How To Run Your Own Literary Series: Lynne Procope, louderARTS

Lynne Procope louderARTSPublication 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 pleased to feature an online series that highlights the hard work that event producers, independent venues, and other like-minded individuals put in to give writers everywhere a platform to reach an audience. This week, we speak to Lynne Procope, who produces one of the most venerable literary series in New York City, louderARTS.

Hi, Lynne. Tell us a little about how you got involved with louderARTS.
Strangely enough I started out producing larger scale poetry performances, full staging, lights, sound, magic, craziness, early onset grey hair. When we started louderARTS, it was almost a relief to scale back to a basic reading. The series that we run now is the little engine that keeps doing it. It’s a very simple but intricate formula. A consistently high quality open mic, wonderful features from every aspect of the poetry world, and occasionally either a slam or a Q&A session with the audience. Right now we’re working on developing a new element to the show that’s all about collaborations between fairly established artist/performers who may want the added challenge of presenting multi-voice or multi-disciplinary work. That would run as an alternative to the Q&A sessions and the slam.

Why literary events?
If we wanted to attend literary events that were compelling and helped us to live in a literary and creative community outside of the academy, it didn’t seem that we had much choice.

How does louderARTS inform the larger literary world?
Well, louderARTS is a very special sort of series. We’re renowned for being the best possible bridge between literary or exceptionally well-crafted writing and performance. We’ve worked hard to develop that aesthetic and are pretty strict about it despite being a very welcoming and safe space. That leads to real particular conversations about the craft of performance, how you translate the page under a spotlight, what does the poem want from the body, how does performancewhether it’s in the first listening to yourself on the open mic or in developing a body of work for a featureinform the editing process, and so on.

We really push people who come to listen to also go out there and read, read, read. We push books by authors from all over the world and poetry by folks who haven’t been on HBO or whatever really hard. We’ve know that folks are inclined to pretend that only people who look like/think like/live like them are out there/writing, so over the years we’ve done shows where you couldn’t read on the open mic unless you read a poem by a woman or a poet who identified as LGBT or a person of color. That lead to some of the most agonizing readings I’ve ever heard but also to some of the most amazing. Some people would not want to get stuck with the poets that we selectedwe always provided poems for the unpreparedso they’d go out of their way to find people whose work they really felt to read and that often was revelatory in the extreme for everyone in the room.

What are some of the biggest challenges of producing a series like louderARTS?
Oh, that’s easy: funding, time, manpower. I’ve got my own art and my career as well as a variety of side projects. I’m blessed to have a great volunteer team at louderARTS but we all still feel like we need 3 heads and 6 hands to get it all done. If I had my way and the funding we’d pay each of the 48 poets who grace our stage each year as features a minimum of $500 for that amazing 20-30 mins of their hearts. As it is we pay out of what we make each night at the door and that’s got to cover the bar, the DJ and incidentals (Oh, you have a Pulitzer Prize winner on stage tonight, boom! The mic doesn’t work! Send someone out 5 mins before showtime to purchase a new one.) as well as the featured poet. So we ask our features to agree to a nominal honoraria. Amazingly, they all do it. Sometimes the biggest names will most often just give us their time for free, hang out with our audience, and send us the most remarkable love letters afterward. So I guess it’s a challenge but we’re more blessed than most series at the same time.

How has running louderARTS changed you?
I get asked a lot how I can still be running the series after all this time. Mostly by people who despair at the idea of sitting through open mic Monday after Monday. I’d say that the open mic has taught me more than I ever admit. I can’t stand how bad some of the work is, to be honest, but I’m so in love with what people do with the opportunity. I’m a really harsh critic. Ask anyone who has volunteered for us or come to the show regularly and they’ll tell you that I have no poker face and everyone can tell when what I’m hearing is shredding my soul. I despair with each of those poems but at louderARTS, more so than any other venue, I hear people who, frankly, suck in January, but months later, are writing work that has such remarkable threads of beauty in it that I have to hug them as they’re coming off the stage.

I think in part it’s because we’ve got a tight community of great writers who come through on a Monday night just share their works in progress and so you can’t help but notice if you hear Patrick Rosal hammering out his new work that he’s doing something special. You can’t help but want to write something that resonates like that, can you? I suppose that if I had to claim an area of personal growth, it would be my ever blossoming faith in the possibility of gorgeous art, gorgeous poetry from every soul I pass on the street.

It’s made me more hopeful of my own writing and more patient with myself as well.

What is some advice you might give to someone who wants to start their own literary series?
I’d tell them not to do it alone and not to do it with any expectation of thanks or adulation. You can’t have any ego about running a reading series. You have to be about making the event or the ongoing experience incredible and memorable for the artists and the audience and be willing to walk away with just that in your hat.

louderARTS has become one of the most iconic series in the New York City literary scene. How has that impacted your ability to curate and produce these events?
Yikes! Iconic…that’s a lot of pressure! I worry that we’ll turn into the a sort of sad museum of specific voices or that we’ll go the other route and forget the incredible emergent voices that have shaped us and just swing wildly in the popular kids corner. Still, I think the impact of developing into an icon (if that’s what we are) has worked out to be good for us, so far. We try really hard to keep on our toes. We keep one eye on the ethos that shaped us and one on the new work that’s constantly coming out of the ether. We were incredibly fortunate to have developed under a remarkable group of writers and it’s important to note that while we had some MFAs, many of them came from outside the academy with a real passion for poetry, for great writing and with a commitment to keeping louderARTS on that path. Oscar Bermeo, Fish Vargas, Rich Villar, Eric Guerreri, Marty McConnell, and this year’s Whitman Award winner Elana Bell were all part of louderARTS in our formative years. They help shaped a mission for the series around excellence in writing and performance.

My co-founders, Guy Gonzales and Roger Bonair-Agard, were unwavering in their energy for that kind of thing and also their passion for every possible kind of diversity. So it’s in our DNA in a way to work hard at widening the range of voices and the scope and nature of the talent that takes the stage. Roger is our current Artistic Director. He and I have long conversations about the direction of the series about how we stay true to our vision and even the motivation of the writers who are involved in it today. We agonize about how hard it is to keep the series from slipping into being a cult of personality, especially with both of us having pretty intense personalities. We exchange notes on what work is reading well and great performances that we encounter in our travels. Producing the series has become old hat as a result however. I know that there are a couple thousand wonderful writers that I can holler at for input on possible features in times of curatorial crisis and that makes all the difference.

Is it ever hard for you to turn away prose writers or poets who ask to perform at louderARTS?
Absolutely. We’re an invitation-only series so while we have criteria for people to submit their work in case they’re going to be in NYC at a time that we might have room in the schedule, the fact is that we’re going to always default to the particular and timely needs of the series. I’ve found that whenever we step out of that guiding notion, we end up with work that simply isn’t up to the standard we’ve set for ourselves and we do a disservice to our audience and the writers involved.

So how do you determine who’s reading when?
We try to look at each month for a variety of subject matter, style, and performance technique as well as the more obvious points of diversity. Plus we like to pull back and look at what that means for each quarter etc. When we have to say no, it’s always hard. We’ve had instances where poets have argued the point and that was just plain weird but most people are very understanding.

In an ideal world, how would louderARTS grow?
In an ideal world we’d have the reading series, a performance ensemble, a townhouse in Brooklyn with rehearsal and writing space for our writers and contributors to our magazine, Union Station and fully-staged productions every quarter that really push us as artists followed by quarterly retreats.

I don’t think it’s too much to ask.

Lynne Procope is a widely-published poet and curator. She is the Executive Director of the louderARTS Project, editor for Union Station Magazine, Cave Canem fellow, and former National Poetry Slam Champion. She is a New Yorker at heart and by choice.