I said in my previous post that it’s rare that cities have such a thing as a city-wide poetry community or city-wide literary community. I said that I think that we only tend to feel like part of a city-wide literary community in moments when all the poets have a major issue or concern or unifying point.
Today is one of those days. One of the reasons that the Twin Cities literary scene is so strong is because of Allan Kornblum, the founder of Coffee House press. He passed away this morning. Here is the official announcement, and a touching tribute from Chris Fischbach, on the Coffee House blog.
I met Allan for the first time around the year 2000 after a Rain Taxi reading. I hadn’t been in the Twin Cities long, but I’d been impressed by what I saw and felt from those already there. Allan was one of those impression-makers; we met over a bowl of chips and salsa in the kitchen of Josie Rawson’s house in an after party. He was friendly and jovial. He asked me how I liked the Cities so far, and I remember remarking that I found the literary scene friendly and not grossly competitive (unlike other places I’d been). He agreed that it was quite nice. I remember that moment fondly and often recounted that moment to friends when praising the Cities’ scene: you could have a friendly chat over a big bowl of chips with the editor of a major press and no one would suspect you of having some kind of creepy publishing motive.
While I knew that he was the publisher of Coffee House, I didn’t yet know much of the history he’d helped shape. As I dived into my studies of the poetry scene of the Twin Cities in the 1970s, I learned much from his essay “A Couch, Spaghetti, and a Salad: How Book Fairs Brought Coffee House Press to the Twin Cities, and the Literary Community We Found Here.” Here he describes his arrival to the Twin Cities’ publishing scene and his reasons for relocating there, and it’s a really important documentation of what the scene was like in those years. He credits the presses, publishers, and bookstore owners for creating a fertile and rich book environment and he gives readers a really good sense of the missionary role of the small-press publisher in the counterculture of that time. Some of those presses survived, and Coffee House was one of them, helping shape the Twin Cities literary community into the place that presses, writers, and magazines continued to move to in the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s. He was able to join his evangelical zeal for good books and independent publishing with a willingness to do the not-so-glamorous work of the book business. I’ll always be grateful to him for that, and I’ll always remember Allan as a friendly mentor figure at readings and festivals. Some of the books I treasure most — some of the books that I feel helped train me into poetry — are Coffee House books. In Allan’s honor, I’ll be spending some time with them tonight. I’ll read and remember with gratitude for his part in building a literary community.