It’s easy to be literary. Read books. Tell friends about them. Think about “literature” sometimes and think about “society” when there’s time. I don’t know, hang out in a coffee shop.
It’s something else to be a literary citizen. I know this to be true, but I often have as hard a time pinning down what it means. How is community fostered? How is it threatened? Why do some readings feel soulful and some suck? In the three years since I left my cloistered undergraduate Tuesday night writing club, I’ve been determined to meet people who pursue answers to these questions.
Imagine my joy at discovering Jim Warner and Aubrey Cox’s Citizen Lit podcast, a program whose mission is to “explore what it means to be an active member of the writing world through reviews, interviews, and recorded performances…about connection and engagement…how the work speaks to us and how we respond…”. Imagine my sense of synchronicity when, three years ago a poet-friend (my earliest literary mentor, Barbara Decesare) told me, as I drove her north to a book release reading, “Oh you have to meet my friend Jim Warner someday.”
Turns out, Jim has been a tireless member of literary communities as localized as Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to ones as wide-reaching as AWP (where he directed The AWP Conference Afterhours Reading and Poetry Slam). Jim builds literary community by being a champion of independent books and authors, by interrogating what community means, and by penning his own pop-cultured poems that reach toward mainstream society with open arms.
I came across a particularly punk rock ode of his in Hobart last year. It reminded me of how poetry is for humor, for rock n’ roll, for the people. It begins, “Am I the only one who remembers David Lee Roth’s track suit period?”
Tyler Barton: What does literary citizenship mean to you?
Jim Warner: Usually I get to ask this question, so it’s actually nice, for once, to get to answer this question. To me, Literary citizenship means being an active contributor, collaborator, and creative being, not only in our literary community, but in the larger society as well. As writers, we have a responsibility to one another—from creating public platforms for artistic advocacy to simply reading journals and attending readings.
We spend so much time in isolation when we’re writing, but that solitary time is always pointed towards some sense of public connection—even if it is simply sharing your work with a friend or loved one. Literary citizenship is at heart a call to protect that conversation and expand its reach.
TB: When do you think you came to this understanding? In other words, when did you become a literary citizen?
JW: I think I’m still figuring it out, honestly. But the first instance probably began when I started hosting an open mic at Barnes and Noble in Wilkes-Barre. I was very fortunate to be friends who were rooted in the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) punk/hardcore scene, and they helped to really drive home the idea of community and DIY ethics—that if there wasn’t a community or a public space, you had to make one. Contrary to public (and local) opinion, NEPA has always been a breeding ground for great art. I started out just going to the B&N open mics—didn’t even read for the first couple months. There was a very small group, crammed into the cooking section of the store. They were a quiet bunch, who often got a ton of shit from customers—either folks were pissed because they took up prime comfy seating on a Friday night, or just the usual closed-minded frat bro.
So after a few months, I started reading, and I again, ripped off my friends in the punk and hardcore scene. If folks weren’t going to give us space with respect, I made a safe space for others by being louder, angrier, and more confrontational.
The store had a wireless PA, so if folks were assholes, I’d just follow them through the isles and feed their bullshit right back to them. It’s always such a foreign concept to a jackass when you give them a spoonful of the shit they’ve been shoveling.
TB: I think I learned everything that made me want to get into literary community from my punk/hardcore/metal scene in Southcentral Pennsylvania, too.
JW: Right?! Those scenes have it figured out. It was family. Equality and making space.
TB: So after the reading series, what other steps did you make to create/support/foster literary community?
JW: After the B&N series started rolling (in a year we went from about 5 people a month to about 35 people), I had found a core group of folks who were eager to create, so we started a writing workshop.I really wanted to create this poetry squad to go to NYC and invade the slam scene. Like our own little poetry gang.
TB: I get that. I felt like every literary thing we did in Lancaster/York/Harrisburg carried the subtext of like: “Yeah, New York, you see this? We’re fucking writers too.” Did the hugeness of the NYC scene loom on writers in NEPA? The city probably isn’t that far away either.
JW: We ended up doing one road trip to a poetry festival at Sarah Lawrence. We ended up going over like the proverbial lead balloon, and it really disenfranchised some folks. NYC is about 2-2 1/2 hours away, depending on traffic. It meant a lot to me to get up to NYC because of the slam scene, and also to go and say I’m from NEPA. For me it was important that people knew there was more to NEPA than farms (and later “The Office”). Even after the original group splintered, a few of us would go into NYC. That number slowly dwindled until I was the only one going up once or twice a month. From the Martz railways bus station to Grand Central it was about a 3-hour trip, but it only cost about $50 with an expired student ID. So the joke was I’d spend 6 hours for 5 minutes.
But I took those experiences and brought them home with me.
TB: What did you learn about community/citizenship from your MFA program at Wilkes University?
JW: They inspired me to try and figure out how to bring poets through NEPA. In that way, the Wilkes program was huge for me, along with the Paper Kite Press gallery in Edwardsville. While I was running around like a husky-off brand Henry Rollins, Jenny Hill and Dan Waber of Paper Kite were starting a press, hosting a monthly reading series, and connecting the dots.
TB: I have such a crush on Jenny and Dan. They rule. So helpful to me in Lancaster.
JW: They were among the first I really connected with in the poetry scene. They’re the real deal. I actually officiated their wedding. And unfortunately earned the nickname Rev. Blackout, but that’s another story. And probably better told by those who remember. Anyway, the Wilkes program helped give me a real sense of what a real community looks like without regional borders or genre-related borders. It’s where I met Marlon James.
TB: What does the Citizen Lit podcast aims to do, especially in respect to lit community/citizenship?
JW: Citizen Lit is about expanding the conversation. Aubrie and I had been talking about podcasts since I left Quiddity. We wanted to do a program that wasn’t just talking heads sounding like last call at an AWP conference bar. We want our programs to feel like a shared experience. It’s why we do things like the scene report. Again, I think it’s important that the larger audience realizes great readings aren’t just happening in NYC or Chicago. We also didn’t want to just talk to writers. Talking to publishers, book store owners, and conference coordinators was key. Literary citizenship doesn’t always mean just touting a favorite writer on social media, it also means supporting the places which make our community possible: the indie bookstores and presses.
TB: Where do you record Citizen Lit episodes? It often sounds like some conversations are happening in public. It’s strange how much I love that audio environment, actually.
JW: All of them for season one happened on site. It made for some unique challenges on the production end. Especially places like Kathleen Rooney’s interview at a bar in Champaign-Urbana. For season two, we are going to scale back a little and do some interviews via Skype, but I’m not all in for the studio scene. We are also going to be aggressively going after recordings from other people–especially recordings of local readings.
TB: Back to something you said before, about there being reading series of value outside of Chicago and NYC. What’s the best series currently running that you know? You can name a few. What are these series doing that makes them stand out, if you can put a finger on it.
JW: That’s an excellent question. I really dig what Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is doing in Knoxville, Tennessee. They’ve been pairing their monthly readings with their residency, so when you do a residency at Firefly Farms, you also end up reading in the city with the local scene. It accomplishes a few things–first, it gives you a chance for a sounding board to work you may have drafted at residency (if you’re into the immediacy thing); second, by paring you with local folks, it encourages an audience; third, Erin usually hosts a little get together at her home for the writers and scene.
Maybe I’m a little bit biased, but that model is pretty ideal for a writer. Plus they have a ton of workshops going on all the damn time.
Another one is Rae Bryant (from the T.J. Eckleberg Review) just started a series in Fredericksburg, MD, which pairs musicians and readers. I’m excited to check that out.
TB: Excellent. From your experience hosting and attending reading for many years, what is one major DON’T and one major DO of hosting a reading?
JW: I think the biggest thing hosts need to understand is that the entire tone of the reading hinges on their attitude and presence. Hosts need to be mindful that the audience takes their cues from them—including attentiveness, openness, and sense of humor.
The host sets the clock, and must keep the clock for the readers. A good host can read the audience. Give them room to breathe. Or go to the bathroom.
The host is also NOT the center of the universe. A good host never gets in the way of the proceedings. AND SHOULD NEVER, EVER, SWEET MOTHER OF KENNY ROGERS, READ THEIR OWN WORK AT THEIR READING.
TB: So, what do you think is the first and foremost thing a new writer can do to become a literary citizen?
JW: The first thing (and best thing) is to listen. Go to a reading, and listen. Being a literary citizen starts with just attending events. Figuring out what you dig, what you don’t, and how you can become a part of the conversation. That all starts with listening.
Tyler Barton is one half of FEAR NO LIT. He helps host the Weekly Reader podcast, writes a column about Twin Cities literary events for The Rumpus, and studies fiction writing at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Find his work at tsbarton.com. Find his jokes at @goftyer. He wants to know about your literary community.