How to Run Your Own Literary Event Series: Niina Pollari, Popsickle

Publication is important, but being able to perform your work in public is critical to the life of the written word. Because of our belief in going beyond the page, Moonshot is starting a new online series that interviews event producers, independent venues, and other like-minded individuals to learn more about creating successful literary events. In our first segment, we’ve tracked down a few literary event producers to learn more about what drives them to stage these events and how they got started. Niina Pollari tells us all about one of Brooklyn’s biggest literary productions, Popsickle, and the labor of love that goes into producing it.

[Full disclosure: Niina Pollari is a contributing writer to Moonshot and was the guest poetry editor of Moonshot #4]

Hello, Niina. Tell us a little bit about what you do and what Popsickle’s about.
Since 2010, I have put together the annual Popsickle Festival, which I co-founded with poet Douglas Piccinnini. Its aim is to unite the curators of Brooklyn’s literary series to create one massive megareading. We’re in the third year now and I am working with a great team of people: Beverly Rivero, Katherine St. Asaph, and Moonshot‘s own JD Scott. I’ve also planned and hosted other literary events, including the Bushwick Reading Series, events with the Chapbook Festival and 100 Thousand Poets for Change, and some one-offs, like a massively hilarious juvenilia-themed reading. And I have a small basement space called Mustard Beak that I co-run with Nikolai Basarich.

I guess I ought to say that I’m also a writer and translator. I have two chapbooks out with Birds of Lace and Hyacinth Girl—both feminist presses—and a translation forthcoming from Action Books.

What made you decide to get into literary event production?
My first experience was with the Bushwick Reading Series, and that happened because I randomly ran into a librarian who had access to this amazing underused bunker-like space in the Bushwick library. I had no previous experience with such a thing, but my co-curator Parker Phillips and I brought in readers for about a year. I realized what a great way it was to meet and connect people in the literary world. I just jumped in and learned on the job.

What kind of dialogue do you think your events brings to how people are consuming/creating written work currently?
I don’t like to stick to any one insular scene, and I hope that the things I have a hand in putting together reflect this. I’d like to bring together people who perhaps wouldn’t otherwise meet.

Otherwise it gets kind of boring, doesn’t it?
It is too easy to stay with the crowd you always knew, but always doing that is like reading poems at a family party where your great-uncle really loves your work. Bring it someplace new, encounter genres you don’t usually work with. Like Nicole Steinberg said, we have a lot to learn from each other.

Most venues are wary about lending their space out to literary events even for a night. So how do you persuade a venue to hand over an entire day to you without forking over a ton of cash?
For the Popsickle Festival, my biggest challenge is always finding a venue. I want to expose people to new spaces, as well. It’s a part of the festival’s mission. Since our budget is always hilariously low, I have to coax venue owners with the idea of a crowd. I think it pays off in the end, in that we always find amazing spaces who are looking to engage the literary world, but the journey to get there is one of many emails unanswered and many venting g-chats to my friends and collaborators.

That said, where’s Popsickle being held this year?
This year’s festival will take place at Paper Box NYC on June 23rd. Paper Box not only has an amazing space but also a mission statement that I can really agree with: They want to be an arts hub for many different scenes. I very much look forward to staging the readings there.

So you find a space you love, but they want the promise of a big profit. What do you do?
I would lay out all my cards and ask for what I want. If the venue has clearly defined rental guidelines for events such as mine, and I have no budget or a low budget, then it probably will not work out and I will have to move on. However, if the venue coordinator can find the idea of a smart, literary daytime crowd appealing and beneficial to the establishment, then my event will be highly appealing to them. I try to remember that I am not asking for a favor, I am asking for a collaboration.

So what’s a surprising way in which staging these events–not just Popsickle, but the Bushwick Reading Series, and so on—has helped you evolve?
I have to echo Steinberg again and say that my growth as a speaker has been a delightful surprise. I rarely get nervous, anymore. I’ve also gotten past the intimidation factor. I know that I can approach just about anyone to be a potential reader or performer. If they can’t or don’t want to, they’ll just say no.

Dispense some advice for someone with no experience who wants to produce their own series.
Define your mission. Then go ahead and be picky about it. Bring in the best work that you can find that speaks for that mission. It’s like the business of branding. Marketing and event coordination aren’t really different beasts.

Tell me about a time when things didn’t go according to plan for Popsickle. What went wrong? How did you bounce back?
Ha, this is not a huge snafu—I’ve never had one of those, luckily!—but at last year’s Popsickle, the nice gentleman who delivered the chairs that I’d rented came asking for them back while we were still in the middle of the final reading. I asked him if he could come back later. I guess he could see the panic in my eyes because he said he would come back for them after he’d done all his other rounds. I had to pay an extra fee but we got to dance and DJ Amourette got to keep her table for a bit longer.

Popsickle sounds like it could be a logistical nightmare, in trying to coordinate with so many different series. What’s the hardest part about getting everyone on board?
Picking a date. You don’t want to collide with other events, and you don’t want to exhaust people during holiday weeks. Plus running an event in the summer is always risky because people are out of town—especially writers who maybe teach during the year and use the summer for residencies and so on. So I have to coordinate pretty well in advance. But most of the curators have been excited to come on board, especially this year, our third.

Tell me about an event you went to that you think was unsuccessful (no need to mention the event specifically). What about it was such a disaster? How would you have helped to smooth things out?
I think events turn disastrous when they aren’t clearly defined. People’s sets go on too long and nobody knows what’s happening. Communicating your intentions clearly as a coordinator is very helpful for everyone and gives you the illusion of being under control, however much that is mere glamor!

And finally, words of wisdom you can offer event producers?
It’s important to remember that if you are a writer yourself, you should find ways to speak up as a writer. Keep engaging both sides of your craft. I never read at my own events, but I find other places to share my work, which keeps the poet brain happy so I can be at my best when curating other writers’ work.

Niina Pollari is a writer and translator. She wrote two chapbooks, Fabulous Essential (Birds of Lace, 2009) and Book Four (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2011). A translation is forthcoming from Action Books. With Judy Berman, she is co-editing an anthology called It’s Complicated: Feminists Write about the Misogynist Art We Love.