Sunday, December 10, 2000

Russian River Writers’ Guild & Other Readings Produced

with Prof. Maxine Chernoff (for 3 units/ CW 899, creative process requirement for MA; Fall 2000)


SSU ORIGINS: I never meant to be a literary arts coordinator, my accidental career as a events producer spans 20 years—some events were weekly readings, other were monthly, seasonal, or special events. I first booked readings as an undergraduate art student at Sonoma State University, after volunteering at a conference in 1978 that changed my life’s direction, The Child in Changing Times Conference, where I was first exposed to poetry. Hooked, I took to the streets running: I undertook the equivalent of a second BA in Expressive Arts and trained to become a poet-teacher for California Poets in the Schools.
In addition to working in the field, teaching kids poetry while pursuing my own literary career, I also began my MA in Creative Writing; I produced and later, taught a publishing class for SSU’s literary magazines, Sonoma Mandala and Open Hand. I was also an ad hoc T.A. in a poetry class when a professor faced a medical emergency—it was the loony bin—but I digress… 

Sonoma County was laid back and rural. Most of my literary organizing career evolved out of the times we lived in and/or being at the right place at the right/wrong time and my having excess energy waiting to be harnessed. (Luckily, my professors let me blindly follow my vision as I was often the last to know what I was doing. 

Somehow I learned the necessary skills along the way—amazing, since I had no basic writing skills: but I learned poetry saves lives, my own included. I was later diagnosed with dyslexia—after I’d became a journalist/photographer and poetry/entertainment editor for alternative newspapers. I probably have ADS* as well but I was able to get things done on sheer willpower alone.)

One community project was to resurrect SSU’s defunct Public Poetry Center and to create a liaison between the university and the community—which I successfully accomplished. In addition to hosting campus literary and art events for the English Dept., The College of the Humanities and the ASUC InterCultural Center, etc., I co-produced a 2-week poetry festival, Ear to the Ground, featuring acclaimed poets including Forché, Bly, Gunn, Hass, Olds, Olsen, Kizer, Dubiago, Kinnell, LeSueur, Bromige, etc. produced mega-readings at the Inn of the Beginning and the Cotati Cabaret,—except most poets—Pat Nolan, Hunce Voelckler, Mike Tuggle, even Andrei Codrescu—lived on the Russian River, more than an hour’s drive away, so, I went to the River and, it became a countywide project.

As a literary arts event coordinator, my overwhelming passion was to bring together a wide variety of multi-ethnic local, regional and national artists, writer/performers in order to develop larger, more diverse audiences—as poetry was a marginalized art form. I was a zealot, having been newly converted to poetry, I wanted to share that experience with others. How to develop audience? Make it available to artists, not just poets. 

Since I was an artist as well as a poet, I experimented with combining art/photography openings with music and poetry events. For example, I produced a multi-arts event for Guerneville poet-painter/sculptor, Boschka Layton, Canadian Poet Laureate Irving Layton’s former wife, and sister to actor Donald Sutherland. My connection with the university allowed me to network with numerous poets and arrange diverse funding sources, educating myself along the way. 

THE OLD RRWG: I created a liaison between SSU’s Public Poetry Center and local writing groups, including the Russian River Writers’ Guild and Sonoma County California Poets in the Schools, producing a multitude of events in venues countywide. I joined the flagging RRWG and we produced weekly reading series. 

I served as a board member and three years as executive director (by default), and helped to bring it to a 501c3 non-profit status in order to get grants. Grant writing is tedious and the amount of funding we received was not worth the effort. We relied primarily on tiny gate revenues and donations to meet our overhead rent, printing and postal bills. Obtaining free, or cheap housing was critical: bookstores, libraries, a senior center (a disaster of pissy couches, we found after the fact.)

* Attention Deficit Syndrome

THE NEW RRWG: After a serious back/neck injury in 1981, I dropped out of school and quit my reading series obligations & spent time healing and building my California Arts Council artist-in-residency career in the schools. I thought I was done forever with organizing events, other than book parties for my students—until 1992, when R&B musician Johnny Otis asked me to produce a weekly event at his nightclub in Sebastopol. The siren call was irresistible. 

I combined the RRWG (produced by an ad hoc committee) with my new group—we had a truly dynamic reading series. I mean Mr. Hand Jive himself! Everybody wanted to read at the Johnny Otis Club. It was way cool, and sometimes Johnny dropped in for a listen. He always gave us good publicity on his KPFA FM morning show broadcast live from the café, we’d come down and read poems on the air. 

But after Otis’ nightclub folded, adequate housing for the RRWG was a serious problem as the new locations, Mudd’s Café and Higher Grounds Café in Santa Rosa didn’t draw in large crowds. We couldn’t pay poets much (half the gate, or even a match from Poets & Writers), a poet-stipend was a central objective of the RRWG.

Besides booking the talent for the RRWG at the Johnny Otis Club and beyond (a shared duty between myself, David Bromige, Steve Tills, Jayne McPherson, Marianne Ware and invited guest host-producers—this idea prevented coordinator burn-out, gave us a more diverse poet/audience base), I also produced and published a newsletter, did publicity and flyers. 

I developed a paid membership base, as well as emceed. (In the pre-desktop publishing 1980s, our 8-double truck page RRWG monthly newsletter included poems from featured readers, but the cost was prohibitive and was eventually abandoned, as was my poet photograph archives.) Due to shrinking funds and rising postal costs in 1995, I resorted to publishing a quarterly newsletter in order to save money.

In retrospect, it was a very successful reading series, when I look back at the flyers, I can’t believe we hosted so many diverse poets and events. We found it necessary to establish a one reading per year limit for featured poets. We also included quarterly thematic readings in order to keep the audience coming (it was an ongoing party—especially the (n)erotic Valentine event). Please see flyers, and tally sheet at back of packet in order to see the wide range of featured readers we’ve hosted.

OTHER RELATED SERIES: The RRWG was also hosted other readings at SSU and Santa Rosa Jr. College as well as local bookstores and regional public libraries, the Sebastopol, Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa branches of Copperfield’s Books, Reader’s Books/ Sonoma Valley Poetry Festival and the Santa Rosa Barnes & Noble. The Barnes & Noble liaison was the most controversial as it was built right across the street from Copperfield’s and was picketed by locals and independent booksellers alike, but the damage done, the bookstore operational, someone was going to coordinate the reading series.

So, when I was asked to produce a monthly reading series for B&N 1995-97, I saw a unique opportunity to foster local input on the national bookstore’s buying policy. Mega-giant B&N is not fond of carrying small press books (too much bookeeping), but that was my deal: Black Sparrow, Caedmus, SunMoonBear, Clamshell Press. Surprisingly, they bought it as they needed the support of the literary community. 

We featured local, and nationally acclaimed poets, B&N displayed & sold small press books, and produced a hand-set collectable broadside series (see packet). It was a good collaboration as it gave local poets exposure. Though I am no longer involved with coordinating the reading series, B&N still uses the format we created. In addition, B & N continues to host book parties for local anthologies including Green Fuse magazine. A favorite event I produced, the California Poets in the Schools children’s poetry reading for National Poetry Month, is still drawing in record crowds. A good legacy.

ENDGRAM: When I was seriously injured in an auto accident 3 years ago, I was no longer able to coordinate the series, and though we were a consortium, after a successful 27-year run, the RRWG, the oldest continuous reading series in the north bay, foundered. 

I hear rumor that David Bromige still produces events from time to time. In the blood, I guess. I hope that after 20 years, I’m done with producing poetry events, maybe I can put my “Queen of Sonoma County Poetry Readings” laurels aside, though I still have the urge to emcee… getting 3 units credit for producing events seems a fitting retirement plan as any. But then, there are all these great venues in the East Bay where I’m currently living while I’m in school, and there’s the Poetry Center, and the archives at SFSU…

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