Chapter 15: An Interview with Chet Weise
Read chapter 1-14 here.
This series of interviews with writer/curators aims to explore why and how to have a literary reading—a good literary reading—a good literary reading that gathers a welcome, diverse, excited, and inspired audience—a good literary reading that gathers a welcome, diverse, excited, and inspired audience while also creating a supportive environment for readers. (Please comment with stories, commentary, and advice about readings at which you’ve performed, attended, or hosted.)
On the Otherppl Podcast, hosted by Brad Listi, Chet Weise talked a lot about his Poetry Sucks! Reading series. It sounded very different in structure, tone, and energy than so many other readings I’d been to or learned about. In our interview, I think you’ll see plenty of evidence for that thinking.
Name: Chet Weise
Location: Nashville, TN
What reading series were you involved with?
CW: I curated Poetry Sucks! A Night of Poetry, Music, and All Sorts of Bad Language, [which was] a semi-regular, poetry loving, prose infatuated, non-open mic, but sometimes open-mic, confessional-friendly, reading and music event.
Excellent, how many years did you curate this reading? Is it still running?
CW: The series used to be a monthly. Now, only when the time is right and the right authors and poets are around and Pluto is visible.
Meaning, that in Nashville, things can be taken for granted after too long. I think that’s true everywhere. So now I do it only when the time feels good and folks are asking.
What was the Nashville lit scene like before you started Poetry Sucks?
CW: Nashville has always had some sort of lit scene. Defintely ebb and flow.
Sometimes people forget that John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and their Fugitives came from Nashville.
Those were probably the days when Nashville was more central to the lit universe.
Since then, there have been open mics and reading series at punk rock bars like the Springwater, Poetry at the Brew, Parnassus Bookstore, LOgues Black Raven, people’s living room’s, reading have coupled with the houseparty all ages-rock-n-roll scene, and, yes, Vanderbilt.
There’s a pretty decent MFA program at Vanderbilt right? That doesn’t foster much lit community?
CW: Vanderbilt has an excellent reading series. And one of my favorite Nashville poets, Kendra DeColo came out of their MFA program.
But, when I started Poetry Sucks!, there wasn’t a series that I felt connected with the masses.
What are some things that you felt made “poetry suck”, or in other words, what things about live readings did you want to avoid when running your own series?
CW: Vanderbilt (and other Academic venues) is a place where ONLY poetry is presented for an hour. Even going to the bathroom feels like an interruption. Once again, I do think these kinds of series are important, but aren’t for everyone.
Open Mics are so important, but many times the audience = the participants. There aren’t people who are going only to listen. I do attend open mics and Academic reading, but I fucking love poetry and prose. Not everyone does.
What does Poetry Sucks do differently?
CW: We mixed short sets of poetry and prose with live music, breaks, and an explicit urging to order drinks and use the bathroom whenever anyone pleased. I also made sure that there were always local readers and/or bands involved. That always lifts the spirit of the room, friends digging on friends.
We want everyone to enjoy the music of language.
Did you use breaks in order to get people socializing?
CW: Breaks are so important. Not only to socialize, but to give everyone a chance to talk about what they heard, what they liked, and what they think should burn in Hell. And it’s important for some people to just take a break from concentrating. They can refresh, and start the next round of listening fully charged.
I always made sure to announce that breaks would occur before the program began, too, so that listeners didn’t feel trapped.
Did you ever worry people would leave during breaks?
CW: Always worried about that. Worried if folks would even show up.
I know that feeling.
CW: It blows.
What were turnouts like?
CW: Always very good. However, I am very selective where the reading held. I would always choose a room that might be a bit crowded and stuffy over a huge vacuous void when 50 showed up.
Were audiences fairly homogenous in age? Race?
CW: There is always a diverse crowd in age and ethnicity. Still, there could/can always be more diversity. That’s something I want to work on a bit. In Nashville, the reading/lit scene seems to be self-segregated. I sense the same in many places. For the most part, white poets read for white audiences. African-Americans for African-Americans and so forth. When all the voices have come together, the energy rises and people engage more. I plan to begin reaching out more to writers of color and their scenes.
I do want to stress that our crowds do always have many voices, I just want to push that even further.
How do you go about choosing readers? It seems the success of the reading and the atmosphere really depends on powerful performances. Where did you find good readers?
CW: I think in the Listi interview I said that Poetry Sucks! isn’t a purely altruistic endeavor. I certainly have made many selfish decisions. Such as bringing my favorite authors. Haha.
Many times it had to do with who was available. If I saw someone was on a book tour and headed from Chicago to Atlanta, I’d try to talk them into an extra stop in Nashville.
I also tried to really gauge if the reader would be good live. Most I saw read somewhere else first.
What about the new readers? I think you mentioned having features who had never read before. How did that come about?
CW: [I invited] my friends that I knew wrote, then friends of friends. Now, thankfully, many approach me, because I’m running out of friends!
But those new readers are always a wild card, and many times [they were] the most interesting part of the night. The crowd can feel their tension, relief, sense of accomplishment…or failure.
Nonetheless, it’s very important to me to have an outlet for new authors. If anyone chooses not to be a tree in forest, they should be given a chance.
Did those readers normally work out? Like, were they usually received well?
CW: They almost always worked out positively. I made sure to announce before the reading that they were reading for the first time. Veterans know the horror of reading for the first time. Others admire that the person has made a step that they haven’t yet.
Did you act as a host during the readings? If so, what things did you do to try to make people feel comfortable and friendly?
CW: Yes. I always do a pre-amble to the night and break the ice by reading a poem from whatever book I was into at the time. That seemed to really help: reading that first poem, breaking the ice, establishing a mood and rhythm.
In between readers I try to let my magnanimous charm and irresistible jokes do their work, too. Haha.
If someone was thinking of starting a reading, what are two things they should do and one thing they shouldn’t?
CW: Should do: Just do it. Think about it for a bit, but just do it. You’ll work out the kinks. And keep the reading under 90 minutes. Or people will turn hungry and terrifying. Oh, and do it early. Make the reading the appetizer for everyone’s evening.
Don’t do: Don’t start with an open mic. We do open mics on occasion, and they’re great. There’s a whole different energy, a real sense of discovery. But open mics have a scene of their own. If you start off as an open mic, then that might be your rep for good, and it might careen out of control. Start with your friends. People you know. Make it a PARTY.
What is the strangest thing that has ever happened at a Poetry Sucks! reading?
CW: There’s been a few. Violence at readings is interesting.
When I say violence, I mean heckling. If that happened, I usually let it play out. Once again, like at a rock show. Almost always, the reader won the conflict. I mean, language is their game.
And I was hit by a beer bottle once. As in, a beer bottle [was] thrown at me. And, I did almost get in a fight with a guy from Boston on another occasion. He made very sure I knew he “was from Boston”.
Chet Weise lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is the editor for Third Man Books. His writing appears in Copper Nickel, Poems & Plays, the anthology Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End Days and elsewhere. As a musician, Weise performed in The Quadrajets and the Immortal Lee County Killers. He was banned from Canada during the calendar year of 2008.