One of the best poetry readings I’ve ever attended took place in a comfortable living room with a dozen people listening to the English poet Tom Raworth read at his signature breakneck speed. The night —which began with the raw and powerful folk music of Ben Collier and concluded with everyone chatting amiably throughout the house— was part of the Bonfire Reading Series here in Pittsburgh, PA. The readings always follow a simple but effective format: an invited musician, the featured poet, and an informal gathering afterwards with potluck snacks and drinks. The series has been running since 2012 and is curated by a collective of poets that includes Emily Carlson, Sten Carlson, Robin Clarke, R/B Mertz and Joshua Zelesnick.
The members of the collective met while they were poetry MFA students at the University of Pittsburgh several years ago. The idea for a reading series emerged as a natural extension of their friendship, as well as their belief in poetry as an essential part of their everyday lives. As Sten told me recently, when I interviewed him about the reading series: “We wanted to create poetic events that meant something to us.” The series is a reflection of their desire as poets to “create an eventful life together, as opposed to discrete, private acts of writing.”
All of the group members are educators and Sten also works as the Managing Director for the University of Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series. My wife Dayana and I moved to Pittsburgh in 2012 from Durham, NC, and befriending this group of poets is one of the reasons we love this city so much. Since we're neighbors, Sten and I tend to meet a couple times a month to talk about poetry at the nearby Kelly's Bar & Lounge in the East Liberty neighborhood. During one of those get-togethers recently (I half-jokingly call them our “poetry work meetings”), I took notes while Sten talked about the Bonfire Reading Series. I also e-mailed several questions to the group members. Between our conversation that night and various group e-mails, the following responses emerged.
You all met while studying at the Creative Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh. When and how did the idea for the Bonfire Reading Series emerge? Were there any models that inspired you?
Joshua Zelesnick: I think one of the contributing factors to starting the Bonfire series came from the Occupy Movement—and the activism we’ve all been part of in some way. Yes, Pitt made it possible for all of us to meet, but the reading series was not as much informed by our Pitt experience (at least I would say). I remember R/B Mertz reading from her amazing book, Leaves of Money at the kick—off march towards People’s Park here in Pittsburgh (Mellon Green: the Occupy Pittsburgh camp site). Every week we would go to the campsite and read poems—anybody could read. It seemed to always boost morale, and so many people read. I remember meeting down in the T (subway) and gathering in a circle. Someone would just get up and read for a few minutes, then someone else. One time we read on the subway train. You can ride for free downtown for a few stops. I remember reading my poem, “Capitalism Poem #1.” A few strangers even clapped after I finished reading it. Of course, some people just seemed to be embarrassed for me.
In December of 2013, after a reading one night, I happened to be around when you had a discussion about possible future readings. I was so impressed by the informal yet thorough and democratic way that you made decisions. How do you all decide on what poets and musicians to invite?
R/B Mertz: I think the important thing is that everyone really respects each other and each others’ work and aesthetics, and we trust each others’ taste, I think, or are at least always open and genuinely interested about anyone someone else is interested in, or really anyone who is producing good art or interesting art, of whatever sort; so it’s been fairly haphazard—who is in town when, who knows a musician that someone might pair up with the poet; it’s very spontaneous and improvisational; but I think that’s why it’s great.
There's a magical atmosphere at your readings, whether they're held outside in the garden or indoors in your living room. What are some essential components of your reading series?
R/B Mertz: The fact that the readings take place in or around a home is really essential to me, maybe because when I think of the tradition of poetry I first encountered as a reader-- I first read about people reading poems or reciting them stiffly and formally, in British novels and stuff like that, where some ladies would read aloud or recite in drawing rooms to their families or suitors or whoever—reading these private lyrical things, Romantic poems, probably, in a private space, which was somehow made public by the communication across time and space between the poet and the reciter or reader, and the audience, and the author of the novel, and me...so to me, poetry was this thing that was created in absolute privacy, confessional, etc; and yet always accessed in this way that’s really removed from the author, and read aloud or performed (un-like a novel), which goes back to Homer reciting his stuff around the fire or wherever, or the village gathering in the theater or square…I find all the layers of this public/private stuff really fascinating, especially because we’re in this monumental phase of human communication, where publishing and authorship and all of these things are being re-defined, and of course viewing and audience-ship and reading and listening are all being re-defined, there’s something both ancient and radical about opening your home/private space to strangers, and to The Stranger that poetry is, or the poet is, and the strangeness of all that converging around live art vs. the recorded art of the television or the radio or the internet.
Is there a particular highlight from the readings that you'd like to tell us about?
Robin Clarke: During a particularly serious and important poetry reading (LOL I mean me! when I had the chance to read at our series) our fellow planners' 1-1/2 year-old, Jules, took a big dump in his portable potty training potty, which was discreetly located right there in the reading space! As I recall he must not have peed, because the toilet produces music when you pee. But generally the presence of children at these readings is amazing. When Tom Raworth read, he read a crazily fast poem about his kids in honor of this same potty-training child, who he'd been hanging out with the day of the reading. Poetry should not ever be a space for decorum, and the anarchic children just about clear us of that temptation. I'm told I was literally saying the word "embarrassed" when the dump was dropped. Lately I've been thinking poets have to be willing to risk humiliation at all times. Jules helped me learn that.
R/B Mertz: When Tom Raworth came, that was so special. Particularly because when we were in grad school, taking a class with Ben Lerner, who we admired a lot, Tom Raworth came to town for the first time. When Ben heard that Tom was going to be in town, he and Sten organized a reading for Tom in about a week. And I think Ben was kind of appalled that no one else was doing it, and he had just gotten to Pittsburgh and didn’t know the venues or anything yet, but they had the reading at a hookah bar, with people burbling the whole time. So, Ben at one point gave this speech about how we should go to every reading, everywhere, and if we heard a poet was going to be in town, we should host them; so when Tom Raworth was in town again, it was really special to be able to have him with us, and to know that we had put this thing in place that was ready to receive him, which was also a tribute to Ben, for me, in that moment, like we were completing the ultimate homework assignment from our teacher. Also, Tom Raworth is a fucking rockstar and can drink and smoke like one, and write and perform times better than one, which I found really inspiring.
Also, when gt rabbit read outside last summer, that was probably the most personally special for me; he had just returned from two years in South Korea, so it was like a reunion, and he did this really electronic sound art outside, which also messed with this public/private/house stuff I’m interested in, because gt rabbit read alongside his sound art, and sort of played the sound art “live” –like technology or electricity or the computer or the internet were exploding outside, right in the garden, and what they were exploding into was poetry for friends, for an audience, the poet, etc; gt rabbit used this great recording of a Robert Creeley reading (“The Plan is the Body” on Pennsound) where Creeley is really high or drunk or both, and he’s losing his place and debating a heckler, but also giving one of the best readings ever; so it was like all these electronic devices and recorded voices of history were emerging so clearly as a result of this one body, who collected and “read” them; this one lyric/poet moment which was happening outside, where you think all those electronic things aren’t really supposed to be.
Do you have any specific plans or goals for the reading series that you might share with us?
Sten Carlson: I think that as poets we need to invent a life outside the university. We'd like to keep building these collaborative elements, to invite horizontal —not hierarchical— collaboration. We'd also like to start our own press in the future. We see this reading series as a way of practicing a politics that we aspire to live on a daily basis.
“the plan is the body.
Who can read it.”