Serving up both coffee and art in St. Paul

Photo courtesy Coffee House Press.

One of the coolest things about living in a community as artistically active as St. Paul is the chance to see art on just about every scope and scale. Sometimes it’s as expansive as a display of colors literally lighting up the night sky. Sometimes it’s as communal as a festive street parade that pulls in neighbors and strangers alike. And sometimes it’s as intimate as an everyday object that fits in the palm of your hand.

It’s hard not to appreciate the synchronicity of indie publishing house Coffee House Press employing coffee cup sleeves as a vehicle for literature. The Coffee Sleeve Conversations project plans to emblazon around 10,000 sleeves with passages of prose and poetry from local writers of color. The sleeves will be distributed to area coffee shops, including Workhorse Coffee Bar, Nina’s Coffee Cafe and others.

Coffee House Press Managing Director Caroline Casey said the group hopes using a utilitarian medium like coffee sleeves will get consumers reflecting on how art and literature impact their daily lives. “We believe fervently that art, in all forms, is a part of daily experience. Part of what we’ve done in our Books in Action programming, which this project is a part of, is to create new literary experiences for people that aren’t reading. It makes that everyday presence of art and literature visible, as well as the artists. Artmaking is a particularly human occupation. It deserves celebrating in small and big ways.”

The Coffee Sleeve Conversations will include works chosen from an online call for submissions as well as material solicited and curated by a noteworthy Twin Cities artist. “We’ve hired Tish Jones, a local poet and activist, to make the selections,” said Casey. “It’ll be interesting to see how her priorities, aesthetic and otherwise, influence the final selections. The work will have to be effective as a short snippet, but other than that it’s wide open. So I see Tish’s curatorial lens as another artist contribution on top of the 20 writers whose work will be featured on the sleeves.”

While the project aims to include work from both established and unknown writers, Casey said no one is setting a specific balance between the two. “We routinely publish debut books, so we know first-hand just how valuable new voices are. But I think there’s value in reminding people that some of the writers that they admire are people of color in St. Paul, that that community is so rich and diverse and out there working, writing, making art.”

A project spotlighting writers of color feels especially timely in light of the current cultural atmosphere. Black Lives Matter protesters, refugee advocacy groups and other activists have spent much of the past year striving to amplify the voices of people of color in the Twin Cities. While Casey said Coffee Sleeve Conversations was originally conceived well before those events moved into local headlines, Coffee House Press appreciates the chance to be part of the dialogue. “I think it’s critical for us as an institution to always be questioning how we participate in the system and what we’re contributing to our community. Coffee sleeves aren’t going to change the world, but we do believe that listening and attentiveness are a part of change, and we hope that these contribute in a small way by doing that.”

That thinking makes it all the more relevant that these conversations are being launched in traditional neighborhood hubs like independent coffee shops. “Our goal with this project was twofold,” said Casey. “To give people access to the work that’s being done by writers of color in St. Paul with a very low bar to entry—just by buying a coffee you are offered a literary experience. And secondly, to make that interaction a moment when the purchaser gets a glimpse of some of the art that’s being made all around them in St. Paul. That in the few square miles surrounding that coffee shop there are writers of color doing exceptional work. That they have been doing it all this time. And the sleeve is a moment for them to connect with that, and appreciate it, and, I hope, engage with the work of these artists in other ways going forward.”

Coffee House Press’s Coffee Sleeve Conversations will begin appearing in select St. Paul coffee shops in early 2016. Visit for updates and information.