Tag Archives: Saint Paul


15 December 2017

I recently finished editing the latest COMPAS Anthology of Student Writing—entitled This Bursting Sound Within. This is no less than the 38th (!) collection of the best student writing that COMPAS teaching artists discover each year across the state of Minnesota:

Subtle and evocative

Subtle and evocative visuals from COMPAS artist Shakun Maheshwari, here on the cover.


This past weekend was the official celebration of the book’s release, and St. Paul’s Landmark Center saw hundreds of people gather for the group reading. The setting was stunning, festivities joyous, and the young readers overwhelmingly brilliant. Folks who couldn’t be there will need to settle for this, my editor’s introduction to the book:


For decades now, COMPAS has been sending the writers in its Creative Classroom Program out into the schools and communities of Minnesota. What began as a handful of poets in the late Sixties, working mostly in Twin Cities urban schools, has expanded into a thriving statewide network of songwriters, storymakers, playwrights, comedians, graphic novelists, spoken word artists, and beyond. The forms may change, but at the center of it all remain WORDS, and the ability—nay, the necessity—to communicate.

Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why do people hate? fear? love? These are timeless questions—yet how often do we expect our children to voice them, let alone propose answers?

Out of all those classrooms, and all those clever exercises designed to move reluctant writers past barriers, COMPAS writers and artists selected the best for submission to this book. From that group, we have gone further, and selected the best of the best. The range of styles and topics is boggling. We get everything from the complexity and sophistication of Ekhlas Abdullahi and Nafiso Mohamed’s “Anchor,” to the pure joy of “Let’s Go Camping” by the energetic kindergartners of Mr. Crosby’s class. We get marvelous fantasy adventures (see virtually the entire section of “Diving into Adventure”), noble tirades against injustice (note especially the “Speaking Up/Speaking Out” section), and bold revelations and questions about the world.

Remember the last time you fled your homeland in fear and had to resettle in a new country where people spoke an unknown tongue? Me neither. But some of these students do, and the insights they provide are crucial. Just check “The Roots within Us” by Lay Lay and see if your perspective isn’t enlarged. Ivy Raya considers the impact of adoption in “Nameless”: “My name is who I am, but it has been changed throughout time. Does that mean that I have changed as well?” Hailey Dahl exposes feelings that many of us have in “Anxiety Poem”:

“It’s like a little creature

Sitting on your shoulder

Telling you you’re not worth anyone’s time

Or that everything you’re doing is wrong

You push people away before they get the chance to abandon you.”

Powerful stuff, that.

Interior illustrations by COMPAS artist Fiona Avocado exude boldness and playfulness.

Interior illustrations by COMPAS artist Fiona Avocado exude boldness and playfulness.


Equally powerful to me are those pieces that offer an almost prescient sense of time passing, never to be regained. My favorite in this vein is Eavan Bobbe’s poem “The Playground.” Replete with imagery and wistfulness, it serves as an epitaph to childhood.

Throughout these pieces, there is a sense that the young writers are often responding to an internal imperative to make their voices heard. It’s that entire concept of this is something that I can’t keep from saying that brought me the title of the book. Cristina Furness Rubio concludes her epic linguistic paeon to the Catalan language (“Tongue Waltz”) with the words:
“I am from this bursting sound within.”

That’s what fifth grader Henry Hilton had in mind, when he wrote:

“A whole page flowing out

Of my brain and onto the page.

A sea of thoughts expressed.

The weight of the world

On a piece of paper.”

Let the sea of thoughts heave and foam . . . rejoice that the bursting sound comes forth!

—Daniel Gabriel, Editor



Hiking the Mississippi River Road

11 December 2013

Saint Paul is first and foremost a river town. The Mississippi makes a great S curve through the western and southern stretches, isolating the West Side on its bluff and clutching the rest of the city in its sinuous curl. From our house, walking four miles in any of three directions (west, south or east) brings you to the river banks.

Yes, long stretches of those banks are shared with Minneapolis, but the enduring Twin Cities rivalry compels me to thumb my nose in that direction. Thus, for our purposes, the first evidence of civilization along the banks comes in the form of a sign: “SAINT PAUL/the Capital City/Desnoyer Park.” As we cross from Mill City to Capital City, another sign, embedded in a cut limestone wall, reads grandiloquently “Mississippi River Boulevard Parkway, Saint Paul, Minnesota.” To me, it’ll always be East River Road.

I looked back one final time at the bleak landscape behind me—the sterile towers, the fug of grain still clinging to the old mill sites, the sad diminished status of a city that was not the capital (yes, Minneapolis, I’m looking at you)—then turned and strode forward, keeping to the heights above the mighty river. Below was a hidden pathway along the river flats to Meeker Island, but this would end before the Marshall Avenue bridge. My destination lay far beyond.

Away from the river, an imposing string of stone houses—Georgian, Tudor, some Spanish touches—drowsed behind picture windows. Below on the right the river swooped beneath the line of trees that edge the bluff. Stretches of black iron fence outlined a decorative border and wooden benches set away from the path were aimed towards chosen views; home to amiable dalliances and half-dozing reminiscences. A memorial tablet here, a dip under the bridge there, and I was onto a long, rising stretch towards the Victorian mansions of Summit Avenue.

The hiker’s experience depends on weather and time of year. On fine weekends in summer, the path is thick with baby strollers, joggers, bikers and random sun-struck visitors being promenaded by hosts intent on correcting their flyover misconceptions. Pick a weekday at twilight, and the winding stones offer a day’s-end retreat for locals, grabbing an evening stroll before dinner. In December, the trees have been stripped bare, dark against the greying sky, and there’s a whip to the air. Far below the ice-chunked river still moves, but not for long. Only the occasional fresh air fiend or die-hard runner passes, bundled against the wind.

. . . Later, after circumventing the deep ravine west of Cretin Avenue, moving at cross purposes to the silent troops of University of St. Thomas students texting their way to class, I plunged on again, passing a beacon in the shape of a stone cross at the end of Summit Avenue, set on a promontory looking west across the river. I was in full stride now, with the pavement slapping the bottom of my boots, and the line of trees muting the sunlight slanting across my path.

Others had joined my perambulations—dog owners, ancient sun seekers, pairs of power walkers content to flail their arms high and exercise their lungs. Harsh Russian consonants came from an old couple seated on a park bench. Below us on the river, a barge moved downstream.

St. Mary’s Chapel and the St. Paul Seminary buildings fell away on my left. Daylight was fading. My path bent and curved along the bluffs. Over another ravine; past another memorial, this one recalling a drive-by shooting whose impact I remembered sadly: “Just a kid growing up.” South of St. Clair I passed the Temple of Aaron, with silent statues remembering lost loved ones set in the parkland opposite.

The road, the river, the path—all began to wind more and more. At Highland Parkway urban reality imposed itself again, in the form of the misplaced 740 Tower, the Ford Parkway bridge and, just beyond it, the empty remains of the now-shuttered Ford Plant. Not far beyond it is an overlook, and around a deep U-bowl ravine, the first of two access roads down to the legendary Hidden Falls.

Here we shall halt, where hikers face a vital decision: stay along the bluff all the way to Prior, where the second Hidden Falls access road descends opposite the Korean-congregant St. Andrew Kim Catholic Church, or face the fact that it’s the river’s edge one wants, and drop down immediately? That upper stretch has some of the highest bluff views available, and an almost palpable quiet, deep into the far reaches of Highland Park. But if it’s sanctuary one wants, better to descend to the river’s edge and double back north to Hidden Falls, or onwards, south and east past the Marina and into the watery marshes of Crosby Park and its cross-hatched forest trails.

Ah, but what of the rumors of a fort? Another river? Or even a long, bending watery curl that leads on to mighty bridges and landscapes heretofore un-described? Might the marble palace of the Central Library truly be accessed from the river side? It will take another journey to find out. . . .

The High Bridge links the West Side with the rest of St. Paul.

The High Bridge links the West Side with the rest of St. Paul.

Despite repeated attempts, I have never completed a river hike to the end of Saint Paul, though I have reached the end of the blue metal railing that extends east from downtown and stood gazing upon the glowing spires of the water treatment plant below Mounds Park.


Interviewed for PBS Documentary on August Wilson

19 June 2013

Last winter I started getting calls from Nicole London, a WGBH staffer in Boston, asking questions about how it was that I knew the late lamented playwright, August Wilson. (For those who have not yet discovered the man, his Century Cycle of 10 plays about African American life in each decade of the 20th century stands as one of the greatest achievements in the history of the American theater. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, and has a Broadway theater named after him.)

I could tell that they’d spotted my St. Paul Almanac piece, “August Wilson’s Early Days in Saint Paul.” (See link on Home page, under Upcoming Events. August and I were writing partners for years, and given that our wives were close friends at that time, we also shared many other adventures as well.) The more we talked, the more excited PBS seemed to become. Eventually, they decided that they’d better add Saint Paul to their filming schedule. They’re in the process of completing a major documentary on Wilson that will air in the Fall of 2014, and prior to our discussions, had not seemed to fully understand the pivotal role that his time in Saint Paul played in the development of his oeuvre.

1981: Daniel & Judith Gabriel outside August Wilson's Grand Avenue apartment in Saint Paul, with the man himself and--I swear--a casual passerby whom August's wife Judy insisted be in the photo.

1981: Daniel & Judith Gabriel outside August Wilson’s Grand Avenue apartment in Saint Paul, with the man himself and—I swear—a casual passerby whom August’s wife Judy insisted be in the photo.

Late in May, producer Sam P, Nicole L, and crew rolled into town and set up in Penumbra Theater, home to more August Wilson productions than any other theater in the world. They ran me through my paces during a 20-30 minute interview, and then ravaged the piles of memorabilia I’d brought along. There were posters from the Penumbra productions of Wilson’s first plays, early draft manuscripts of his first major successes, and obscure reviews that had appeared down through the years. I also had photos from the night he won his first Pulitzer Prize (for Fences). A handful of us gathered to celebrate and hear him declaim a fatherhood scene from the play, and he held my infant son Alex in his arms as a prop. There were also over a dozen rare letters from him to me, including sections (which I’d long forgotten) where he lamented that he was giving up on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (his first breakthrough play), and others where he offered tight-knit advice on pieces of my work that I’d sent him.

On the night that FENCES won the Pulitzer Prize, young Alex Gabriel gets his first exposure to the power of a scene declaimed by August Wilson.

1987: On the night that FENCES won the Pulitzer Prize, young Alex Gabriel gets his first exposure to the power of a scene declaimed by August Wilson.

Hanging out backstage with the folks from WGBH, and jiving about the various bits of memorabilia and their significance was even more fun than the actual taping. (By the next day, of course, I’d thought of all sorts of comments that I wished I’d made during the interview.) What really seemed to hit home to the producer was that Wilson’s time in Saint Paul marked that magical period in any great creative artist’s life when they find their true and authentic voice, and discover how to control it. I can still vividly remember the sessions of sitting across from August in some funky cafe, listening to him riff and ramble until he found his way into a scene–and then watching him catch his rhythm and start muttering aloud the rough drafts of what later became full-blown scenes in his iconic plays. I had the great privilege of watching a clutch of August Wilson Broadway hits–Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Jitney, The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, etc.–find their earliest shape.

The single most vital piece of transformation in Wilson’s approach came as he shifted his characters’ dialogue away from Borges-esque convolution and wordplay into the deep declarative poetry of the Blues. Once he’d learned how to turn his plays into overlapping Blues songs (with each character playing their own notes, or at times producing their own countervailing songs) the rest was a matter of harnessing his active and fertile imagination.

August Wilson died in 2005, his Century Cycle complete. But I still listen hard for his advice every time I sit down to write. And I can still see those piercing eyes pushing me forward along my own writing path. Like the man said, “If you’re going to Brownsville, got to take that right hand road . . .”