Read chapters 1-7 here.
Chapter 8: An interview with Le Hinton
This series of interviews with writer/organizers 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.
Dylan Kinnett said, in his interview last week, that finding the right venue/environment/atmosphere is important for a reading series to thrive. Le Hinton discusses ways to create a living-room sense of comfort, even when your readings take place in a Barnes and Noble children’s section.
(Please comment with stories, commentary, and advice about readings at which you’ve performed, attended, or hosted. When this series is all said and done, maybe we’ll have developed the simple formula for the perfect reading. Or maybe we’ll learn enough to make more questions to answer!)
Name: Le Hinton
Location: Lancaster, PA
How long have you been hosting readings?
LH: I’ve been hosting [The Lancaster Poetry Exchange] since 2010. The reading started in 2007, but I didn’t want to host it. I didn’t want to do it by myself, but I roped Jeff Rath in. I did all the setting up, the emailing, but Jeff hosted it. From 2010 on I’ve done the whole thing.
Can you give a rundown of the structure? Where does the reading take place?
LH: Its in Barnes and Noble, in the children’s section. So that sometimes presents some language problems. Usually, it starts at 7:30. The featured reader will be first. They read for 20-25 minutes. Then, with no break, we go into the open. I decide at that point based on how many people have signed up, what the length of each open reader will be. Usually three poems or five minutes, but sometimes two poems or three minutes. That can always be an issue, because some people will always lead longer than the allotted time. And it’s not as if I don’t want to hear them, but it’s a community and one person can’t dominate that. After the open, I’ll ask people in the audience what else is going on in the area, so that we can share info on other readings in the coming weeks. I will announce who will be at the reading next month, and then I’ll ask the feature to come back and do one poem to close us out. Then afterwards we talk and hangout and get books signed.
I’ve always liked having the featured reader first. Most people will come on time if they know that the feature is starting at 7:30.
Why do you think you do readings?
LH: Part of the reason I do it is that I feel some sort of obligation—my Mom always tells us if we can do something for the community, something for someone else, we should. It shouldn’t be “well I don’t feel like doing it” just because its inconvenient. I seem to have whatever skills it takes to bring people together and do a reading, so it feels like something I should do.
However, I personally love to bring writers in that I’d like to hear. That’s what I get out of it as a lover of poetry—I can bring someone else from out of the area here, or I can bring someone a little bit newer who hasn’t read a whole lot but is from the area, someone like Eileen Kinch who has a low profile but is a fanastic writer. Or, I may hear a person in an open reading and someone else in another open reading and bring those people together. For example this January I have a handful of Hanover poets coming together. For me, it’s another way to be creative. I can write poetry, I can play saxophone (badly), and I can do readings.
One thing I’ve learned from you is the importance of traveling to other places and meeting other poets in order to find the voices you want to bring here. Could you tell me more about that aspect of your approach to putting on readings?
LH: As a poet, one of the reasons I try to get something published, is to find out where I stand as a poet. And to do that, you have to get away from yourself. I’ve said before—if I stay in my apartment, I’m the best poet in the apartment. And maybe I’m even the best poet in the apartment complex—I don’t know—but you have to get away from your comfort zone to find out what you really can do. Also, you find what else is out there.
The whole world isn’t just what you can see from your apartment, or your home community. So you have to leave, have to find out what other people are doing in other areas. The way I do that is to go to readings elsewhere—whether it’s Pittsburg, Philadelphia, Baltimore, DC, Annapolis. There are things they do that are the same and things that are different, and that’s what I want to bring here.
The other thing is: I like to show people from outside the area that there is a vibrant writing community in Lancaster. That all of us aren’t wearing dark hats and riding buggies around, but that there is a huge range of sophistication and talent in the area. So a lot of times when I bring people from DC or something they’ll be surprised and say “I didn’t know all of this existed!”
What has to happen for you to consider an individual reading a success?
LH: I want the reading to be first about the featured poet. So, I try to get people that I want to read, people I want to hear. I want [the featured reader] to be comfortable, to feel that they are able to do what they do well.
That’s part of it, but that’s not all of it. I want the audience to be attentive to the reading. So during the reading, I’m constantly looking around—actually a reading sometimes a bad place for me to enjoy poetry as much as I want, because I’m focused on “Am I doing the right thing?…Are they paying attention?”—but if the audience is really attentive, and the reader is comfortable, it’s a success.
Then, when the open happens, I like to see that flip. Are the local readers reading well? Are they comfortable? And does the person who’s featured pay attention to the locals?
Finally, [I like it when] some people feel comfortable enough to say a few words to the reader afterwards. Do people just get up and leave or do they go talk to whoever read? Maybe they buy books. Part of the success is if the featured reader tells me they sold a bunch of books. Then I feel happy for them, but I’m also happy for the people who have bought the books, because people don’t just buy books for the hell of it. They had to have been impressed.
What are some other ways you try to make readers comfortable during their time at the reading?
LH: One thing I do is I buy two books from the featured reader. One is for me, but the second book goes to the person who reads next month. Then I’ll buy two of theirs and it goes on. Now, people will always thank me for that, but its happened a few times where I’ll get a note from a poet to tell me they really liked the book I gave them. Then I get to tell that person that another poet really liked their work, and maybe put them in contact.
So books can have this life. Poets can end up connected to each other even if they’ve never met each other.
You point to two things when you talked about success: the feature is comfortable, and the audience is attentive. I think that’s really a common goal for hosts of readings. What role can you play as a host to effect that, or do you think its just something that either happens or doesn’t?
LH: The reading is sort of your place. Dana Larkin Sauers, when she was hosting down in Gettysburg, called her [venue] her “living room”. Sometimes our settings here [in Lancaster] are more formal, but it is—at least for that time—my place, my room.
I can make people comfortable by meeting the reader ahead of time. I like them to come in half an hour early, so we can buy a cup of tea or coffee, sit down, and talk about their work and the reading. That way we can relax into it. That way when we walk over to the reading area we’re starting off on the right foot. Then, if there is someone who I haven’t seen at the reading before, or haven’t seen in a few months, I will make sure to greet them. Sometimes there are people just sitting there, reading a book, and they didn’t even know about the reading, and I will encourage them to stay, and I’ll introduce them to the reader. I try to put those people at ease as well.
I know my first time going to a reading I was looking around like “Okay what’s going on here? What am I supposed to do? How do I fit in?”
One thing I try to do is know the reader I bring in. I don’t stand up there and just read their bio. I want to tell something that’s more personal. And that I think makes it a little bit different, and less formal. I try to give an impression of how I know this person, maybe the first time I saw them read, or how we met, or what I thought when I recently re-reading some of their work.
How do you always end your readings?
LH: Well, I want it to be a family. I want them to hang around. It’s always the middle of the week, so it’s not a situation where we can really take it somewhere else and have a drink or coffee. We’re in the bookstore, in the middle of the week, and I at least want people to stick around for a little, so I always say, “Find somebody you care about; tell that person you love them; give that person a hug.”
I tend to be a touchy-feely type of person.
What have you learned from other hosts and readings? What lessons have you taken from others?
LH: The poem should speak for itself.
Le Hinton is the author of five poetry collections. His work has been widely published and can be found in The Best American Poetry 2014, Little Patuxent Review, the Baltimore Review, and outside Clipper Magazine Stadium in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, incorporated into Derek Parker’s sculpture Common Thread. He is the chief editor of the poetry journal Fledgling Rag and since 2010, the host and curator of the monthly poetry series The Lancaster Poetry Exchange.