of the café. Slager walks the reader through the building and the different organizations on each floor, which, paired with architectural and design elements, create the feeling of walking through the process of book creation. The Gail See staircase takes its design inspiration from the pages of a book, the MCBA gives the history of book and print making, the Loft fosters writers of all types, and Milkweed edits and publishes great contemporary titles.

The essays are chock full of conventional writerly wisdom, and some unconventional gems, too. It also includes interviews with writers, such as Deborah Kennan, Ted Kooser, Michael Cunningham, and more. The writers sometimes contradict each other, and other times echo each other’s sentiments, thus creating a diverse dialogue with each other throughout the book. Somewhere in all of that,  you can find your own truth as a writer.

One of my favorite essays: “Tesoros” by Sandra Benítez.

Writerly advice:

“Your best ideas come while you are actually writing” —Larry Sutin in the essay “Working from Experience.”

“An essay that speaks with great clarity is one thing. An essay that speaks with great certainty is another. The former I trust.”  —Jim Moore in “Twenty-five in an Infinite Series of Numbers.”

What sources of advice, inspiration, and guidance do you turn to as a writer? Have you had any experiences at the Loft Literary Center, or a similar classroom/workshop environment that was especially productive?