How to Run Your Own Literary Series: Nicole Steinberg, Earshot

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 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 Nicole Steinberg, who founded Earshot, one of the longest-running New York City reading series, currently held in Manhattan’s Lolita Bar.

Tell us a little about yourself and about Earshot.
I’m a poet, author, and editor who kind of fell into the category of literary event planner in 2005 when I launched the Earshot Reading Series in New York. Earshot has always served as a multi-genre platform for “emerging” writers—specifically, graduate students and those who are just getting their feet wet in the literary world. Despite quite a few venue changes and yours truly skipping town to move to Philadelphia, the series still runs once a month at Lolita Bar in NYC, under the purview of a fantastic team: Gregory Crosby, Jillian Brall, and Peter Bogart Johnson.

What prompted you to produce literary events?
It was accidental. The official origin story of Earshot is that my friend Hai Phung Tran was working at a bar and thinking of holding an art show in the space, and I observed that it would also be prime real estate for literary readings. After that, we joined forces with the primary purpose of providing a live platform for our friends and fellow artists to share their work. Interest grew and it became very clear that these readings, which evolved into a singular series, were filling a void that existed at the time for young writers in the NYC area. MFA programs were hosting events for their own respective groups of students, but there wasn’t a shared space for those students to come and hear what writers from other schools were doing, or to hear from those who were at the next level of their careers. I got flooded with submissions, to the point that I was curating for real, and that’s when the series started to take shape. Then presses and literary agents started writing to me about their authors as well.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But once I understood the demand for the readings and why it was there, I realized how important it was to make them happen. I held events twice a month for years because there were so many talented writers I wanted to feature.

What kind of dialogue do you think your events brings to how people are consuming/creating written work currently?
My hope is that the events provide a platform for writers to inspire each other. The mission isn’t very sexy on paper, but I think it’s essential for those poets and authors who are actively seeking inspiration from their peers. It also gives graduate-level writers an opportunity to not only hear what older writers are doing, but to read in the same space, which I think has some measure of impact, even if it’s subconscious. The multi-genre aspect is important, too. As someone who writes poetry and prose, I believe both camps can learn a lot from each other.

What are some of your bigger challenges?
Oh, boy. One tough aspect is getting everyone a spot in the schedule who deserves to be there. Another one is having to say no to a writer, whether it’s because there’s no room, or because his/her submission just isn’t up to par. It’s not fun to be on either end of a rejection letter, but excellent work has always been the main criteria, so it’s a necessary evil. Most people take it well, though, and I’ve had several readers who submitted a second time after a “no” and then sent vastly improved work.

Running a literary event is a challenge in general. There’s a ton of work involved in making sure the entire thing runs smoothly and that people actually show up. There’s the initial marketing and PR, then making sure all the readers know what’s expected of them, and the substantial behind-the-scenes work in dealing with the venue. So many things to remember. But being thorough ensures that the readers and audience all have a great experience and want to return.

Tell me something unexpected that came out of your Earshot experience.
One thing I didn’t expect was coming out of Earshot with an enhanced stage presence. It’s always been important to me to be an engaging host. It’s such a drag when a host/curator doesn’t seem that invested in the readers or the event. It makes for bad vibes. A friend of mine who does voice acting once came to a reading and complimented the fact that I always end a reader’s intro with an upward lilt to my voice. I had no idea I was even doing that, but I guess it makes a difference! Also, because I ran Earshot for so long, I essentially built myself a network of fellow writers. I don’t think I’d have even half of the contacts and friends in the literary world that I do now if I hadn’t put myself out there for all those years. And it’s the coolest thing in the world when someone remembers his/her Earshot reading, even years later. It sounds a little corny, but it’s nice to know that I made a difference, and that I had fun doing it.

Earshot also taught me a thing or two about my limits: Namely that I have them. I know now that even though I founded it, the series isn’t about me. It was difficult to give it up because I’ve always thought of it as my baby. Before I moved, I missed maybe one reading in five years. More than once, I hosted while sick, and somehow powered through on Sudafed and whisky. It hurt to realize that I couldn’t keep up that dedication from afar, as much as I wanted to. But now I can acknowledge that the series has a life of its own. And if it can keep going without me, then that means I did well by it.

Someone tells you that they want to create their own Earshot—what would you tell them?
It’s not nearly as easy as you think it’ll be, but whatever you do, don’t half-ass it. And always remember that while you’re providing a service for others, it’s also a privilege to present great work by talented people. Be humble and make it count.

You mentioned that Earshot has changed venues more than once. What are some of the hurdles associated with relocating your series to a new venue?
This is where having a good network comes in, and when the good vibes you’ve cultivated with your series really pay off. Earshot has had four different venues. The first time was extremely stressful because I had about two weeks’ notice of the bar’s sudden closing due to…let’s call them legal issues, for brevity’s sake. I had a reading with Elaine Equi coming up, and it was one of the first times I’d had a big-name poet on the roster, so I needed to find a new place, and fast. I put out a call to a few lit-savvy folks who I’d hoped might know of a space I could use, and Gregory Crosby, who had previously read at Earshot (and who is now a curator, as mentioned earlier), happened to answer. He hooked me up with the Lucky Cat in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was supposed to be temporary but I ended up keeping the series there until it shut its doors. The owners were so supportive and we even had a wonderful, snarky bartender. The owner of the Lucky Cat helped me secure the next venue, Rose Live Music, which was right down the street—another fantastic venue. Eventually that bar closed, too. We chose Lolita Bar as our current home, because I’d done a prior event there and had a good experience.

Overall, you keep a series going through sheer tenacity and belief in what you’re doing. And you have to find a way to convince venues that what you’re doing is also worth their while. The main reason I’ve had to move the series around so much is because of the faltering economy. The cool venues that exist to support stuff like this don’t always stick around for long. I’ve heard complaints in the past about Earshot’s entry fee, which has always been five dollars with a complimentary drink. But what those folks have to keep in mind is that just like anything else, it all comes down to business. The venue has to be assured that it will get something out of the event. I’ve dealt with owners who were very skeptical about the whole literary event thing, but have come to see the light. After all, how else are they going to make $500+ on a weekday night between seven and nine?

It’s tricky, balancing the behind-the-scenes stuff with the actual events—but its extremely important. If you’re starting a series, locking down a good venue is half the battle. It might be the most important thing you do.

You mentioned you moved from New York City to Philadelphia and kept the series going from afar. How did that affect the production?
I ran Earshot from afar for about a year after I moved to Philadelphia, before I finally realized that the distance was putting a strain on the series.

My first thought when I received this question was “poorly, probably.” I don’t recommend managing a series offsite. I did it for over a year before I finally convinced myself that it would survive without me and I could pry my fingers away from the reins. And the way I did it—likely the only way to do it—was through the help of friends. I continued to do all of the curating, publicity, and administrative work from Philadelphia while a group of friends took on guest-hosting duties. It wasn’t a bad way to go about it, and it was pretty successful, I think. But it wasn’t fulfilling to put so much work into an event and then miss out on seeing it through to fruition. Also, I felt as though it took something away from the readers’ experience, to deal with one person up until the event, and then to not see that person onstage. I wouldn’t say it’s a one-hundred percent bad idea to manage a series offsite, but if you do so, you need to put a lot of thought into a contingency plan for the times that you can’t be there to get things done. Otherwise, it will get very frustrating, very quickly. Nothing beats being there, though, and seeing your good work come to light, not to mention all of the amazing work of your readers.

It’s in extremely capable hands right now and I’m gratified that the new curators/hosts believe in the mission as much as I do. A curator’s heart still beats relentlessly within me, so I pester them often with suggestions and pleas for upcoming readers.

What is the most difficult part about finding someone else to step in as your Earshot successor?
What’s tough is finding someone you trust to carry out your vision and to understand what it’s all about. I bet that if I’d put out a general call for a successor, I would have been flooded with inquiries from all sorts of people who didn’t know what they were getting into. It was important to go with someone (or, as it turned out, someones) who understood the point of the series, had seen it in action, and who wouldn’t make any drastic changes that deviated from the original mission. Of course, once you find your successors, you then have to prepare them for all the hard work and mishigas that lies ahead and hope that they don’t run away screaming. You have to make sure they know how to write the emails, update the social media channels, read all the submissions, and show up at the main event with charismatic smiles on their faces. Again: It’s a trust thing. I trust the current Earshot curators very much. And since there are three of them, they’ll probably develop far fewer ulcers than I did.

But what’s toughest of all is what comes after you settle on someone, namely the letting go. It was a relief to take a step back after six years, and I appreciate the break, but I haven’t counted out the idea of returning to it someday. Earshot 2: The Reckoning. Or something like that.

 


Nicole Steinberg is the editor of Forgotten Borough: Writers Come to Terms with Queens (SUNY Press) and the author of the chapbook Birds of Tokyo (dancing girl press, 2011). Her poetry has appeared in journals such as No Tell Motel, H_NGM_N, BOMB, Barrow Street, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. Most recently, her work has appeared in Transhistoria, the Queens edition of the Guggenheim Museum’s ongoing project, stillspotting nyc. Her work also appears in the fourth issue of Moonshot.