“Speak Social” is the newest reading series in Louisville, KY. Co-curated by John James and Sarah Maddix, the series features local writers, two per event, as well as an up-and-coming local musician. These events take place at Java Brewing Co. or “Java Bardstown” (1707 Bardstown Rd.), are open to the public, and best of all free! Keep Louisville Literary corresponded with John and Sarah to discover the origins of Speak Social, where the series is headed, and a little bit about its progenitors.
KLL: What are your personal backgrounds concerning spoken word events and/or literature, and how does this shape Speak Social?
John James: Before we started Speak Social, I had just moved back to Louisville from Brooklyn, New York, where I completed my [MFA]and hosted a reading series called Metro Rhythm. [It] was quite similar to [Speak Social], but instead of an open-mic we featured M.F.A. candidates. Being in NYC, where there are several topnotch programs, there was never a dearth of talented young readers. Plus, being at the center of America’s literary culture, we were able to attract some really amazing “headlining” readers—Mark Strand, Mary Jo Bang, and Timothy Donnelly, to name a few. It was sad to give up the series when I left, but it’s in good hands and is going on its fourth season this year. So I’d say it was primarily that experience that’s shaped Speak Social for me. It taught me how to host a reading, how to promote it, what problems to anticipate, and how to contact [potential] readers. I’d wanted to start something similar to that here, where I perceived a lack of such literary events, but didn’t find the motivation until Sarah contacted me about it.
Sarah Maddix: Though I’m not an aspiring writer, I adore poetry, and enjoy attending all sorts of literary events… I’ve found that there’s a bit of disconnect between academia, aspiring writers and those who just enjoy literature. It’s a shame, for example, that the same few people will frequent either Sarabande (book’s reading series at hotel 21c) or [the InKY series]—two established series that I love attending—and there’s not much overlap between them. So my interest in starting Speak Social grew from a desire to see Louisville’s literary scene become a bit more inclusive. John and I strive to make Speak Social an inviting space that will nurture community and make literature accessible to all kinds of folks.
KLL: How do you think Speak Social fits with other, older Louisville reading series such as InKY or Sarabande’s series at 21c?
SM: First of all, I really enjoy them both. InKY was the first reading series in Louisville that I ever attended (and still do) and we even used their event structure—an open mic, featured readers, and music—as a guide in developing Speak Social. And I have Sarabande’s series at 21c to thank for my recent discovery of Ada Limón, an amazing poet. Because we have such respect for these series, John and I have no interest in trying to compete with them for an audience. Rather, we want to create some intermingling between these two established series, [and others] such as Subterranean Phrases and Stone Soup. Our goal is to see Louisville develop a vibrant arts scene that encourages creativity, diversity, and community.
KLL: Are there any differences that make Speak Social unique?
JJ: Yes and no. In terms of atmosphere, we’ve tried to model Speak Social after the Holler Poets Series in Lexington. If you’ve ever been, you know that Holler always draws a huge crowd. But more importantly, these people laugh, they cry, they yell out loud. It’s a lot of fun! Most readings aren’t like that at all, which is where I think we differ from your average poetry event. I’ve been to so many readings, especially in NYC, where I just wanted to fall asleep. I’d find myself working my way to the bottom of my glass rather than listening to the readers. Sarah and I want to avoid that at all costs. What we’ve aimed to do with this series is to play up the social aspect of poetry readings—hence the title, “Speak Social.” We encourage our audience to shout, clap, and hoot. However the work strikes them, we want to see that emotion. We also host a party following every reading, at which we hope to foster conversation about the work, but also about class, race, philosophy, and aesthetics—all the social and intellectual concerns that encompass the writing we’ve heard that night.
KLL: Tell me a bit about your upcoming readers for September and why you chose them.
JJ: In September we’re featuring Kyle Thompson and Kiki Petrosino, with music by Mike James of the Louisville band “Been to the Gallows”. I’ve known Kyle for some time, first as a poet, and only later as a person, but he’s never failed to intrigue me. His poems are so strange, often experimental, and yet they usually offer a narrative. He has one, an older one now, called “Fable of the Snails,” which was published in AGNI. That one does tell a story, but it’s more of a slanted glimpse into human history than an actual story about snails… He read at the Writer’s Block festival last fall, but I was out of town, so asking him to read was my way of getting to hear a poet I’ve always wanted to hear.
SM: I’ve been interested in having Kiki read for Speak Social since coming across her first book, Fort Red Border. I love this collection because it fuses together everything I love about poetry; it is both cerebral and imaginative (the first section, for example, explores a fanciful relationship with Robert Redford), but her style is often conversational, making the poems tangible to the reader. I’m particularly fond of the last section, a set of ten poems all titled “Valentine.” She has a new collection due out from Sarabande next year, so I’m really excited to hear what she’s been working on recently.
JJ: I’m probably a little bit biased about Mike—he’s my brother. But he’s also a super-talented musician… I remember watching him sound out early tunes by Green Day when he was about eight years old. It was amazing to me then. He’s played in different bands over the years, but recently started playing with this group Been to the Gallows. They just put out an album called A Knock at the Door, and have been playing shows all over town. This show will be different, though, as it features Mike playing solo and acoustic (they’re usually a very loud, electric duo). If nothing else, having the focus solely on Mike, coupled with the acoustic set, will provide a unique experience for followers of his work.
KLL: Do you envision Speak Social as a continuing series? If so, who might we expect to see next season (and when does this season end)?
SM: We’d love for Speak Social to run as long as possible. We were toying with the idea of taking the holidays off after our October 19th event—featuring readers Lynnell Edwards and Sean Patrick Hill, with music by Alex Udis—but recently the literary magazine Catch-Up approached us about collaborating on a release party for their fall issue, and we just couldn’t turn down promoting such a unique new journal. The Catch-Up Release Party is set for November 2nd, which will wind down our 2012 season. However, we do have a party in the works for December to celebrate our season and thank everyone for their support, so keep your eyes peeled for that! We’ll resume in full swing in January with featured readers David Harrity and Martha Greenwald, though the exact dates haven’t been determined quite yet.
KLL: Do you have any long-term goals considering the direction, location, scale or format of Speak Social?
JJ: Personally, I’d like to bring in a few writers I know from New York, but that requires a lot of money. For one thing, I’d want to offer those people at least a small honorarium, but we’d also have to pay to fly them out here and put them up for a night or two. Sarabande is probably the only series around funded well enough to do something like that. Although, I’ve considered initiating a special fund called “Bring Timothy Donnelly to Speak Social” in order to raise that kind of money. Maybe it’s a little unrealistic, but not totally impossible.
SM: I’m a big fan of slam poetry and such spoken word poets as Sarah Kay and Saul Williams, so reaching outside the realm of academia and attracting some performance poets from the area is an interest of mine. And although it’s important to keep Speak Social relevant to Louisville folks, I too wouldn’t mind attracting some bigger names from outside the state… Overall, though, I’d love to see Speak Social become a driving force in a thriving arts scene in Louisville, while most importantly keeping the “social” atmosphere that we’re trying to achieve.
KLL: Are you actively seeking sponsors?
JJ: We are. Originally Java Brewing Company had funded honorariums for our readers, but it’s just unrealistic to think they can continue doing that. To raise money more immediately, Sarah and I [plan to start] a Kickstarter account. It’ll be online soon. [The] money would go to fund honorariums, create flyers, and if we have enough, to purchase a mic and P.A. system. Up until now, anything we’ve purchased for the series has come out of pocket, and we pretty much rely on our musicians for sound equipment. It’s been kind of a D.I.Y. operation. We’re also planning to apply for grants from the Kentucky Arts Council, South Arts, and the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, but that money—if we get it—wouldn’t come in until late next year.
KLL: Is there any other information readers and writers in the area should know about Speak Social?
SM: We’d love submissions! If you’re interested in reading, playing music, or finding out more information about Speak Social, you can contact John and me at email@example.com. You can also visit our website at speaksocialky.wordpress.com. Lastly, help spread the word and like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SpeakSocialKy/!
Featured readers at Speak Social have included poets Jeffrey Skinner, Adam Day, and Biancca Spriggs, as well as novelist Kirby Gann. On Sept. 21st poets Kiki Petrosino and Kyle Thompson will read at 7pm.