How to Run Your Own Literary Series: Melissa Febos, Mixer NYC

melissa febos mixer nycPublication 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 profiles 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. Melissa Febos tells us all about one of Manhattan’s landmark literary and music institutions, Mixer NYC, and the labor of love that goes into producing it.

When did you get into curating events?
Well, my first literary curation was at the age of, I don’t know…15? I had dropped out of high school, presumably because the curriculum was distracting me from my destiny of being a writer with banal subjects like government and biology. I grew up in this little Cape Cod town and there wasn’t much of a literary scene to speak of, so I tried to start one in the basement of our public library. It was called “Speakeasy” and, if I remember correctly, I not only read my own terrible poetry but also sang a Billie Holiday song. Pretty cute at fifteen, though it sound like the stuff of nightmares to me as an adult.

More recently, I founded the Mixer Reading and Music Series in 2007, with my cohort Rebecca Keith. It’s been going strong for over five years. I also do one-off things too. Recently, I curated a show called “Shameless” for Pride, with Ariel Levy, Laurie Weeks, Pamela Sneed, and a bunch of other queer lady geniuses. It was a great night and a huge honor.

Why prompted you to continue producing literary events?
The same reason I produced them as a teenager: I wanted to find my people, and I wanted to create a place where we could bring our work. It’s also a great excuse to introduce yourself to people you admire.

Why the name “Mixer”?
Well, we happen in the basement of a place called Cake Shop, so it seemed apropos. We also were committed from conception to the idea of a series that mixed not only forms of writing, but also mediums. And, having both come of age in the early ’90s, Rebecca and I both have a long love story with mix tapes. The meanings just go on and on.

How’d you guys end up at Cake Shop?
It was important to us that Mixer be a really warm, intimate place for writers and musicians to perform. Cake Shop is a great combination of ambient and cozy, but not in a knitting club way; in a sticky floor-Christmas lights-people-sitting-on-the-floor-in-front kind of way. One of our prouder moments was when Paul Muldoon effused after reading, “This is just like Berlin in the old days!” We will never be a fancy reading, but will always love up our performers, and Cake Shop just seemed like the perfect place for us.

What kind of dialogue do you think your events brings to how people are consuming/creating written work currently?
I don’t think we’re doing anything new. Literature and music began as performed arts, and I think it’s important for an audience to connect work to the people who make it, and for artists to connect with the people absorbing their work. And for artists to connect with each other. At their best, that’s what all readings do.

What are some of the more daunting parts of running Mixer?
Dealing with email influx can be the pits, but we have an amazing intern, Michelle Campagna, who helps with that. But being inspired is the best part of almost everything, and it happens to me a lot at Mixer.

How long do you and Rebecca intend to keep Mixer going?
Mixer has a life of its own. We are just its handmaidens. It will end when it’s ready. Although we are booked into Winter 2013.

You had a book Whip Smart come out a while ago. Did those responsibilities make Mixer difficult?
I think that publishing a book made me both a better host, and a more appreciative audience member. After going on book tour, and having to pimp my own work so intensely, it’s really, really wonderful to just listen.

How do you think hosting Mixer has changed you?
I’ve grown up a lot in the five years since we started Mixer, and even more so since my days in the library basement. I have so much admiration for anyone who commits to this spectacular and spectacularly difficult task of trying to commit the experience of being human to words. And I’ve really learned to be generous in all possible ways to other artists. It’s easy to yield to the fears that we all have: that there isn’t enough room for us, or enough recognition to go around, or enough time to create something meaningful, or that we won’t be seen for our true intentions, or that we should be skeptical of others. It’s all bullshit, and I really believe that we can manifest a warm, bountiful, brave atmosphere if we do so in our own selves and in our work. Does that sound too much like a yoga class? I don’t care. It’s been true for me.

There have been whispers about Cake Shop possibly shutting down. Would Mixer move to another venue if that happened?
I think Cake Shop is the sort of place that people will rally to save if it comes to that. I know we will.

If someone with no experience came up to you and told you they wanted to start up a reading series or run a one-off event, what advice would you tell them?
Go for it.

 


Melissa Febos is the author of Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), a critically acclaimed memoir about her years as a professional dominatrix that Kirkus Reviews said, “expertly captures grace within depravity.” Her work has appeared in Glamour, Salon, Dissent, The Southeast Review, The New York Times, Bitch Magazine, BOMB, among many others. She has appeared on the cover of the New York Post to NPR’s Fresh Air to Dr. Drew. A 2010 & 2011 MacDowell Colony fellow, and 2012 Breadloaf fellow, she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, Purchase College, NYU, and privately. Febos holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence. For five years, she has co-curated the Mixer Reading & Music Series in Manhattan. She lives in Brooklyn, and is currently at work on a novel.