A woman of (love) letters

Poet, teacher, activist and letter writer Elizabeth Tannen: “I want to see every letter as a love letter, because writing one is a true act of love.” Photo by Jim Walsh

Valentine’s Day is nigh, and Elizabeth Tannen is here to challenge lovers of love and lovers of words to refute St. Paul-based songwriter Martin Devaney’s 2004 lament that “Nobody Writes Letters Anymore.”

“I think that for sure people aren’t writing letters — handwritten, snail-mail letters; it’s somewhat a lost or diminished practice,” said Tannen over coffee at Five Watt in Kingfield Tuesday afternoon. “But because of the ubiquity of other forms of communication, I think in a way letter writing is elevated and even more meaningful and unusual now. Because it’s less common, it becomes that much more special and exciting when someone takes the time to handwrite a message and send it.”

A poet, activist and English and writing teacher at Anoka-Ramsey and North Hennepin community colleges, the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and the Loft Literary Center, Tannen will offer a two-days-before-Valentine’s Day crash course in love letter writing for the romantically impaired and otherwise 7 p.m.–9 p.m. Feb. 12 at the Lynhall, 2640 S. Lyndale Ave., complete with wine, canapés and chocolate bonbons ($50; for tickets, go to eventbrite.com/e/wine-pairing-love-letters-tickets-42364909585).

Does the poet practice what she teaches?

“I try to,” she said. “I’m trying to be better about it. My partner actually just moved to another city, so I wrote him the best love letter of all time and I’m still waiting for a response. It apparently is in the mail, but I just checked again it’s still not arrived yet. Yet. You have my permission to throw him under the bus.”

What have we learned already, class? Tip one of Tannen’s seminar might be: If you receive a love letter, by all means respond. Tip two: Explode all notions and definitions of love and open your heart beyond romance.

“I want to interpret love letters really broadly. I want to see every letter as a love letter, because writing one is a true act of love,” said Tannen, who was arrested Feb. 4 along with other members of a Black Lives Matter protest, and who said at the moment she wants more than anything to pen love letters to all her fellow activists who shut down the light rail before the Super Bowl.

“My favorite definition of love, actually, comes from the poet Denise Levertov, where she defines love as attention, basically. To take the time and to give someone a level of attention is inherently an act of love, whether or not it’s a lover. It can be anyone, really.

“Especially now, when there’s so many distractions, to actually step back and slow down and sit with pen and paper and your thoughts of another person, to give them that level of time and attention, it’s just a really beautiful thing. So I am trying to make that more of a practice, to write more letters to everyone I care about. I think it’s just a powerful gesture.”

A former journalist and National Public Radio producer who received her master’s degree in creative non-fiction from the University of New Mexico, Tannen says she’s hardly anti-technology or -texting, but that letter writing offers a rare opportunity for intimacy. Another tip: don’t choke.

“Because there are so many ways to communicate more immediately, there is a little bit more pressure on the letter to contain something of significance,” she said. “Back in the day, during World War II when my grandfather was writing daily letters to my grandmother, it was also just practical, conveying information by the only means they had of being connected to each other. Now, my partner and I talk daily. We’re texting and emailing all the time. So it’s like, what is the communication that’s reserved for a letter?

“The problem with texts and voice mail is that it’s all disposable. I know there are ways to archive things like that, but for those of us who don’t know, those things are going to be lost. What’s special about a letter is that it’s an actual artifact that your kids and grandkids can have and see and keep.”

Handwriting. Ink. Stationary. Stamps. Time. Effort. Anticipation. An intimacy that can only be forged one-on-one, written in one person’s singular penmanship to another — that’s the stuff of letters.

“I think I also love that it’s not only the effort put into writing the thing, but putting it in an envelope, going to the post office, getting the stamp,” she said. “It’s like giving a gift. Its not just receiving love letters that feels wonderful, it also feels wonderful to send them.”

She’s reluctant to give away all of her class syllabus, but Tannen said she’ll stress vulnerability and authenticity and encourage the writers to sound like themselves and “not like they’re living in the 18th century. Your lover doesn’t want that. It’s like when students try to write poetry for the first time and they try to write like Shakespeare. No. It’s not you.”

What else?

“I love a letter that has a lot of detail in it, that makes it feel like it’s addressed to me and that it couldn’t have been written for someone else. In the class, we’ll strategize how to craft anecdotes or stories that express your affection for a person. I really want the class to be for folks who are not just people in love or who have a romantic partner but who also just want to express their love to anyone in their life, whether it’s a parent or a friend or a sibling or themselves or whatever.

“I don’t think we spend enough time in our culture expressing our appreciation for one another in meaningful ways, and the world is [bleeping] brutal, and it’s a daily [bleep] storm and so no one can be told enough why they matter and why people care about them. What we all really want is to feel seen. Not just appreciated but deeply known. I think letters are a great way to express that.”

One last tip?

“My grandmother had what you could call … ‘an eventful love life,’” she said. “When I asked her advice on writing love letters, she said, ‘Be careful.’”


Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].