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NPF Poetry of the 1970s Conference, Friday, June 13, 2008, 2:30p.m.
Rebecca Weaver, University of Minnesota

    Begun above Rusoff's Books in the Dinkytown neighborhood in 1974, The Loft was a community of poets who gathered at the bookstore.  Encouraged by Marly Rusoff, poets including Jim Moore and John Minczeski started writing workshops as a way to strengthen and support a community of writers increasingly congregating there.  As attendance grew at these workshops and at related readings, and as rent became due on the space, Rusoff began to sell memberships and the Loft board, including Moore, Minczeski, David Wojahn, and Patricia Hampl, became an organized entity.  
    As The Loft grew, it attracted readers from across the country and from across a wide range of aesthetics.  Within two years of its founding, The Loft had gained non-profit status and money from granting institutions such as the NEA for its programs.  Its famous "Mentor Series" began in 1980, and The Loft, after four moves, is now in its own building, with a wide variety of classes and programming, including a Master's Certificate track, and a multi-million dollar budget.  Its programs and format have served as an institutional model for arts and literary organizations around the country, such as The Poet's House in New York City.
    But in the late seventies, the Loft's future as a regional literary center and non-profit arts model was not this clear.  In fact, there were real questions about whether the organization, originally a small group of young poets and literary activists reading poetry to each other on old couches in an upper room of Minneapolis' Dinkytown neighborhood, would survive at all.  In late 1977 / early 1978, facing a severe financial crisis, the Loft board made a decision which would set the direction for the future of The Loft.  This funding decision was contentious and laborious, as shown in the archives from that time, revealing a number of fiercely competing tensions over the mission and goals of The Loft, and creating a rather loud dissonance between previously mostly harmonious members.  Combining archival research and textual analysis with methods of inquiry from sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu and Howard Becker, I argue that this funding dissonance demonstrates the conflicting demands placed on poetic communities in the 1970s.  Often born out of the same social-justice impulses as anti-war and civil rights activism, these groups were forced to master different sets of rhetorical and organizational skills with which to navigate new landscapes of arts programming and funding.  In addition to sustaining daily costs, communities like The Loft faced the challenge of consistently defining and adjusting their missions to founders, members, and audiences, sustain and manage growth, and apply for money from sources without purely artistic motives in order to survive.  This paper is part of a larger chapter in my dissertation, where I theorize moments of crisis in literary communities during the 1970s.  
    As The Loft's activities grew, such as the writing workshops, story hours for children, and readings, so did its need for space and money.  The money used to rent the room above Rusoff's Books was running out.  The board began to sell memberships and take donations at readings, and soon The Loft moved to a larger space across the street, taking over half of a duplex.  Even after receiving national and state arts grants and holding benefit readings, including one by Allen Ginsberg in April of 1977, funding was continually a problem.  
    Most important on the funding list was a salary for a coordinator for the daily work, such as scheduling, mailing, and reading coordination for The Loft.  During a September 6, 1977 meeting, the board unanimously decided to pursue private money for coordinator's position, and private granting organizations such as the Jerome and Dayton-Hudson foundations, based in the Twin Cities, were mentioned as possible sources for money.  Members of the board expressed several reservations about this approach, including "being stuck" with having to go back to the foundations and ask for money every year,, and the possibility of being "psychologically pressured" into pleasing the foundation.  Eventually, however, the members decided to apply: "but due to our present bank balance $50, we have to seek out new funding sources (1-2)."  Just in case, they decided to pursue multiple sources.
    Members of the board wrote an application to the Dayton-Hudson Foundation in October of 1977, and received a check soon after for $1500.  The board, though it had unanimously agreed to originally pursue the money, rejected the grant in December.  Many on the board were suspicious of the foundation's ties to big business (one of the founding members called them "corporate monsters"), such as B. Dalton's, a national bookstore chain opening around the corner from Rusoff's Books.  Rusoff (who one member described as "hitting the roof" when she heard about the check) objected to taking the grant, as it might impose conditions ultimately undermining her store and other locally-owned businesses.  In early 1978, the issue became contentious;  Sue Ann Martinson, the coordinator at the time (who saved on rent by living in a spare room of The Loft and using its phone) accused the board of being "political" and demonstrating a lack of concern for her position by rejecting the Dayton-Hudson money.  At a special meeting on the issue, the poets considered questions about how the funding might affect The Loft's size and mission (without capitulating to possible demands of the foundation's "good old boys" and "phonies"), and whether the Loft would survive without the grant.
    In describing her opposition to the "political" nature of The Loft conversation, Martinson wrote on Jan. 2, 1978:  to the Loft Board:  " . . . I am opposed to the idea of The Loft as a political organization (as a non-profit organization, under the category of education, it cannot be political without being illegal).  The Loft is "A Place for Literature and the Arts," not a political structure or platform, and should be organized around that tenet, or it is misrepresenting itself" (2).  Her statement illustrates a fundamental division in her mind between the advocacy of leftist literary politics and business practice.  As an example of how complicated and conflicting this issue was, Martinson's own personal politics, shared with many of her fellow Loft compatriots, were and are very left-wing (after leaving the Loft in the early eighties, she's worked for a number of anti-war organizations, currently working at Minneapolis' branch of the Non-Violent Peace Force), yet her previous jobs and experiences with arts funding directed her responses to The Loft's funding crisis.  Meeting minutes from early January 1978 show similar conflicts within other members, and the money question as a harbinger of other questions, such as whether to get bigger and "give up" things, or to keep The Loft "intimate and hospitable"?  One member asked: "is the only choice between these two?  Whether or not we want to be a small supportive group or get larger and educate the community about poetry and lit?  How can The Loft remain a place of informal gathering?"  Unable to resolve the crisis in one meeting, they decide everyone should write a letter to the board in preparation for a special meeting.
    The crucial question they direct letters to is ultimately one of identity: does The Loft maintain its "exquisite intimacy" or become a larger, professional outreach organization?  John Minczeski, a founding member, wrote in his January 9 letter to the board that the Dayton-Hudson funds were "bad conscience money," and resisted soliciting money from other Dinkytown businesses (a condition of the grant), because "any list of sponsors (provided by the foundation) would have to include Team and B. (ugh) Dalton (to show the public that these businesses are gold old boys after all) (1).  Reflecting on the crisis, John tells the story: "Marly heard we got the grant and went through the roof. I was president of the board at this time and felt that there was no way we should support them, because they were going to drive her store out of business.  Back then, it was wonderful—we had our hangout after all, which was Marly's dream!  So all these different kind of centers (meaning poetry networks)—everybody knew everybody else, and Marly kind of did it out of (the fact that) she thought it'd be cool!" (1).
    Fellow member Jim Dochniak's letter to the Loft Board, on Jan 16, 1978 reflected the expansion tensions as well. 
The money brings out the difficult issues of expansion, etc.  Will the grant work against the already fuzzy image we have in the writing community and the larger community?  Will the grant cause a certain alienation? Does it mean supporting B. Dalton at the expense of Marly?  Would taking the grant help us to get closer to the "people"?  Like a fuzzy poem I feel we are unclear about who our audience is . . . and it is political whether we like it or not (1).  
    In a recent interview, Dochniak said that  "during the time that I was on the board, the most important meeting we had was whether or not accept the DH grant.   That thing brought us to an incredible moment of moral and artistic—scrutiny, angst—all of it . . .  I don't believe Marly was for it—she knew what would happen.  I voted to take the money now—we don't have to take it the next time. Well, it's like the drug dealer on the corner—where the first one's free, and it's been that ever since.  And I've seen it, where you get these grants, and I'm fine with all of that, but with The Loft years ago, the foundation people said 'well lookit, you know, why don't you move the Loft into a community with a better demographic, where there's more income, these people in Wayzata maybe don't want to drive to Minneapolis, they're scared to.'  These grantors can really effect the direction of a grantee . . . they can make suggestions, and they will . . ." (1).
    Ultimately, The Loft Board voted 6-4 on January 16, 1978, to take the money.  While it is easy to see this as a decisive moment for the organization, the reality is that arts communities and organizations (as Howard Becker describes in Art Worlds) have pasts and futures constructed from many such moments.  I choose this moment to highlight because what begins as a conflict about economic capital very quickly becomes a conflict over cultural capital, overshadowing the money question.  Taking an idea from Pierre Bourdieu ("The space of literary or artistic position-takings, i.e. the structured set of the manifestations of the social agents involved in the field—literary or artistic works, of course, but also political acts or pronouncements, manifestoes or polemics, etc.—is inseparable from the space of literary artistic positions defined by possession of a determinate quantity of specific capital (recognition) and, at the same time, by occupation of a determinate position in the structure of the distribution of this specific capital" (30).  Thus, the "site of struggle" shifts to symbolic ground in a move of reverse economics.
    The money at The Loft becomes a struggle over its position in the field of Twin Cities literary production and the larger field of arts funding in the 1970s.  To grow or not to grow, which for some was equivalent to dying, was not the only question;  how, and for whom, do we grow?  The "exquisite" intimate space is now a site of contest over that space's place in the literary world.  Combined with Howard Becker's idea of cooperation, the field position conflict is the conflict about the nature and stakes of that cooperation—the length and strength of poetic networks and links.  Tricky questions refuse easy answers for The Loft board: will taking the grant money include DH in the art network of which the Loft was a part, and thus, as Becker postulates, constrain the actual art?  How will the DH grant influence the Loft's (in Dick Hebdige's formulation) subcultural resistance to and critique of mainstream culture?
    Sue Ann Martinson characterized the resistance as partly generational: "a lot of it was coming out the seventies where the corporations were not trusted—some of that mentality, don't trust anybody over 30—being anti-war and establishment." She understood, though ultimately disagreed with the resistance to the types of sacrifices anticipated in the decision to take the Loft money.  Thirty years later, her reflection on the crisis, illuminates the anxieties, promises, frustrations, and consequences of arts funding in the 70s.  "Once you get 501c3 status, then they start putting certain stipulations on you and expecting you to behave in certain manners, and you're expected to have boards, and it's a non-profit, but the non-profit is a corporate model . . . but I still think that they wouldn't survived without it.  You can only have volunteer staff for so long (1)."

Works Cited

Becker, Howard.  Art Worlds.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1982.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production:  Essays on Art and Literature.  European     Perspectives:  A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism.  Ed. Randal Johnson.      New York:  Columbia U. Press, 1993.

Dochniak, James.  Interview with author, Feb. 22, 2008.

------------.  "Letter to the Loft Board," January 9, 1978.  Minnesota State Historical Society,         Saint Paul, MN.

Hebdige, Dick.  Subculture:  The Meaning of Style.  London:  Routledge, 1979.

Martinson, Sue Ann.  Interview with Author.  April, 2008.

-------------.  "Letter to the Loft Board," January 2, 1978. Minnesota State Historical Society,     Saint Paul, MN.

-------------.  "Loft Board Meeting Minutes," January 16, 1978.  Minnesota State Historical     Society, Saint Paul, MN.

Minczeski, John.  "Letter to the Loft Board," January 13, 1978.  Minnesota State Historical     Archives, Saint Paul, MN.